Recent reports in the U.S., European and Israeli press seem to suggest that the world is closer to seeing a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Some reports suggest this would be an American-led effort with some British (and possibly additional European) support and others suggest that the attacks will come from Israel. Whether these particular reports are the result of credible leaks, disinformation campaigns, and/or journalistic speculation, it seems clear, regardless of the specific timing, that there is a military option with respect to Iran’s nuclear sites and infrastructure. President Obama has categorically refused to rule out the military option, and Israeli leaders have openly discussed the issue on a variety of occasions.
It is hard to say what the precise trigger point may be that would result in either a U.S.-led strike or an Israeli strike against Iran, and it is probably likely that the respective governments involved will want to leave their options open for as long as possible. At any rate, the United States Government will be doing it and its citizens a serious disservice if it does not put in place contingency plans for the “day after” a strike on Iran.
In many ways, if and when someone strikes Iran, it will not matter as much as to whether the strike is carried out by the United States (with or without European support) or by Israel or whether the attack takes the shape of a coordinated operation by all interested parties. The United States is almost certain to be blamed by the Iranian Government and any other parties in the Muslim world that will view such an action as yet another example of U.S. “hostility” towards the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, Iran has a menu of options with respect to striking back at the United States and larger Western interests and these, very briefly, are:
1. Attacking Israel with long-range surface-to-surface missiles from Iran as well as with shorter-range missiles and rockets from Lebanon (courtesy of Hizbullah)
While Israel has the means, via anti-ballistic missile and anti-rocket systems, to partially defend itself, it is still likely (given the enormous numbers of such weapons available to Iran and Hizbullah) that significant damage to Israeli cities and civilians will ensue. Moreover, Iran has the option of using chemical or biological warheads against Israel. With or without the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, such a scenario will almost certainly also lead to another war between Israel and Hizbullah, further complicating matters in the Middle East and inflaming newly self-confident public opinion in the Arab World unleashed by the Arab Spring. Diversionary attacks may also occur against Israel from the Gaza Strip as Iran prods its Palestinian allies to play an active role in the response to Israel.
2. Attacking U.S. Arab allies in the Persian Gulf
The intense animosity and rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is well-documented, and Iran may be highly tempted to lash out at the Saudis. Iran is well-placed to use surface-to-surface missiles, ships and aircraft to attack Saudi oil fields and otherwise disrupt life in the Kingdom. It may also encourage the Kingdom’s Shi’a minority, which is based largely in the Persian Gulf coastal regions, to rise up against the authorities (as it apparently did in the case of Bahrain’s Shi’a population some months ago). All of this will not only serve to destabilize a key U.S. ally, but it is likely to also send oil prices skyrocketing as Saudi oil production becomes threatened, even if only temporarily.
3. Disruption of shipping in the Persian Gulf
Iran’s missile, air and naval capabilities can cause significant disruption to shipping in the Persian Gulf, including, of course, oil tankers. Moreover, the Iranians may have the capacity to, at least temporarily or partially, close off the Strait of Hormuz, a 600 mile long narrow body of water that is the only water access point to the Persian Gulf. It is estimated that upwards of 15 million barrels of oil transit the strait every day and that this accounts for some 20 percent of the world’s daily oil production.
4. Attacking US forces in Iraq and the Gulf
U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also be targeted by Iranian intelligence and Iranian-backed activists in these countries.
5. Attacking the US Homeland
Iran also has the option of using Hizbullah activists in the United States to engage in attacks against aviation, suicide bombings and/or other types of terrorism directed at Americans. Moreover, al Qaeda-affiliated organizations may view this as a pretext to speed up any attack plans they may have (and this, despite the distaste that radical Sunni Muslims have for Shi’a Muslims).
Needless to say, none of the above scenarios will constitute good news for the United States. Despite these dangers, it is certainly conceivable that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran outweighs the above threats. Taking risks is part of international policymaking. All parties in this situation will be playing hardball and, regardless of whether Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is destroyed or the world decides to acquiesce in a nuclear Iran, the outcome is not going to be pretty. It does, however, behoove American policymakers to prepare the country and the global community for the above contingencies because, as long as the military option remains open, the world needs to prepare for Iran’s reaction if and when the order to strike is given.