December 23, 2009

The Iranian Incursion in Context

by George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

A small number of Iranian troops entered Iraq, where they took control of an oil well and raised the Iranian flag Dec. 18. The Iranian-Iraqi border in this region is poorly defined and is contested, with the Iranians claiming this well is in Iranian territory not returned after the Iran-Iraq War. Such incidents have occurred in the past. Given that there were no casualties this time, it therefore would be easy to dismiss this incident, even though at about the same time an Iranian official claimed that Iraq owes Iran about $1 trillion in reparations for starting the Iran-Iraq War. But what would be fairly trivial at another time and place is not trivial now.

Sending a Message With an Incursion

Multiple sources have reported that Tehran ordered the incident. The Iranian government is aware that Washington has said the end of 2009 was to be the deadline for taking action against Iran over its nuclear program — and that according to a White House source, the United States could extend that deadline to Jan. 15, 2010.

That postponement makes an important point. The United States has treated the Iran crisis as something that will be handled on an American timeline. The way that the Obama administration handled the Afghanistan strategy review suggests it assumes that Washington controls the tempo of events sufficiently that it can make decisions carefully, deliberately and with due reflection. If true, that would mean that adversaries like Iran are purely on the defensive, and either have no counter to American moves or cannot counter the United States until after Washington makes its next move.

For Iran, just to accept that premise puts it at an obvious disadvantage. First, Tehran would have to demonstrate that the tempo of events is not simply in American or Israeli hands. Second, Tehran would have to remind the United States and Israel that Iran has options that it might use regardless of whether the United States chooses sanctions or war. Most important, Iran must show that whatever these options are, they can occur before the United States acts — that Iran has axes of its own, and may not wait for the U.S. axe to fall.

The incursion was shaped to make this point without forcing the United States into precipitous action. The location was politically ambiguous. The force was small. Casualties were avoided. At the same time, it was an action that snapped a lot of people to attention. Oil prices climbed. Baghdad and Washington scrambled to try to figure what was going on, and for a while Washington was clearly at a loss, driving home the fact that the United States doesn’t always respond quickly and efficiently to surprises initiated by the other side.

The event eventually died down, and the Iranians went out of their way to minimize its importance. But two points nevertheless were made. The first was that Iran might not wait for Washington to consider all possible scenarios. The second was that the Iranians know how to raise oil prices. And with that lesson, they reminded the Americans that the Iranians have a degree of control over the economic recovery in the United States.

There has never been any doubt that Iran has options in the event that the United States chooses to strike. Significantly, the Iranians now have driven home that they might initiate a conflict if they assume conflict is inevitable.

U.S. and Iranian Options

Iran’s problem becomes clear when we consider Tehran’s options. These options fall into three groups:

  1. Interdicting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf through the use of mines and anti-ship missiles. This would result in a dramatic increase in world oil prices on the Iranian attempt alone and could keep them high if Tehran’s efforts succeeded. The impact on the global economy would be substantial.
  2. Causing massive destabilization in Iraq. The Iranians retain allies and agents in Iraq, which has been experiencing increased violence and destabilization over the past months. As the violence increases and the Americans leave, a close relationship with Iran might be increasingly attractive to Iraqi troops. Given the deployment of American troops, direct attacks in Iraq by Iranian forces are not out of the question. Even if ultimately repulsed, such Iranian incursions could further destabilize Iraq. This would force the Obama administration to reconsider the U.S. withdrawal timetable, potentially affecting Afghanistan.
  3. Use Hezbollah to initiate a conflict with Israel, and as a global tool for terrorist attacks on American and allied targets. Hezbollah is far more sophisticated and effective than al Qaeda was at its height, and would be a formidable threat should Iran choose — and Hezbollah agree — to play this role.

When we look at the three Iranian options, it is clear that the United States would not be able to confine any action against Iran to airstrikes. The United States is extremely good at air campaigns, while it is weak at counterinsurgency. It has massive resources in the region to throw into an air campaign and it can bring more in using carrier strike groups.

But even before hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Americans would have to consider the potential Iranian responses. Washington would have to take three steps. First, Iranian anti-ship missiles and surface vessels — and these vessels could be very small but still able to carry out mine warfare — on the Iranian littoral would have to be destroyed. Second, large formations of Iranian troops along the Iraqi border would have to be attacked, and Iranian assets in Iraq at the very least disrupted. Finally, covert actions against Hezbollah assets — particularly assets outside Lebanon — would have to be neutralized to the extent possible.

This would require massive, coordinated attacks, primarily using airpower and covert forces in a very tight sequence prior to any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Without this, Iran would be in a position to launch the attacks outlined above in response to strikes on its nuclear facilities. Given the nature of the Iranian responses, particularly the mining of the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the operations could be carried out quickly and with potentially devastating results to the global economy.

From the Iranian standpoint, Tehran faces a “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario. It cannot wait until the United States initiates hostilities. The worst-case scenario for Iran is waiting for Washington to initiate the conflict.

At the same time, the very complexity of an Iranian attack makes the United States want to think long and hard before attacking Iran. The opportunities for failure are substantial, no matter how well the attack is planned. And the United States can’t allow Israel to start a conflict with Iran alone because Israel lacks the resources to deal with a subsequent Iranian naval interdiction and disruptions in Iraq.

It follows that the United States is interested in a nonmilitary solution to the problem. The ideal solution would be sanctions on gasoline. The United States wants to take as much time as needed to get China and Russia committed to such sanctions.

Iranian Pre-emption

The Iranians signaled last week that they might not choose to be passive if effective sanctions were put in place. Sanctions on gasoline would in fact cripple Iran, so like Japan prior to Pearl Harbor, the option of capitulating to sanctions might be viewed as more risky than a pre-emptive strike. And if sanctions didn’t work, the Iranians would have to assume a military attack is coming next. Since the Iranians wouldn’t know when it would happen, and their retaliatory options might disappear in the first phase of the military operation, they would need to act before such an attack.

The problem is that the Iranians won’t know precisely when that attack will take place. The United States and Israel have long discussed a redline in Iranian nuclear development, which if approached would force an attack on Iran to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Logically, Iran would seem to have a redline as well, equally poorly designed. At the point when it becomes clear that sanctions are threatening regime survival or that military action is inevitable, Iran must act first, using its military assets before it loses them.

Iran cannot live with either effective sanctions or the type of campaign that the United States would have to launch to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. The United States can’t live with the consequences of Iranian counteractions to an attack. Even if sanctions were possible, they would leave Iran with the option to do precisely those things Washington cannot tolerate. Therefore, whether the diplomatic or military route is followed, each side has two options. First, the Americans can accept Iran as a nuclear power, or Iran can accept that it must give up its nuclear ambitions. Second, assuming that neither side accepts the first option, each side must take military action before the other side does. The Americans must neutralize counters before the Iranians deploy them. The Iranians must deploy their counters before they are destroyed.

The United States and Iran are both playing for time. Neither side wants to change its position on the nuclear question, although each hopes the other will give in. Moreover, neither side is really confident in its military options. The Americans are not certain that they can both destroy the nuclear facilities and Iranian counters — and if the counters are effective, their consequences could be devastating. The Iranians are not certain that their counters will work effectively, and once failure is established, the Iranians will be wide open for devastating attack. Each side assumes the other understands the risks and will accept the other’s terms for a settlement.

And so each waits, hoping the other side will back down. The events of the past week were designed to show the Americans that Iran is not prepared to back down. More important, they were designed to show that the Iranians also have a redline, that it is as fuzzy as the American redline and that the Americans should be very careful in how far they press, as they might suddenly wake up one morning with their hands full.

The Iranian move is deliberately designed to rattle U.S. President Barack Obama. He has shown a decision-making style that assumes that he is not under time pressure to make decisions. It is not clear to anyone what his decision-making style in a crisis will look like. Though not a prime consideration from the Iranian point of view, putting Obama in a position where he is psychologically unprepared for decisions in the timeframe they need to be made in is certainly an added benefit. Iran, of course, doesn’t know how effectively he might respond, but his approach to Afghanistan gives them another incentive to act sooner than later.

There are some parallels here to the nuclear warfare theory, in which each side faces mutual assured destruction. The problem here is that each side does not face destruction, but pain. And here, pre-emptive strikes are not guaranteed to produce anything. It is the vast unknowns that make this affair so dangerous, and at any moment, one side or the other might decide they can wait no longer.

"This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR"