The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran sets alarms ringing in capitals across the globe. Ayatollah Strangelove may not (yet) exist, but Tehran’s proven antagonism toward most of its neighbors, many Western states and especially Israel, ensures that few relish the thought of Iran obtaining a nuclear arsenal. Taking direct action against Iran’s developing nuclear program has therefore always been a question of "when," not "if."
The "when?" of possible military action against Iran has been influenced by intelligence assessments of the nuclear program’s progress, and is usually measured in years to go. The timing of a military intervention is critical. Executed too soon, it may thwart other coercive efforts and result in unnecessary retaliation. Too late and Iran will have achieved its goal. Embarking on an act of war when Tehran has an atomic bomb would be extremely dangerous and may invite greater retaliation (e.g. through terrorists using nuclear material). The latest IAEA report may yet usher in the inevitable period when potential military action is no longer years ahead but measured in months to go.
So if necessary, what is the best military option? A land invasion can be swiftly discarded. Iran is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, so occupying the country is impractical. Even storming Tehran would be unrealistic as the capital nestles safely in the north of the country, far from (unlikely) potential bases in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Turkey. Although temporary raiding by land and Special Forces (SF) may be possible, operational realities mean an assault against Iran would be largely an air and maritime affair.
In that case would the Libyan model of foreign air and naval forces helping indigenous revolutionaries work in Iran? Almost certainly not. First, the extent of air control achieved so swiftly in Libya may not be possible against Iran’s armed forces in a much larger battlespace. More importantly, domestic opposition to the current regime is too small and democratic to overthrow Ayatollahs who command some popular support and the loyalty of zealous Revolutionary Guard forces. The revolution in Libya sprouted from decades of violent tyranny not applicable to Iran. Iranian repression has cultivated opposition but it is essentially liberal, preferring peaceful protest over insurrection. In Iran there is no armed rebellion waiting for foreign support, so although military strikes could seriously damage the current regime, they would be unlikely to cause its downfall.
The success of the coalition campaign in Libya will raise expectations that air and sea power could prevail in Iran. Such enthusiasm must be tempered. On paper, Gaddafi had a large military which included some modern equipment. In reality, its readiness, training, serviceability and overall performance were poor, allowing coalition partners to quickly gain control of the air and sea. It would be folly to assume that Iranian forces would be as fragile. Although pariah status has undermined Iranian military capabilities, isolation has emphasized the importance of national defense, an emphasis reinforced by the zealous ideology within Iran’s large Revolutionary Guard forces. Tehran’s soldiers may lack the foreign technology sold to Gaddafi’s troops, but they will probably take their job more seriously and make better use of what they possess. More worryingly, if they cannot prevent attacks on Iranian targets they will actively seek retaliation elsewhere. Air and sea power may prevail against Iran, but not easily.
So what sort of military assault might Iran face? Independent action by Israel is possible as it feels the most threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and has been preparing for this eventuality for some time. However, as Iran’s nuclear program may now have developed to a point where independent Israeli action is too small to achieve a decisive effect, a concerted effort with the US, and possibly other nations, may be needed to do so. It would also promote international legitimacy but would take longer to plan, organize and integrate, and would probably seek a sanction from the United Nations Security Council.
An allied air and maritime assault on key Iranian facilities offers the greatest return for the least risk. Concentrated effort using cruise missiles, drones, stealth and conventional manned aircraft would shorten the length of a campaign thereby reducing the required suppression of Iran’s air defenses. If rumors that Tehran has acquired modern mobile Russian surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) are true, this suppression is more challenging but not impossible. Similarly, the siting of nuclear facilities underground can make targeting more difficult, but still achievable. Ultimately, for about 20 of the 23 years since Iran fought Saddam’s Iraq, Western forces have been in almost constant operational use, and the contrast in experience gained, lessons learned and resulting technological development is stark. If Tehran believes its nuclear program is invulnerable to attack, it is taking a significant gamble.
Paul Smyth has 30 years' association with the defense arena, as a military officer and later as a Head of Program at the Royal United Services Institute. He is currently the owner of R3I Consulting.