Alternate title: Sink the Kharg!
Intellectual honesty required putting the recent threats issued by Iran in a realistic perspective. While we should take Iran’s geopolitical posture seriously, it does our own deliberations a disservice to accept absurdities from Iran rather than calling them out. Someone’s bound to notice eventually, so it’s best to sort the nonsense out up front.
That said, we should be concerned about what Iran has been doing in the last 48-72 hours. This is not because Iran can make good on threats like those depicted in the truly moronic Lenziran video (see link above); it’s because the Iranian regime has escalated its verbal attacks dramatically. These aren’t random bursts of rhetoric. They appear to have a specific purpose.
Other developments suggest what it is. Iran may be setting the stage for a period of high-stakes brinkmanship in order to cross the nuclear threshold in 2014.
Adam Kredo reported on Sunday that an Iranian naval official has lobbed yet another snark bomb at the United States, barely a day after the warning that the Iranian navy was approaching “U.S. maritime borders.” Kredo quotes the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) issuing a threat to U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf:
“The Americans can sense by all means how their warships will be sunk with 5,000 crews and forces in combat against Iran and how they should find its hulk in the depths of the sea,” Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, the commander of the elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy, was quoted as saying Sunday in the regional press.
The reference to “5,000 crews” makes this, most explicitly, a threat to the U.S. aircraft carrier. (Admiral Fadavi’s allusion to “Americans sensing how their warships will be sunk” might almost suggest he is reading commentary at LU…)
The Iranians have made verbal threats a number of times in the past. But they are making multiple threats in concert this time, as Kredo indicates when he includes the menacing statements of Ayatollah Khamenei, also made on Sunday:
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also took aim at the United States … when he urged Air Force commanders to “know the enemy well.”
Khamenei made arrestingly pointed comments about the U.S. posture in nuclear negotiations:
“The Iranian nation should pay attention to the recent [nuclear] negotiations and the rude remarks of the Americans so that everyone gets to know the enemy well,” Khamenei was quoted as saying in the state-run press.
“The Americans speak in their private meetings with our officials in one way, and they speak differently outside these meetings; this is hypocrisy and the bad and evil will of the enemy and the nation should observe all these cases precisely,” he said.
And as Kredo observes, another naval official issued another challenge on Sunday:
… another top Iranian Navy commander claimed that the United States does not have the courage or ability to attack Iran.
“Were the enemy able to inflict damage on us, it would do so; [you must] rest assured that they can’t,” Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told fellow navy personnel during a ceremony celebrating “the 35th anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution.”
Americans (and Israelis) aren’t the only audience these Iranian officials are addressing this stream of rhetoric to. To my ear, it sounds like they’re talking to the Iranian people as much as to foreign auditors.
To the escalating rhetoric, we can add two other circumstances that have not existed before, when Iran was issuing threats about the U.S. military. One is the voyage of Sabalan and Kharg to the Americas.
All things being equal, we wouldn’t necessarily expect Iran to add political freight to this expedition. In other respects, Iran is keeping it on the down-low, making no announcements about the task force’s progress around Africa, and celebrating no fraternal stops along the way (although these stops – for fuel – have to be occurring). That’s not normal. One of the purposes of sending your navy out to show the flag is to actually show the flag. But Iran’s not doing that.(1)
The possibility certainly exists that the Iranians want to keep as low a profile as possible until Kharg, the supply ship with the big hold, has discharged whatever cargo she may be carrying. The continued silence about the task force’s movements would tend to corroborate that theory. I have no doubt that U.S. intelligence knows where the two ships are (the Iranians may imagine that they are hiding the ships’ movements from the Israelis by avoiding publicity). But the seemingly furtive nature of the Iranian transit suggests that there might be something on Kharg that the U.S. wouldn’t like.
I’ve mentioned before that Kharg could be delivering missiles (or other weapon systems) to Iran’s pals in Central America. Shahab-3s for the missile complex reportedly being developed in northwestern Venezuela are one obvious possibility. Kharg would be used because of her immunity as a naval vessel from search and seizure. The U.S., or other nations in the region – such as Colombia and Panama – would care most about certain kinds of weapon systems, and would be more likely to try to intercept commercial cargo ships carrying them. But because Iran is under UN sanctions which prohibit exporting weaponry (in particular, UNSC Resolution 1747), a commercial ship could be stopped solely for that reason, even if it carried nothing more than small arms.
Given these factors, a collateral question about the naval task force is, Why now? This brings up the second of the two additional circumstances attending the rhetoric burst from Tehran. The Iranians are now close enough to the nuclear-weapon finish line to execute their “dash.”
It is quite possible for Iran to detonate a test warhead in 2014. And the Iranians may be setting up for that objective.
The main thing they need that they can’t guarantee is a condition: military passivity on the part of the United States and Israel. But they will also want to prepare the nation of Iran for whatever may happen. The fusillade of rhetoric from Iran in the last couple of days appears designed to address both tasks: deterring the U.S. and Israel, and preparing Iranians.
But deterrence won’t be a matter of verbal ferocity alone. The mullahs will want to have credible threats in place against both nations: Israel, because Israel is the most likely to actually take action against Iran; and the United States, to discourage us from taking military action for any purpose, as well as to encourage us to hold Israel back as long as possible.
The threats Iran can pose to Israel are the same ones they have been for some years now: rockets and missiles from her terrorist-ruled borders, and bomb attacks mounted inside Israel. There will be a limit to what can be done from Gaza; the current government of Egypt will not passively cooperate in building up Hamas, and giving the terror group its head on Egypt’s already troubled Sinai border.
But because of the civil war in Syria, the situation in Lebanon, and even southern Syria, is subject to rapid deterioration and exploitation. Israel’s chief of military intelligence noted at the end of January that there are at least 170,000 rockets in the arsenal available to the terrorists on her borders; Iran and North Korea continue to assist the Syrian regime with missile system upgrades, which could (and will) be made available to Hezbollah.
Some percentage of the weapons will have precision guidance and modern homing capability, which is a game-changer not only for population defense, but for the survivability of Israel’s own military facilities. Other dimensions of the threat include rockets from the Sinai – expanding the concern for local defense down through the Negev to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba – and anti-ship cruise missiles launched against Israeli patrol ships from southern Lebanon.
And, of course, medium-range missiles launched from Iran remain part of the mix.
The latest disquieting development is the visit of Fatah official Jibril Rajoub to Iran in late January, carrying with it the implication of a rapprochement between Iran and the Palestinian Authority. What that may do is crank up the potential for a threat to Israel from the West Bank.(2)
The most likely target for such a threat will be the Israeli settlements. Fatah isn’t going to effectively invite Jordan to collude with Israel in suppressing a rocket-and-missile threat that would reach across the Green Line. But concerted attacks on the settlements, using small arms and suicide bombers, could create a problem for Israel without prompting Jordan to intervene.
Drawing Israel into a heavier armed footprint in Judea and Samaria would achieve multiple goals: preoccupying the IDF with a resurgent security threat; making the settlements harder to maintain; and drawing down foreign opprobrium on Israel’s head. (In the meantime, of course, ramping up cooperation between Fatah and Iran achieves Tehran’s separate goal of interfering with the longstanding client-patron relationship between Fatah and Saudi Arabia.)
If Iran is “preparing the battle space” by trying to surround Israel with threats, she will try to demonstrate to the U.S. that she can pose unacceptable threats to us, even if it’s through one-off, Hail-Mary-type actions. The little frigate, Sabalan, is probably not a player.(3)
That’s where the Kharg comes in. What is she delivering in the Americas – and where will she deliver it?
The possible answers are tied to the scenarios by which Iran could hold the United States at risk. There are two principal categories of scenario: terrorism, and missiles launched from other countries in the Americas. Kharg could be carrying cargo relevant to both.
Terrorism against American homeland targets could take a number of forms, for most of which there would be no need to deliver cargo via Kharg. Chemical and biological weaponry would be the most likely forms of terrorist tool Kharg could deliver. There are any number of ways the agents of Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Shabaab, or other terror groups known to operate in the Americas could move such agents into the U.S.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t really take Kharg to deliver these items, nor would it be as important to introduce them via a country like Venezuela, where Iran can be certain of official approval.
Kharg’s unique value is in being able to deliver large items that can’t be hidden from inspection with deceptive packaging. Medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and missile systems (including mobile launchers and command vehicles) are the obvious possibilities. The map shows threat rings for the extended-range Shahab-3 if launched from Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Cuba.
If we assume Iran does not yet have a nuclear warhead, the main option for making this threat a true deterrent, at least potentially, is the use of chemical warheads. Conventional high explosive warheads would be alarming to the public, but would not be a daunting enough threat. They would do comparatively little damage before triggering a response of some kind from the United States. Of course, chemical warheads delivered via ballistic missile would themselves have only limited effects in the area of impact. Missile delivery is not the way to achieve the most lethal effects with chemical weapons.
That said, two things are worth reiterating. One, the U.S. does not have a constant-ready missile defense network that would protect the central and southeastern United States from an MRBM threat emanating from the south. We are unprotected on this axis. Shifting to a footing of 24/365 alert and anti-missile protection – e.g., by deploying Patriot systems in the continental U.S. or Navy Aegis ships offshore – would constitute a new, un-resourced requirement. We’d have to cut back defense operations elsewhere to meet it.
Two, our ability to react against the “shooter” is limited by the forces we have ready today. We don’t have extra ships and aircraft to deploy for a deterrent presence in Central America. We could react after the fact with B-2 bombers, and possibly other conventional forms of attack, such as submarine-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. But we would have to attack to mount a response, in (most probably) Venezuela or Cuba, and that response would be inherently escalatory.
It’s quite possible that our current administration would view that as a bridge too far. Realistically, I think the military would view the prospect with strong disfavor. Our ready forces would not have such a preponderance of power, or such advantages of geography, that we could do it easily and without inconvenience.
Bottom line: MRBMs down south would constitute a material transformation of our security footing in the hemisphere. It’s a development we couldn’t live with.
But what would Obama do if the Iranians presented it as a fait accompli? The one thing we can count on is that he would not take decisive action to eliminate the threat. For Iran – and her potential henchmen in Central America or the Caribbean – that would be the important factor. They could very well calculate that getting MRBMs into the hemisphere could give them leverage over the U.S. in negotiations, as the missiles in Cuba did for Khrushchev and the Soviet Union in 1962.
What Iranian break-out are we looking at?
The potential for this level of disruptive maneuver is something I don’t think most Americans’ minds are prepared for. It seems awfully dramatic. We should remember that our minds weren’t ready for October 1962 either. We knew there was a tense standoff with the Soviet Union, but the American public didn’t foresee the developments in Cuba.
Would the delivery of MRBMs to Central America, without nuclear warheads, achieve the implicit goal of Iran? That’s a good question. There are a lot of variables, too many to outline here in their different scenarios. The possibilities for what Iran intends to do seem to boil down to two basic narratives.
In the first, Iran truly doesn’t have a nuclear warhead today, and intends to complete the assembly of an enriched-uranium warhead – which could take 1-3 months – and perform a test detonation in 2014. Deterring the U.S. and Israel would be for the purpose of preventing interference with that process.
In the second scenario – what I would definitely call the worst-case scenario – Iran already has the option of transporting nuclear material, and possibly even finished warheads, from North Korea, and declaring herself a nuclear power.
Although I have never discounted the reporting that Iran has been collaborating with North Korea on a (probable) plutonium bomb, I’ve never put the worse-case construction on it either: that Iran already has access to a usable nuclear weapon. (There is little dispute about the collaboration of Iran and North Korea on nuclear and missile research. The question is whether there has been a warhead test in North Korea on Iran’s behalf, and whether Iran might have one or more warheads ready to be loaded on her own missiles.)
If Iran’s break-out is a matter of moving warheads she has stockpiled in North Korea, then the narrative for a 2014 showdown would look something like this: first, that Iran has already moved some of these warheads; and second, that her next move would be to put them where they could be used as a deterrent against the U.S. as well as Israel.
I stress that this is only a worst-case scenario. It’s a possibility, but we lack specific, direct evidence for it. One question it raises is when and how the warhead components or related materials might have been moved to Iran. U.S. (and Israeli) intelligence watch shipping between the two countries very closely. One theory is that the cargo could have been staged to an intermediate point where the Iranian navy could have picked it up. The most obvious recent window for that would have been the visit of an Iranian naval task force to Colombo, Sri Lanka in late December 2013. (I wrote the overall deployment up here at the time.)
North Korean shippers are no strangers to Sri Lanka: Pyongyang was the principal supplier of the Tamil Tigers during their guerrilla war on the Sri Lankan government from the 1980s to 2009. The North Koreans continue to specialize in consigning and moving prohibited cargo; the danger is that they don’t usually get caught.
This history is an interesting pattern, of course, but it is not evidence. I’m trusting readers to recognize the difference between what’s possible and what’s proven.
The “red flag” in this whole saga is the concentration of verbal threats from the Iranians, at a time when they are making an unprecedented naval deployment to the Americas; they are mounting an unusual outreach with Fatah; and they are close enough to nuclearization – even by the expected route, as opposed to the speculative North Korean option – that dashing to the finish line is the only step left.
The quality of some of the Iranian threats is deeply silly. But this doesn’t have the feel of random nuttiness to it. The Iranians are up to something.
(1) FWIW, one theory on the latest statement about the ships approaching “United States maritime borders” is that it coincided with their doubling of the Cape of Good Hope. That’s the milestone that technically puts them in the Atlantic, even if they’re still hugging the African coast. Iran’s senior leadership would know about that, and presumably America’s as well. It’s the general public that isn’t sure where the ships are.
(2) Interestingly, on 3 February, in the immediate aftermath of the Rajoub visit, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, made the following statement in an interview with a German TV station:
Once the Palestinian problem is solved the conditions for an Iranian recognition of Israel will be possible … We have to put on the table a solution that will be acceptable by the Palestinians but until now we have not seen such a proposal. Crimes have been committed against the Palestinian people and we just cannot do that [recognize Israel] until they will be recognize[d]. Only then it will be possible to discuss other solutions.
The implication that there is a path to normalizing relations between Iran and Israel is the main signal Zarif intended to send with this statement. But it’s not an honest overture. It has “Treaty of Hudaybiyyah” written all over it. It wouldn’t fool Israel; it would very easily fool the Western media, the Obama administration, and the EU, and give actors like the UN, Russia, and the Arab League excuses. The timing is therefore particularly suspicious.
(3) Sabalan might have one particular role, and that would be minelaying: e.g., in the Florida Straits, off of a U.S. naval base (such as the ones in Mayport, Florida, or Kings Bay, Georgia), or in the Gulf of Mexico. This would be a very direct and traceable escalation, and I consider it improbable.