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Attack on Iran?

September 1, 2008

Is an attack on Iran about to happen? A Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker has spurred a groundswell of speculation. Given the Bush Administration’s near-continuous saber-rattling towards Iran over the past few years and the attractiveness of a ‘wag the dog’ scenario, the prospect seems plausible. Is it possible, though?

There could be two kinds of attack on Iran. First would be a full-scale invasion, akin to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This would use Army and Marine ground forces and Air Force and Naval airpower either to march on Tehran and overthrow the Iranian government or, in a more limited fashion, strike down the coast line and capture Iran’s oil resources. Second would be an air campaign, aimed at crippling Iran’s nuclear production facilities. This would largely an Air Force and Navy show.

The first is easier to evaluate. The 2003 invasion of Iraq required a force of roughly 130-140,000 soldiers and marines. Such a force simply does not exist in the U.S. Military at the moment. There are about 132,000 soldiers and marines currently in Iraq, with another 34,000 in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is looking to put 7,000 more troops in Afghanistan in the next year, but the military is so strapped for soldiers that to do so would require reducing the number in Iraq. There is no possibility that the United States could construct a 100,000+ person expeditionary force to invade Iran at the moment. The troops simply do not exist to do so.

The second is more possible, but not more likely. The United States could potentially position enough aircraft carriers and Air Force units in the area to mount a sustained air campaign against Iraq. During 2003, there were between 200-300 naval aircraft in theater before the attack on Iraq. This was combined with between 250-300 Air Force warplanes. Currently, the U.S. Air Force has substantially more aircraft in the area, and could conceivably use some of them against Iran. The Navy, however, does not. The current U.S. carrier in Southwest Asia is the USS Abraham Lincoln. She is coming to the end of a 6 month deployment. There are no other carriers likely to enter the Indian Ocean soon. The USS Ronald Reagan just left Japan, but if it were to go to attack Iran, it would leave the Pacific uncovered, something the U.S. Is enormously reluctant to do, given the Taiwan/China situation. The Lincoln carries about 100 aircraft. Given those, plus the Air Force planes in theater, the U.S. could mount an air assault against Iran, but it would be on a shoestring, with the bare minimum forces. That seems unlikely.

Worse from the American perspective, any attack on Iran would lead to retaliation from the Iranians. Most critically, the Iranians would use ballistic missiles and light naval forces to go after oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Navy might be able to keep the Strait open, but only with difficulty. An inevitable result would be the skyrocketing of oil prices and the consequential further collapse of the American economy.

The factors above make an American attack on Iran, either ground or air, extremely unlikely in the next few months.

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