Rethinking a pre-emptive strike on Iran

Rethinking a pre-emptive strike on Iran
Analysis: The war drums are beating among Washington’s neo-cons, but no one in the US military is taking them seriously
9 min read
27 March, 2015
Iran has showcased its military capabilities forcing a rethink in Washington and Tel Aviv [Anadolu]

Seated in a Washington restaurant in August of last year, a currently serving US military officer with an intimate knowledge of Israeli military capabilities speculated that “while the threat of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations has receded appreciably,” US military planners believed such an attack was “still a very real worry”.


The “optimal time” for such an assault, this officer noted then, “would be the third week of March” [of 2015]. The reason for the date? “The weather over Iranian targets is likely to be better than in the winter months, and the dates coincide with the beginning of a new moon.” The Israeli Air

     The US has concluded that a pre-emptive strike on Iran would be long and bloody – and an absolute last resort.

Force, this officer noted, has a tradition of attacking when it is dark over the target area – “either five days before, or five days after” a new moon – as the Israeli air force did when their fighter bombers destroyed a Syrian nuclear production facility during the early morning hours of 6 September, 2007.  


But several weeks ago, as the optimal dates for an Israeli strike neared, the same officer said that Pentagon planners now considered the possibility of an Israeli attack “at or near zero”. It was easy to see why: a number of high profile Israeli intelligence and military policymakers had come out against an attack, Binyamin Netanyahu was then embroiled in a tough re-election campaign and the US had made it clear that they opposed such an assault. But the real reason Israel had “recalibrated its thinking,” this officer noted, had nothing to do with politics. Rather, the Israeli army reassessment was the result of a “sober rethinking of Iranian military capabilities based on updated Israeli and American intelligence reports.”


While this officer refused to detail how he gained information on the Israeli reassessment, a retired senior Israeli military officer who consults with the planning staff confirmed the “recalibration” (as he described it), and said that Israel’s rethinking of its attack plans resulted from three distinct events – intelligence information that, as he told me, was “gleaned from a March 2014 air exhibit” at Iran’s Dezful Vahdati Air Force Base which showed off increased and surprisingly sophisticated Iranian air interceptor capabilities; a high profile and very public roll-out of Iran’s enhanced air defence assets during an early December exhibition of at Iran’s Khatam al-Anbia Air Defense Base; and updated US military assessments of Iranian military capabilities that had been shared by the Pentagon with senior Israeli military officers.

Three factors

The three factors that shifted Israeli military thinking comprise the unknown background of Netanyahu’s diplomatic offensive in the US, which included taking on President Barack Obama in a speech before the Congress.


“I think it’s clear that when his own military came out in opposition to a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran,”  the currently serving military officer told me, “Netanyahu decided the only way to sour the US-Iran nuclear talks was to garner support for a strike from his political allies in the US”


That is to say: faced with the likelihood that a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would face increased Iranian military assets, and might even fail, Netanyahu believed he had little choice but to push for a breakdown in the US-Iran talks by recruiting his pro-Israel allies in Congress.


Even given Iran’s penchant for exaggerating its military capabilities (“they’re still using F-4s, cannibalized from previous stocks, and bragging about it,” the currently serving US military officer says), the roll out of Iran’s upgraded air and air defence technologies at the Dezful Vahdati Air Base signalled that an Israeli or US attack on Iranian installations would be a far greater challenge than either military had once believed. The exhibit featured a handful of retooled MiG-29 “Fulcrams”, which had been developed by the Soviet Union as a response to the US F-16 and F/A18 as well as an F-14 “Tomcat” US fighter – still in the Iranian inventory following the cut-off of US military aid to the Shah following the 1979 revolution. While the MiG-29 is no longer considered state of the art, the version trotted out by the Iranians showed that their engineers were and are capable of reverse engineering high-tech weapons systems, while keeping older systems flying.


The same is true for Iranian air defence systems. Most recently, the Iranians announced the deployment of a new Raased-32 radar network and said that they would be reopening talks with Russia over the delayed delivery of the sophisticated S-300 air defence system. At present, Iran relies on an outmoded S-200 air defence system, whose units protect key Iranian military installations near the Persian Gulf. Iranian air defence capabilities are well known to U.S. military planners, and are viewed as porous, but Iran’s breakneck efforts to improve their capabilities has yielded modest, but important results. It is no longer the case, as it was even several years ago, that a U.S. or Israeli strike would yield a significant degradation of Iranian nuclear capabilities to make an attack worth it.


In addition to these two factors, US military planners have “weighed in pretty heavily” with their counterparts in the Israeli military against an attack, sharing their assessments of Iran’s increasingly lethal military capabilities, according to the senior US military planner with whom I spoke. The briefings on Iranian military capabilities are “nearly continuous” and the result of the broad military-to-military cooperation that has been a feature of the US-Israeli strategic relationship of the last four decades – and that continues despite the recent difficulties between the Israeli prime minister and US President Barack Obama. Those discussions intensified in mid-January during a visit to Israel by General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Accompanying Dempsey were a group of JCS planners with an intimate knowledge of Iranian defence systems. The US team, according to a high level civilian source at the Pentagon, “gave the Israelis a detailed briefing on the difficulty that the US sees in any military action against Iran.”

Never a pushover

The increase in Iranian interceptor assets, the deployment of the new Raased-32 radar network and the hardening of the Iranian air defence network led to a broad rethinking of American “worst case military plans”, but also had a significant impact on Israel’s military high command. The result is that while a number of military analysts in both countries once scoffed at Iranian air and defence capabilities, describing them as “pathetic” and “exaggerated”, by January of this year, US military planners and senior Israeli army officers were much less sanguine in assessing the likely success of either a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran, or how the US military would fare during an Iranian-American confrontation.


“Iran has never been a pushover, militarily,” a Centcom officer told me in a recent off-the-record conversation, “but that’s even more true recently, with the upgrades in Iranian air interceptor and air defence systems.” This officer then added: “I don’t want to exaggerate. There’s no question that we [the US] would prevail in any military confrontation. But it’s also clear to us that while the price of doing business in Iranian air space isn’t prohibitive, it certainly ain’t cheap.”


The view that Iran is not a military “pushover” is now deeply embedded in US military thinking, marking a significant shift in US Central Command war plans on Iran. That wasn’t always the case. Five years ago, according to a US Centcom officer who was present during a briefing on how a prospective conflict would play out, the US naval component in the Gulf confidently concluded that the US could successfully degrade Iranian military assets and destroy its nuclear capability in a period of a little over one week. But that briefing, according to this US Centcom officer “resulted in real push-back from Centcom’s non-military component.” The result was that then Centcom Commander General James Mattis ordered a new assessment, which resulted in a more modest outlook. The new briefing concluded that it would take 90 days of sustained bombing to successfully erode Iran’s air defence capabilities – and successfully degrade its nuclear programme.


That conclusion was reemphasized last week by Marine Colonel David Crist, a historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an expert on Iran. Writing in Foreign Policy on what he dubbed “Operation Iranian Watch,” Crist concluded that a US attack “to set back Iran’s nuclear programme is doable, but would create more long-term challenges than it resolves. The ensuing war would create even more volatility in the region and expose US service members in Iraq to Shia militia attacks.”


Crist’s warnings might have come directly from the Centcom playbook. But, surprisingly, only a part of the US policymaking establishment is convinced by these military arguments. Writing in the Washington Post on 13 March, Joshua Muravchik – a leading neo-conservative and a fellow at Johns Hopkins prestigious School of Advanced International Studies – argued that war might be the “best option” for stopping Iran’s nuclear programme. Sanctions, Muravchik argue, will never work against a regime that, as he argued, is dedicated to spreading its views by force.

Neo-cons still pushing

While Muravchik’s views have been airily dismissed by any number of US military thinkers, he is not alone in making the argument for a strike. Just this week, former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” As Bolton wrote: “An attack need not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary.” The Muravchik and Bolton pieces have roiled the U.S. policymaking establishment, who are stunned by the arguments – and take strong exception to their conclusions.


One of Maruvchik’s colleagues at John Hopkins, Hans Binnendijk, countered the calls for a military strike on Iran in an article in the Washington Post on 20 March. His views closely track those circulating among senior war planners in the US military: “Such an operation could require hundreds of sorties over several days,” Iran would “probably respond” by closing the Straits of Hormuz, “would be unlikely to capitulate even with its air force and navy out of commission” and would “probably turn to terrorism to strike at US targets around the globe.” In fact, the well-informed Binnendijk actually understates military thinking: an assault on Iran would require thousands, not hundreds of bombing sorties, the strikes would have to go on for weeks, not days; Iran would not “probably” close the Straits of Hormus, they would make it impassable and Iran would not only not capitulate, it would escalate the conflict by mounting attacks against US military and economic targets in the region.


“A US attack on Iran would, in turn, target its air defence systems, then its air force, then its major naval and army installations and then its nuclear program,” the senior military officer who spoke to me in August said recently. Then, for emphasis, he added this:


“I’m shocked that those who argue for an attack on Iran think that such an operation would automatically be successful. That we’d ‘win’ – whatever that means. That’s madness. The US military never makes that assumption.”


Which is not to argue that the Pentagon has shelved its Iran war plans, but only to say that now they’ve been rethought and rewritten to reflect military realities. And the military reality is that, despite the beating of war drums among American neo-conservatives like Muravchik and Bolton, the US has concluded that a pre-emptive strike on Iran would be long and bloody – and an absolute last resort. Thankfully, it appears that the Israeli military has come to the same conclusion.