INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
January 9, 2008
LESSONS OF WAR II
We can beat Iran - but not by fighting
By Roger Stern
PRINCETON, New Jersey:
In a war game in 2002, Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper of the Marines was called from retirement to lead a surrogate Iranian force defending against a U.S. attack. The general was recruited for his special talent, devising creative ways to fight stronger, technologically superior opponents.
Using motorbike messengers to keep his communications secure from high-tech eavesdropping, he launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy from a fleet of small, fast missile boats.
The barrage was intended to saturate U.S. anti-missile radars, allowing at least a few missiles to reach their targets. This worked perfectly. A U.S. aircraft carrier and 15 other warships went to the bottom.
It was a rout of the Donald Rumsfeld theory of high-tech warfare. In response, the Department of Defense stopped the game, changed the rules, and pretended nothing had happened. By so doing, the department reprised the first act in the worst naval defeat in U.S. history.
For the last century, technological change has relentlessly degraded the value of capital ships. Too often, naval high commands deny that this process is happening. In a trial bombing attack in 1921, Colonel Billy Mitchell of the U.S. Army showed that relatively cheap aircraft could sink expensive battleships. The navy dismissed Mitchell's test as unrealistic and continued to do so until Dec. 7, 1941.
If President George W. Bush were to order an attack on Iran, this syndrome could be repeated. Iranian naval doctrine is to strike hard, once, before being destroyed. To deliver this strike, Iran's Revolutionary Guards began building a fleet like Van Riper's long before the general showed what damage it could do.
So we know that Iran would counterattack in response to a U.S. air strike, and we've learned from Van Riper that such an attack could succeed.
As for anti-ship missiles, there's no need to parse war game results to know what they can do. They've been sinking real warships in combat since 1982, when an Argentine fighter pilot fired just two at HMS Sheffield. Van Riper fired hundreds, shredding the fleet.
So if the United States were to attack Iran, things could go badly. Just as in 1921, the U.S. Navy can't bring itself to admit that its largest warships might be vulnerable. So, while we can't know for certain if U.S. carriers are really obsolete, it seems foolish to give Iran the opportunity to find out.
Tehran seems unimpressed by administration war talk, perhaps because it has confidence in its navy. Lots of other people are scared, though. Take oil traders. Oil prices used to have a tight relationship with Saudi spare capacity. When capacity went up, prices went down. After two years of escalating threats between Tehran and Washington, however, new capacity no longer calms the market.
Under the old market rules, prices would be $50, not $100. So war talk sends an extra $20 billion a year to Tehran. The Bush administration's bellicose rhetoric thus makes a mockery of the president's pledge to "do everything in our power to defeat the terrorists."
If it wanted to honor this commitment, the administration would stop saying things that drive up oil prices. As it is, the long parade of threats just makes the mullahs richer.
Yet they spend their $90 a barrel windfall faster than ever, trying to buy legitimacy with pork. Deeply unpopular, the Iranian regime now relies on constantly rising oil prices for survival.
Its spending has quadrupled in the last six years, a remarkable rise that's evolved in lockstep with oil prices. Here, at last, is our adversary's weakness: An oil price decline would be a mortal threat.
If Bush wants to hit the regime where it hurts, conciliation should become his byword. In the price collapse that would follow, he'd find a brand new Iranian appetite for negotiation.
This is because, unlike sanctions that might take years bite, a peace initiative would threaten the mullahs tomorrow. Talking peace, which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will certainly scorn, would also help reformers in the approaching Iranian elections.
So before the president begins another war whose risks may be greater than he thinks, General Van Riper should be heard. And if the president really wants to regime change, he should talk peace, now.
He doesn't even have to mean it. At today's oil prices, just the threat of peace will do.
Roger Stern is a national security and energy policy analyst in the Oil, Energy and the Middle East Program at Princeton University.
Copyright © 2008 the International Herald Tribune