Still Looking Out From the Forest of Iraq: At Iran

By William Christie

January 18, 2006


This piece is a follow up to my previous posting, Looking Out From the Forest of Iraq (8/8/05), and subsequent events havenít given me any reason to change my opinions on Iraqís future. A few readers called it a cynical view of the future of Iraq, and some were even convinced that I was a stalking horse for a new administration position. To which I would have to reply that mistaking realism for cynicism is a common error. And, having read Our National Strategy For Victory in Iraq in its entirety, I feel confident in stating that the administration has no national strategy for victory in Iraq. There is wishful but contradictory thinking, bordering on self-delusion. And a lot of PR spin. But, based on their actions and not their words, what we have is mainly a cynical desire to extricate themselves as much as possible, by any means possible, before the November 2006 election. The November 2006 election in the U.S., that is.

So in the spirit of realism, I think the rest of our adversaries around the world in this soon to be post-Iraq period deserve a look. Because Iraq should have taught us all that the only thing worse than wishful thinking is wishful thinking combined with muddled reasoning.

Because it looms so large over our shoulder in Iraq, Iím going to begin with Iran. The Islamic Republic has considered itself at war with the United States since its establishment, and until 9/11 was responsible for more American casualties than any adversary in the post-Vietnam period. We, on the other hand, have always accepted those casualties and done nothing, relegating Iran to the ďtoo hardĒ category.

Now, in 2006, Iran would seem to be in an outstanding strategic position. Mainly due to our efforts.

Its nemesis Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. The Iraqi army no longer exists as an offensive force to threaten it. On its eastern border with Afghanistan the hostile Taliban has been replaced by the much friendlier Karzai government. And the coalition has allowed it a virtually free hand in Iraq.

Examining Iranian methodology sheds a great deal of light on their strategic thought. So consider the following snapshot compiled from open source reporting.

Inside Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps runs a one month training and indoctrination course for members of the Iraqi Shiite militia the Badr Brigades, paying them 75 cents a day during training and 82 dollars a month once they return to jobless Iraq. The Badr Brigades is the militia of the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) political party. The SCIRI is one of the largest parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, which won a plurality in the December 15 elections and will control the largest bloc of seats in the new national assembly. On December 13 Iraqi border police seize a tanker truck filled with thousands of forged ballots that had just crossed over from Iran. Mr. Bayan Jabr Solagh of the SCIRI and Badr Brigades is the Iraqi Interior Minister, controlling Iraqi police and police commando units, which are thought to be heavily infiltrated by Badr Brigades fighters. Secret detention and torture centers and death squads, targeting Iraqi Sunnis, are all linked to the Interior Ministry. U.S. troops encounter sophisticated, factory-made devices utilizing armor-piercing explosively-formed projectile (EFP) technology, identical to those employed by Iranian-backed Hezbollah against the Israelis in Lebanon, in the hands of Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

Iranís objectives are clear. Promote its Iraqi Shia allies to a dominant political position; weaken if not eliminate the rival Sunni political and religious leadership; keep the American military hard at work against the Sunni insurgency and away from the Shia militias; and sponsor a continuing flow of American casualties in the expectation of eventual withdrawal.

Brilliant strategy. Well thought out and planned, imaginatively and flexibly executed, covert and deniable, and comparatively low cost. Especially compared to the couple of trillion dollars weíre going to end up spending.

At the same time, any contemplated American moves against Iran would have to factor in the following. An exhausted and overstretched U.S. military. Iran unleashing a full-blown Shia insurgency not only in the rear of a U.S. invasion force, which would have to come from Iraq, but probably even in response to a limited bombing campaign. Not to mention turning Lebanonís Hezbollah, a far more professional and capable terrorist group than Al Qaeda, loose against the West in the West. And, the ultimate guaranty against conventional military attack, an Iranian atomic bomb.

A great many commentators have expended a great deal of hot air over this particular issue. But, realistically, no government on Earth that has made the decision to develop nuclear weapons has ever been prevented from doing so by any external means short of military invasion.

The apartheid government of South Africa had no intention of turning its handful of nuclear weapons over to a black majority government. So the weapons were dismantled and the bomb cores sent to Israel.

Argentina and Brazil both abandoned their programs when military governments were replaced by civilian ones.

The jury is still out on whether the Taiwanese and South Korean nuclear weapons programs were really halted by U.S. pressure.

And the military and political stranglehold that only in retrospect seems to have doomed Saddam Husseinís nuclear program isnít likely to be duplicated in our lifetimes.

Itís doubtful that Iran will encounter any of these difficulties. And, as in the case of India and Pakistan, while the Iranian government is not particularly popular with its people, its nuclear program has almost universal popularity with the Iranian public.

The Europeans will negotiate and the Security Council will debate. But it should be clear that any sanctions, in the unlikely event they are ever adopted, will have the same result as those imposed against the Saddam Hussein regime: alienate the Iranian public from the West and strengthen the hard-line elements in the Iranian government.

And our willful strategic blindness never considers the likelihood of the Iranians turning any sanctions on their head by abrogating existing oil contracts and redirecting their production entirely away from the West and Japan and toward China. While at the same time shutting down Iraqi oil exports, which they could do both covertly and deniably with the greatest of ease. Will the U.S. Navy then be stopping oil tankers bound for China? Donít count on it.

U.S. intelligence considers that Iran is years and not months away from a nuclear device. Lets hope their information is of higher quality than that on the Iraqi nuclear program. The experts also continually assure us that even if Iran manages to build a nuclear weapon it will be at least an additional decade before they can miniaturize a warhead and develop an intermediate range or intercontinental missile to deliver it.

The experts never seem to consider that in the 21st century a large crate and Federal Express is a far more reliable method of delivering a nuclear weapon than a missile. Requiring only some wood, nails, lead sheeting, foam peanuts, an address label, and the correct postage. The threat of massive retaliation only works when the nuke comes with a return address.

So Iran is eventually going to have a nuclear weapon, and we are pretty well checkmated. What are our options?

Itís a sad commentary on the strategic acumen of American generals and politicians that their reflexive first choice toward the Iranian nuclear program is air strikes. Especially since the program has been designed to counter this, with facilities both widely dispersed and intentionally sited in heavily populated urban areas.

This very dispersal and location, along with its reliance on foreign supply of various types, makes it particularly vulnerable to covert action. However, the CIA, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the administration have yet to demonstrate the capability and the will to have one man in civilian clothes place five pounds of plastic explosive in a room filled with fragile high-speed centrifuges rather than dropping showers of guided bombs with ďMade in the USAĒ markings.

Our next reflex would probably be to follow the Cold War model and surround Iran with a ring of military bases in order to intimidate and contain it. Generals love to build bases and run up the flag.

Unfortunately, against an adversary like Iran with a firm grasp of covert warfare, all such a course of action would do is provide them with convenient targets. After all, they ran us out of Beirut with two truck bombs and a handful of men. And followed the same template at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia with a tanker truck full of explosives. Our bases would become like those in Iraqómillstones around our necks, paralyzed by the requirements of force protection.

Plus, as Iraq and sixty years of post World War II history have proved, the American teenager and conventional forces are not the vehicles of choice if the goal is greater cultural sensitivity and understanding. Iíd invite anyone to run down a list of our Cold War allies and try to deny a correlation between the prevalence of American military bases and incipient anti-Americanism among the native population.

But just because recent history doesnít leave me with a great deal of confidence in the acumen of our public officials, generals, and diplomats doesnít mean that Iran doesnít have significant strategic vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

Iran is having much the same success in Iraq as we did with the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union. A great number of disparate groups, each with their own agenda, but all committed to fighting the Russians. Then once the Russians were gone all these groups went off in different directions to pursue those agendas. Once we are gone from Iraq the Iranians will likely encounter the same problems, though they will be far more ruthless and experience far fewer scruples in keeping their clients in line. But the Shia parties who are happy to take money, arms, training, and direction today may not feel the same once they taste some power of their own.

Nuclear powers quickly discover that overt nuclear saber rattling lays them open to the counter-threat of massive retaliation. And Third World nuclear powers just as quickly discover that the strategic benefits of nuclear weapons are more limited than they initially thought. Pakistanís nuclear weapons have permanently forestalled any Indian invasion but offer no other strategic weight to a country bankrupted by their development. Whereas the strategic benefits of Chinaís booming economy renders its nuclear capability almost irrelevant by comparison.

Iranís economy is such a shambles that high oil prices, again thanks to us, are the only thing keeping it afloat. Population pressures are extraordinary. The Iranian periphery is ringed with Kurdish, Sunni, and Central Asian minorities heavily discriminated against by the Shia majority. The mullahs have few friends.

And there are plenty of conflicting centers of gravity in the Iranian political system. The new Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has his power center in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the SS to the regular Iranian Armyís Wehrmacht. He was elected in opposition to many of the mullahs of the ruling religious establishment, and his main political platform is a vow to take on official corruptionóa dagger aimed directly at them.

That being the case, itís significant that on January 9 a plane crash killed 11 top commanders in the Revolutionary Guard, including the commander of its ground forces. The Iranians have blamed the crash on bad weather and poor material condition of the aircraft as a result of U.S. sanctions. But the aircraft was a French Falcon business jet, and such a VIP aircraft would be expected to have the best of maintenance.

Also, one of President Ahmadinejadís top security guards in the Revolutionary Guard unit responsible for the personal security of senior Iranian officials was killed on December 14 in an ambush of the presidential motorcade in Sistan and Balochistan province.

Iím not implying we are responsible, mainly because Iím highly skeptical of our competence in this area. But itís quite possible that there is brewing conflict within the Iranian religious/political establishment.

Then what are our options? Though Iím hesitant to advocate courses of action that havenít a prayer of being adopted, Iíd like to make a pitch for dispersal and disengagement.

What do I mean? Nothing but good military tactics. When youíre an attractive target you disperse. When youíre taking too many casualties while achieving too few results you disengage.

In the 80ís we managed to project power quite effectively in the Persian Gulf without a network of vulnerable bases. The means was the U.S. Navy. And the ships were refueled and re-supplied from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, not Yemen and other seething cauldrons in some pathetic effort to buy friends through refueling contracts.

When you have left the other side without handy targets your own strategic options suddenly multiply.

When you disengage you remove the friction you yourself are creating. Because the greater our presence, the more we have to push people around in order to maintain it. We have to bribe and appease dictators in order to maintain bases and landing rights. In case we havenít noticed, this breeds virulent resentment.

Remove the friction from our allies, and start applying it to our adversaries.

Itís time to try some economy of force for a change. Right now, we have to.

At every point in our post-World War II history, whenever we are at the apex of our power and national self confidence we inevitably get ourselves into something we canít handle. Korea followed World War II. Camelot led us into Vietnam. A rush of Reagan-era self-confidence came to grief in Lebanon. Desert Storm segued into Somalia. And an unexpected and apparent Afghan triumph made everyone receptive toward Iraq.

Clearly, we have some sort of national disability that prevents us from learning any lessons about the limits of American power. But for heavenís sake, if you canít learn from your own mistakes, than at least learn from your enemiesí successes.

William Christie is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who left the Corps as a First Lieutenant in 1987. He is the author of 5 novels, most recently Threat Level, available in paperback from Pinnacle Books/Kensington Press. The Blood We Shed will be available in paperback from ibooks in March 2006. He can be contacted at .

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