by Michael Rubin
2nd part of 3
Can Iran Be Contained?
An Iranian nuclear first strike might be the nightmare scenario for U.S. policymakers, but it is not the most likely one. Should Tehran acquire nuclear arms, the Iranian leadership may feel itself so immune from consequence that it has no obstacles to conventional aggression, whether direct or by proxy. While Western officials may think that the United States can deter Iran, Iranian officials may believe that their nuclear capability will enable them to deter the West. Indeed, in September 2005, the hard-line monthly Ma'refat opined, "Deterrence does not belong just to a few superpowers," and cited the Quranic verse declaring, "Against them [your enemies] make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of enemies of God and your enemies."
Many analysts say that a nuclear Iran need not be dangerous. Author and essayist Glenn Greenwald, for example, argued--falsely--that Iran "has never invaded another country." Putting aside the nineteenth-century Iranian invasion of Afghanistan, Iran's 1971 occupation of Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands (claimed by the United Arab Emirates), and its 1982 drive into Iraq (after beating back the 1980 Iraqi invasion), the Iranian military has often acted irregularly or by proxy, sparking insurrections in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and perhaps the Palestinian Authority as well. On May 3, 2008, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami acknowledged as much. Speaking at the University of Gilan, he argued that the current Iranian strategy of exporting revolution by means of "gunpowder and groups sabotaging other countries" was inconsistent with what he argued was Khomeini's preference for soft power.
It is irresponsible to argue, as former nuclear-inspector-turned-peace-activist Scott Ritter has, that Iran does not pose a strategic threat to the United States and its interests. At its core, the Islamic Republic is an ideological regime with a mission to export its revolution embedded both in its constitution and in the IRGC structure. The preamble to the Islamic Republic's constitution, for example, states that "the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps . . . will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of God's way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world."
It also includes reference to a Quranic verse urging, "Terrify thereby the enemy of God and your enemy . . . and whatsoever you expend in the way of God shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged." The IRGC has taken this mission to heart. In the three decades of its existence, it has supported terrorism from Baghdad to Buenos Aires and has conducted assassinations in the United States, France, Germany, Austria, and Denmark.
Too much reliance on containment should worry U.S. policymakers, given the mixed assessments of previous incarnations of the policy at a time when the Islamic Republic was only a conventional power. The first concerted U.S. containment policy against the Islamic Revolution was initiated in 1993 when, in the face of both Iranian and Iraqi attempts to subvert stability and the regional status quo, the Clinton administration launched its dual containment strategy. "So long as we can rely on our regional allies--Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], and Turkey--to preserve the balance of power in our favor in the wider Middle East region, we will have the means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes," Martin Indyk, then-senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, explained in 1993. He conceded, however, that containing Iran would be more difficult than restraining Iraq. "When we assess Iranian intentions and capabilities, we see a dangerous combination for Western interests," Indyk explained, citing Tehran's support for terrorism, its violent opposition to the Middle East peace process, its attempts to subvert friendly Arab governments, its desire to dominate the Persian Gulf through military means, and its clandestine nuclear weapons program.
In a rebuttal to Indyk's approach, F. Gregory Gause III, an associate professor of political science at Columbia University, wrote, "Dual containment requires the unlikely cooperation of a number of other nations. . . . Meanwhile, Europe and Japan have been unwilling to isolate Iran economically." If Egypt and other regional allies like Turkey did not embrace containment fifteen years ago, they are less likely to do so today. Turkey especially has become a less reliable ally, and some of its politicians are more likely to sympathize with the Islamic Republic than the United States, if for no other reason than to maintain a "good neighbor policy." Germany remains resistant to economic sanctions. While German chancellor Angela Merkel has assured her Western allies that Germany would reduce trade with the Islamic Republic because of Tehran's nuclear defiance, her ambassador in Tehran assured Iranians that German companies would not only maintain their trade, but would actually increase it, albeit through middlemen in the United Arab Emirates.
Containment is also expensive and, when challenged, can escalate into a shooting war. On March 7, 1987, as Iran and Iraq engaged in attacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf, the Reagan administration offered to reflag eleven Kuwaiti tankers, an operation that was code-named Earnest Will. Between July 24, 1987, and September 26, 1988, the Pentagon deployed an aircraft carrier, four destroyers, a guided missile cruiser, three frigates, and several smaller boats. On the first day of operation, the reflagged supertanker Bridgeton hit a mine, the first of four mine strikes that month. As a result, the U.S. Navy began more intensive minesweeping operations. On September 21, 1987, U.S. forces seized the Iranian boat Iran Ajr as it mined international waters. In the ensuing fight, U.S. helicopters engaged with Iranian speedboats. The following year, in Operation Praying Mantis, U.S. forces struck Iranian oil platforms and forces after a mine crippled the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts.
It is difficult to assess the cost of any military action, but, conservatively, Operations Earnest Will and Praying Mantis cost hundreds of millions of dollars and required significant infrastructure and support networks. The attack on the Roberts, for example, necessitated not only force in the region to enable retaliation, but also support services in Dubai for its repair. Any containment strategy more expansive than protecting eleven tankers would be exponentially more expensive.
What Is Required to Contain Iran?
Any containment operation against a nuclear Iran would require more than the single battle group that participated in Operation Earnest Will. Should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons, it may become dangerously overconfident as it convinces itself that its conventional, irregular, or proxy forces can operate without fear of serious reprisal from the United States, Israel, or any other regional power. In order, therefore, to contain a nuclear Iran, the United States and its allies in the region will need to enhance their military capability to counter the likelihood of successful Iranian conventional action. There are two strategies that U.S. policymakers may pursue separately or in tandem. First, U.S. defense planners might examine what U.S. force posture would be necessary for the United States unilaterally to contain a nuclear Iran. Second, U.S. officials must gauge what investment would be necessary to enable neighboring states to do likewise. Put more crudely, this requires calculating under what conditions and with what equipment regional states could successfully wage war against Iran until U.S. forces could provide relief. If the Pentagon has pre-positioned enough equipment and munitions in the region, this might take three or four days; if not, it could take longer.
If U.S. forces are to contain the Islamic Republic, they will require basing not only in GCC countries, but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Without a sizeable regional presence, the Pentagon will not be able to maintain the predeployed resources and equipment necessary to contain Iran, and Washington will signal its lack of commitment to every ally in the region. Because containment is as much psychological as physical, basing will be its backbone. Having lost its facilities in Uzbekistan, at present, the U.S. Air Force relies upon air bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Oman, and the isolated Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia.
There is less to these facilities, however, than meets the eye: under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish government has grown closer to the Islamic Republic and has sought to limit U.S. Air Force use of the Incirlik Air Base; Turkish negotiators have even demanded veto power over every U.S. mission flown from Incirlik. Oman, too, has been less than reliable in granting U.S. freedom of operation. According to military officials familiar with the negotiations between U.S. and Omani officials, the sultanate initially refused the U.S. Air Force permission to fly missions over Afghanistan from its territory in the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, a campaign that, in the wake of 9/11, had far greater international support than would any containment actions against Iranian forces. Both the congressional desire to curtail the U.S. presence in Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki's demands that the United States evacuate the country on a set timetable make any use of the Kirkuk and Ali air bases in that country as part of containment operations unlikely. Saudi Arabia has many airfields but, because of domestic unease with a U.S. presence in the kingdom, only allows the United States to maintain a small combined air operations center for U.S. aircraft in the Persian Gulf.
While the United States maintains 228,000 troops in the Near East and South Asia, all but 5,700 are stationed in Iraq or Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom or in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. These troops would, presumably, return home upon the completion of their missions. Kuwaiti officials have made clear that they do not envision hosting a permanent U.S. presence. The Kuwaiti government designates portions of Camp Arifjan as temporary and insists that when U.S. forces depart, no trace of their presence should remain. In practice, according to officers with the 45th Field Artillery Brigade operating facilities in Kuwait, this means that U.S. officers must spend weeks engaging the Kuwaiti bureaucracy if they wish to do so much as pave a road through their tent city.
Almost half of the troops stationed in the region outside of Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan are afloat, which highlights the need for naval bases and shipyards. The U.S. 5th Fleet uses facilities in Bahrain and ports in the United Arab Emirates. Both countries, however, remain vulnerable to Iranian missiles and airstrikes.
Upgrading regional facilities would support containment strategies that rely on a long-term U.S. regional presence as well as Washington's deferral of the primary containment responsibilities to Iran's neighbors. In order to upgrade the GCC states' military capacity, in May 2006, the Bush administration launched a "Gulf Security Dialogue" aimed at improving the GCC militaries' interoperability, their defense capabilities, and the states' counterterrorism abilities and critical infrastructure protection. As mandated by section 36(b) of the Arms Export Control Act, the White House on August 3, 2007, informed Congress of its intention to sell Bahrain six Bell 412 air search and recovery helicopters, the sum price for which, if all technology options are exercised, might be as high as $160 million. Such helicopters, however, can do little to protect the tiny island nation of Bahrain, whose sovereignty Iranian officials on occasion still question, from an Iranian onslaught.
Two months after signaling the Bahrain sale, the administration notified Congress of its intention to upgrade three Kuwaiti L-110-30 aircraft (a civilian version of the C-130) at a sum cost as high as $250 million. Subsequent notifications regarding Kuwait included maintenance and logistics support for Kuwait's F/A-18 aircraft, sale of eighty PAC-3 missiles, Patriot missile system upgrades, and 2,106 TOW-A and 1,404 TOW-B missiles, the total cost of which would be higher than $1.3 billion. Proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia are even greater and include light armored vehicles; high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles; advanced radar; sniper targeting pods; and, most controversially, nine hundred Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) tail kits to create high precision smart bombs. The United Arab Emirates itself may purchase three hundred AGM-114M3 Blast Fragmentation Warheads and nine hundred AGM-114L3 Hellfire II Longbow missiles, upgrades for three E-2C airborne early-warning aircraft, 288 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defense missile systems, 224 AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium Air-to-Air Missile Air Intercept Missiles, two hundred JDAM tail kits, and more than two hundred one-ton bombs. The shopping list of equipment may seem technical, but it underscores both the complexity and the expense of preparing for containment.
Even with such upgrades, and assuming Congress does not disapprove the sales--188 members of Congress have expressed concern--it is unclear whether the GCC states could contain Iranian aggression for long. No GCC state with the exception of Saudi Arabia has strategic depth. If Iraq could overwhelm Kuwait in a matter of hours, so, too, could Iran overwhelm Bahrain--the central node in regional U.S. naval strategy--or Qatar, where the U.S. army pre-positions much of its heavy equipment.
A quick glance at the Iran-GCC military balance is not reassuring. Iran has 663,000 military service personnel, including regular army, IRGC, and Basij. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has only 214,500 military personnel, and the combined total for the other five GCC states is a paltry 131,300. Iran falls short on fighter aircraft (332 versus 496 for the GCC) but is near parity on battle tanks (1,710 versus 1,912) and dominates with combat vessels (201 versus 94). While Iran may fall short in certain categories, it has a superior ballistic missile capability to any immediate neighbors besides Pakistan. Iran's Shahab-3 missile has performed erratically during tests but now reportedly has a two-thousand-kilometer range. As the Gulf Security Dialogue sales indicate, the GCC states are scrambling to recover from this missile deficit.
Iran's other neighbors cannot bring much to the containment table. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan's militaries are negligible. The Russian invasion of Georgia has eliminated the possibility of assistance from Tblisi. Uzbekistan and Armenia are, in practice, hostile to U.S. strategic concerns.
Turkey, with its 514,000 troops, nearly four hundred fighter aircraft, and 4,400 tanks, is in theory a NATO ally and, as such, interoperable with the U.S. military. It could bring significant resources to the table, but it is an unreliable ally unlikely to participate in any serious containment; nor will Iraq or Afghanistan who, for years to come, will be more concerned with ensuring internal stability than participating in regional containment. Indeed, with the exception of Turkey, every other Iranian neighbor remains vulnerable to Iranian political or infrastructure sabotage, as incidents such as the Khobar Towers bombing and the 1995-96 Bahraini riots demonstrate. A Kuwaiti parliamentarian has even accused the IRGC of infiltrating Kuwait.