Flirting with death

Iranians fly the flag in the Strait of Hormuz
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Just west of the Strait of Hormuz lies the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet in Manama which “covers the busiest 60 acres in the world,” according to military.com, the largest US army and veteran online forum. The naval command center in Manama coordinates NSA (Naval Support Activity) of nine US bases in Bahrain, two in the United Arab Emirates, the Kuwait Naval Base, and Masirah Island off Oman. It could become even busier if there is a conflict with Iran to neutralize its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Activity would likely also heat up at the 44 US military bases that effectively surround Iran in the Middle East and Turkey, commanded from the US Central Command (CentCom) at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar – and that does not include Afghanistan. The US would equally make use of a 1994 bilateral defense pact, the “status of forces agreement,” with the UAE, which has enabled the Emirates to have the world's most advanced F-16 E/F Block 60 fighter jets, and for 3,000 US air force personnel to be stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base.

Movement is already increasing, with 15,000 US troops – fresh out of Iraq – stationed in Kuwait. Out at sea, the US sent a third aircraft carrier group this month (March) to the Gulf, the USS Enterprise-led “strike group” that includes six other ships. Britain meanwhile has sent its top of the line, $1.5 billion warship HMS Daring for a seven month deployment to the Gulf to accompany a 25-nation, US-led Combined Maritime Forces flotilla that is, in the words of Britain’s Ministry of Defense, “to bolster maritime security and regional stability across the Middle East.” On top of this, several hundred nautical miles to the West, are four NATO ships patrolling the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly in search of Somali pirates as part of Operation Ocean Shield. 

On the Iranian side, the military has carried out six war games over the past few years, with the latest, last year, dubbed the “Great Prophet 6,” involving the testing of short, medium and long-range missiles. At the beginning of 2012, Iran carried out ground maneuvers inland and near the Afghan border, and has kept its navy on high alert, with Iranian boats tailing US warships as they entered the Gulf. Not willing to be boxed into the Gulf, Iran sent warships through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean in February to show what Admiral Habibollah Sayari said was the “might” of the Islamic Republic to the region. 

Such a show of force in the Gulf is alarming amid the specter of war with Tehran, yet it is hardly the first time there has been such a multi-flagged armada charting the Gulf's waters in relation to the “Iran threat”. Back in 2008, there was a similar “unprecedented” build up of naval force, the largest since the 1990 Gulf War, which put Kuwait on its highest war alert since Saddam Hussein's forces invaded the country.  Nothing happened. But this time the saber rattling by Western powers, Israel and Iran could turn into all-out conflict, whe-ther by design or through some accidental spark as the tensions rise to white hot levels (see scenarios, page 48). 

“This is not a time political analysts or leaders are taking a holiday or going skiing, it is a time to be active,” said Ibrahim Saif, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut who specializes in the political economy of the Middle East. 

A narrow window of opportunity

The crisis revolves around Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, and it is more evident than ever before that the balance of power cannot be altered by allowing Tehran to get the bomb, which would rival the Middle East’s only nuclear power, Israel, and could spark a regional nuclear arms race. 

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has recently hinted that it may go nuclear, while Western intelligence agencies indicate that Riyadh funded up to 60 percent of Pakistan’s nuclear program with the tacit understanding that the kingdom could put up to six Pakistani warheads on its turf if Iran acquires nukes, according to a report in The Guardian newspaper. Saudi Arabia has never publicly called for a war on Iran, but as a prime opponent of an ascendant Islamic Republic, its stance was made clear in a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2008, with King Abdullah calling on the US to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. 

While the Gulf monarchies view Iran as a threat, it is Israel that has been beating the drums of war the loudest against its long-term nemesis. As US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated in early February, an Israeli attack could come as early as this spring. The big question is whether Israel would unilaterally launch strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. 

According to research carried out by Scott Johnson, a defense analyst at IHS Jane’s, it would be exceedingly difficult. “The problem is that the Israelis have a limited number of aircraft that can reach key facilities, and their window of opportunity is in the minutes to hit targets and come right back. The only way to help Israeli aircraft out is via refueling in the air but they have a limited number of air-to-air refueling craft, and they would be in harms way, so would need aircraft to defend them. It would be a massive operation that would necessitate the majority of Israeli strike aircraft operating simultaneously,” he told Executive.

Indeed, reports indicate that Iran's nuclear facilities are spread around some 20 locations and have been built with US and Israeli strike capabilities in mind, while having modern Russian air defense systems to protect them. Such tactical complexities are arguably a reason for the US to not attack Iran either.

“Nuclear facilities are well dispersed, and it would take a month of constant air attacks as you can’t just drop a bomb on a facility as it is deeply buried; they would have to be pummeled. An attack would also involve a lot of search and destroy missions against Iranian missiles as well as anti-shipping missiles to stop the sinking of ships. That is why the US would be reluctant to take this on,” said Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Middle East in Bahrain. “If they are really planning surgical strikes, we wouldn’t know about it. An all out war we’d see a build up. We knew a year in advance the US was going into Iraq as it was hard to keep concealed. But I don’t see the US ready to take a major offensive against Iran and I don't think it is in the US interest or anyone else’s.” 

That said, President Barrack Obama has stated that Washington will work in “lockstep” with Israel to prevent Iran's nuclear aspirations, and that “all options are on the table.” But if Israel does instigate a war, it is expected that the US will have to get involved, as Iran would not sit back and do nothing, unlike the Iraqis when the Israelis bombed the Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 or the Syrians when Israel targeted the alleged nuclear facility in Al Kibar in 2007. 

The Islamic Republic Strikes Back

“The attack would be so large it couldn't be ignored. I don’t think the Iranian regime would survive if they did nothing,” said Elleman. Iran would mobilize its 520,000 uniformed service members to respond to air assaults on nuclear facilities, air bases, missile sites and infrastructure. Given the Iranians' past threats to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, a naval campaign in the Gulf would be a major arena of conflict. “Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz at least temporarily, and may launch missiles against US forces and our allies in the region if it is attacked,” said Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant-General Ronald Burgess at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in December. 

The US Institute for Peace has noted that Iran’s military is configured in a defensive posture, “specifically to counter the perceived US threat.” Lacking the same fire power and conventional military capabilities as the US, Iran would use asymmetric warfare instead. 

Iran has developed “a strong asymmetric capacity that focuses on the use of smart munitions, light attack craft, mines, swarm tactics and missile barrages to counteract U.S. naval power,” stated a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Such tactics could prove highly effective. In a war game conducted by the Pentagon in 2002, a large number of Iranian speedboats swarmed US warships, detonating explosives and attacking with fire arms and rockets. Within five to 10 minutes, the US Navy lost 16 warships, including an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels. While the US has developed its response to such swarm tactics over the past decade, the Iranians have equally improved their asymmetric capabilities. 

Stumbling into war?

What is concerning analysts is that given the current tensions in the region and the build up of military forces, along with the Iranians and the US and its allies having conducted war games in the Gulf, there is the possibility of the world stumbling into a war. “My impression right now is rhetoric has been ramped up in the West to have effective sanctions. We’ve seen the EU agree on an oil export ban, and seeing more and more pressure put on countries in Asia to go along. It is part of human psychology to avoid war, but my worry is that if there is a mistake, a miscommunication or incident in the Persian Gulf, this could lead to a situation that spirals out of control,” said Elleman. “Iran is constantly doing war games and is quite careful when they do it, but what if they fire an anti-ship missile and it gets away from them? A pure accident results in the sinking of a Saudi tanker or casualties on a US or French frigate in the Gulf,” Elleman added. “It is not likely, but I don’t think any of us are smart enough to anticipate it. Frankly, that is what I worry about the most is someone making a poor decision and then it escalates, for do we have mechanisms in place with Iran to control it?”

Gulf War Three

If any of the above plays out, Gulf War Three, if not World War Three, would be underway.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries would be in the immediate line of fire from the Iranians, notably the countries hosting US military facilities, and ports. “If ever there was an inter-Gulf war, the ports would be the prime targets. It is not just cutting off Hormuz that can starve a country, as all countries are import dependent,” said Shahin Shamsabadi, Senior Associate of the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) Practice at The Risk Advisory Group in Dubai. 

If GCC countries were attacked in response to a US led attack on Iran, Elleman said the GCC militaries would coordinate with the US and the response would depend on which country was hit. “If it was Bahrain, what do they have to retaliate with? They have very limited capacity and that is why they asked the Fifth Fleet to be here. The UAE I suspect would take some action with their air force. I’m most impressed with their planners and intelligence people, they have their act together relative to the rest of the GCC,” he said. But the conflict would not solely focus around the Gulf in a US instigated war. The Iranians could use covert attacks against US interests globally as well as enlist proxy forces in neighboring Afghanistan to target US and NATO forces. In such a scenario, the US would get no support from Pakistan, a major player in Afghanistan. Islamabad, which is going through a low-point in relations with Washington, stated in February it will not support an attack on Iran or allow the US to use its local airbases for military operations, although whether it would actually do more for Iran is unclear. 

If Israel carried out the initial strikes, this would add another dimension to the conflict.

“An Israeli element to the attack would unite Iranians and possibly other states against the attackers, although it obviously depends on the scale of the attack,” said Shamsabadi. 

Hezbollah, could retaliate, raining rockets onto the “Zionist entity” from Lebanon, which would prompt a harsh Israeli military response. But this is where it gets complicated. With Syria descending into civil war, the response of Iran’s regional ally to a Gulf war is an unknown, but the West and Israel could capitalize on instability in the region to bolster the rebels in Syria to further destabilize the country. This could also drag the Russians in. It is a strategic ally of Syria, and the port of Tartous is the Russian navy’s only base in the Mediterranean. “For the Russians, it is of utmost importance to protect the Syrian regime as it provides intelligence, access to the Mediterranean and arms deals,” said Saif. 

If the conflict spread from the Gulf to the Levant, two fronts would be open in the Middle East, and with the uprisings that have swept the region over the past year still in various phases, compounded by the economic damage a conflict would entail, major instability throughout the MENA would ensue. As fault tree analysis shows, one event can have a top-down effect that leads to numerous other lower-level events. “All the branches that could be spun off if a war breaks out are incalculable,” concludes Elleman.

Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

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