Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Scenarios for a war with Iran - Mapping a tinderbox of possibilities

An exploration of conceivable developments in an increasingly tense region

Executive Special Report

Attempting to predict whether a war between Iran, Israel and the West will occur is an exercise in speculation akin to asserting that the uprisings in the Arab world will lead to real freedom and democracy in the Middle East — obviously no one has either answer yet; Executive does not pretend to either, not does it advocate conflict in the region. However, based on interviews with a vast array of experts and in-depth research conducted as part of this Special Report on Energy Wars, Executive has compiled a list of possible scenarios that could pan out in the region’s near future.

1: Persian powder keg

Tehran has repeatedly stated it would close the 30-kilometer wide Strait of Hormuz if the United States sends more war ships through the channel. The US bolsters the two carrier groups already in the Gulf, with the massive naval build up prompting an embattled Iran to block the Strait with mines, ships and submarines in an attempt to call the US’ bluff. With a blockade an act of war under international law unless authorized by the UN Security Council, US warships attempt to re-open the Strait, and conflict occurs when the Iranian navy fires anti-ship missiles at the US Navy. With the US busy countering missile attacks, mines, torpedoes and submarines, Iranian speed boats swarm US ships, sinking several. The US Air Force (USAF) uses the opportunity to take out Iranian nuclear facilities, first targeting air-defense systems, coastal anti-ship missile positions and naval facilities. All-out war ensues — see Scenario five or six.

2: Misery from mishap

The US claims the Iranian navy fired upon it during war games in the Strait of Hormuz. Amid the fog of war and limited diplomatic means to diffuse the situation, the US instantly counter-attacks. With an attack on a NATO member considered an act of war against all members, the US and NATO target Iranian military and nuclear facilities. All-out war ensues in the Gulf and the Levant — see Scenario five or six.

3: Eagle landing

The Iranians withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and kick out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors after Western intelligence reports indicate Iran has moved forward with its nuclear weapons program. The US considers this a red line and begins destroying Iranian air defense capabilities, radar facilities and missile silos before moving on to specific nuclear facilities. Leads to Scenario five or six.

4: Zionist surprise

The Israelis consider the multilateral sanctions on Iran to not have had the desired effect of bringing Tehran to heel, and believe the nuclear program to have moved beyond the point of no return — nuclear weapon capability. Using an alleged Iranian covert operation to assassinate a senior Israeli as an excuse, Tel Aviv launches air strikes. Iran retaliates with long-range missiles against Israel. Israel launches strikes against Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah and invades Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah fires rockets into northern Israel. With Tehran believing Israel has acted with the green light from Washington, the Iranian navy blocks the Strait of Hormuz. The US moves to open the Strait, and Iran and the US clash in the Gulf, the war either peters out — see Scenario five — or heats up into a regional war — see Scenario six.

5: Cooler heads prevail... or not

The US and Israel suspect Iran has moved forward with its nuclear program, with the International Atomic Energy Agency providing “smoking gun evidence.” Bilateral, targeted air strikes and bunker buster bombs are used against nuclear facilities spread throughout Iran, in the process destroying air defense capabilities, radar facilities and missile silos. Iran responds through naval attacks and launching what missiles are left against Gulf and military targets. But after a month, with neither side wanting an escalation of the conflict, oil prices above $200 and the money markets negatively affected, international negotiations bring about a truce. The attackers have achieved their aims of setting back Iran's nuclear aspirations, and the Iranian regime, while weakened, remains in power. End of scenario, or conflict re-opens following a further incident, see Scenario six.

6: All-out war

Following the outbreak of war from scenarios one to five, or the truce in scenario five breaks down, the conflict rapidly spreads. The US bombs all major military facilities in Iran, crippling its conventional capabilities. Iran unleashes non-state actors and sleeper agents against US facilities in the Gulf, as well as against NATO forces in Afghanistan. Gulf militaries respond to being targeted, joining the US-led war machine. Hezbollah fires rockets against Israel. Israel responds with a devastating air campaign against Hezbollah positions in the South of Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs, in addition to targeting key Lebanese infrastructure. The Lebanese Army is forced to get involved. Neighboring Syria is dragged into the conflict, while the West/NATO and Israel use the opportunity to annihilate the Syrian army and prompt regime change in Damascus. Russia considers this a red line and provides military support to Syria. The conflict takes on a truly international dimension. Talks at the UN fail to diffuse the crisis. War lasts for months, and the fallout prompts uprisings, demonstrations and conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The US puts “boots on the ground” in Iran to force regime change, and there is a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan for the next decade.

7: The anticlimax

Despite the sanctions, the saber rattling and the naval build up in the Gulf, cooler heads prevail. Lacking evidence that Iran is moving towards nuclear weapons capability, US intelligence says there is no casus belli for a war, and manages to rein in Israel. With no “smoking gun,” and the US aware of the economic fallout from an attack on Iran, war plans are put on the back burner. Tensions rise once again in 2013.

The scenarios above have been reviewed by Michael Elleman, senior fellow for regional security cooperation at The International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East.

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