This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
Public discussion of potential attacks on
Iran’s nuclear development sites is surging again. This has happened
before. On several occasions, leaks about potential airstrikes have
created an atmosphere of impending war. These leaks normally coincided
with diplomatic initiatives and were designed to intimidate the Iranians
and facilitate a settlement favorable to the United States and Israel.
These initiatives have failed in the past. It is therefore reasonable to
associate the current avalanche of reports with the imposition of
sanctions and view it as an attempt to increase the pressure on Iran and
either force a policy shift or take advantage of divisions within the
My first instinct is to dismiss the war talk as simply another round
of psychological warfare against Iran, this time originating with
Israel. Most of the reports indicate that Israel is on the verge of
attacking Iran. From a psychological-warfare standpoint, this sets up
the good-cop/bad-cop routine. The Israelis play the mad dog barely
restrained by the more sober Americans, who urge the Iranians through
intermediaries to make concessions and head off a war. As I said, we
have been here before several times, and this hasn’t worked.
The worst sin of intelligence is complacency, the belief that simply
because something has happened (or has not happened) several times
before it is not going to happen this time. But each episode must be
considered carefully in its own light and preconceptions from previous
episodes must be banished. Indeed, the previous episodes might well have
been intended to lull the Iranians into complacency themselves.
Paradoxically, the very existence of another round of war talk could be
intended to convince the Iranians that war is distant while covert war
preparations take place. An attack may be in the offing, but the public
displays neither confirm nor deny that possibility.
The Evolving Iranian Assessment
STRATFOR has gone through three phases in its evaluation of the
possibility of war. The first, which was in place until July 2009, held
that while Iran was working toward a nuclear weapon, its progress could
not be judged by its accumulation of enriched uranium. While that would
give you an underground explosion, the creation of a weapon required
sophisticated technologies for ruggedizing and miniaturizing the device,
along with a very reliable delivery system. In our view, Iran might be
nearing a testable device but it was far from a deliverable
weapon. Therefore, we dismissed war talk and argued that there was
no meaningful pressure for an attack on Iran.
We modified this view somewhat in July 2009, after the Iranian
elections and the demonstrations. While we dismissed the significance of
the demonstrations, we noted close collaboration developing between
Russia and Iran. That meant there could be no effective sanctions
against Iran, so stalling for time in order for sanctions to work had no
value. Therefore, the possibility of a strike increased.
But then Russian support stalled as well, and we turned back to our
analysis, adding to it an evaluation of potential Iranian responses to
any air attack. We noted three potential counters: activating Shiite
militant groups (most notably Hezbollah), creating chaos in Iraq and blocking
the Strait of Hormuz, through which 45 percent of global oil
exports travel. Of the three Iranian counters, the last was the real
“nuclear option.” Interfering with the supply of oil from the Persian
Gulf would raise oil prices stunningly and would certainly abort the
tepid global economic recovery. Iran would have the option of plunging
the world into a global recession or worse.
There has been debate over whether Iran would choose to do the latter
or whether the U.S. Navy could rapidly
clear mines. It is hard to imagine how an Iranian government could
survive air attacks without countering them in some way. It is also a
painful lesson of history that the confidence of any military force
cannot be a guide to its performance. At the very least, there is a
possibility that the Iranians could block the Strait of Hormuz, and that
means the possibility of devastating global economic consequences. That
is a massive risk for the United States to take, against an unknown
probability of successful Iranian action. In our mind, it was not a risk
that the United States could take, especially when added to the other
Iranian counters. Therefore, we did not think the United States would
Certainly, we did not believe that the Israelis would strike Iran
alone. First, the Israelis are much less likely to succeed than the
Americans would be, given the size of their force and their distance
from Iran (not to mention the fact that they would have to traverse
either Turkish, Iraqi or Saudi airspace). More important, Israel lacks
the ability to mitigate any consequences. Any Israeli attack would have
to be coordinated with the United States so that the United States could
alert and deploy its counter-mine, anti-submarine and
missile-suppression assets. For Israel to act without giving the United
States time to mitigate the Hormuz option would put Israel in the
position of triggering a global economic crisis. The political
consequences of that would not be manageable by Israel. Therefore, we
found an Israeli strike against Iran without U.S. involvement difficult
The Current Evaluation
Our current view is that the accumulation of enough enriched uranium
to build a weapon does not mean that the Iranians are anywhere close to
having a weapon. Moreover, the risks inherent in an airstrike on its
nuclear facilities outstrip the benefits (and even that assumes that the
entire nuclear industry is destroyed in one fell swoop — an unsure
outcome at best). It also assumes the absence of other necessary
technologies. Assumptions of U.S. prowess against mines might be faulty,
and so, too, could my assumption about weapon development. The calculus
becomes murky, and one would expect all governments involved to be
There is, of course, a massive additional issue. Apart from the
direct actions that Iran might make, there is the fact that the
destruction of its nuclear capability would not solve the underlying
strategic challenge that Iran poses. It has the largest military force
in the Persian Gulf, absent the United States. The United States is in
the process of withdrawing from Iraq, which would further diminish the
ability of the United States to contain Iran. Therefore, a surgical
strike on Iran’s nuclear capability combined with the continuing
withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would create a profound strategic
crisis in the Persian Gulf.
The country most concerned about Iran is not Israel, but Saudi
Arabia. The Saudis recall the result of the last strategic imbalance in
the region, when Iraq, following its armistice with Iran, proceeded to
invade Kuwait, opening the possibility that its next intention was to
seize the northeastern oil fields of Saudi Arabia. In that case, the
United States intervened. Given that the United States is now
withdrawing from Iraq, intervention following withdrawal would be
politically difficult unless the threat to the United States was clear.
More important, the Iranians might not give the Saudis the present
Saddam Hussein gave them by seizing Kuwait and then halting. They might
continue. They certainly have the military capacity to try.
In a real sense, the Iranians would not have to execute such a
military operation in order to gain the benefits. The simple imbalance
of forces would compel the Saudis and others in the Persian Gulf to seek
a political accommodation with the Iranians. Strategic domination of
the Persian Gulf does not necessarily require military occupation — as
the Americans have abundantly demonstrated over the past 40 years. It
merely requires the ability to carry out those operations.
The Saudis, therefore, have been far quieter — and far more urgent —
than the Israelis in asking the United States to do something about the
Iranians. The Saudis certainly do not want the United States to leave
Iraq. They want the Americans there as a blocking force protecting Saudi
Arabia but not positioned on Saudi soil. They obviously are not happy
about Iran’s nuclear efforts, but the Saudis see the conventional and
nuclear threat as a single entity. The collapse of the Iran-Iraq balance
of power has left the Arabian Peninsula in a precarious position.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did an interesting thing a few weeks
ago. He visited Lebanon personally and in the company of the president
of Syria. The Syrian and Saudi regimes are not normally friendly, given
different ideologies, Syria’s close relationship with Iran and their
divergent interests in Lebanon. But there they were together, meeting
with the Lebanese government and giving not
very subtle warnings to Hezbollah. Saudi influence and money and
the threat of Iran jeopardizing the Saudi regime by excessive
adventurism seems to have created an anti-Hezbollah dynamic in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is suddenly finding many of its supposed allies cooperating
with some of its certain enemies. The threat of a Hezbollah response to
an airstrike on Iran seems to be mitigated somewhat.
Eliminating Iranian Leverage In Hormuz
I said that there were three counters. One was Hezbollah, which is
the least potent of the three from the American perspective. The other
two are Iraq and Hormuz. If the Iraqis were able to form a government
that boxed in pro-Iranian factions in a manner similar to how Hezbollah
is being tentatively contained, then the second Iranian counter would be
weakened. That would “just” leave the major issue — Hormuz.
The problem with Hormuz is that the United States cannot tolerate any
risk there. The only way to control that risk is to destroy Iranian
naval capability before airstrikes on nuclear targets take place. Since
many of the Iranian mine layers would be small boats, this would mean an
extensive air campaign and special operations forces raids against
Iranian ports designed to destroy anything that could lay mines, along
with any and all potential mine-storage facilities, anti-ship missile
emplacements, submarines and aircraft. Put simply, any piece of
infrastructure within a few miles of any port would need to be
eliminated. The risk to Hormuz cannot be eliminated after the attack on
nuclear sites. It must be eliminated before an attack on the nuclear
sites. And the damage must be overwhelming.
There are two benefits to this strategy. First, the nuclear
facilities aren’t going anywhere. It is the facilities that are
producing the enriched uranium and other parts of the weapon that must
be destroyed more than any uranium that has already been enriched. And
the vast bulk of those facilities will remain where they are even if
there is an attack on Iran’s maritime capabilities. Key personnel would
undoubtedly escape, but considering that within minutes of the first
American strike anywhere in Iran a mass evacuation of key scientists
would be under way anyway, there is little appreciable difference
between a first strike against nuclear sites and a first strike against
maritime targets. (U.S. air assets are good, but even the United States
cannot strike 100-plus targets simultaneously.)
Second, the counter-nuclear strategy wouldn’t deal with the more
fundamental problem of Iran’s conventional military power. This opening
gambit would necessarily attack Iran’s command-and-control, air-defense
and offensive air capabilities as well as maritime capabilities. This
would sequence with an attack on the nuclear capabilities and could be
extended into a prolonged air campaign targeting Iran’s ground forces.
The United States is very good at gaining command of the air and
attacking conventional military capabilities (see Yugoslavia in 1999).
Its strategic air capability is massive and, unlike most of the U.S.
military, underutilized. The United States also has substantial air
forces deployed around Iran, along with special operations forces teams
trained in penetration, evasion and targeting, and satellite
surveillance. Far from the less-than-rewarding task of counterinsurgency
in Afghanistan, going after Iran would be the kind of war the United
States excels at fighting. No conventional land invasion, no
boots-on-the-ground occupation, just a very thorough bombing campaign.
If regime change happens as a consequence, great, but that is not the
primary goal. Defanging the Iranian state is.
It is also the only type of operation that could destroy the nuclear
capabilities (and then some) while preventing an Iranian response. It
would devastate Iran’s conventional military forces, eliminating the
near-term threat to the Arabian Peninsula. Such an attack, properly
executed, would be the worst-case scenario for Iran and, in my view, the
only way an extended air campaign against nuclear facilities could be
Just as Iran’s domination of the Persian Gulf rests on its ability to
conduct military operations, not on its actually conducting the
operations, the reverse is also true. It is the capacity and apparent
will to conduct broadened military operations against Iran that can
shape Iranian calculations and decision-making. So long as the only
threat is to Iran’s nuclear facilities, its conventional forces remain
intact and its counter options remain viable, Iran will not shift its
strategy. Once its counter options are shut down and its conventional
forces are put at risk, Iran must draw up another calculus.
In this scenario, Israel is a marginal player. The United States is
the only significant actor, and it might not strike Iran simply over the
nuclear issue. That’s not a major U.S. problem. But the continuing
withdrawal from Iraq and Iran’s conventional forces are very much an
American problem. Destroying Iran’s nuclear capability is merely an
Given the Saudi intervention in Lebanese politics, this scenario now
requires a radical change in Iraq, one in which a government would be
quickly formed and Iranian influence quickly curtailed. Interestingly,
we have heard recent comments by administration officials asserting that
Iranian influence has, in fact, been dramatically reduced. At present,
such a reduction is not obvious to us, but the first step of shifting
perceptions tends to be propaganda. If such a reduction became real,
then the two lesser Iranian counter moves would be blocked and the U.S.
offensive option would become more viable.
Internal Tension in Tehran
At this point, we would expect to see the Iranians recalculating
their position, with some of the clerical leadership using the shifting
sands of Lebanon against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed,
there have been many indications of internal stress, not between the
mythical democratic masses and the elite, but within the elite itself.
This past weekend the Iranian speaker of the house attacked
Ahmadinejad’s handling of special emissaries. For what purpose we don’t
yet know, but the internal tension is growing.
The Iranians are not concerned about the sanctions. The destruction
of their nuclear capacity would, from their point of view, be a pity.
But the destruction of large amounts of their conventional forces would
threaten not only their goals in the wider Islamic world but also their
stability at home. That would be unacceptable and would require a shift
in their general strategy.
From the Iranian point of view — and from ours — Washington’s
intentions are opaque. But when we consider the Obama administration’s
stated need to withdraw from Iraq, Saudi pressure on the United States
not to withdraw while Iran remains a threat, Saudi moves against
Hezbollah to split Syria from Iran and Israeli pressure on the United
States to deal with nuclear weapons, the pieces for a new American
strategy are emerging from the mist. Certainly the Iranians appear to be
nervous. And the threat of a new strategy might just be enough to move
the Iranians off dead center. If they don’t, logic would dictate the
consideration of a broader treatment of the military problem posed by