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Once again US political and military figures are hinting at military attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Few looking back on US ventures in the Middle East will be struck by exceptional farsightedness or appropriate gauging of likely consequences.
Instead, many of those ventures were based on naive understandings of forces in the region and equally naive understandings of the utility of military force. Iran has numerous options to counter any US strike – many of them quite sobering.
Iran has considerable influence in Iraq, far more than does the US. Important political parties were set up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and ties have long endured. A sign of Iraqi leanings was offered after the recent elections when parties sent emissaries not to Washington, but to Tehran.
Iranian influence in Iraq could be used against the US. It has already been used to order the US out by the end of 2011. The deadline could be stepped up as an insult, but more lethal responses are likely. The Shiite-dominated army and militias not yet integrated into it could turn on US troops, most likely in surreptitious, low-intensity attacks with what might be called plausible denial, putting the US in the contorted position of fighting the democratic government it prides itself on installing. Alternately or in conjunction with Iraqi forces, Iranian Quds Force personnel could cross the porous border to conduct guerrilla warfare.
Iraq, with guidance from Iran, could turn on the Sunni Arab population. Over the last year, the Sunni Arabs have launched a terror bombing campaign, killing hundreds of Shiites. The government’s response has thus far been restrained, but it may be biding its time for a harsh response to remind the Sunnis of their marginal status in national affairs, placing the US in the position of defending the Sunni militias it armed and protected during the Surge.
Iran could also retaliate in Afghanistan. Iran has no affection for the Taliban. In Tehran’s eyes, they are uncivilized Sunnis, who are responsible for the 1998 slaughter of ten Iranian diplomats and thousands of Shiite Hazaras. Iran supported the Northern Alliance in ousting the Taliban in 2001 and dropped its support for Burhanuddin Rabbani in the post-Taliban election, and shifted support to the US candidate, Hamid Karzai.
Nonetheless, Iran sends the Taliban small amounts of weapons and trains a handful of their fighters in the craft of IEDs. Support is thus far of minimal importance in the insurgency, but it is a reminder to the US that it can escalate the fighting and casualties, thereby making Afghanistan what Iraq was four years ago.
The Straits of Hormuz would make another arena for a vengeful Tehran. The narrow entrance to the Persian Gulf sees a great deal of US traffic, both merchant and naval. “Swarming” tactics – sending large numbers of planes and missiles toward a few ships in the hope of overwhelming their defenses – could sink several US vessels, perhaps even a carrier.
More likely, Iran would make only a token effort in the Straits, one that signaled the potential for more serious responses. This could be done by firing a missile or artillery round across the bow of a US ship or an oil tanker. In a matter of an hour of word reaching world trading desks, the price of oil would spike $20 dollars or more. The oil shock would hit the world at a time of economic weakness and fiscal crisis, aggravating US standing in the world – even among longstanding allies. Oddly, the price rise would bring increased revenue into Iran.
Responses against Israel would be more difficult. Hizbullah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, would be a likely agent of retaliation, but Israel’s devastating airstrikes on Lebanon in 2006 has reduced Hizbullah’s willingness to absorb more punishment. Hamas, Iran’s Palestinian partner, has little military capability, despite Iranian training and arms. Their militias showed little effectiveness in the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza, and the ease with which Israel targeted Hamas leaders suggests numerous informers.
The difficulty in retaliating in Israel will not lead to Iranian quiescence, it could lead to retaliation against Jewish targets outside the country and American ones as well. Palestinian groups, seeing a de facto annexation of the West Bank taking place, might rejoin the deadly effort they began forty years ago.
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Containment and diplomacy, despite uncertainties, offer attractions over tension and attack. Easing tensions would lead to greater cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan and aid reformist momentum inside Iran. The US must recognize the appeal of political reform in Iran, or at least the disruptive effects of western youth culture there.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org