Monday, September 18, 2006

What if?

With national attention focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, CNN describes US Naval wargames featuring Iran as the notional enemy. "The first message was routine enough: a 'Prepare to Deploy Order' sent through Naval communications channels to a submarine, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers and two minehunters. The orders didn't actually command the ships out of port .... but until now largely theoretical, prospect has become real: that the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran." That dramatic beginning introduces a discussion of how dangerous war with Iran might be, yet how few the diplomatic prospects for reducing the tension are.

Readers might be forgiven for objecting that Iran has no east coast. It's entirely landlocked by Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east, though it does have an extensive southern coast which runs all the way from the Shatt al Arab to the Indian ocean, a route along which much of the world's tanker traffic must pass or sail near. But we get the point. Any conflict with Iraq will involve, at the minimum, naval action threatening the chief oil artery of the planet. 

But the background omissions are more serious. It's not entirely true to say that "the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran" like it was something wholly new. Iran has been at war with the United States for some time now. In fact, Iranian special forces are openly described as supporting attacks against US forces in Iraq. And since America has presumably responded, even just defensively, at some level America is already at war with Iran. Nor is it useful to describe the US diplomatic relationship with Iran to consist solely or even principally of negotiations over nuclear proliferation. It also includes such issues as Iran's involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. But the article successfully underscore the paradox at the heart of the problem: that while diplomacy is meant to prevent war, the threat of war is necessary for diplomacy to succeed.

"Nobody is considering a military option at this point," says an administration official. "We're trying to prevent a situation in which the president finds himself having to decide between a nuclear-armed Iran or going to war. The best hope of avoiding that dilemma is hard-nosed diplomacy, one that has serious consequences."

This single phrase, "the best hope of avoiding that dilemma is hard-nosed diplomacy, one that has serious consequences" encapsulates the Catch-22. Diplomacy requires threat; but threat runs the risk of escalation at the end of which is war.


If war actually breaks out, CNN had better hope that the USN has adequately prepared for conflict with Iran. Apart from the threat of mining the Straits of Hormuz, Iran has the capability of firing antiship missiles capable of striking even modern warships, as shown by the use of a C-802 against an Israeli corvette off the coast of Lebanon. Moreover, Iran may attempt to strike targets such as the Ras Tanura oil refinery in the Emirates which lie about 260 kilometers from the coast of Iran, not far from the US naval base at Manamah with long range missiles. Just how difficult this might be to stop was illustrated by the recent bombardment of Israel by Hezbollah. Despite the sophistication of Israeli defenses and the relative backwardness of Hezbollah, it remained a problem to the end. Here's an interesting discussion of the subject. Mine warfare isn't one of the better known suites of the USN. Here's a list of known mine countermeasures ships. FAS suggests a lot of money has recently been spent on developing mine countermeasures but very little is publicly available to describe these efforts.


Blogger Sammler said...

Do we have any stick, short of a high-impact war of decapitation, with which to back up our diplomacy?

Would we just be rewarding Iran by setting them a place at the diplomatic table?

And what has happened to the Euro-3 effort, anyway?

9/18/2006 02:52:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...


As I recall the Europeans tried negotiating; they failed and it went to the Security Council. The Security Council read Iran the riot act and Iran told them to get lost. Right now, there is pressure for the US to "make a direct appeal"; or initiate direct negotiations with Iran. Some of this is motivated by a genuine desire to avert a clash at nearly all costs; others feel that any tensions are really America's fault and if enough concessions are offered Teheran can eventually be dissuaded. The argument usually involves waiting for a Democratic president because the current one is judged inept.

However that may be, the dilemma is a genuine one. And the consequences of war with Iran would be huge. Russia would certainly benefit from any oil disruption in the Gulf. If you think there was pressure on Israel to stop at all costs, just imagine what will happen when oil supplies to Japan and China are interrupted.

Certainly if war breaks out it must be absolutely clear that Iran has started it. The US might even be willing to let Iran strike first. Well, as I pointed out, it has already struck first, but a politically useful casus belli must be on such a large scale (such as sinking a tanker or a September 11) that the Europeans and Japanese positively ask the US to go to war. Hence,look for diplomacy to go on the very bitter end.

9/18/2006 03:04:00 AM  
Blogger Egfrow said...

I think you mean Iran and not Iraq in your story.

9/18/2006 03:50:00 AM  
Blogger Egfrow said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/18/2006 03:51:00 AM  
Blogger CatoRenasci said...

sammler wrote:

Do we have any stick, short of a high-impact war of decapitation, with which to back up our diplomacy?

Ultimately, no. Most of the 'sticks' short of sanctions or war have been tried withou success.

Short of converting to Islam giving the Iranians security guarantees that enable them to continue developing nuclear weapons and exporting terrorism, what do we have to offer that would satisfy them even by way of appeasement? Even if the West converted to Islam, there would be significant issues of relative power and Iran's imperial ambitions.

The only remaining "sticks" are serious and effective sanctions that would quarantine Iran and war. If it were possible to put a cordon sanitaire around Iran that would not significantly leak, that would be worth a go. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that neither the Russians nor the Chinese would likely permit such sanctions to be imposed, much less abide by them in the unlikely event they did not veto them. The history of sanctions is not encouraging in any event. So, we are left with war, if we are as serious about stopping the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons as they are serious about obtaining them.

9/18/2006 04:33:00 AM  
Blogger Quig said...

I don't think the world is serious about stopping Iran from going nuclear. They say India has it, Pakistan has it, Israel has it; nothing bad has happned yet. N. Korea and Iran? Why worry?

9/18/2006 05:17:00 AM  
Blogger enscout said...

Iran's leaders have a suicidal, apocalyptic worldview. How does one negotiate with such? Indeed, how does one avoid a war?

Better now than after they develop their doomsday weapons.

9/18/2006 05:45:00 AM  
Blogger mnc said...

The US Navy has had 20 years to plan, train and prepare for all the ways Iran might block the Straits. If any blockade lasts more than 36 hours, every Admiral officer in the US navy will deserve to be sacked instantly with loss of pension.

Despite the lack of minesweepers in 1986 to clear a safe path for US Navy escorted Kuwaiti oil tanker convoys, the brute force method of simply driving the tankers through potential minefields worked well. The escorts followed in the wake of the tankers. Some wondered who was escorting who? Tankers are big enough to shrug off mines that would sink a warship in seconds.

Surely they've got a few surplus old tankers lying around ready to lead the charge?

BTW, Ras Tanura is in Saudi Arabia.

9/18/2006 07:38:00 AM  
Blogger Ari Tai said...

re: Iran's oil.

I suspect Iran can't shut down the Gulf's oil production. There are enough pipelines across SA and surrounds that the major producers can tranship to the Red and Arabian Seas (and likely have already practiced, given the decades old threat to their continued existence - i.e. no oil revenues, no food - or fancy villas in the south of France).

It'is the loss of Iran's production that will raise prices. Perhaps from below $2 a gallon to around $3 (after the election of course). Oh my, how terrible. Mr. Putin will love it, and is clearly building out to meet the need. Unfortunately, we've not been able to figure out how to make it in his interest to have a peaceful resolution after Iran in embargoed.

9/18/2006 08:49:00 AM  
Blogger Reocon said...

And what of Iraq during a US/Iran War? What happens to our joint patrols with the Iraqi Army? Are our soldiers going to have to wonder about the loyalties of Shiite soldiers that have their backs? We've all seen the Iraqi PM's lovefest with Iran's President Ahmadinejad, and we know how deeply these ties go to Shiite militia in Iraq.

Does anyone want to bet that in a conflict with Iran, we can trust the Iraqi Shiite majority or the Islamist parties they've elected? Anyone?
Let's hope this thought experiment clarifies a few things.

9/18/2006 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Lips Mahoney said...

Reocon raises a good point: how would any military action against Iran sit with Iraqi Shia? And how would this effect their cooperation and stability of the democracy project there?

I don’t know what the answer is, but the question would be: is the Iraq project worth risking in order to set back Iran’s nuclear program by several years?

9/18/2006 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Roderick said...

As I commented in an earlier post, it could be useful to heavily support the insurgent Iranian Kurds, as well as the "People's Mujahadeen" to help keep Iran off-balance, and give them a plateful of their own medicine.

9/18/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Cutler said...

"Do we have any stick, short of a high-impact war of decapitation, with which to back up our diplomacy?

Ultimately, no. Most of the 'sticks' short of sanctions or war have been tried withou success."

Reverse the 'blockade' talk. We're worried that Iran is going to beat the strongest navy in world history? Why aren't they afraid of it?

If necessary we could replay the Tanker War and stop their oil exports. Turn around or capture every tanker they send.

9/18/2006 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger eatyourbeans said...

The people we should be negiotating with are China and India, the prime consumers of Iranian oil. If these powers knew in advance that their interests in the region will be protected, they might be able to easily live with the forcible removal of the mullacracy. Russia, which seems to be nurturing dreams of reconstituting the Warsaw Pact around the oil- producing nations, wouldn't be happy. But when has she ever been?
Besides, with China and India happily feasting at the trough that we're sharing with them, Russia sulks alone.
Just one amateur's opinion on how to make the upcoming hitjob go smoothly.

9/18/2006 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger gokart-mozart said...

War with Iran is war to the death.

If we ar not prepared to conquer, occupy, and Christianize Persia we should stay home.

9/18/2006 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

I have been thinking this as a "possibility" for awhile, now its more of a "probability" in my mind.

The Tool

9/18/2006 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger cjr said...

I suggest policy makers brush up on their history, specifically the Cuban missile crisis. Only this time, Kruschev won't back down.....

9/18/2006 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Cutler said...

"War with Iran is war to the death.

If we ar not prepared to conquer, occupy, and Christianize Persia we should stay home."

War to the death does not require reviving the dead. With a 500,000 man army, we'd best be prepared to ditch the 'break it, you bought it' fable.

9/18/2006 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger exhelodrvr said...

"Tankers are big enough to shrug off mines that would sink a warship in seconds."

Not necessarily. It depends on the size of the mine, where it exploded, etc. A relatively small underwater explosion will create a large air bubble that will head towards the surface underneath the hull of the ship, and the act of raising the ship up can result in the keel being broken. (The same theory is used with some torpedos.) I don't know how much room there is in the channels, but I'm sure that sinking a couple of ships in the right spots (either by mines, missiles, or scuttling by the crew) would at the least make navigation drastically more difficult, and possibly impossible, until the wrecks were cleared.

As far as minesweeping capabilities, the USN also uses helicopters extensively for that mission.

9/18/2006 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Cutler, I agree with you, we're not going to do the nation rebuilding thing in the Middle East again after this struggle in Iraq. But even more than what your comment implies, the idea that we have to colonize and convert Iran is off-base, I think. When I was in Iran in '77, I found a much more modern, westernized country than I'd seen in Turkey and of course infinitely more advanced than poor old Afghanistan to my east. (Might've had something to do with the 4-ship formations of Phantoms roaring over downtown Tehran every afternoon.)

The people in Iran are not our enemies, it seems unlikely a vicious insurgency would emerge if the Iranian government fell, as has happened in Iraq. (And we sure as hell wouldn't disband their army!) A recent article appeared in the WaPo, in the Travel section, that showed the Iranian people the way I remember them to be: A different face of Iran

The mullahs are our enemy, as they are worldwide, not necessarily the Iranian people as a whole. I can't say the same about other countries, but it's worth thinking about.

9/18/2006 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger sarnac said...

My simple recommendation: provide China with the most absolute guarantee possible about their supply of Iranian oil:

After the US air campaign to bomb Iran's non-oil-producing heartland back into the stone age, China should provide 100% of the occupation ground-troops for boots-on-the-ground without any time requirement for them to leave. To compensate them for their peacekeeping, they would get 100% of Iran oil output, largely forever assuaging China's fear that the west wants to choke them off oil as we did to Japan pre-WW2.

Every other nearby country would cease forthwith all attacks on the west for fear of being sacrificed to China as their next province ala Tibet.

9/18/2006 01:40:00 PM  
Blogger Cutler said...

"The mullahs are our enemy, as they are worldwide, not necessarily the Iranian people as a whole. I can't say the same about other countries, but it's worth thinking about."

I hope you are right, but I'm just gunshy of expecting other people to accomplish our objectives for us. The last five years haven't done much for expectations of rationality and perceived common interests.

9/18/2006 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Cutler said...

Also, I suspect a lot has changed in that country since 1977, when the Shah was trying to push through his White Revolution. 1979, the Iran-Iraq War, etc, etc. Of course, there are dissidents, but keeping in mind that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards alone have hundreds of thousands of members, it makes you wonder if the Iranian Mullahs have a stronger base of support in Iran than Hussein had in Iraq. For every college kid, there's one brought up in the rural areas.

9/18/2006 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...


Take a breeze through that WaPo article, the guy was just there recently. In their interest in the West, specifically America, the people sound to me today like they sounded to me then.

It's like I explain to my liberal friends who are horrified that we are inflicting McDonalds Hollywood Disney on the poor pure souls all around the world. We're not imposing our empire on them, they are EMBRACING us.

If America was one-thousandth as evil as American liberals think, how could we possibly be the immigration capital of all time?

After Iraq and Afghanistan, if the choice is limited to the current style of incessant low-level war against suicidal maniacs, or the Big White Light in the Sky ... we need something new. And offering a cleaner way out of Islamo-fascist dictatorships to the oppressed populations has gotta be it.

We tried this neo-con approach a couple of times now, there must be a better way. After all, it's either that or the Big White Light, as Wretchard showed us in The Three Conjectures.

9/18/2006 04:07:00 PM  
Blogger Melissus said...

I've had it. It's time to roll up our sleeves and stop playing footsie with these degenerates.
1 The US government should announce and implement the policy of preemptive thermonuclear strikes against any and all *rogue* states (definition should be open to include islamist and communist states) that are suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons and that won't come clean after one solitary and polite request. This might just encourage an absolute transparency in these countries regarding their secret programs.
2 Paralleling this policy (1), the terrorist tactic of hiding behind *innocent* civilians should be turned back on the terrorists. These people (guilty of cooperating with the terrorists or not) should be targeted with the terrorists in bombing and other attacks. Effect: the terrorists will no longer be regarded as heroes but as objects of horror from which everyone, collaborators and innocent bystanders alike, flee, or even against which they turn for their own survival. The romantic allurement of their jihadist *heroism* will soon be reduced to the shame that it is; and the lauds gushed honoring these murderers to the vilification due to pariahs.
3 Immediate nuclear attack on Iran with the objective of destroying its nuclear bomb-building capacity (i.e., application of 1 to Iran). A simultaneous invasion by sea should accompany this not only as a means to protect the sea lanes, but with a view of conquering the oil fields for the US. Then let's see what those monster mullahs do without oil money. Ulterior land-based reconaissance and raids will finish any hidden nuclear factories not destroyed in the original nuclear attack. The nuclear attack is important as a lesson to other rogues states that may be considering similar things. Let them see Iran's fate and reflect.
4 Declare a free Iran in the area of the oil-producing region, have elections, develop a government and eventually a free Iranian army. Then Iranians will have a choice: join the Mullahs in Tehran, or join the free, oil-producing region of free Iran. Eventually, the free-Iran will supplant the tyrannical theocracy of the Mullahs, who will be starved out. (This is good old-fashioned warfare, that really is aweful and not sanitized, and obtains definite results!)
5 In connection with the taking of oil fields and oil producing regions, this is another policy that the US government ought to impose on all islamofascist regions: Take the oil fields by military force (yes, and especially those of Saudi Arabia!), then impose an American administration of these, and obtain all the earnings from their production. Some funds will pay for the costs of the military force. But not one penny will go to an Islamist regime. They will first die poor in their own land, unless they first recognize every man's right to freedom of conscience and other essential freedoms recognized universally by Western nations: Respect all men or starve. I think they'll be able to understand that.
No, I'm not finished yet:
6 Reverse dhimmitude must be imposed: If a church or synagogue is burned down by islamics anywhere in the world, a lottery will be played here in the US, and by this means a mosque will be chosen, destroyed and the terrain sold in public auction. Furthermore, all moslems will pay a religious tax, and be stripped of all rights of citizenship so long as this war against islamism goes on. In general, sharia law will be studied, inverted and imposed against moslems in the US. Force feed them their own medicine! Reverse dhimmitude is perfect reciprocity, and mere justice. This is TRUE dialogue and diplomacy.
7 Finally, the hard part (the above are relatively easy for the US to do): tell the wimpy liberals and euroweenies and UN, and all the theoreticians of political correctness to go to hell.

It is really only in point 7 that this plan becomes irreal. The REAL enemy does not wear a turban nor pray at the mosque. And in his convoluted cowardice, he is sure that he is morally superior to me, who am only trying to keep his derrier alive and free. *In imposing such policies, we are becoming like our enemy and thus defeated by them.* This is the buffoonery that flows from an incapacity to tell good from evil. The enemy is evil, we are good, at least relatively speaking. The person who puts an equal sign between them and us is INSANE. Others have already said it: the US Constitutition becomes a death pact unless we recognize that it is not applicable to evil people who will use it to kill us. They have no right to be protected under its good provisions, which are intended for a good people, relatively good in any case.

(Some may see moral difficulties with targeting *civilians*. I am not sure that in this extreme case there are real difficulties, but that is a discussion for another occasion.)

Well, I've vented, for now.
Next comment, please.

9/18/2006 08:55:00 PM  

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