JR: I thought about going through the process of getting this published in traditional media, but didn't have the time to pursue it. This brief isn't about the ground up trends I typically track, although if it occurs, it will catalyze them (it also doesn't have that level of inevitability, although it sure feels like it). Enjoy it (while intoning the unforgettable words of Slim Pickens "Yeeee-haaaaa").Collapsing Iran
by John Robb
The confrontation between the US and Iran crossed into dangerous territory when Tehran announced that it had successfully enriched uranium and that it would have 3,000 operational centrifuges by the end of the year. This tension accelerated when Ayatollah Khameni claimed Iran would readily share its nuclear secrets with unstable regimes like Sudan. These events clearly demonstrate that the American diplomatic efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear development program are not working, and the pace of the development gives new urgency to the situation. Even IF Chinese and Russian opposition to sanctions are overcome, sanctions alone would be unlikely to prevent an Iranian bomb. The loss of these “soft” options means that a military confrontation between the US and Iran is now unavoidable.
The US military attack on Iran will, most certainly, be conducted with air power. The US has neither the available ground forces necessary to invade a large country like Iran, nor the appetite (given the experience of Iraq) to manage its aftermath. In contrast, airpower assets are plentiful and its employment offers a clean, seemingly low cost alternative to a ground invasion.
There are two major problems with deploying airpower. The first is that Iran has both dispersed and hardened its nuclear related facilities. This situation means that in order to guarantee the destruction of some of these facilities, a nuclear weapon must be used. This is not a viable option. The use of nuclear weapons in any form is an anathema to the world and most people within the US government, despite the ability to modify these weapons to reduce their size and fallout. As a result, it is highly probable that some of Iran's facilities will survive conventional air attack.The second problem is equally as difficult. Most of the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program isn’t contained in the facilities but in the knowledge of its engineers. This means that any destruction of facilities would only result in a short-term delay in development and a redoubled commitment by Iran to accomplish the task.
These problems indicate that the only way to truly realize a reversal in the Iranian program is regime change. Therefore the objective would be to remove the clerical regime from power -- it’s likely that merely a political reshuffle would be insufficient to ensure any meaningful reduction in the threat. Additionally, this is a real test of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. Iran has clearly supported international terrorism and will soon be in a position to supply these groups with nuclear weapons.
To accomplish this regime change under the given restraints, the US will utilize a rapidly evolving method of air warfare called the “effects-based operation” (EBO). The EBO is a process that incapacitates a nation-state’s systems (typically critical infrastructure) and organizations to achieve desired strategic outcomes. In the past this has meant a combination of precision-guided munitions, special operations, and stealth technology to precisely target critical nodes in national infrastructures and systems. The destruction of these nodes, due to the power of network dependencies, will typically cause sustained system collapse (in much the same way a downed power line can cause a regional blackout, but in this case intentionally). A good real world example was seen in the first Gulf War. During that war, a US EBO shut down Iraq’s critical infrastructures to separate Saddam’s leadership cadre in its Baghdad bunkers from its army in Kuwait. It worked nearly as desired. With Iran, the effect desired would be much more complex: regime change.In regards to its suitability as a target for an EBO, Iran is perfect -- it is both urbanized and its population relies on national networks vulnerable to disruption and manipulation. This means U.S. forces (no other nation can do this) would have the ability to use precise applications of force to break down Iran’s critical systems, eliminating critical nodes within its electricity, communications, transportation, military, and industrial systems. A nation-state that is subjected to this type of attack ceases all governmental and economic function. In sum, Iran would be “turned off” until the regime changes.
The US administration’s hopes for a regime change in Iran will draw from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran will be torn apart from within. To accomplish this, the US will conduct the EBO under the pretense of forcing Iran to dismantle its entire nuclear program -- a condition that the Iranian regime will find impossible to accept. Simultaneous with the air campaign’s suppression of Iran’s minority Persian government, the US will arm and actively support ethnic guerrillas (Kurds, Balochs, Azeris, etc.) to turn sections of the country into autonomous zones. Without the ability to utilize any of the capabilities of conventional warfare (from airpower to armor to massed formations), let alone command forces in the field or marshal a nation for war, the Iranian government would eventually collapse and its successor will accede to the growing set of US demands. The final resolution of this conflict would include recognition of regional autonomous groups and shared oil revenues in addition to the primary aim: cessation of nuclear activity. In short, if this succeeds, Iran will cease to be a regional power or even what could be termed a cohesive, viable state.Despite the seeming inevitability of this path, the outcomes ("effects") it would produce are far from inevitable. An attack of this type would be a global system shock that is rife with downside risks and uncertainties. Once the attack commences, the shock waves it produces would be far-reaching, unpredictable, and in most cases very bad. Even if the U.S. military is prepared to repel an Iranian counter-attack and armed revolts from Iraqi Shiite militia members, it’s impossible to prevent rocketing oil prices, global terrorist attacks, and severe diplomatic fall-out. Further, Iran’s government may prove to be more resourceful than anticipated and outlast the attack, only to resume production of nuclear materials with the intent of revenge. Worse yet, the US might inadvertently collapse the US-led post cold war environment as countries, distrustful of US intentions, scramble to safety amid rapidly gyrating economic and social instability.
Despite these well-founded fears, the lack of other viable options coupled with the pertinacious intent of the U.S. administration to stop Iran from building the bomb (heedless of the costs), will likely drive the Pentagon towards this method of attack. To the Bush administration, all alternatives are preferable to a nuclear-armed Iranian clerical regime with de facto control over Palestine’s Hamas, Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and numerous other global terror groups. For those contemplating this attack, the Iranian regime, with Ahmadinejad as its public face, has become everything that Saddam promised to be and more.John Robb, a former counter-terrorism operation planner and commander, now advises corporations on the future of terrorism, infrastructure, and markets. A graduate of Yale University and the Air Force Academy, his writing on war have been featured in FAST COMPANY and THE NEW YORK TIMES. His book on the future terrorism, war, and the global economy will be published by Wiley in 2007.