How Iran Will Fight Back

Kaveh L. Afrasiabim, 12/16/2004


TEHRAN - The United States and Israel may be contemplating military operations against Iran, as per recent media reports, yet Iran is not wasting any time in preparing its own counter-operations in the event an attack materializes.

A week-long combined air and ground maneuver has just concluded in five of the southern and western provinces of Iran, mesmerizing foreign observers, who have described as "spectacular" the massive display of high-tech, mobile operations, including rapid-deployment forces relying on squadrons of helicopters, air lifts, missiles, as well as hundreds of tanks and tens of thousands of well-coordinated personnel using live munitions. Simultaneously, some 25,000 volunteers have so far signed up at newly established draft centers for "suicide attacks" against any potential intruders in what is commonly termed "asymmetrical warfare".

Behind the strategy vis—vis a hypothetical US invasion, Iran is likely to recycle the Iraq war's scenario of overwhelming force, particularly by the US Air Force, aimed at quick victory over and against a much weaker power. Learning from both the 2003 Iraq war and Iran's own precious experiences of the 1980-88 war with Iraq and the 1987-88 confrontation with US forces in the Persian Gulf, Iranians have focused on the merits of a fluid and complex defensive strategy that seeks to take advantage of certain weaknesses in the US military superpower while maximizing the precious few areas where they may have the upper hand, e.g., numerical superiority in ground forces, guerrilla tactics, terrain, etc.

According to a much-publicized article on the "Iran war game" in the US-based Atlantic Monthly, the estimated cost of an assault on Iran is a paltry few tens of millions of dollars. This figure is based on a one-time "surgical strike" combining missile attacks, air-to-surface bombardments, and covert operations, without bothering to factor in Iran's strategy, which aims precisely to "extend the theater of operations" in order to exact heavier and heavier costs on the invading enemy, including by targeting America's military command structure in the Persian Gulf.

After this Iranian version of "follow-on" counter-strategy, the US intention of localized warfare seeking to cripple Iran's command system as a prelude to a systematic assault on key military targets would be thwarted by "taking the war to them", in the words of an Iranian military strategist who emphasized America's soft command structure in the southern tips of the Persian Gulf. (Over the past few months, US jet fighters have repeatedly violated Iran's air space over Khuzestan province, testing Iran's air defense system, according to Iranian military officials.)

Iran's proliferation of a highly sophisticated and mobile ballistic-missile system plays a crucial role in its strategy, again relying on lessons learned from the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003: in the earlier war over Kuwait, Iraq's missiles played an important role in extending the warfare to Israel, notwithstanding the failure of America's Patriot missiles to deflect most of Iraq's incoming missiles raining in on Israel and, to a lesser extent, on the US forces in Saudi Arabia. Also, per the admission of the top US commander in the Kuwait conflict, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the hunt for Iraq's mobile Scud missiles consumed a bulk of the coalition's air strategy and was as difficult as searching for "needles in a haystack".

Today, in the evolution of Iran's military doctrine, the country relies on increasingly precise long-range missiles, eg, Shahab-3 and Fateh-110, that can "hit targets in Tel Aviv", to echo Iranian Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi.

Chronologically speaking, Iran produced the 50-kilometer-rangeOghab artillery rocket in 1985, and developed the 120km- and 160km-range Mushak artillery rockets in 1986-87 and 1988 respectively. Iran began assembling Scud-Bs in 1988, and North Korean technical advisers in Iran converted a missile maintenance facility for missile manufacture in 1991. It does not seem, however, that Iran has embarked on Scud production. Instead, Iran has sought to build Shahab-3 and Shahab-4, having ranges of 1,300km with a 1,600-pound warhead, and 200km with a 220-pound warhead, respectively; the Shahab-3 was test-launched in July 1998 and may soon be upgraded to more than 2,000km, thus capable of reaching the middle of Europe.

Thanks to excess revenue from high oil prices, which constitute more than 80% of the government's annual budget, Iran is not experiencing the budget constraints of the early and mid-1990s, when its military expenditure was outdone nearly one to 10 by its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf who are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council; almost all the Arab states possess one or another kind of advanced missile system, eg, Saudi Arabia's CSS-2/DF, Yemen's SS-21, Scud-B, Iraq's Frog-7.

There are several advantages to a ballistic arsenal as far as Iran
is concerned:

First, it is relatively cheap and manufactured domestically without much external dependency and the related pressure of "missile export control" exerted by the US.

Second, the missiles are mobile and can be concealed from the enemy.

Third, there are advantages over fighter jets which require fixed air bases.

Fourth, missiles are presumed effective weapons that can be launched without much advance notice by the recipient targets, particularly the "solid fuel" Fatah-110 missiles that require only a few short minutes for installation prior to being fired.

Fifth, missiles are weapons of confusion and a unique strike capability that can torpedo the best military plans, recalling how the Iraqi missile attacks in March 2003 at the US military formations assembled at the Iraq-Kuwait border forced a change of plan on the United States' part, thereby forfeiting the initial plan of sustained aerial strikes before engaging the ground forces, as was the case in the Kuwait war, when the latter entered the theater after some 21 days of heavy air strikes inside Iraq as well as Kuwait.

Henceforth, any US attack on Iran will likely be met first and foremost by missile counter-attacks engulfing the southern Persian Gulf states playing host to US forces, as well as any other country, e.g., Azerbaijan, Iraq or Turkey, allowing their territory or airspace to be used against Iran. The rationale for this strategy is precisely to pre-warn Iran's neighbors of the dire consequences, with potential debilitating impacts on their economies for a long time, should they become accomplices of foreign invaders of Iran.

Another key element of Iran's strategy is to "increase the arch of crisis" in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where it has considerable influence, to undermine the United States' foothold in the region, hoping to create a counter-domino effect wherein instead of gaining inside Iran, the US would actually lose territory partly as a result of thinning its forces and military "overstretch".

Still another component of Iran's strategy is psychological warfare, an area of considerable attention by the country's military planners nowadays, focusing on the "lessons from Iraq" and how the pre-invasion psychological warfare by the US succeeded in causing a major rift between the top echelons of the Ba'athist army as well as between the regime and the people. The United States' psychological warfare in Iraq also had a political dimension, seeing how the US rallied the United Nations Security Council members and others behind the anti-Iraq measures in the guise of countering Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Iran's counter-psychological warfare, on the other hand, seeks to take advantage of the "death-fearing" American soldiers who typically lack a strong motivation to fight wars not necessarily in defense of the homeland. A war with Iran would definitely require establishing the draft in the US, without which it could not possibly protect its flanks in Afghanistan and Iraq; imposing the draft would mean enlisting many dissatisfied young soldiers amenable to be influenced by Iran's own psychological warfare focusing on the lack of motivation and "cognitive dissonance" of soldiers ill-doctrinated to President George W Bush's "doctrine of preemption", not to mention a proxy war for the sake of Israel.

This aside, already, Iranians today consider themselves subjected to the machinations of similar psychological warfare, whereby, to give an example, the US cleverly seeks to capitalize on the discontent of the (unemployed) youth by officially shedding crocodile tears, as discerned from a recent interview of the outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Systematic disinformation typically plays a key role in psychological warfare, and the US has now tripled its radio programs beamed to Iran and, per recent reports from the US Congress, substantially increased its financial support of the various anti-regime TV and Internet programs, this while openly trumpeting the cause of "human intelligence" in a future scenario of conflict with Iran based in part on covert operations.

Consequently, there is a sense of a national-security siege in Iran these days, in light of a tightening "security belt" by the US benefiting from military bases in Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the island-turned-garrison of Diego Garcia. From Iran's vantage point, the US, having won the Cold War, has turned into a "leviathan unhinged" capable of manipulating and subverting the rules of international law and the United Nations with impunity, thus requiring a sophisticated Iranian strategy of deterrence that, in the words of certain Iranian media pundits, would even include the use of nuclear weapons.

But such voices are definitely in a minority in Iran today, and by and large there is an elite consensus against the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, partly out of the conviction that short of creating a "second-strike capability" there would be no nuclear deterrence against an overwhelming US power possessing thousands of "tactical nuclear weapons". Still, looking at nuclear asymmetry between India and Pakistan, the latter's first-strike capability has proved a deterrence against the much superior nuclear India, a precious lesson not lost on Iran.

Consequently, while Iran has fully submitted its nuclear program to international inspection and suspended its uranium-enrichment program per a recent Iran-European Union agreement inked in Paris in November, there is nonetheless a nagging concern that Iran may have undermined its deterrence strategy vis—vis the US, which has not endorsed the Paris Agreement, reserving the right to dispatch Iran's nuclear issue to the Security Council while occasionally resorting to tough saber-rattling against Tehran.

At times, notwithstanding a media campaign in the US, particularly by the New York Times, through news articles carrying such provocative titles as "US versus a nuclear Iran", the US continues its hard-power pre-campaign against Iran unabated, in turn fueling the national security concern of those groups of Iranians contemplating "nuclear deterrence" as a national survival strategy.

Concerning the latter, there is a growing sentiment in Iran that no matter how compliant Iran is with the demands of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency , much like Iraq in 2002-03, the US, which has lumped Iran into a self-declared "axis of evil", is cleverly sowing the seeds of its next Middle East war, in part by leveling old accusations of terrorism and Iran's complicity in the 1996 Ghobar bombing in Saudi Arabia, irrespective of the Saudi officials' rejection of such allegations totally overlooked in a recent book on Iran, The Persian Puzzle by Kenneth M Pollack (see Asia Times Online, The Persian puzzle, or the CIA's?, December 3.)

Thus there is an emerging "proto-nuclear deterrence" according to which Iran's mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle would make it "nuclear weapon capable" in a relatively short time, as a sort of pre-weapon "threshold capability" that must be taken into account by Iran's enemies contemplating attacks on its nuclear installations. Such attacks would be met by stiff resistance, born of Iran's historic sense of nationalism and patriotism, as well as by a counter-weaponization based on quick conversation of the nuclear technology. Hence the longer the US, and Israel, keep up the military threat, the more powerful and appealing the Iranian yearning for a "proto-nuclear deterrence" will grow.

In fact, the military threat against Iran has proved poison for the Iranian economy, chasing away foreign investment and causing considerable capital flight, an intolerable situation prompting some Iranian economists even to call for filing complaints against the US in international tribunals seeking financial remedies. This is a little far-fetched, no doubt, and the Iranians would have to set a new legal precedent to win their cause in the eyes of international law. Iran cannot possibly allow the poor investment climate caused by the military threats to continue indefinitely, and reciprocating with an extended deterrence strategy that raises the risk value of US allies in the region is meant to offset this rather unhappy situation.

Ironically, to open a parenthesis here, some friends of Israel in the US, such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, an avid supporter of "torturing the terrorists", has recently inked a column on a pro-Israel website calling for the revision of international law allowing an Israeli, and US, military assault against Iran. Dershowitz has clearly taken flight of the rule of law, making a mockery of the esteemed institution that is considered a beacon on the hill in the United States; the same Ivy League university is home to the hate discourse of "clashing civilizations", another ornament for its cherished history. Even Harvard's Kennedy School dean, Joseph Nye, a relative dove, has replicated the US obsession with power by churning out books and articles on "soft power" that reifies every facet of American life, including its neutral culture or entertainment industry, into an appendage or "complement" of US "hard power", as if power reification of what Jurgen Habermas calls "lifeworld" (Lebenswelt) is the conditio sine qua non of Pax Americana.

The ruse of power, however, is that it is often blind to the opposite momentum that it generates, as has been the case of the Cuban people's half a century of heroics vis—vis a ruthless regime of economic blockade, Algerian nationalists fighting against French colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, and, at present, the Iranian people finding themselves in the unenviable situation of contemplating how to survive against the coming avalanche of a US power led entirely by hawkish politicians donning the costumes of multilateralism on Iran's nuclear program. Yet few inside Iran actually believe that this is more than pseudo-multilateralism geared to satisfy the United States' unilateralist militarism down the road. One hopes that the road will not wind down any time soon, but just in case, the "Third World" Iranians are doing what they can to prepare for the nightmare scenario.

The whole situation calls for prudent crisis management and security confidence-building by both sides, and, hopefully, the ugly experience of repeated warfare in the oil-rich region can itself act as a deterrent.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.
How Iran will fight back