Iran: Consequences of War
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Units of the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Iraqi experimental Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in 1981, limiting Iraq’s potential to take the plutonium route to nuclear weapons. Baghdad was within range of Israeli aircraft whereas the Iranian facilities were, until recently, at the limit of Israeli Air Force capability. That has now changed with the importing of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft – the F-15I and the F-16I. 25 of the F-15I are currently in service and Israel is building up a force of 102 F-16I aircraft, deliveries having stared in 2003.2 The Israeli Air Force has also acquired 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities.
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Although the Iranian socio-political environment is complex and markedly changeable, there is a general belief in the value of advanced technology, and a perception of nuclear power as a symbol of modernity. When faced with the argument that a country so well endowed with oil and gas does not need nuclear power, the immediate reply is to point to a fifth of electricity already generated by hydro-electric power, and the argument that oil and gas are too valuable to be used for electricity generation, especially given Iran’s indigenous reserves of uranium ores. In terms of public attitudes, it is clear that a range of opinion formers from across the political and religious spectrums believe that Iran has every right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle. It is also the widespread view that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons should the country’s security require it.
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Immediately to the west of Iran, the United States has close to 150,000 troops in Iraq and is building permanent military bases there. It has extensive deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and has its Fifth Fleet that controls the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea and is overwhelmingly powerful in contrast with the small Iranian Navy. To the east, Iran sees the United States firmly ensconced in Afghanistan, with two permanent bases now established at Bagram near Kabul and at Kandahar (see Appendix 1). Moreover, a large new military base is being developed near the western Afghan city of Herat, close to Iran’s eastern border with that country. Finally, the United States has developed close military links and, in some cases, basing facilities in a number of countries to the north and east of Iran, especially those close to the Caspian Basin oil fields or pipelines that bring such oil through to Black Sea or Mediterranean ports.
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Although the United States has a major problem of overstretch affecting its Army and Marine Corps, an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be undertaken almost entirely by the Air Force and the Navy. To have the maximum impact, it would be done by surprise, utilising land-based aircraft already in the region, long-range strike aircraft operating from the United States, the UK and Diego Garcia, and naval strike forces involving carrier-borne aircraft and sea-launched cruise missiles. At any one time, the US Navy keeps one aircraft carrier battle group on station in or near the Persian Gulf. Such groups rotate, and there are periods when two are on station, providing over 150 aircraft, together with several hundred cruise missiles.4 Similar numbers of land-based aircraft could be assembled with little notice, given the range of US bases in the region, and B-1B and B-2 bombers could operate from outside the region. In particular, the specialised facilities required to operate the stealth B-2 aircraft are now available at Fairford air base in Gloucestershire.
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Air strikes on nuclear facilities would involve the destruction of facilities at the Tehran Research Reactor, together with the radioisotope production facility, a range of nuclear-related laboratories and the Kalaye Electric Company, all in Tehran. The Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre would be a major target, including a series of experimental reactors, uranium conversion facilities and a fuel fabrication laboratory. Pilot and full-scale enrichment plants at Natanz would be targeted, as would facilities at Arak (see Appendix 1).6 The new 1,000 MW reactor nearing completion at Bushehr would be targeted, although this could be problematic once the reactor is fully fuelled and goes critical some time in 2006. Once that has happened, any destruction of the containment structure could lead to serious problems of radioactive dispersal affecting not just the Iranian Gulf coast, but west Gulf seaboards in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. As well as the direct human effects, since these comprise the world’s most substantial concentration of oil production facilities, the consequences could be severe.
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In addition to the substantial programme of air strikes and missile attacks on nuclear, missile and defence facilities, US military operations would also be aimed at pre-empting any immediate Iranian responses. Most significant of these would be any possible retaliatory Iranian action to affect the transport of oil and liquefied natural gas through the Straits of Hormuz. On the assumption that this would be an obvious form of retaliation, it would be necessary to destroy coastal anti-ship missile batteries and Iran’s small force of warships. The main base and dockyard is at Bushehr; the operational headquarters is at Bandar Abbas which is also the base for Iran’s small flotilla of Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, although Chah Bahar is due to become the new base for these three boats. Other bases for light naval forces include Kharg Island at the head of the Gulf and islands in the Abu Musa group south-west of the Straits of Hormuz, these being heavily defended and well supplied.
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It is very difficult to predict the level of Iranian military and civilian casualties, but two points may be made. The first is that, as in Iraq during the first three intense weeks of war, early civilian casualty reports will be incomplete and the full extent of casualties unlikely to come to light for several months. However, any reports of civilian casualties which do emerge would be widely disseminated by the Iranian media and by commercial media networks such as al-Jazeera elsewhere in the region. The second is that any surprise attack will catch many people, be they civilian or military, unawares and unprotected. There will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas as was possible in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq.Military deaths in this first wave of attacks against Iran would be expected to be in the thousands, especially with attacks on air bases and Revolutionary Guard facilities. Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least, particularly with the requirement to target technical support for the Iranian nuclear and missile infrastructure, with many of the factories being located in urban areas. If the war evolved into a wider conflict, primarily to pre-empt or counter Iranian responses, then casualties would eventually be much higher.
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Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard remains a strong if largely free-standing component of the Iranian defence system. While its facilities on the Persian Gulf coast and close to the border with Iran might be damaged in the early waves of US attacks, there would also be a very substantial base of support for the Guard, expressed by immediate improvements in morale, a greatly enhanced ability to recruit, and a determination to respond. Although US military action against Guard facilities might be undertaken to "warn off" the Guard from interfering in Iraq, the effect would almost certainly be shortlived, and the numerous links which already exist between Guard units and Iraqi Shi'a militias would be activated rapidly. Such demonstrable Iranian involvement in the Iraqi insurgency would result in an escalating US military response involving cross-border attacks on Iranian logistics. This would increase Iranian civilian casualties, cause economic disruption and also further increase internal Iranian support for the current regime.Overall, and given the nature of the Iran/Iraq border, Iran would be in a very strong position to aid elements of the Iraqi insurgency in numerous ways, providing a wide range of armaments as well as personnel. This would give a substantial boost to an insurgency that, even three years after the termination of the old regime, is as active as ever.