Intelligence consultant George Friedman rates the odds that Israel strikes Iran’s nukes at one-in-four. But if it does, casualties could be heavy and $300-a-barrel oil is likely.
The saber rattling and war mongering over Iran’s quest for nuclear arms is reaching a fever pitch. Israeli officials like Defense Minister Ehud Barak talk of the necessity of striking Iran before it reaches a « zone of immunity » by further dispersing and burying more of its nuclear facilities under impregnable carapaces of concrete. The strikes could come as quickly as this spring, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.To read the flood of op-ed pieces on the subject, the West has reached a Munich moment in its relations with the Islamic Republic as weapons-of-mass-destruction fears verge on full hysteria. To get a more dispassionate read on the Iran situation, we telephoned George Friedman of the private-intelligence Website Stratfor, who has been engaging in a war of his own against hackers who last December trashed Stratfor, stealing millions of internal e-mails and subscriber information and ruining its servers.
To Friedman, the likelihood of an imminent Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities remains low probability (« a one-in-four chance, » he opined). For one thing, to be successful the action would require U.S. assistance. And that aid is unlikely to be forthcoming, especially in an election year. Such an attack would involve Israeli air sorties of over 1,000 miles, coordinated with missile attacks from Israeli submarines. Ship-launched missiles can’t carry payloads of bunker-busting bombs necessary for much of the task.
THE ATTACKS WOULD HIT multiple sites, many of them in well-protected underground locations. Likewise, Iran’s missile-air-defense systems are, in Friedman’s words, anything but « Mickey Mouse. » « The task is infinitely more difficult than Israel’s air strikes that destroyed the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 or the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, which, after all, were housed in above-ground buildings, » he observes. « Israel has also lost all elements of surprise by its bellicose broadsides in the Western press. What’s more, if Israel learned anything from its unsuccessful 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, air-force generals always over-promise what they can deliver on. »
But it’s the aftermath of any air attacks on Iran that Friedman finds more problematic. Civilian casualties in Israel by likely rocket and missile attacks from Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza could be higher than anticipated. There will be no lightning victory achieved such as during 1967’s Six-Day War. Meanwhile, Iran will survive as the Middle East nation with the largest conventional military force and a population fired by patriotic fervor.
Most likely, an Israeli attack would prompt Iran to try to close down to sea traffic in the Persian Gulf at its southern choke point, the Strait of Hormuz, where some 20% of global oil production passes. That’s where Iran sought to impede oil tanker passage during the second half of its ’80s war with Iraq to modest effect.
Stratfor consultant Friedman thinks Iran’s response to an Israeli assault on its nuclear facilities would be to shut the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil passes on its way to global ports.
But this time around, Friedman thinks that Iran might enjoy more success despite the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the area and other international naval forces that could be called on. According to Friedman, Iran has conducted naval exercises in the past two months featuring its conventional missile-equipped naval force and flotilla of Republican Guard speedboats that would likely swarm major tankers and opposition naval ships in suicide missions. Iran also has shore-to-ship missile batteries that could exact considerable damage on ships in the Persian Gulf, at least until U.S. air power successfully suppressed them. He would also expect Iran to engage in heavy mining of the strait and also key sea channels in the gulf.
At the very least, the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf would be dramatically slowed if not completely cut off, in Friedman’s view. Ships would have to be painstakingly convoyed behind minesweepers. Tanker insurance rates would soar, particularly if any of the huge vessels were sunk or badly damaged. Oil prices would be likely to spike vertiginously and cripple global economic growth.
« In such a circumstance, Israel would find itself as isolated from much of the world as Iran is presently, » he says. « Israel may regard a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, but that’s not necessarily true of the U.S., EU or most other developed nations. Oil priced at $300 a barrel would be a heavy price to pay for delaying Iran’s crossing the nuclear arms threshold by a mere couple of years and giving Israel temporary peace of mind. »
The Bottom Line
An Israeli-Iranian conflict would have a big human and economic toll, and Syria’s civil war is a more important issue right now. If Assad survives, Iran will be even more powerful.
Friedman believes the hysteria over Iran’s apparent quest to become a nuclear power has clouded rational consideration of more important geopolitical issues. Even if Iran succeeds in building some kind of nuclear arsenal, which in Friedman’s view is at least three years off, the Islamic Republic faces immediate annihilation if any of the weapons are ever used.
To Friedman the issue of far greater moment today is the outcome of the crisis in Syria. If the Assad regime survives in some form (an outcome that Friedman thinks is a distinct possibility), then Iran’s sphere of influence will be all the stronger.
Eventually the Great Satan and linchpin of the Axis of Evil will have to reach some accommodation, in Friedman’s view. And nukes, surprisingly, will likely be a mere side issue.