Convincing Iran and Restraining Israel: Nice Trick If You Can Do It!

Friday, February 17, 2012
Joe Mazzafro

January was an intense month for me personally with my daughter’s return from Afghanistan as I sorted out some challenging career options associated with the ending of myself imposed sabbatical as an unemployed Navy pensioner, but all that is loose change relative to events impacting the IC during 2012’s first month. 

The new-year began with Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz if the US persisted with economic sanctions against its nuclear weapons programs.  This was followed in rapid succession with new strategic defense guidance pivoting a learner military towards the Asia/Pacific theater, the President’s State of the Union Address, the Pentagon outlining budget winners and losers for FY 13, Assad ramping up violence to subdue the breezes of the Arab Spring in Syria, sectarian based violence emerging in Iraq, Secretary Panetta announcing plans to end combat operations in Afghanistan during 2013 – a year earlier than scheduled — and with almost perfect symmetry as January closed Israel  publicly saying it was ready to act alone to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.  Geez, did I miss something in Pakistan?!  And apparently Kim Jung Un is settling in as expected in Pyongyang!

Containing Chinese military power, ensuring allied access to underwater resources in accordance with accepted international principles, and keeping sea lanes open in support of free trade along with the region’s economics and demographics explains both the strategic drivers for America’s “Asia Pivot” and why it is not surprising.  Less clear though to me are the military forces needed for the Pacific oriented AirSea Battle Plan and its operational concept of Assured Access/Area Denial (A2/AD).  If this is more than assured access to sea lanes for free trade and maritime resources (which are traditional Navy missions), one has to ask "assured access to do what?”  In the past that has often meant inserting ground forces or at least supporting friendly operations ashore.  More specifically I am not sure the Navy has yet come to grips with the logistics of Asian/Pacific operations.  First there is a limited basing structure, which becomes even more limited if the target of naval presence is China.  It would seem that the USN is going to need the large Auxiliary Oil and Replenishment ships (AOR's) it is decommissioning to keep afloat forces fueled, fed and armed in this theater known for its “Tyranny of Distance.”  It is also worth noting that since the KA-6 was retired in the late 1980s USN carrier air wings have lacked organic long reach "gas in the air" for its aircraft.  The range of a carrier air wing is now a function of Air Force KA-10 airborne tanker basing options and their range.  Here again Asian countries will be reluctant to allow KA-10s to operate from their airfields to refuel Navy jets "menacing" China.


The Saturday before the Super Bowl, China and Russia vetoed a United Nations (UN) resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al Assad to end the use of military force to subdue anti-government protesters and seek a peaceful resolution to popular demands for more freedoms.  As Assad escalated the use of military force in the wake of the Sino-Russian UN veto, the US and its allies must consider mounting a Libyan like operation without UN backing to force Assad to change or leave.  Iran’s influence with Syrian based Hezbollah elements certainly makes regime change a dicey course of action in terms of strategic outcomes the US would want to achieve in Syria. Then there is the question of can/should the US insert itself to right the wrongs in an Arab autocratic state?

Elsewhere, I am still looking for the cuts in the FY 2013 Defense Budget overview rolled out on 26 January.  Looks like the Pentagon has decided to save money by ending its combat operations in Southwest Asia, cutting the rate of growth in its base budget, and reducing military pay and benefits in advance of the government asking the rest of the nation protected by those in uniform to take any reduction in their entitlement benefits.  All this gets serious as the President’s FY 13 budget is released.

Surprisingly Secretary Panetta announced that proactive combat operations in Afghanistan would come to an end in the summer of 2013, a year earlier than planned.  I am not sure what the rational for this is (presumably it is “facts on the ground” as it has become popular to say in Washington), but I support it because I see active US military involvement having little to no impact in making Afghanistan either more secure, stable, or disposed to support US interests in the region by 2014 or 2024.

The looming issue though right now for the United States is, can diplomatic pressure in combination with economic sanctions cause Iran to terminate its development of nuclear weapons with sufficient transparency to cause Israel not to unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear weapons’ infrastructure?  Presumably the answer is yes, but as evidence by the 1956 strike on the Suez Canal, the 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, various incursions into Lebanon, and the building of settlements in the West Bank Israel will act without US support, or even in the face of US opposition,  when it believes its national security is threatened. 

Ideally Iran’s leadership will be convinced by the obvious impacts of the sanctions on their economy and the increasingly limited ability of Washington to restrain Jerusalem from launching a military attack to   accept international verification that its nuclear program is for legitimate civilian uses as it claims.  The alternative for persuading the Israelis not to attack unilaterally is for the US to offer to conduct joint or coordinated covert operations with Israel to degrade Iran’s ability produce a nuclear weapon.  Attractive as US covert operations against Iran might be given the current circumstances, it would be the President again committing the United States to armed conflict if not war.  The difference this time, however, would be the action would be aimed at the strategic military capability of a nation state vice targeting terrorists without national affiliation but with the nominal approval of the host nation. 

Ironically, what could unknot this political and constitutional concern about the war powers of the President in an election year  as well as give Israel reason not to strike on its own is if Iran actually committed an act of war in the Strait of Hormuz (attacking USN ships, laying sea mines, deny innocent passage, etc.).  Then the President could go to the Congress to “request” a declaration of war against Iran that would open a myriad of options for the US that could force Iran to negotiate or risk the destruction of the center of Shia power and influence in the Muslim world.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

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JoeMazz: Your analysis, as usual, is spot-on. I would highlight and emphasize your comment that, "... Israel will act without US support, or even in the face of US opposition, when it believes its national security is threatened." We're not taking about a bus blown up, or a Kibbutz rocketed. We're talking about their country and its people obliterated. I think that the Israelis take the phrase "Never Again" seriously. And unfortunately, whatever the circumstances and whatever the consequences, I fear that they will act alone and precipitously at whatever point they are convinced that not to do so means the certain demise of their homeland.

Obviously I agree that the US cannot persuade let alone disuade Israel from acting in what it perceives as its national security interests. What should give Israel pause though and the US a dog in the fight are likely reactions to a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear infra-structure. Like all of you I can think of several reactions, but how about Syria supporting a Hezbullah terror campaign against Israel as both reprisal and to divert attention from anti-Assad dissedents joemaz

That is a great summary, Joe.
Your point on the need for logistical support for the "pivot to Asia" is astute. When we come up with a real strategy for the Pacific, perhaps we should invest in a mobile logistical train and use of dispersed bases/ anchorages rather than building bases on Guam or Okinawa. Replenishment ships may be more cost effective than LCS, too.
As to Syria, suggest that we should avoid any direct military involvement there. It may be messey, but arming and encouraging Assad's opponents could do the job (preferably through our allies).

Thanks Bill! As you know I spent most of my career afloat in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Prior to the current basing arrangements in the Persian Gulf we all knew that if you wanted to take a carrier off station in the Gulf of Oman what you should do is attack the AOR shuttling between Gonzo Station and Diego Garcia. It was making that 1500 mile transit one way completely unprotected

As for Syria I really don't see any good options that the US has here so we should be in the "do no harm" policy mode. Working through Turkey to stabilize and shape the future in Syria is what seems the best course of action, but that will take time. And patience comes infrequently in our age of instant communication joemaz

Great summary on tumultuous times. I didn't see mention of how most of the rest of the world have politely told us that they will not, or will only half heartedly support the embargo on Iran. Seems that no one is willing to take a chance on reducing the supply oil to the market.

Even more interesting to me is the argument that Stephen Leeb makes in his book "Red Alert." He makes a good case that while the U.S. continues to focus on the Middle East, China is focused on obtaining rights to the dwindling supply of commodities across the planet. If one puts that in perspective with China's growing control of the global telco infrastructure it goes to your point of what are we really going to do in the Pacific!!

No good choices about Iran. Best of the worst is to cut them off from SWIFT access. That is the hardest economic shot we have short of blocking Iranian import of refined petroleum products--they have very little national refinery capacity. Potentially, these two measure would be an act of war, similar to FDR's oil/metals/rubber embargo against Japan Aug 1941. Not confident we, far less Israel, can really destroy nuclear development, but failure to try will probably cause rapid nuclear proliferation--Saudi Arabia, Egypt. A nightmare. That said, we should also consider how containment might work--the Iranians are more reckless than the Soviets in their heyday, but they are not stupid. Active Containment and sustained menace that explicitly puts the leadership at personal risk might be workable. Too bad we do not have a real energy policy exploiting our own energy resources--that would have incredible impact on our foreign policy choices with Iran.

Marv thanks. You make a great point about China. The great irony here is that China is Iran largest customer for its oil - - - - so why is the USN being used to keep the Strait of Hormuz open? ? ? I would suggest it is habit more than anything else! joemaz

Greg you are right there are no good options via Iran. If Israel or the US acts against Iran to slow their progress this will reaffirm to the Iranian people what the Muhallas have been saying about the US as the Great Satan. With a nuclear weapon Iran is incretiably dangerous - - - - but are they more dangerous than North Korea or Pakistan? I agree with you that it is time to come to some kind of Strategic Acceptance that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon but that once in the nuclear club the rules change. Use a nuclear weapon, expect retaliation in kind. Irony is that it would be likely easier to successfully target nuclear weapons arsenal than the disburst infrastructure for weapons development joemaz

I think your analysis is correct, However If Iran comes anywhere close to disclosing that they have a nuclear weapon (If not already) Israel will attack, As matter of fact in My opinion it's not if they will it's when they will. I believe this may possible lead to World war III, God help us all.


Like you I see an Israeli unilateral attack on Iran unleashing a myriad of untended consequences. None of which I can see improving anyone's national security joemaz