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Can Iran Successfully Deter a Military Attack?

By Renad Ihab

The U.S. and major European powers are determined to stop Iran's nuclear program. They will first try to achieve this goal with military threats and economic sanctions. However, if these tools prove ineffective, Israel or the United States might resort to a military attack which will prove very costly for Iran.

Iran has so far tried to deter a military attack by promising retaliation and by demonstrating its military capabilities. It has developed long range missiles that can reach Israel and short-range missiles that can hit US military and economic assets in the Persian Gulf.  However, whether or not these weapons will deter an attack depends on the perceptions of the United States and Israel about the amount of damage that Iran's retaliatory response can inflict on the attacking country.

The public discussions of US/Israel attack scenarios and evidence from U.S. invasion of Iraq suggest that the initial stage of an attack on Iran will include hundreds and perhaps thousands of rockets and bombs which will not only target Iran's nuclear assets but also its missiles and military command. As a result Iran will only be able to launch only a portion of its rockets. For sake of argument lets assume that 50% of rockets will be successfully launched.

One must also keep in mind that both Israel and the U.S. will shot down at least 50% of Iran's rockets with their anti-missile defense system. Therefore for every 1000 Iranian missiles chances are that at most 250 of them will reach their targets. 

Furthermore since Iran's military assets are limited it might decide to use its missiles slowly similar to the way Saddam was using his. For every one hundred American bombs or rockets Iraq was able to fire no more than five rockets. Therefore the U.S. and Israel might conclude that the damage from Iran's initial rocket retaliation will be limited.

The second cost factor that might enter into US/Israel cost calculations is Iran's capability to launch guerrilla attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests worldwide. Iran has a number of allies in the region and has hinted of spreading the struggle against the U.S. to the entire region if attacked. However, as the reaction of Iraq and Lebanon in recent years has demonstrated. The ability and will of a small country to retaliate against a superpower is limited.

Strong military powers that attack a weaker nation use severe punishment to deter revenge attacks and retaliation. After they cause massive damage to a country through aerial bombardment they stand ready to do significantly more damage in response to every act of retaliation. For example if ten U.S. soldiers are killed in a surprise attack, the U.S. will retaliate by targeting the fighters (terrorists) in civilian areas and causing significant collateral damage (perhaps causing at least 100 civilian casualties.) This massive retaliation strategy forces the victim country to cut back its retaliation. 

 Based on past experience in the Middle East, the U.S. and Israel know that when they attack a Middle Eastern country the long-term retaliation will be limited because of these factors.  Everyone was predicting that after a U.S. invasion of Iraq there will be a massive surge in terrorist attacks against American targets but in reality the incidents of such attacks (outside Iraq) were very limited and did not cause significant damage. Hence the U.S./Israel might come to the conclusion that damage from a post-attack "terrorist" retaliation by Iran will also be limited.

The damage from this channel will further be limited because the U.S. has no plan to occupy Iran and therefore Iranian resistance will not have any domestic targets to attack.

It should also be kept in mind that the U.S. will not stop at targeting Iran's nuclear assets. It will most likely go for regime change and social disintegration by supporting ethnic uprising in Turkish, Arabic, Beluchi and Kurdish regions of Iran. These uprisings will be supported by military assistance and will weaken the central government to a point that it no longer cares about retaliation against the external attacker.

At present Iran threatens to launch a massive retaliation if attacked but how credible is this threat as far as the U.S./Israel is concerned?  The conflict and warfare game theory tells us that the threat is not credible because even after a severe aerial attack Iran will still be better of licking its wounds rather than launching a counter attack.. The reason is that if it retaliates it will be attacked again with massive force. Based on behavior of Iraq and many other third world nations, the U.S. knows that after every military operation against a weaker country it can move on. (Vietnam did not take any action against the United States after the U.S.. forces left that country. Serbia did not dare to retaliate against NATO forces after it lost Kosovo.)

To make this clear lets think about the attack day and the few days that follow. The U.S./Israel will start the operation with a "shock and awe" rocket and Aerial bombardment against Iran's nuclear targets and military assets. Iran will start its retaliatory attacks at a rate of 2 to 5 missiles per hour. Every Iranian attack will bring a massive U.S. aerial attacks. Frequency of Iranian missile launches declines to a few launches per day.

After a few days, and when most of Iran's infrastructure is destroyed, several countries (perhaps Europeans or Arabs) will broker a cease fire. Fear of additional punishment will limit Iran's attacks and sporadic U.S. bombardment of targets inside Iran will continue for several months or perhaps years. Iran will limit its response to air defense and expression of defiance. In the meantime, Iran's access to the Persian Gulf will be limited and its foreign trade will be controlled by the U.S. through United Nations. 

If the government of Iran remains intact it will have no alternative but to resume oil exports under U.S. guidelines (or U.N. guidelines with U.S. approval) and eventually Iran will end up in the same situation that Iraq was during most of 1990s. The U.S. will maintain full air supremacy over Iranian skies.

This is a pessimistic scenario for Iran but it can happen. Some say that Iran is much larger and much stronger than Iraq when it was attacked by the United States. That might be true but at the same time, Iran is still much smaller than the United States. Attacking and defeating Iran will be more costly and more difficult than invasion of Iraq but it is not impossible for the U.S. military. Besides, removing the threat of an independent and strong Iran has so many long-term benefits for the U.S. hegemony in the Middle East that U.S. military strategists might find it well worth the cost.

So can Iran deter a potential attack by the US/Israel? Based on what has been said so far, as long as the US/Israel believes that Iran is a rational country, the answer is no. First, so far Iran has acted as a rational enemy (just like Iraq) and as a rational country it will not take severe steps to retaliate against an initial attack (for fear of more severe attacks). Second, Iran's retaliatory weapons can not cause much damage. The US/Israel can stand 100 or even up to 1000 Iranian missile attacks.

Iran might be able to deter an attack if it demonstrates that it will retaliate regardless of the cost to itself (which means it is irrational.) In other words it might be able to deter an attack if it can prove that it is ready to risk total destruction for sake of retaliation. One way to prove this is to show that it can switch from a centralized military command to a decentralized command structure (where hundreds of dispersed missile launchers and resistance units will operate independently and no one will be able to stop them. (Keep in mind, however, that Saddam tried to set up a similar mechanism but was not successful.) 

Even if Iran successfully convinces the U.S./Israel that it is prepared to put its existence at risk for retaliation, it might not be able to deter an attack with its current weapons. Iran's conventional weapons can not inflict a significant amount of pain and damage on US/Israel and Iranian government is na´ve if it thinks otherwise. It is only the credible threat of unconventional weapons (chemical, biological, nuclear contamination) that might work as a deterrence.

To make such a threat credible Iran must convince the US/Israel of two things. First that it has sufficient quantities of such weapons and the means to deliver them to far distances. (For example, if Iran develops long range micro-missiles that can carry a small warhead of no heavier than 5 kilos, everyone will know that such a weapon has no value with a conventional warhead.) Second, that it is ready to use these weapons regardless of the cost to itself; knowing very well that the response might be a nuclear attack. It is however, a big gamble for Iran to acknowledge the possession of unconventional weapons or the means to deliver them.

In short, Iran is in a difficult situation. If it cannot come up with an effective deterrence, it will not only put its nuclear assets at risk but might enter into a prolonged war against a powerful enemy; a war that might jeopardize its territorial integrity. Without an effective pre-nuclear deterrence completion of Iran's nuclear program will be very difficult and risky. If Iranians believe that the nuclear program is worth all this trouble then they should be prepared to risk everything. 

About the author: Renad Ihab is a retired professor of political science in Tehran University who resides in Europe.

... Payvand News - 09/11/08 ... --

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