The Reckoning

Why Logic May Prevail on Iran

kc-135 and f-15s

An Israeli KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a wing of F-15 fighters.

Photograph by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

It’s too early to be sanguine, let alone optimistic, about reports that the risk of an outright war between Israel and Iran are fading. As readers of this blog know, I’ve long believed that the “military option,” whether pursued unilaterally by Israel or by the United States, would be a disaster.

The past few weeks seem to suggest that even some hardliners are coming to this conclusion. Certainly, there will be some who will remain unconvinced even by the most dire “post-strike” scenarios. For partisan political reasons, it is in the interest of GOP partisans right now to belittle the hard work of a negotiated solution via sanctions because it conveniently leaves the Obama administration open to false charges of “appeasement.”

Others genuinely believe Iran to be an irrational actor, willing to trade the lives of its children for a one-time nuclear strike at Israel. There is no argument based on logic that will sway that crowd; they existed during the Cold War, and were in the ascendent in the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, too. Happily, they appear to be losing this argument.

What I believe has truly tipped the balance in this debate are successive, professional resk assessments, war games and scenario analyses that show military action to be futile, if not actively counterproductive to the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

A few months back, I put one together and I recently had the occasion to look back on it. It essentially spells out the likely results of an Israel air strike on Iran in clinical terms - the kind of language investors in markets like oil or the sovereign debt of countries like Israel might want to see.

Hopefully, the whole thing remains academic - a storm in a cup of tea that’s never brewed. But here it is, still relevant (sadly). I think its real value is in stressing the extent to which every possible action to avoid a military clash should be explored. The unintended consequences are simply too great.

The Shape of Things: Likelihood of Various Post-Strike Risk Scenarios

What if, against the advice of its American allies and its own security establishment, the Netanyahu government orders a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s extensive nuclear research and production facilities?

1.     Limited Disruption (10 Percent Likelihood): Iranian program delayed 3 years, retaliation thwarted or limited by Iranian fear of escalation, oil spike is limited to risk aversion; US able to steer clear of the conflict.

2.     Targeted Disruption (25 Percent Likelihood): Iranian retaliation limited to strikes on Israel by Hezbollah; US involvement defensive only, limited to skirmishes. Oil rises to $170 a barrel, worsening EZ recession and halting US recovery. Support for sanctions collapses in Asia, Europe.

3.    Sustained Conflict: (40 Percent Likelihood):): US and GCC forces drawn into conflict by Iranian retaliation; Iran disrupts Gulf oil flows, attacks key Saudi and GCC pipelines and pumping stations, stokes unrest in Iraq, Lebanon, areas of Afghanistan. Israel attacked by Hezbollah and radical Palestinian factions, augmented by Iranian missile strikes. Revolutionary Guard initiates global terror against Israeli, Western interests. Oil at $200-per-barrel+ for sustained period; EZ near depression, US recession; China/non-extractive BRICS on brink.

4.    Catastrophic Conflict: (25 Percent Likelihood): Israeli strike prompts massive Iranian retaliation against US, Saudi and Israeli assets in the region. US joins in full force, suffering major casualties as result of Chinese-made Silkworm anti-shipping missiles in Iranian arsenal. Initial BDA assessments convince Israel its airstrikes failed to destroy Iran’s program, and Israel floats the possibility of tactical nukes to finish the job. Coordinated US-Israeli action alienates Arab world and broader international opinion, radicalizing Egypt and Iraq. Oil above $200 per barrel for a sustained period; Gulf shipping lands deeply compromised and Saudi and other GCC facilities suffer serious damage. Near economic depression in US, depression in EZ as bond spreads skyrocket; Collapse of growth in BRICS and EM.

Additional Downside Risk: The Inadequacy of the Israeli ‘Strike Package’

It is important to describe how an Israeli strike would unfold. Israel has three viable weapons – excluding its potent and undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal – that would be relevant to airstrikes against Iran.

·      F-15/F-16

·      Special Forces

·      Long-Range ‘Jericho’ Missiles

Iran’s air defenses – in effect, its air force and its air defense missile network – would pose little obstacle. Even at maximum range, Israel’s advanced avionics, electronic counter measures (ECM) and intelligence capabilities likely would minimize direct losses from these systems. It may well be that Iran would refuse to expose its air force at all given the overwhelming superiority of the F-16/F-15 combination they would face.

However, tactical air defense – high-velocity Gatling cannons and traditional gunfire – could take a toll. (It’s worth noting that the Serbs managed to shoot down an F-117 stealth fighter during the Kosovo war using such “obsolete” technology, while their Soviet-supplied SAM batteries proved impotent).

Israel’s initial strike will need to be massive – a virtual full deployment of its long-ranged F-15 and F-16 aircraft, with only a limited number held back for defense of the homeland. Some targets will be relatively easy to destroy – the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr, a handful of research facilities near Tehran and uranian mining operations in the east of the country.

But hardened targets – the targets most relevant to the Israeli strategic goal of setting back Iran’s program – may prove invulnerable to initial strikes, in spite of the bunker buster bombs provided recently by the US. As such, the Israelis are planning for a second wave – largely involving the recently deployed long-range Jericho missile.

Some military analysts believe Israel would follow a first wave with a salvo of long-ranged missiles in an effort to complete the penetration of any hardened sites that might survive unscathed. While this makes military sense, there is some question about the ability of the Jericho III to reach some of Iran’s more distant facilities, and their accuracy and reliability are untested.

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