Last week I talked about the alternate ways of dealing with Iran in the Middle East, one that didn’t involve violent confrontation. The idea was to bow to reality and negotiate with Iran, smoothing the lines of friction by bowing to some of its demands, while getting some changes in behavior out of the regime in Tehran.
But that’s not what’s happening. The U.S. and the West are backing Iran into a corner, forcing it to push back. This makes it almost inevitable that Iran would foment chaos and instability in the region while surging toward nuclear arms as a means of deterrence.
If this confrontation continues, there are two possibilities, neither of which are good for the U.S. Let’s take a look at them.
One possibility is a large-scale withdrawal by the United States from Iraq, although that would leave Iran as the dominant military power in the Gulf. It has the largest military in the region (even if it’s poorly equipped) and its Revolutionary Guards Corps is capable and trained in asymmetric warfare. It has reach, a deep bench and good weapons. (Exhibit A: Last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel.) So what are we looking at?
First, southern Iraq and its oil fields will likely become an Iranian vassal state in all but name. While Iraqi Shi’ites have been patriotic in the past — large numbers of them died in the battle for the Fao Peninsula in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War — Iran has tentacles in every major Shi’ite party in Iraq. Even Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which exhibits a form of Iraqi/Arab Shi’ite nationalism, is not immune. His militia has been splintering for months now, and there are credible reports that rogue elements under the influence of the IRGC are operating in Iraq.
And al-Sadr has an uneasy alliance with Iran. He’s perfectly happy to take their money and weapons, but by no means is he a lapdog. That means he’s in danger. Should Iran make a solid play for southern Iraq — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — al-Sadr could end up dead, with the blame falling on retreating Americans. That will drive Shi’ites loyal to him bonkers, so look for harassment attacks on the withdrawing U.S. forces to escalate to a full-on rout and scramble for the relative haven of Kuwait. Other Tehran-backed militias would quickly take care of their rivals in southern Iraq and it’s likely that after a short, sharp civil war within a civil war, those parties would emerge triumphant in Baghdad and in the south. The Kurds will be threatened in the north by both Turkey and Iran — who already seem to have a de facto alliance against the upstart Kurds — leaving the Sunnis to fend for themselves against foreign *jihadi* elements in Anbar and other majority Sunni provinces. This effective partition won’t take long.
That positions Iran in a dominate position in the Gulf and should it acquire nuclear weapons, other countries will have to follow suit. Saudi Arabia will nuke up, as would Egypt. Syria would benefit from Iranian nuclear technology or simply be given bombs. Israel would be pressed on all sides and would likely drop all pretense and declare itself a nuclear state. The Middle East — and much of the world’s oil supply — would be hostage to one of the most unstable balances of terror the world has ever known. It wouldn’t take much to spark off a regional, nuclear war. Oil prices will rise and plateau at God-knows-what because of the constant, hair-trigger tension and a world-wide recessions or even depression might ensue as prices rise because of cascading costs in the distribution chains. Food would cost more, business travel would drop, jobs would be lost, public transportation would become more expensive, etc., etc. The era of cheap oil and the lifestyle it affords would be over.
Meanwhile, as oil prices rise, the very Middle Eastern countries staring eyeball to eyeball would reap the benefits and be able to buy more modern weapons. It would be an oily, vicious cycle.
That’s one scenario but, unfortunately, it’s the less likely of the two. It’s predicated on the idea that Iran will be left to do as it pleases in Iraq and no one will interfere. But as has been shown, the U.S. is not going to just up and leave Iraq; It will have 35,000 to 50,000 troops there for the foreseeable future even with a drawdown, as well as its considerable over-the-horizon assets (ships and jets) in the region. This means that the U.S. continues to plan for for a possible military confrontation with Iran. And that means Iran intends to build a bomb.
They can’t not try to build a bomb now thanks to the breakdown in talks over Iraq. There’s some dissension within foreign policy circles whether Iran wants an actual, working bomb or merely the capacity to build one quickly, but neither is the least bit palatable to Israel, the surrounding Arab states, the United States or anyone in the Western world, really.
What might a war with Iran look like? Initial strikes would come from the Gulf in the form of a barrage of cruise missiles and fighter jets from the carrier groups there and the surrounding air bases. The Bushehr nuclear plant is certainly on the hit list, as is the Natanz uranium enrichment center. Struck, too, will be the heavy water plant and radioisotope facility in Arak; the Ardekan Nuclear Fuel Unit; the Uranium Conversion Facility and nuclear technology center in Isfahan. And that will only be the first wave of sortie after sortie striking targets that, after the initial nuclear facilities, will grow to include Revolutionary Guard positions and eventually infrastructure points such as bridges, power stations and oil refineries. It would be an attack designed to bring the Iranian economy — and, hopefully, the regime — to its knees.
The Iranians aren’t defenseless, of course. They have robust anti-aircraft defense systems, so there likely would be casualties among the pilots. And they have good surface-to-ship missiles that can take down tankers and smaller ships stationed in the Gulf. There’s a good chance they would try to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, through which a vast amount of the world’s oil flows. It would only take a couple of hits on tankers in the Gulf for all traffic there to stop.
Warships can be further taken down by swarms of suicide speed boats, tactics the Iranians have been perfecting for just this occasion. While the damage to Iran would be severe early on, the repercussions to American forces in Iraq, the Gulf and even Europe could be as bad. Shi’ites in Iraq, goosed by Iranian-backed militias, could inflict heavy losses on the 160,000 troops there.
The Iranians have already thought of this. On Sept. 1, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the commander-in-chief of the country’s elite military corps with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, a former IRGC commander from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. By placing their top Iraq hand in charge of their most potent military force, the Iranians are signaling they mean business in the event of an attack.
At sea, a few warships might be lost, with who knows how many casualties. If Israel is involved in the attack, look for Hezbollah in Lebanon to jump in, pummeling the Jewish state’s north with hundreds of Katyushas in a playback of last summer’s war. That will bring Syria, Israel and Lebanon into the fight. If it drags on, Pakistan could fall to an Islamist coup d’etat, again stoked by Iranian agents. Elsewhere, in Europe, South America and North America, members of the al Quds Force — Iran’s elite international paramilitary unit — could wreck their own brand of havoc with terror attacks.
War would rage from the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, a continuous swath of fury and violence. It would be the end of the world as we know it.
Oil prices would skyrocket, well over $100 barrel, China, the U.S. And Europe, the world’s top producers and consumers, would suffer economic pinches as the oil economies ground to a halt. The Western standard of living would rapidly fall, thank to a similar cascade of squeezes that I mentioned above.
This is the likely outcome of a war, and it’s not at all clear the West would win this one. Yes, Iran would be devastated, but the West would stand hated and impoverished, starved for oil. It would take years to recover, and the simmering resentment of the Muslim would would be stoked for another generation.
Is that what the White House wants? As I mentioned last week, negotiations are the best way forward.