US Military Options to the Iranian Proliferation Challenge

Despite the awesome power of the US armed forces, President Bush will find his military options for dealing with Iran tightly constrained by both political and military realities. What will be absolutely impossible to achieve is regime change Iraq – style via invasion and occupation. Even if the bulk of US ground forces were not already committed in Iraq and Afghanistan such an effort would be extremely challenging and without the support of popular forces certain to be violently rejected by the Iranian people.

A limited air campaign would be militarily simple to execute. Iranian air defenses would be easily destroyed. Targets would be designated and struck with precision and force but to what end? The Iranians have had decades to prepare for this most likely of scenarios and have no doubt dispersed, duplicated, and hardened their critical facilities. No air campaign in recent history has ever achieved anything near what the proponents of airpower have claimed. Unless the US is willing to carry out sustained strikes and re-strikes for months and maybe even years there is likely to be little serious damage done to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

And for the Jacobins in the audience forget the use of airpower as a tool for regime change. Iran is not Kosovo. Even a sustained air campaign would be unlikely to dislodge the Mullahs from power. Any speculation that a popular revolt can be triggered on the “Wings of Eagles” would be seriously mis-informed. The second bombs fall on Isphahan every Iranian will rally to the call of "Allahu Akbar Khomeni Rahbar." Persian nationalism will trump the forces of democracy every time.

Sea-power might be the most effective of the limited tools available. A naval blockade of oil exports could be easily undertaken. Destoying the Iranian tanker fleet and liberating the three islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs along with their associated oil and gas fields would place tremendous economic pressure on the regime.

Regardless of which option is selected, Iran will retaliate by unleashing its tremendous influence amongst its Shi’a proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Doesn’t any remember the Spring 04 Shi’a uprisings in Najaf and Kerbala? Imagine it on a much more intense and wide scale.

Dale R. Davis

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24 Responses to US Military Options to the Iranian Proliferation Challenge

  1. wtofd says:

    Cogent but please explain the significance of the three islands, specifically your use of the word, “liberating.”

  2. Dale R. Davis says:

    There are three strategically placed islands located just inside the Gulf. They are named Abu Musa, Tunb Al Kubra, and Tunb Al Sughra. The sovereignty of these three islands is the subject of a long running dispute between Iran and the UAE. A search on Google can provide you the historic background. That dispute could easily be resolved in the UAE’s favor by the use of US naval power.

  3. b says:

    I also find the words “liberating the three islands” quite offensive. The Shah “liberated” those islands from the sheikdom of Sharjah (part of UAE) 1971 (with US agreement of course).
    Apart from Iranian military there is hardly anybody living on those islands so any “liberation” of them is just a pure oil grab.
    Aside from that, the economic responses to any blockade of Iranian ports or attack on the islands, which could lead to the close of the Strait of Hormuz with high probability, would be very unfavorable for the US and the rest of the world.
    Given high national support in Iran for any conflict with the US the consequences of a blockade or capturing the islands may be easier for their governement than for the US government.
    I wonder how voters might react to the party that advocates for such an adventure and gas prices in the double digits.
    There has been some talk about a nuclear option. Is that serious?

  4. b says:

    Lots of information and disinformation about Iranian influence in Iraq in TIME:,8816,1093747,00.html

  5. Dale R. Davis says:

    Despite its policy of not declaring a “No First Strike” nuclear policy, I don’t think it is currently within the realm of possibility that the US would employ nukes – even tactical nukes – against Iran.
    On closing the straits of Hormuz – First, Iran is not capable of closing the straits for any significant period. I was part of the task force that destroyed the bulk of the Iranian navy in one single day in 1988. The US Navy would acheive complete supremacy and control over the straits in short order. Second – even if Iran could close the straits the impact would be minimal. Saudi Arabia can divert most of its production to its Red Sea terminals.

  6. RJJ says:

    Do the Grand Designers of the administration have any theories about the use of naval forces they might want to field test?

  7. ismoot says:

    You mean the guys “in long leather coats, riding around on armored trains”
    I loved that.
    The Navy would provide carrier air and cruise missiles. They would also clear attempts to blockade the Gulf as Dale says. pl

  8. b says:

    Some “contrarian” thoughts:
    “What could Iran do? Plenty. Send Revolutionary Guards into Iraq to make that country a worse hell for the 135,000 U.S. troops. Incite Hezbollah to launch rockets on Israel to widen the war. Attack U.S. allies in the Gulf. Encourage the Shi’ites in Iraq and Saudi Arabia to attack Americans. Mine the Strait of Hormuz. Activate Islamic loyalists to bring terror home to the United States.
    In short, a U.S. attack on Iran could lead to war across the region and interruption of the 15 million barrels of oil a day that come from the Gulf, which would drive the world economy into instant cardiac arrest. ”

  9. Patrick Lang says:

    Contrarian? I think we agree with you.

  10. Curious says:

    Talking about Trigger happy bunch of cowboy.
    We can destroy Iranian air defense/limited air strike? Sure we can. But what is the point?
    -Iran is NOT merely very large Serbia. Even in serbia it takes us several weeks to finally shut down the radar system.
    -Iran has medium range missiles and somewhat functional naval blockade ability. That means they can launch biochemical weapons against ALL US airbase in the area the minute we start bombing them. We shot a couple radar instalation, and they shot all tanker and US military instalation. (That include the gigantic CIA station in Iraq mind you)
    So here is the scenario mister gung-ho analyst.
    We blow up their radar system in a few weeks, in the same time they start launching medium range missile against all our military facilities in the region and ALL MAJOR OIL terminals.
    How long do you think we can stand $100-130/barrel oil?
    3 days? 3 weeks? 3 months?
    How long can we afford paying the jet fuel for flying those planes maintaining air superiority?
    aha…analyze that my friend.

  11. ismoot says:

    Your comment is addressed to Dale Davis and I will keave it to him to answer it.
    I caution you that nasty and uncivil language will cause me to bar you from this blog. pl

  12. Curious says:

    On closing the straits of Hormuz – First, Iran is not capable of closing the straits for any significant period. I was part of the task force that destroyed the bulk of the Iranian navy in one single day in 1988. The US Navy would acheive complete supremacy and control over the straits in short order. Second – even if Iran could close the straits the impact would be minimal. Saudi Arabia can divert most of its production to its Red Sea terminals.
    Posted by: Dale R. Davis | August 15, 2005 01:58 AM
    I can think of more than 20 ways to shut down the strait of Hormuz. (now, if I can only spell. heh)
    Here is one.
    Sink an old oil rig in that strait. That’ll stop ALL submarines access.
    with that. Their submarines can roam free.
    Then flood the entire bottle neck area with cheap semi submerge flotilla loaded with high explosive, Al qaeda style. Sink Two or 3 more tankers, unless your tankers can fly above water, it’s end of story for navigable waterway.
    I don’t care WHAT superior naval power we have, there is NO WAY we can hunt 1000-2000 cheap flotillas without getting hurt.

  13. Curious says:

    Approximate size of Hormuz choke point. (seems the net says 100 m deep in narrowest point.)
    The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway separating the Arabian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea, is only about 40 miles wide, and is 34 miles wide at its narrowest point. By far the world’s most important oil chokepoint, the Strait consists of 2-mile wide channels for inbound and outbound tanker traffic, as well as a 2-mile wide buffer zone.
    The Persian Gulf is a shallow, semienclosed basin with a mean depth of only 25 to 40 m. The circulation of this basin is driven primarily by the local wind stress and secondarily by thermohaline forcing. The prevailing wind in the Persian Gulf is from the northwest and is called the shamal. A wind-driven generally cyclonic circulation results. The lands surrounding the Persian Gulf are dry so there is strong excess evaporation over the Persian Gulf. This results in a surface inflow of relatively fresh water and an outflow of deeper, more-saline water at the Strait of Hormuz.

  14. Dale R. Davis says:

    I live just inside the straits of Hormuz. Its not a creek, its not even Suez. Sinking an oil rig in the middle of it would have no effect.
    As for submarines, Iran’s aging K class fleet (I believe they have 3) can barely get out of port and in the shallow waters of the Gulf would be located and destroyed with ease.
    Your comments about small boats has merit. The Iranians used Swedish-made “Boghammers” in the 80’s to attack merchant ships. During the rare US-Iranian engagements of 1987-88 these fast attack craft were quickly dispatched by US airpower -helos and fixed-wing.
    The best option Iran has to counter US sea power is its relatively advanced arsenal of underwater mines. These would present a limited challenge but its hard to deploy mines in any numbers when your surface and submarine fleet are sitting on the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker.
    I appreciate your more reasoned and more accurately spelled comments. You are thinking like an insurgent and that is good. Many in Washington should do the same. However, don’t confuse and/or mix analysis with politics. That is how we came to the current state of affairs in Iraq. I am not advocating any particular action. Instead I am offering a reasoned, and professional opinion of what military options the US might consider to address the challenge of Iran.

  15. b says:

    Another point on the strait of hormuz. There was a wargame some time ago where Gen. van Riper played the red side.
    “Van Riper had at his disposal a computer-generated flotilla of small boats and planes, many of them civilian, which he kept buzzing around the virtual Persian Gulf in circles as the game was about to get under way. As the US fleet entered the Gulf, Van Riper gave a signal – not in a radio transmission that might have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks. Meanwhile, Chinese Silkworm-type cruise missiles fired from some of the small boats sank the US fleet’s only aircraft carrier and two marine helicopter carriers. The tactics were reminiscent of the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago, but the Blue fleet did not seem prepared. Sixteen ships were sunk altogether, along with thousands of marines. If it had really happened, it would have been the worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.”
    This may not happen but the Persians to read our books too. The sure thing is that no war plan survives the first attack so why take the risk at all.
    If the US needs oil – fine. Buy it. Maybe that is a new concept but there are plenty of folks who HAVE to sell it to make a living for their people. The rest is supply and demand and market mechanisms.

  16. ismoot says:

    We don’t buy oil?

  17. Curious says:

    I live just inside the straits of Hormuz. Its not a creek, its not even Suez. Sinking an oil rig in the middle of it would have no effect.
    Posted by: Dale R. Davis | August 16, 2005 09:07 AM
    Use your imagination, it’s not terribly complicated.
    1. those old oil rig. sink one or two in the narrowest point. (just so submarines have to maneuver is extremely difficult movement.) Then what? Bunch of dumb depth charge and old torpedo will do. Even the smallest attack submarine will turn into a juicy target at such maneuvering.
    2. Iran has tons of old tankers/LNG ships. Flll one of those puppy with Oxygen/methane mix. And park the sucker in the choke point. When any stupid ship come near it. Blow it up. VOILA… you got TWO BIG SHIP cluttering up the shallow point. Rinse REPEAT.
    3. Small concrete flotill filled with cheap TNT. Whadyda gonna do? Shot it with expensive missile? send marine to disarm it one by one? what?
    4. Here is a kicker. What if instead of naval battle, the Iranian decide to introduce cavalery doctrine on the water. (jet skies, concrete support ship, rubber boat) And just swarm those destroyers and frigates. Whadya gonna do? launch anti missile or torpedo against jet skis and rubber boat?
    If there is war, unless we are betting the Iranians are bunch of idiots, the strait of hormuz will turn into the biggest shallow amphibious battle we ever conduct.
    Air superiority is not going to help us there, since it’ll cost us more to fly a jet patrolling it than the Iranian can build a concrete ship. We’ll fill the entire narrow point with debris and go bankrupt paying jet fuel before we win the war.
    It’s not a difficult concept. An army of of civil engineers and semi skill boaters can win any battle against us simply because of the geography and logistic.
    Tehran, June 5 – Russian companies vie to modernize Iranian 887-AKM submarine fleet.
    Iran has signed a deal with Russian companies to purchase three 887-AKM submarines between 1992-96.
    Moscow’s Rosoboronexport company is in talks with Tehran to upgrade Iranian submarines, according to Rissian daily Kommersant.
    and the Iranian also bought several mini subs from NK, if I read it correctly.

  18. b says:

    – Yes, the US buys oil, for now.
    Intervention in Iraq has nothing to do with oil? The US would have gone to Iraq if it had no oil?
    Me thinks the US is trying to control access to oil worldwide.
    The very three at the top of the government (Bush, Cheney, Rice and some others) are from the oilbusiness and they invade the country with the highest reserve and threaten the next high reserve country.
    Why if not for oil???
    Exxon had a net income of some 7.5 billion last quarter.

  19. ismoot says:

    For the passion of the nutty neocons and their disciples. “Man dos not live by bread alone…” pl

  20. garrett says:

    Does anyone on this forum know wether or not Iran recieves arms sales from china throgh the straits of hormuz? If they could direct me to the website or article it would be greatly appreciated

  21. Mr.Murder says:

    until Halliburton, Bechetl, open their books we should pressure them.
    We had the means to limit this and relaxed strict control.
    Seems like Rummy wants to make Star Wars a necessity for sure return on his investment.

  22. Robert Farrell says:

    The strait carries 40% of the world’s oil. Even if you can redirect some of it, the effect of blocking it is still massively destructive as far as America is concerned, and, incidentally, takes the edge off our siege by making Iran’s smuggled oil that much more valuable.
    Could they shut down that waterway? Yeah, they could. Mine it, for one. Send small teams in and out of the mountains with anti-ship missiles. Without occuppying that coast, you can’t stop those missiles. Compare Israel’s struggles with the Hezbollah rockets.
    And remember, Iran doesn’t need to sink a lot of ships with this method. They only need make it too dangerous for commercial ships (and their insurers) to risk.
    We all know we can’t occupy Iran, but neither can we win without occupying Iran. Iran has a thousand-mile border with Iraq. If I were Iran, I would simply play North Vietnam in this scenerio; you can bomb the hell out of me, and when you are out of bombs, I will still be sending small groups of men on foot over the mountains to kill you.

  23. Wordtodawise says:

    Iranians, not push overs
    Iran is well equipped to deal with any US-Israeli attacks. It’s very simple reasoning. For the US, it’s an away game burdened with complex logistics and geo political hazards. For Iran, it’s a home game with distinct advantages.
    US forces are bugged down in Iraq or better yet trapped. Iran will tighten the noose and inflict severe casualties when formal hostilities begin.
    Take a clue from what’s happening on the ground in Iraq today. The US is not in control and will never be. The situation is too complex for our juvenile minded leadership to comprehend. Now, add Iran to the mix. What do you get? Absolute calamity,
    More troop surges will not yield any positive outcome and like spent waves, they will simply wash ashore on to the sands of painful death.
    The US fleet in the straight of Hormuz is vulnerable. A combination delivery of Exocets, Silk worms, Sunburns and a variety of lesser known missiles pose credible threats to US carriers and other vessels. Thousands of lives may be lost with just one successful hit. Who will be counting?
    It’s sad to realize that all those in leadership who cleverly skipped military service are now trying to gain personal glory on the backs of real soldiers.
    The British sailors were aware of Iranian presence but brushed the danger aside anyway. The outcome was not very pleasant as it turned out. With speed boats and stealth, the lowly Iranians out foxed the British, captured their sailors and humiliated their flag. Caution, the Iranians are no push over’s.

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