WHEN Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking American officer, was asked recently on NBCâ€™s Meet The Press whether the US has a military plan for an attack on Iran, he replied simply: â€œWe do.â€
General staffs are supposed to plan for even the most unlikely future contingencies. Right down to the 1930s, for example, the US maintained and annually updated plans for the invasion of Canada â€” and the Canadian military made plans to preempt the invasion. But what the planning process will have revealed, in this case, is that there is no way for the United States to win a non-nuclear war with Iran.
The US could â€œwinâ€ by dropping hundreds of nuclear weapons on Iranâ€™s military bases, nuclear facilities and industrial centres (i.e. cities) and killing five to ten million people, but short of that, nothing works. On this we have the word of Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations.
In the early 1990s, Clarke revealed in an interview with the New York Times four years ago, the Clinton administration had seriously considered a bombing campaign against Iran, but the military professionals told them not to do it.
â€œAfter a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the US,â€ he said. The Pentagonâ€™s planners have war-gamed an attack on Iran several times in the past 15 years, and they just canâ€™t make it come out as a US victory.
The problem is that there is nothing the US can do to Iran, short of nuking the place, that would really force Tehran to kneel and beg for mercy. It can bomb Iranâ€™s nuclear sites and military installations to its heartâ€™s content, but everything it destroys can be rebuilt in a few years. And there is no way that the US could actually invade Iran.
There are some 80 million people in Iran, and although many of them donâ€™t like the present regime they are almost all fervent patriots who would resist a foreign invasion. Iran is a mountainous country, and very big: four times the size of Iraq. The Iranian army currently numbers about 450,000 men, slightly smaller than the US Army â€“ but it does not have its troops scattered across dozens of countries.
If the White House were to propose anything larger than minor military incursions along Iranâ€™s south coast, senior American generals would resign in protest. Without the option of a land war, the only lever the United States would have on Iranian policy is the threat of yet more bombs â€“ but if they are not nuclear, then they are not very persuasive. Whereas Iran would have lots of options for bringing pressure on the US.
Just stopping Iranâ€™s own oil exports would drive the oil price sky-high in a tight market: Iran accounts for around 7% of internationally traded oil. But it could also block another 40% of global oil exports just by sinking tankers coming from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states with its lethal Noor anti-ship missiles.
Iranâ€™s mountainous coastline extends along the whole northern side of the Gulf, and these missiles have easily concealed mobile launchers. They would sink tankers with ease, and in a few days insurance rates for tankers planning to enter the Gulf would become prohibitive, effectively shutting down the regionâ€™s oil exports completely.
Meanwhile, Iran would start supplying modern surface-to-air missiles to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that would soon shut down the US effort there. (It was the arrival of US-supplied Stinger missiles in Afghanistan that drove Russian helicopters from the sky and ultimately doomed the whole Soviet intervention there.) Iranian ballistic missiles would strike US bases on the southern (Arab) side of the Gulf, and Iranâ€™s Hizbollah allies in Beirut would start dropping missiles on Israel. The US would have no options for escalation other than the nuclear one, and pressure on it to stop the war would mount by the day as the worldâ€™s industries and transport ground to a halt.
The end would be an embarrassing retreat by the US, and the definitive establishment of Iran as the dominant power of the Gulf region.
That was the outcome of every war-game the Pentagon played, and Mike Mullen knows it. So there is a plan for an attack on Iran, but he would probably rather resign than put it into action. It is all bluff. It always was.