Ralph Peters Exclusive: Bomb Iran’s Nukes? Then What? A War, Not Just Surgical Strikes
The day may come when we are driven to attack Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities to prevent a strategic catastrophe, but only a fool would wish for it or imagine that this would be an easy matter of “surgical strikes.” Hitting Iran’s nukes would require a comprehensive air and naval campaign, and the inevitable result would be a regional war with global consequences. This doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be done, but that decision-makers and cheerleaders for a military response need to understand the magnitude of the potential consequences ― the probable chain reaction that would begin when the first bomb fell from a U.S. warplane.
As this column is written, Israel has been publicizing the successful test of a new surface-to-surface missile and leaking news that its leaders have been discussing a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear-weapons hubs. This means an attack is not imminent, since Israel doesn’t telegraph its military punches. Rather, the current wave of publicity is aimed at energizing the international community to take the Iranian threat more seriously. With the West’s attention diverted by the multiple revolutions in the Arab world this year, Iran’s ethnic-Persian theocrats have managed to evade the spotlight that previously had focused on their nuclear ambitions. Israel’s shouting, “Hey! Pay attention!”
Still, should the international community fail to take effective measures to halt and eliminate Iran’s weapons program, Israel may feel compelled to strike later. That would be a disaster, since Israel has the capabilities to start a war in the Persian Gulf, but not to end one. And the United States would get the blame for an Israeli strike, anyway: We’d find ourselves sucked in, but struggling to catch up, militarily and diplomatically. If, in the end, an offensive must be carried out, it would be best for the U.S. armed forces to do it. That would be the only (slight) chance of avoiding painful global consequences.
Let’s look at what “Bomb Iran!” really means: The Iranians may appear mad, but that doesn’t mean they’re fools, and they’ve studied the errors of other rogue states that sought nuclear weapons. The results? First, the Iranians have dispersed their research, development and production facilities. Second, they’ve fortified a number of vital sites in bunkers deep underground. Third, they’ve placed other link-in-the-chain laboratories and research sites in populated areas so that any attack upon them would generate large numbers of civilian casualties ― and very ugly images in the global media. Fourth, the Tehran regime has made this program a matter of nationalist pride. An attack on Iran’s nukes would be viewed as an attack on Iran, period, by the great majority of the population (even many regime opponents would “rally ‘round the flag,” in an Iranian version of the 9/11 effect). Fifth, Iran would respond promptly and asymmetrically in the wake of such an attack ― unless its extensive capabilities to hit back were also attacked and disabled from the start.
How would Iran respond to strikes on its nuke facilities? Inevitably missiles would be launched toward Israeli cities ― some with chemical warheads ― but these tit-for-tat attacks would be the least part of Tehran’s counterattack strategy. The Iranians would “do what’s doable,” and that means hitting Arab oil-production infrastructure on the other side of the narrow Persian Gulf. Employing its mid-range missiles, aircraft and naval forces, Tehran would launch both conventional and suicide attacks on Arab oil fields, refineries, storage areas, ports and loading facilities, on tankers in transit, and on the Straits of Hormuz, the great chokepoint for the world’s core oil supplies. The price of a barrel of crude would soar geometrically on world exchanges, paralyzing economies ― exactly as Iran’s leaders intend. Ten-dollar-a-gallon gas would be a brief bargain on the way to truly prohibitive prices. And, in the way of the world, Tehran would not get the blame. We would.
And we would be in one hell of a war, with the Middle East literally aflame and our Navy able to conduct only limited operations (if any) within the Persian Gulf, given that the body of water would become a shooting gallery: Even our finest surface-warfare ships can’t fight or maneuver effectively in a bathtub. The flow of oil would not resume, and we would have no idea how to end the war (not least, since we’re unwilling to inflict serious pain on our enemies anymore).
So…if we are forced to attack Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities at some point, what would it take to do it right and limit Tehran’s ability to respond with such devastating asymmetrical attacks?
At the most-basic level, we would need to conceive of the operation as a war, not just a brief series of raids. In addition to the standard requirements to knock out Iran’s early-warning and air-defense systems, we would have to strike the headquarters facilities of the Revolutionary Guards, the military and the various intelligence arms. We would need to destroy Iran’s combat aircraft on the ground, and then destroy any aircraft ― including passenger jets ― that could be used as flying bombs against oil facilities. It would be essential to destroy, early on, Iran’s navy and the Revolutionary Guards’ naval arm, right down to the Zodiac-boat level. We also would need to sink any commercial vessel that attempted to leave an Iranian harbor throughout the period of hostilities, since it could be used in an attack scheme. Not only would we need to disable Iran’s government and military communications infrastructure on the first day, but we also would have to disrupt civilian communications indefinitely. Then we would have to parry years of Iranian attempts to take revenge, not just regionally, but globally. We certainly would see a resurgence of state-sponsored terrorism ― and it could be taken to a whole new level.
Technically speaking, we can meet most of the requirements listed above ― but it would require a massive and sustained offensive effort, with an extensive mobilization of our military, industrial and economic resources. Inevitably, Iranian civilians would die in significant numbers, generating graphic images of the sort that panic decision-makers in the West. Indeed, the number one requirement would be for a U.S. president of iron will who would not be swayed by international opinion or the sensation-mongering of our own media. We have not had such a man for a very long time.
Then there are the military-diplomatic issues: Where could we base sufficient concentrations of aircraft to conduct and sustain the mission? Worried about Iranian nukes themselves, the Arab leaders of the Gulf States and, above all, Saudi Arabia would initially back a U.S. attack. But what would happen when the bad publicity, the local damage, and angry populations came into play? What do we do if, in mid-war, Saudi Arabia insists that enough has been done and our planes can no longer fly from its airbases without heavy restrictions (or not fly at all)? How do you re-open the Straits of Hormuz and keep them open? How do you deal with the economic consequences, domestically and globally? For that matter, how do we cope with an Iranian ground invasion of Kuwait by way of Iraq, now that we’re leaving? Iran’s ground forces may not have much finesse, but they do have serious numbers (and allies in Iraq). In a general war, Dubai would suffer not only severe physical damage, but bankruptcy. If we get it even slightly wrong, not one Gulf state would survive unscathed. Serious planning would require gaming out the fourth- and fifth-level consequences, then preparing for extreme contingencies.
The point of all this isn’t to suggest that we do nothing, but to introduce a level of reality to “Bomb Iran!” bluster from those who have no sense of the gravity or complexity of the situation. Even in our sound-bite culture, bumper-sticker slogans still aren’t viable solutions, whether the message is “Hope and Change,” or “Drill, Baby, Drill!” An attack on Iran’s nuclear program of sufficient power to end it, not just set it back (which is all the Israelis could do), would require superb intelligence, thorough planning, a comprehensive military campaign, preparations for economic damage control, far better diplomacy than our Department of State has delivered over the past generation, adult behavior from Congress, and, above all, determined leadership from the U.S. president.
Ralph Peters is a retired Army intelligence officer and former enlisted man, a prize-winning, bestselling author, and a long-time member of the Armchair General team. His latest book is Lines of Fire, a collection of his most-powerful and enduring writing on strategy, security and military affairs from the past two decades.