War Against Iran: Hawks Winning the Argument?
Arab News August 21, 2007
It's impossible to say whether the United States will attack Iran before President George W. Bush leaves office in 17 months' time, because nobody in the White House knows yet either. It is easy to predict what would happen if the US did attack Iran, however, and the signs are that the hawks in the White House are winning that argument.
The most alarming sign is the news that the Bush administration is about to brand the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "terrorist organization." This is a highly provocative step, for the IRGC is not a bunch of fanatical freelances. It is a 125,000-strong official arm of the Iranian state, parallel to the regular armed forces but more ideologically motivated and presumably more loyal to the ruling clerics.
Almost everybody in the Bush administration believes that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons in order to dominate the region and to attack Israel. (Others are less certain.) The war party, led by Dick Cheney, also believes that the clerical regime in Iran would collapse at the first hard push, since ordinary Iranians thirst for US-style democracy — and that the attack must be made while President Bush is still in office, since no successor will have the guts to do it. Even after all this time, the administration's old machismo survives: "The boys go to Baghdad; the real men go to Tehran."
So what will happen if Cheney & Co. get their way? The Iranian regime would not collapse: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now unpopular due to his mishandling of the economy, but patriotic Iranians would rally even around him if they were attacked by foreigners. What would collapse, instead, is the world's oil supply and the global economy.
Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, explained how that would be accomplished in a speech on Aug. 15 (though he made no direct reference to the US threat). "Our coast-to-sea missile systems can now reach the length and breadth of the Gulf and the Sea of Oman," he said, "and no warships can pass in the Gulf without being in range of our coast-to-sea missiles." In other words, Iran can close the whole of the Gulf and its approaches to oil tanker traffic, and if the US Navy dares to fight in these waters it will lose.
Despite the huge disparity in military power between the United States and Iran, this is probably true. Overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States cannot come up with the huge number of extra troops that would be needed to invade and occupy a mountainous country of 75 million people. The US can bomb Iran to its heart's content, hitting all those real and alleged nuclear facilities, but then it runs out of options — whereas Iran's options are very broad.
It could just stop exporting oil itself. Pulling only Iran's three and a half million barrels per day off the market, in its present state, would send oil prices shooting up into the stratosphere. Or it could get tough and close down all oil-tanker traffic that comes within range of those missiles — which would mean little or no oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or the smaller Gulf states either. That would mean global oil rationing, industrial shutdowns, and the end of the present economic era.
Can those missiles do all that? Yes, they can. The latest generation of sea-skimming missiles have mobile, easily concealed launchers, and they would come in very fast and low from anywhere along almost 2,000 km (well over 1,000 miles) of Iran's Gulf coast. Sink the first half-dozen tankers, and insurance rates for voyages to the Gulf become prohibitive, even if you can find owners willing to risk their tankers.
It's very doubtful that US air strikes could find and destroy all the missile launchers — consider how badly the Israeli Air Force did in south Lebanon last summer — so Iran wins. After a few months, the other great powers would find some way for the United States to back away from the confrontation and let the oil start flowing again, but the US would suffer a far greater humiliation than it did in Vietnam, while Iran would emerge as the undisputed arbiter of the region.
Many, perhaps most, senior American generals and admirals know this and are privately opposed to a foredoomed attack on Iran, but in the end they will do as ordered. Vice President Dick Cheney and his coterie don't know it, preferring to believe that Iranians would welcome their American attackers with glad cries and open arms. You know, like the Iraqis did. And Cheney seems to be winning the argument in the White House.
— Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.