Sunday, July 13, 2008

What to do about Iran?

It’s not just that he Iranians were faking photos. American experts have now concluded that they may well have fired only one rocket (and multiplied the shot) and that it may have been a Shahab II, about ten years out of date and capable of reaching only about 750 miles. Iranian society is still one in which exaggeration, bluff, and subterfuge go a long way. It’s hard to speak in standard Farsi without using all manner of honorifics and polite phrases (chashm-e shoma, may I be your eye; qurban-e shoma, may I be your sacrifice, Jenab-e ali, your excellency etc.). Ahmadinezhad is a master of cirumlocution. I don’t doubt his intentions when he says they will wipe Israel off the face of the map (echoing, as that does, Ayatollah Khomeini); but I’m very unsure of the immediacy of that, particularly if they don’t really have the capacity even to try.

All the same, I am really sceptical about either the US or Israel starting a war. Iran is too big, too varied in terrain (mountains, desert, poor road and rail infrastructure, unstable borders) to make it a safe place for a ground war. The country has a large population of over 70,000,000, much of it concentrated in and around Tehran, and a standing army, navy, and air force of 420,000, with pasdaran contingents of around 125,000. However, the voluntary militias of the Basij have a claimed membership of over 12 million, with some 3 million combat ready. In addition, they can call on the Lebanese Hizbullah, Iraqi Shi’i forces including the Jaysh al-Mahdi, and volunteers from the jihadi world, including many with combat experience from Chechnya, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.

If I were a commander, I would not want to take troops into that situation, especially since Iraq and Afghanistan are still undecided. The result would be disaster with not even a WMD to show for it.

An air war would be easier to fight, especially since the Iranian Air Force has never recovered in materiel or personnel from the purge that took place in 1979. They would not offer any real resistance to combined US and Israeli forces. But bombing nuclear installations would leave the Iranian armed forces intact (but for the IRIAF), and the consequences could be just as bad if they retaliated in Iraq or cut through northern Iraq (the Kurdish part) and across Syria to attack Israel.

At the same time, stopping them with diplomacy won’t work either. If the world community can’t get its act together to remove Robert Mugabe from his stolen presidency, how much harder it will be to act against a country that has some of the world’s largest oil resources, at a time when shortages of oil are having severe domestic effects in the West.

Some very good compromises have been offered, to allow Iran to build nuclear facilities to be used for internal energy applications, but they have all been turned down. Their talk about centrifuges may just be more bluff (some say they may only have 900, not the 3000 they claim. I still believe they intend to have a nuclear bomb of some kind and that, if they thought they could get away with it, they would nuke Israel (probably just Tel Aviv and maybe Haifa, but not Jerusalem, which would lose them Muslim support) and use Hizbullah to finish off what remained with rockets or even a ground assault.

None of us has a crystal ball, which means any decision about what to do to prevent this eventuality has to be based on very careful thinking about outcomes. But that is the situation as I now see it. Can anyone see a way to move forward?