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Iran-US Confrontation: Strategic Losers Both – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

“The main Iranian threat is not nuclear. It might become so, but even without nuclear weapons, Iran remains a threat. If Iran abandoned its nuclear program tomorrow, the situation would remain as complex. Iran has the upper hand, and the United States, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are looking at how to turn the tables.” –Thomas Friedman, STRATFOR

Introductory Observations

Iran-United States confrontation has acquired hysteria in the last two months as a result of the upset in the balance of power in the Middle East arising from the United States military withdrawal from Iraq and the United States strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific.

The above developments seamlessly push into prominence the emergence of Iran as the naturally predominant regional power in the Middle East. This is a serious strategic upset for Saudi Arabia, the other contender with claims to be the regional power. It is also a serious upset for Israel which views a possible emergence of Iran’s nuclear weaponization as a foremost national security threat and Iran’s emerging predominance giving a military boost to Israel’s enemies like Hezbollah.

Iran - United States Relations
Iran - United States Relations

At issue all along in the Iran-United States confrontation over decades has been the singular underlying fact of United States containment of Iran for balance of power considerations. Earlier, the US stimulus was to limit the contagion of Iran’s Islamic Revolution spreading wider in the Middle East. In 2012, the US stimulus for containment of Iran stems from Iran’s inevitable emergence as the predominant regional power in the Gulf Region, and the prospects of a nuclear weaponized Iran getting more stiffened and less prone to strategic coercion.

Notably, it needs to be stated that currently the United States confrontation with Iran is strongly fuelled by intense pressures from Israel and Saudi Arabia. With the United States security architecture in the Middle East hinged to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the United States is unable to resist such pressures.

In the militarily surcharged environment that dominates the Middle East and more specifically The Gulf currently, the moot question that emerges is whether exercise of the military option by the United States or by proxy on its behalf by Israel would provide the strategic answers sought in terms of regional stability, prevent emergence of Iran as a nuclear weapons regional power, and insuring Israel’s security.

The straight answer is a resounding NO as the strategic landscape has considerably changed. It is no longer weighted heavily in favour of the United States. In fact it would be a safe bet to assert that the odds are heavily stacked against the United States.

To reinforce the above assertion, this Paper intends to examine the following associated issues: (1) Iran-United States Confrontation: A Reality Check (2) United States and Iran Confrontation: Strategic Losers Both (3) United States or Israel Military Strikes Against Iran: A Self Defeating Proposition

Iran-United States Confrontation: A Reality Check

The Iran-United States confrontation in 2012 is perilously placed on the brink of an armed conflict. It therefore becomes necessary to carry out a strategic reality check of the global and regional power-play and security environment.

Strategically at the global level, the United States global unipolar moment is now past. Russia’s resurgence and strategic forays in the Middle East coupled with China’s deep involvement in Islamic Middle East complicates United States options in its confrontation with Iran. Russia and China are deeply involved strategically with and on the side of Iran.

Though by themselves singly, Russia and China do not provide countervailing power to Iran against the United States, the two put together do in a strategic sense and do provide countervailing power in favour of Iran.

Regionally, in intra-regional terms, the balance of power is in favour of Iran as it is both a geographically predominant power and also the military-dominant power in the Gulf Region. Iran outweighs Saudi Arabia in all the national attributes of power.

The United States as the predominant global power enjoying total strategic dominance of the Middle East and the Gulf Region has made a military exit from Iraq and is now embarked on a strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific. Both these factors once again limit United States options in its strategic confrontation with Iran.

The United States had Iran in a military cleft stick when it had sizeable forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last decade was the strategic moment for US military intervention against Iran, but that moment stands long past. Pakistan which was the intended springboard for United States military intervention against Iran and which till recently was hosting US Special Forces operations within Iran has slipped out of the American orbit and fully embraced China, strategically.

The Gulf Region with its Shia majorities rule by Sunni monarchs is politically restive with the onset of the Arab Spring. So while the Gulf monarchs may host and militarily collude with the United States against Iran, any US reliance on Gulf States for launching military operations against Iran has many vulnerabilities attendant on it.

Strategic reality check additionally reveals the following: (1) United States containment of Iran in the last three decades has failed. (2) United States and the West have failed to arrest Iran’s potential nuclear weaponization (3) Economic sanctions earlier have failed and the recently announced more stringent economic sanctions by the US against Iran are destined for the same.

Iran-United States Confrontation: Strategic Losers Both

Strategically, it appears that the United States and Iran confrontation stand frozen in a time warp of 1979 when the Islamic Revolution in Iran brought about the fall of the most exalted US ally, the Shah of Iran in one fell-stroke.

Times in the Gulf Region have changed politically and strategically, but both the United States and Iran have not changed with the changing strategic landscape and both Iran and the United States have ended up as strategic losers as a result of their relentless strategic confrontation.

The United States has been a strategic loser in that initial hostile attitudes should have given way to a realistic strategic assessment that a rapprochement with Iran was a strategic imperative for the United States.

What comes to mind is the parallel of US policy of normalization of relations with China. Asserted many years earlier by me was the fact that if United States could indulge in normalization of relations with China despite the fact that China had been involved in a war with the United States, there was no reason for the United States not to normalize relations with Iran when Iran was not involved in a war with the United States.

Had the United States politically reached out to Iran in good time, the United States with a strategically cooperative Iran in tow could have achieved political stability in the Gulf Region, ensured the security of Israel, and through Iran, the United States could have achieved strategic, political and economic access to Central Asia.

In short, a political reach out to Iran by the United States would have been a significant game-changer for the stability and security of the Gulf Region. Such a wise US move would not have created a strategic void for Iran and thereby bringing in Russia and China in Gulf Region power-play.

More importantly, an Iran not under relentless threat from the United States, Israel and the West, may not have at all been tempted to work towards a nuclear deterrent to offset her asymmetric military equations with the strategic might of the United States.

Iran too has been a strategic loser in its confrontation with the United States, in that Iran stands impeded by the United States to emerge as the natural strategically pre-eminent power in the Gulf Region. The stark strategic reality for Iran is that it cannot emerge as the pre-eminent regional power in opposition to the United States or inspite of the United States.

Similarly, Iran has to recognize that Iran has to moderate its strident rhetoric on Israel’s existence. Israel as a sovereign nation-state in the Middle East is a reality for all times to come and no amount of Iranian or Arab nations rhetoric can wish away Israel’s existence.

In this connection, it cannot be forgotten that the United States and Iran have had a long history of strategic and security cooperation pre-1979. Iran till then was the main pillar of the United States security architecture in the Middle East. Iran was also being built-up by the United States as the dominant naval power in the North Arabian Sea.

Both the United States and Iran have now in 2012 to cut their strategic losses as once again the United States needs to outsource regional security to the naturally regional pre-eminent powers, which in the case of the Middle East happens to be Iran.

United States or Israel Military Strikes Against Iran: A Self Defeating Proposition

In 2012, United States and Israel military options with collusion by Saudi Arabia and Gulf Kingdoms, no longer can embrace an all-out war against Iran, as it was done during Gulf War I and Gulf War II. In 2012 the military option against Iran boils down to military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations and Iran’s economic infrastructure.

The US aim in the above option would to obliterate Iran’s nuclear installations and Iran’s nuclear weapons potential. The economic aim would be to cripple Iran’s economy in that after such strikes, Iran has neither the financial resources nor the ability to reconstitute its nuclear installations and any nuclear weaponization projects.

Planned United States and Israel military option against Iran is inherently a self-defeating proposition for both the United States and Israel for the following reasons:

  • The United States and Israel option of the above air strikes strategy against Iran as a “Limited War” strategy is fallacious as they would not be able to limit the ensuing war with a wounded Iran not shirking in widening the width and scope of its retaliatory strikes.
  • Iranian senior military officials have been quoted as declaring that “If we drown, we’ll drown everybody with us”.
  • Iran has been preparing itself militarily for decades now to face a possible US military intervention. Iran in terms of military potential should not be misconstrued by the United States as another Saddam’s Iraq.
  • Iran has also expectedly learnt valuable military lessons from US military operations in Gulf War I and Gulf War II in devising appropriate strategies to blunt US military strikes against it.
  • Iran’s nuclear installations are not going to be easy strikes for US and Israel. They are well dispersed, well protected and have hardened protective covers. Military strikes against them may yield only partial success and leave Iran with enough residual capacity to reconstitute its nuclear ambitions.
  • Iran’s major retaliation in event of US & Israeli strikes against it, would manifest itself in blockade of Hormuz Straits, sustained missiles attacks against Israel, destruction of oil installations in Gulf countries allied to USA, and direct attacks on US military bases in the Gulf Region and in Israel.
  • Additionally, Iran can be expected to mobilize the heavily armed militias like the Hezbollah to launch military operations against Israel and US bases besides generating other forms of asymmetric responses against the United States worldwide.

Not to be forgotten is the strategic reality that unlike the Gulf War I and Gulf War II, Russia and China would no longer be idle spectators in any military strikes by United States and Israel against Iran.

China’s reactions can be gauged from quoted assertions by Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaoling, Director National Defense University that China would not hesitate to intervene in Iran’s favour in case of a war against it. Pointers seem to have also been made that China could use its Pakistan corridor to assist Iran.

In sum, when all factors are added together, the major conclusion that emerges is that any United States and Israel military strikes operations against Iran are a self-defeating proposition for both of them.

Iran seems to be resigned to face the United States military option against it and the attendant destruction that would be inflicted. The crucial question is whether the United States and Israel are similarly resigned to accept the conventional and asymmetric retaliatory damages that Iran can inflict on them in desperation.

Concluding Observations

United States and Iran in a mutually cooperative strategic relationship would have put into place a significant ‘game changer’ on the strategic landscape of the Middle East. It would have had far-reaching strategic ramifications globally. China’s present strategic intrusiveness in the Middle East endangering US interests would have been limited.

Regrettably, this could not emerge and both the United States and Iran have lived with the consequences.

As the United States and Iran precariously perch on the brink of war, it might be worthwhile to quote French President Sarkozy’s advice, when he observed:

”A military intervention in Iran would not solve the problem
(of Iran’s nuclear program) but would trigger war and chaos in
The Middle East and maybe in the world”

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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