How to fight Iran (Op/Ed)
The American carrier the USS John Stennis and its strike group are headed to the Persian Gulf to join another carrier group in a show of force meant to make Iran rethink its nuclear program. It may be a prelude to war.
The conventional wisdom is that there are "no good options" in dealing with Iran. Most commentators see one of two scenarios, both nightmares: a large, bloody and expensive ground invasion and occupation that would cause oil to spike through the roof or a monthslong aerial bombardment of Iran's estimated 1,500 nuclear-related targets that would trigger a worldwide terrorist backlash. (Alternately, the Israelis could do it for us and set the Middle East ablaze.)
Yet there is a third option, of which our show of force with two carrier groups could be the opening move: a naval and air campaign to topple the ayatollahs without a single U.S. soldier's setting foot on Iranian soil.
This is not unprecedented. Although the public never noticed, the U.S. Navy accomplished much the same thing during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran tried to fire on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1987-8. The Navy managed both to destroy the Iranian navy and to protect shipping in the Gulf to keep the world economy stable. This time, we can finish the job we started during the so-called Tanker War.
The first step would be a U.S. naval blockade of the Straits of Hormuz backed by anti-missile Aegis class destroyers, together with a guarantee of free passage for all non-Iranian oil shipping. This would reassure the world that energy supplies would continue to flow. At the same time, airstrikes would take out Iran's air defense and anti-ship missile sites scattered around the Gulf.
The second step would be what military analysts call an "Effects-Based Operation," as Air Force and Navy planes target Iran's extremely vulnerable military and economic infrastructure, including electrical grid, transportation links, gasoline refineries, port facilities and suspected nuclear sites.
Next would come Special Ops and airborne attacks to seize Iran's main oil-pumping station at Kargh Island and capture or neutralize its offshore oil facilities. This would be an enhanced version of what Navy Seal teams pulled off in the 1988 Tanker War with no more than an airborne and a Marine brigade - fewer troops than in the surge planned for Iraq.
In a matter of days or weeks, the key components of the Iranian oil industry could be in American hands as Iran ground to a halt.
This would not only keep Iranian crude oil flowing to the world's economy. It would also safeguard Russia's and China's investments in Iran's energy industry, which would help line them up in our corner.
Is such a plan farfetched? Would it cause a Middle East meltdown?
No, Iran is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of campaign, as Iraq was during the first Gulf War:
* Ninety percent of Iran's oil production and facilities sit in or near the Gulf.
* Apart from its three Russian-built Kilo-class subs, which we would need to take out, the Iranian navy is small and decrepit.
* Iran imports nearly 40 percent of its gasoline, so destroying its refineries and gas supplies, which could be accomplished in weeks or days, would leave it starved for fuel.
It is this kind of attack, not sanctions or bombs dropped on its nuclear sites, that the Iranian mullahs really fear. Their regime is often compared to Hitler's Germany, but a more accurate comparison is to Mussolini's Italy. Beneath the bluster and bravado, the goose-stepping Revolutionary Guards, the threats of apocalypse and the coming of the Twelfth Imam, Iran is a weak and deeply divided regime.
Its army is large on paper (more than 450,000 men), but in fact it is weaker than Saddam's was before the last U.S. invasion. It still hasn't recovered from the war with Iraq in the 1980s. Its air force and navy suffer from outdated equipment and low morale.
And Iran's economy is caught in a downward spiral, while its urban population, the future of the country, is deeply alienated from the mullahs' theocratic regime.
The mullahs know their collapse means opportunity for their Iranian democratic opponents - who, unlike Iraqis, are not divided along ethnic or religious lines. When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, instead of rallying around Mussolini, Italians took the first opportunity to topple him. Iranians may well do the same.
Ahmadinejad and the mullahs also know that their threat of unleashing a worldwide terrorist backlash is mostly, if not entirely, bluster. The Iranians are despised all across the Arab Middle East; no Sunni wants to see a foreign Shia, or Persian, gain hegemony in the region.
Groups like Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon accept Iran's leadership only because Iran has been successful in intimidating the West - so far. If the mullahs stumble, their terrorist clients will head for the nearest exit. A swift naval and air war that smashes Iran's pretensions and protects oil shipping in the Gulf can expect to be greeted with acquiescence and relief, not outrage, in Arab capitals and in the Arab street.
In short, it is the Iranians, not the West, who have the most to lose. Americans are understandably gun-shy over another shooting war in the Middle East, but events may give us few choices.
Is war coming? Hard to say, but the fact that the next head of Central Command, which oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including Iran and Iraq, will be an admiral, suggests that someone is taking this possibility very, very seriously.
Arthur Herman's most recent book is "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World."