Iran has demonstrated in its recent war games in the Arabian Gulf region that it has developed its missile capabilities in various areas, which gives Tehran considerable offensive capabilities that would require its opponents to remain constantly on high alert to avoid a major “Pearl Harbor” scenario. The distance between the Iranian side of the coastline (on the east) and the Arabian side (on the west) varies. It narrows on the edges and widens in the middle. However, it places some of the United State’s most important military facilities in the region within range of Iran’s cruise missiles and artillery rockets.
Iran claims that its Noor and Al-Qader surface-to-surface anti ship cruise missiles have a range of 200-km with high accuracy. It also claims that these missiles are undetectable by radar. It has also built the Zilzal-3 artillery rocket with a range of 250-km. It is hard to ascertain Iranian claims with the absence of independent verficiation. But it appears that with every exercise the moral and self-confidence of the Iranian military, especially the Revolutionary Guards, grows greater.
To many regional analysts, the heightened military moral and rhetoric in Iran should be a cause of concern to the West, especially with the increased influence of the Revolutionary Guards on the central government. Iranian military commanders are now confident enough to make public threats to the U.S. Navy. On January 3, 2012, the commander of the Iranian Army General Ataollah Salehi dared the U.S. aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to return to the Gulf waters. He said: “We advice the aircraft carrier that crossed the Strait of Hormuz to the Sea of Oman not to return to the Persian Gulf.” He added: “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not intend to repeat its warning.”
While the focus of the West and their allies over the past few years has been Iran’s growing ballistic missile capabilities, its arsenal of other missiles, which is as serious and deadly, has not received as much attention. Known anti-ballistic missiles defense systems such as the Patriot and THAAD are hardly effective against cruise missiles and artillery rockets. Israel stood helpless in the summer of 2006 against Iranian-supplied artillery rockets used by Hizbullah to pound Israeli settlements and bases. The sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system operated by Israel could not protect against the rocket threat. Israel has just procured a low tier defense system known as Iron Dome to deal with rocket attacks by Hizbullah from the north and Hamas from the south – but this system remains untested in a conflict setting.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain is 250-km from the Iranian coast, while the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters at Camp As Sayliyah and the nearby U.S. Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) in Al-Udaid air base in neighboring Qatar are just under 250-km. The U.S. Army Central (ARCENT) base in Kuwait is less than 120-km from the Iranian coast. So, Iran does not really need to resort to its ballistic missiles to hit any of the U.S. bases and other strategic coastal targets in the region. Iran technically can launch a surprise attack with cruise missiles and artillery rockets at all U.S. bases and naval assets in the Arabian Gulf region. Such an attack would be really deadly if missiles and rockets were launched in large numbers in a way to saturate the targets and render defense counter-measures at the bases or the warships useless.
So, if Iran decides to close the Strait of Hormuz, as it has repeatedly threatened over the past few weeks, it would likely do it along with a stunning all-out attack to sink as many naval ships to the U.S. and its allies in the region and to hit the runways at air bases and other strategic sites along the western coastline of the Arabian Gulf. This would shock and temporarily impair Iran’s opponents and confine any subsequent naval warfront to the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean, and allow Tehran to keep the strategic passageway closed and under its full control – for a long while at least.
The Iranian regime would likely carry out such a bold attack whenever it feels that sanctions and international isolation have reached a tipping point and the country’s economy is about to collapse. Even though such an attack would invite massive U.S. retaliation and put it at war with its Arab Sunni neighbors, the Iranian regime could see it as an acceptable zero-sum-game risk. Also, Iran would likely launch such an attack in retaliation to an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities. Iran would possibly fulfill few important objectives in such an audacious attack, such as:
• It would buy itself more time for its nuclear program to become fully militarized, especially if it has some secret nuclear sites still undetected. Most Iranian leaders seem to follow the North Korean example that nobody would dare attack a country that possesses nuclear weapons.
• The regime would silence Iranian opposition and assert its control.
• Tehran would assert its status as a superpower to the countries of the region, and the Shi’ites worldwide.
• Iran will gain a huge bargaining card with the closure of the Hormuz Strait and establishing full control over it. Barring one sixth of the daily world oil exports from passing through would possibly put the U.S. and the international community under strong pressure and enable Tehran to reach its long sought grand bargain with the West.
• Iran would hope a successful surprise attack on its western front would scare its neighbors to the north and east from aiding the anticipated U.S. retaliation, which would confine the war to the southern naval front.
• Iran will count on the Eastern powers, such as China, Japan and India to pressure the U.S. to end the war to allow the flow of the Gulf oil which they largely depend on for their economies. Tehran will present itself as a victim that was forced into this action, and work on gaining allies in the east with the hope of widening the war to be global.
The general belief amongst most Iranian leaders is that the regime would only collapse if the country is successfully invaded by a foreign power, which they believe is very hard and too costly for the U.S. to do under the current circumstances. Analysts and officials of the regime often describe the U.S. in their writings and speeches as a weakened and fading power. They view the U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as failures to Washington that exhausted its forces. They also belief the current global financial crisis would prevent America and Europe from waging a prolonged costly war against a strong adversary such as Iran. So, Tehran would seek to bring a quick end to the war through a United Nations mediated cease-fire that would spare the regime and present it as a hero for standing up to the world’s super power.
If history has taught humanity one thing and that is to always expect the unexpected, especially when the survival of a regime of a very proud and confident nation is at stake. Imperial Japan and the way it willingly entered the war against an adversary its commanders knew in advance was much stronger and could beat them, should always remain a lesson to nations and armies worldwide. The fate of countries always hangs on the risks and calculations taken by their leaders at times of conflict. Over-confidence in technology can be fatalistic, as Israel learned in the 2006 Second Lebanese War. Weapons seen by the West as obsolete, like artillery rockets, could prove very devastating in a surprise massive attack by Iran that will also use other asymmetrical capabilities like suicide attacks by speed boats and torpedo assaults to sink as many warships in the Gulf waters as possible to drain the naval capabilities of the U.S. and its allies and deny them the use of air bases.
The positioning of the forces for the U.S. and its allies should take into consideration a preemptive attack by Iran, and hence should be moved deep to the west (in Saudi Arabia towards the Red Sea) or south (in Sea of Oman). Also the regional missile defense system should be immediately expanded to include counter-measures against artillery rockets and cruise missiles. The question everybody, and especially Iranians, would be debating in the case of Tehran pursuing this deadly adventure would be: “How far would and could the U.S. be willing to go to have a decisive victory in a war with Iran?” Let’s hope the world will never know.