Friday, April 07, 2006

US/Iran Military Conflict Unlikely For Now

Oxford Analytica, Forbes:
Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander-in-chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, on April 5 said the United States must accept that Tehran is a "great regional power." Although the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy identifies Iran as the greatest single challenge facing the United States, Washington is not preparing for an imminent confrontation.

In recent months, a range of U.S. politicians have hinted that military action could be used to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons. However, current political and military undercurrents suggest that Washington is focused as much on a long-term effort to change the nature of the Iranian regime as on the short-term effort to prevent Iran from developing a full nuclear fuel cycle. READ MORE

The National Security Strategy focuses on changing the nature of the Iranian regime as the "ultimate goal of U.S. policy." Indicators from the Washington policy community suggest that this effort is envisaged as a gradual campaign. There are fewer indications that near-term military measures are being considered to achieve regime change or counter-proliferation objectives.

In a recent public address, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmett, chief planner for the U.S. Central Command, reiterated that the core mission of the command is maintenance of the free flow of energy resources, U.S. access to regional states, freedom of navigation and regional stability. Kimmett stressed the defensive nature of U.S. military strategy in the Gulf and focused on dissuading Iran from mounting challenges to the command's objectives. Therefore, the United States will maintain a deterrent framework in the Gulf even after operations in Iraq draw down.

The planned U.S. force posture in the Gulf reflects Washington's primarily defensive approach vis-a-vis Iran. On March 25, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, maintained that Iran was "a long way" from needing a "military solution." Given the current political situation and order-of-battle in the region, any attack on Iran would confront serious strategic constraints:

1. Air strikes: The United States would struggle to gain host nation permission from almost any regional state to undertake counter-proliferation air strikes against Iran. Instead, it would most likely rely on long-range stealth aircraft, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, and possibly carrier-based aircraft. The key limiting factor in the strike would be targeting intelligence.

2. Naval sanctions enforcement: The UN or a U.S.-led coalition could seek to interdict Iranian shipping. The United States would likely use the Proliferation Security Initiative as an overarching mechanism to organize the effort. If targeted sanctions or counter-proliferation interdictions (rather than general sanctions) were attempted, the success of the effort would hinge on intelligence.

3. Ground operations: As the drawdown from Iraq begins, the planned posture of the U.S. military in the Gulf suggests that the United States will not be able credibly to threaten an invasion of Iran for many years, if ever. The level of pre-positioned U.S. Army heavy equipment stocks in the Gulf will drop from 12 battalions worth of equipment to six. The regular U.S. ground forces presence in the Gulf will eventually amount to just a single battalion of troops rotating through the region on training tours. This will considerably reduce Washington's ability to undertake "decisive operations."

The intelligence community is busy developing greater coverage of Iran via CIA outstations in neighboring areas. However, there are few indications that active efforts to destabilize Iran are being undertaken.

Potential U.S. intelligence proxies in Iran include:

Iranian Arabs: Iran has blamed "Western influences" for various bombings in the Khuzestan region, but the unrest is likely tied to the "Persian supremacist" policies of the Ahmadi-Nejad government.

Iranian Baluchis: Separatist Sunni Baluchis from Sistan and Baluchistan provinces include many anti-Western Islamic extremists, who would make uncomfortable bedfellows for the CIA. Their violent activities are likely associated with Iran's crackdown on cross-border trafficking.

Iranian Kurds: Militant Iranian Kurds are tied to the Kurdistan Worker's Party. They would also be an uncomfortable proxy for Washington due to the PKK's longstanding campaign against Turkish military personnel and citizens.

Mojahedin-e Khalq: The National Council of Resistance, the political wing of this Iraqi-based Iranian oppositionist group, retains considerable political clout in Washington. However, its cult-like military wing in Iraq has been effectively dismantled by the U.S. military since April 2003.

There are no signs of an imminent U.S. military build-up, or aggressive covert operations in Iran designed to destabilize the regime. U.S. military and intelligence activity currently appears calculated to support deterrent objectives enunciated by U.S. policymakers, rather than directly confront or overthrow the government.