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A plan to attack Iran swiftly and from above

A plan to attack Iran swiftly and from above

The Globe and Mail
November 22, 2007

WASHINGTON — Massive, devastating air strikes, a full dose of “shock and awe” with hundreds of bunker-busting bombs slicing through concrete at more than a dozen nuclear sites across Iran is no longer just the idle musing of military planners and uber-hawks.

Although air strikes don’t seem imminent as the U.S.-Iranian drama unfolds, planning for a bombing campaign and preparing for the geopolitical blowback has preoccupied military and political councils for months.

No one is predicting a full-blown ground war with Iran. The likeliest scenario, a blistering air war that could last as little as one night or as long as two weeks, would be designed to avoid the quagmire of invasion and regime change that now characterizes Iraq. But skepticism remains about whether any amount of bombing can substantially delay Iran’s entry into the nuclear-weapons club.

Attacking Iran has gone far beyond the twilight musings of a lame-duck president. Almost all of those jockeying to succeed U.S. President George W. Bush are similarly bellicose. Both front-runners, Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani, have said that Iran’s ruling mullahs can’t be allowed to go nuclear. “Iran would be very sure if I were president of the United States that I would not allow them to become nuclear,” said Mr. Giuliani. Ms. Clinton is equally hard-line.

Nor does the threat come just from the United States. As hopes fade that sanctions and common sense might avert a military confrontation with Tehran – as they appear to have done with North Korea – other Western leaders are openly warning that bombing may be needed.

Unless Tehran scraps its clandestine and suspicious nuclear program and its quest for weapons-grade uranium (it already has the missiles capable of delivering an atomic warhead), the world will be “faced with an alternative that I call catastrophic: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy has warned.

Bombing Iran would be relatively easy. Its antiquated air force and Russian air-defence missiles would be easy pickings for the U.S. warplanes.

But effectively destroying Iran’s widely scattered and deeply buried nuclear facilities would be far harder, although achievable, according to air-power experts. But the fallout, especially the anger sown across much of the Muslim world by another U.S.-led attack in the Middle East, would be impossible to calculate.

Israel has twice launched pre-emptive air strikes ostensibly to cripple nuclear programs. In both instances, against Iraq in 1981 and Syria two months ago, the targeted regimes howled but did nothing.

The single-strike Israeli attacks would seem like pinpricks, compared with the rain of destruction U.S. warplanes would need to kneecap Iran’s far larger nuclear network.

“American air strikes on Iran would vastly exceed the scope of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear centre in Iraq, and would more resemble the opening days of the 2003 air campaign against Iraq,” said John Pike, director at Globalsecurity.org, a leading defence and security group.

“Using the full force of operational B-2 stealth bombers, staging from Diego Garcia or flying direct from the United States,” along with warplanes from land bases in the region and carriers at sea, at least two-dozen suspected nuclear sites would be targeted, he said.

Although U.S. ground forces are stretched thin with nearly 200,000 fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the firepower of the U.S. air force and the warplanes aboard aircraft carriers could easily overwhelm Iran’s defences, leaving U.S. warplanes in complete command of the skies and free to pound targets at will.

With air bases close by in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, including Kandahar, and naval-carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, hundreds of U.S. warplanes serviced by scores of airborne refuellers could deliver a near constant hail of high explosives.

Fighter-bombers and radar-jammers would spearhead any attack. B-2 bombers, each capable of delivering 20 four-tonne bunker-busting bombs, along with smaller stealth bombers and streams of F-18s from the carriers could maintain an open-ended bombing campaign.

“They could keep it up until the end of time, which might be hastened by the bombing,” Mr. Pike said. “They could make the rubble jump; there’s plenty of stuff to bomb,” he added, a reference to the now famous line from former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Afghanistan was a “target-poor” country.

Mr. Pike believes it could all be over in a single night. Others predict days, or even weeks, of sustained bombing.

Unidentified Pentagon planners have been cited talking of “1,500 aim points.” What is clear is that a score or more known nuclear sites would be destroyed. Some, in remote deserts, would present little risk of “collateral damage,” military jargon for unintended civilian causalities. Others, like laboratories at the University of Tehran, in the heart of a teeming capital city, would be hard to destroy without killing innocent Iranians.

What would likely unfold would be weeks of escalating tension, following a breakdown of diplomatic efforts.

The next crisis point may come later this month if the UN Security Council becomes deadlocked over further sanctions.

“China and Russia are more concerned about the prospect of the U.S. bombing Iran than of Iran getting a nuclear bomb,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Tehran remains defiant. Our enemies “must know that Iran will not give the slightest concession … to any power,” Iran’s fiery President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said yesterday. For his part, Mr. Bush has pointedly refused to rule out resorting to war. Last month, another U.S. naval battle group – including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman with 100 warplanes on board and the Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown as one of its screen of smaller warships – left for the Persian Gulf. At least one, and often two, carrier battle groups are always in the region.

Whether even weeks of bombing would cripple Iran’s nuclear program cannot be known. Mr. Pike believes it would set back, by a decade or more, the time Tehran needs to develop a nuclear warhead. But Iran’s clandestine program – international inspectors were completely clueless as to the existence of several major sites until exiles ratted out the mullahs – may be so extensive that even the longest target list will miss some.

“It’s not a question of whether we can do a strike or not and whether the strike could be effective,” retired Marine general Anthony Zinni told Time magazine. “It certainly would be, to some degree. But are you prepared for all that follows?”

Attacked and humiliated, Iran might be tempted, as Mr. Ahmadinejad has suggested, to strike back, although Iran has limited military options.

At least some Sunni governments in the region, not least Saudi Arabia, would be secretly delighted to see the Shia mullahs in Tehran bloodied. But the grave risk of any military action spiralling into a regional war, especially if Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to make good on his threat to attack Israel, remains.

“Arab leaders would like to see Iran taken down a notch,” said Steven Cook, an analyst specializing in the Arab world at the Council on Foreign Relations, “but their citizens will see this as what they perceive to be America’s ongoing war on Islam.”

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