If We Attack Iran...

Aug 28, 2012
By Nathan Donohue
Over the past year there has been a strong debate within the U.S. over whether to launch a preventative attack against Iran’s nuclear program. Most notably, individuals such as Georgetown’s Matt Kroenig have advocated for a military strike on Iran, while others such as Harvard’s Stephen Walt have repeatedly argued for restraint. Some experts believe that despite efforts by the U.S. and the international community to forestall Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy and sanctions, the current conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is slowly gravitating towards some form of military engagement with Iran. 
Whether or not there will indeed be an attack against Iran’s nuclear program, it is important that we first develop a clear understanding of both how an attack on Iran would likely be executed as well as what could be the expected aftermath of a strike. As Dr. Roby Barrett indicated in an article for the Middle East Institute, in terms of the Iranian nuclear program we should be putting as much effort into thinking about a “conflict that may be far more nuanced that than anyone currently anticipates and an aftermath that in the long term will be no less conflicted and complicated than today’s.”
In terms of understanding those nuances, there are two war games which have been conducted in recent years which may offer insight. The first was conducted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in 2009. The second was a classified U.S. war game conducted as part of CENTCOM’s biannual Internal Look planning exercise. Each of these scenarios presents interesting findings in regards to an attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
In the Saban Center simulation, Israel launches a preventative attack against Iran without notifying the U.S. The strike is directed at six of Iran’s most critical nuclear facilities, and is conducted with the aid of a makeshift refueling base set up in Saudi Arabia without Saudi Arabia’s knowledge.
The immediate implications of the attack are that the U.S. is unwillingly drawn into the conflict to prevent Iranian retaliation. Concurrently, Iran responds by directly firing missiles at Israel, including the Dimona nuclear weapons complex, as well as indirectly launching an attack through its two proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. As the simulation develops, Iran also attacks Saudi Arabian oil export processing centers, conducts terror attacks against European targets, and eventually begins mining the Strait of Hormuz. Owing to these developments, Israel retaliates against Iranian proxies and the United States begins a massive military reinforcement in the Gulf.
The simulation ended before the conflict could enter its ninth day, but the developments within that short window of time were such that the conflict immediately went beyond the initial actors, drawing in the entire region. The results were that Iran lost a number of key facilities, Israel was devastated by follow up rocket attacks causing one-third of the Israeli population to move into shelters, the Strait of Hormuz was primed to devastate regional and international trade, and the U.S. was poised to launch a massive direct military engagement against Iran. As David Sanger noted in the New York Times, it was a situation in which nobody won, and more importantly, it only set Iran’s nuclear program back by a couple of years.
The 2012 Internal Look war game operated by CENTCOM outlined a slightly different scenario. Similar to the Saban Center simulation, Israel launched a preventative attack against Iran’s nuclear program without notifying the U.S. However, in contrast, owing to the perceived U.S. complicity in the Israeli attack, Iran’s initial reaction to the attack was to strike an American Navy warship in the Gulf, killing hundreds of Americans. Accordingly, this act was viewed as a direct act of war against the United States prompting an immediate American retaliation on Iran and its nuclear facilities.
The available information on Internal Look is limited. However it assumes a much more aggressive Iran than the 2009 scenario in which Iran reacted carefully not to draw the U.S. immediately into conflict. Regardless, the significance of the simulation was that an Israeli strike against Iran was not expected to be an isolated event and instead was expected to grow quickly into a regional war.
As the simulations indicate, a war with Iran is likely to devolve into a larger regional conflict and to have long term strategic consequences. Even if Israel acts alone, it is unlikely that they will be able to mediate the aftereffects of any such attack. Regardless of U.S. preference, there does not appear to be any scenario where the U.S. is not eventually drawn into this conflict through some form of escalatory cycle.
If the Saban Center war game is correct, the situation would pressure the U.S. into committing to a massive direct military engagement, but the simulation only briefly mentions what that would entail. To that end, it is imperative to recognize that any one of these scenarios could lead to long and protracted war between the U.S. and Iran which may even involve the need for boots on the ground. This would mean that the U.S. would be committing a military force, which has been overtaxed from almost a decade of engagement, to fight a country both larger and more populous than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This intervention would likely present a far greater challenge than any post-September 11 conflict. It would be war with a country large enough to cover over 1/5 of the continental United States and which currently has over 500,000 personnel in active service. 
Current Situation
U.S. policy regarding a preventative strike against Iran remains vague. To date there is no official U.S. plan in place. At the same time, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper recently reported that the U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon “briefed Israel on U.S. plans for a possible attack on Iran.” Although, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta denied these media reports, two Israeli media sources not only assert that the claims are true, but have released specific information said to be contained within the U.S. brief.
The Israeli newspapers Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth have each reported that the U.S. brief to Israel specifically outlined a plan in which the U.S. would engage Iran militarily, beginning with an initial launch of hundreds of cruise missiles to demolish “Iran's air defences, intelligence bases and radar stations." This initial strike would then be followed by a wave of B-52 bombers which would “drop bunker-buster bombs on all Iran's nuclear facilities.” Concluding the military strike, the U.S. would then offer Iran an ultimatum stipulating that if Iran halted its military nuclear program immediately, that in return, the “West would supply it with peaceful nuclear reactors.”
Concurrently, there are accounts outlining what is purportedly a detailed Israeli plan for launching a preventative attack on Iran. In this scenario, Israel would begin by launching a cyber-attack against Iran in order to paralyze the regime. Israel would then proceed to fire conventionally tipped ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles against Iranian nuclear facilities, command-and-control systems, research and development facilities, and senior Iranian nuclear and missile personnel. The attack would be finalized by a follow-up manned aircraft strike.
To date, U.S. and Israeli officials have categorically denied the validity of these plans, each of which portray scenarios that are more aggressive than those already suggested by the earlier U.S. simulations. If the Iranian nuclear debate is truly nearing a turning point where Israeli and/or U.S. military confrontation has become a realistic possibility, if not an inevitability, then what outcome should we expect?
What To Expect
As Dr. Barrett recently cautioned, whether these leaked plans are representative of either the U.S. or Israeli plans for an attack on Iran, we must be wary of those plans and planners which “display a naiveté reminiscent of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.” Concurrently, as Sanger so aptly notes, we must remember that “simulations compress time and often oversimplify events,” and that regardless of the success of any attack, “Iran will continue to be a security and diplomatic challenge to U.S. interests.”
Also, the Iranian response to any attack may not be as simple as some experts have suggested. As noted by Foreign Affairs, “the lack of public debate about the ‘day after’ [an attack on Iran’s nuclear program] may leave Israel and the U.S. unprepared both to attack and to defend itself.” It is distinctly possible that the U.S. and Israel should be preparing for an aggressive Iran able to launch sophisticated counterattack measures and willing to engage in an all-out war, which could inevitably lead to the U.S. authorizing boots on the ground in the Gulf.  Caught up in the dangers of a nuclear Iran, there is a dearth of analysis devoted to the practicalities of a U.S. attack against Iran. It’s foolish to act for the sake of action—we must make sure that we’ve thought through and evaluated likely outcomes before rushing to any action.
More importantly, while Israel may have the ability to launch an initial attack against Iran’s nuclear program, an Israeli strike is purportedly only likely to delay an Iranian bomb by no more than a year or two. Accordingly, as Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, recently suggested, Israel will need the United States “both the day after and the decade after a strike to ensure that Iran does not reconstitute its program.” While a U.S. attack may be able to stretch that timeline, neither the U.S. nor Israel is likely capable of fully destroying the Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon.
Therefore, as I recently noted in an article for the Project on Nuclear Issues, it is paramount we recognize that a military attack on Iran's nuclear program is “for all intents and purposes only a stopgap measure, and that despite the failings of international sanctions and diplomatic talks, these steps need to be continued if the U.S. and the international community truly wants to achieve lasting gains on the prevention of a nuclear armed Iran.”
Nathan Donohue is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.