At the invitation of the Iraqi regime, the United States recently agreed to multi-lateral talks with Iran and Syria aimed at breaking the diplomatic impasse between Iran and the United Nations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Negotiation supporters point to recent successes in getting North Korea to back off its nuclear weapons program. The big difference between North Korea and Iran, however, is that China used its influence with Kim Jung Il’s regime. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent ally with that kind of leverage with Tehran. With U.S. forces involved in an increasingly unpopular commitment in Iraq, America’s strategic capital rests largely on the implied threat resulting from deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the region.
Many think that if a solution is not reached soon, Israel will settle the matter with a bold aerial attack similar to the raid conducted against the Iraqi centrifuge in 1981. Despite the tactical excellence of the Israeli Air Force, such a mission would prove a “bridge too far” for its capabilities, even if Israel’s neighbors obligingly offer overflight permission. The Russian-built M1 Tor surface-to-air missile (SAM), probably the world’s best low-to medium-altitude SAM system, protects Iranian nuclear facilities and it will take more than Israeli tactical excellence to overcome it. Unless Israel has developed an effective countermeasure, the only trump for M1 Tor is stealth. While the F-15s Israel flies are among the best fighters in the world and its F-16s are somewhat “stealthy,” the Tor system will exact a heavy price. Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear program is spread out, dug in and redundant. Israel does not have the resources to mount the sustained bombing campaign needed to degrade it effectively. In short, such a mission would be suicidal and unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, American air power can do it, but the risks are enormous, as demonstrated by the following possible scenario.
The opening gambit would entail a massive U.S. cruise missile attack to diminish Iranian air defenses hitting M1 Tor sites, air defense radars and airfields. An almost immediate follow-on attack by B-2 and F-117 stealth aircraft will strike command and control facilities. Once Iran’s defenses are degraded significantly, B-1 and B-52 bombers flying from Diego Garcia will join Navy carrier-based aircraft and Air Force fighter-bombers based in the region to deliver bunker busting bombs, some of which may be nuclear. It also may be necessary to insert SEAL or other special operations teams to use nuclear satchel charges on some installations. Given the risks involved and the likely Iranian response, this attack cannot be undertaken unless the objective is the decisive destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian casualties will be high and the United States will suffer some losses. Furthermore, Iran likely will retaliate.
Iranian retaliation could involve three components. First, expect “swarm” air and sea attacks conducted by every imaginable type of aircraft and sea-going vessel the Iranians can muster to throw at U.S. naval vessels operating in the area. While fleet defenses will destroy most attackers, it is possible some will get through on suicidal missions. Aircraft carriers will be a prime target both for their symbolic value and potentially large numbers of casualties. As a second component, expect Iran to undertake a massive ground attack to overwhelm U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. It is possible Shiite elements of the newly-revitalized Iraqi army might turn on the Americans. If Iranian forces pour into Iraq, it will take tactical nuclear weapons to stave off a disastrous defeat.
For its third component, Iran will unleash Hezbollah, including the estimated several thousand terrorists thought to be residing in the United States, on a global terrorist rampage. It is possible al Qaeda will join with Hezbollah and if they have nukes, which they may have obtained from former Soviet arsenals by way of Chechen contacts with the Russian mafia, they will use them. At the least, expect a wave of terror strikes across the United States and at U.S. interests and citizens globally with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilian casualties.
It is uncertain whether even direct negotiations can compel Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. The only real capital the United States has in negotiations is our deterrent credibility. Unfortunately, that is questionable. Teheran surely noted the firestorm that erupted in Congress over the planned surge of 21,000 troops requested by U.S. generals in Iraq and continuing talk of appeasement by groups like the World Council of Churches delegation that recently visited with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus encouraged, Teheran may prove obdurate.
If negotiations fail, then the only alternative may be to strike Iran. The United States has the military power to do this successfully even if the risks are significant. The question is, does it have the will? If not, the global war with the Islamist jihadists is lost.
While there are no good choices, great nations make the hard choices and see them through to a successful conclusion. But know this: America and Iran are already at war.