Monday, January 17, 2005


Report: U.S. Conducting Secret Missions Inside Iran.

Another Seymour Hersh piece, this time in the New Yorker, alleges the United States has been conducting secret missions inside Iran, mission aimed at gathering intelligence and perhaps targeting data for possible action against Iran's WMD program.

The Hersh article isn't available yet online, but here's a link to a Reuters page on the report.

I'm no fan of Hersh's reporting-- his factual laxity is infamous-- but in the spirit of the broken clock, let us assume that his latest report is accurate.

In that case: Gee, thanks a lot Sy.

It's one thing to talk about secret reconnaissance overflights. I presume any such flights would utilize unmanned assets. But Hersh discusses the presence in Iran of a Special Forces team charged with conducting surveillance and reconnaissance *on the ground.* There is a big difference between the two. UAV's get shot down, too bad. On the ground, however, people get killed.

Given how we have not heard any loud complaints from the Iranians about covert operations on their territory, I suspect this means one of two things: 1) Hersh is wrong, there aren't any operations, or 2) there are operations, but they've been successfully kept secret.

Kept secret, that is, until Sy Hersh had to go waving his magic wand around.

The consequences here could be steep. The immediate consequences could be measured in the lives of any personnel we have over there, and any friendly contacts they have inside Iran.

As for the long-term consequences, no one need dwell on what may happen if Iran gets the Bomb.

Now, if someone in Washington is smart, there is a third possibility in play: deliberate disinformation. Someone could be stringing the excitable Hersh along, knowing full well that the Iranians will pick up the story, and become paranoid as a result. Subsequently the Iranians may take additional steps to hide, or even relocate, their WMD efforts. Such movement may give our intelligence assets the opening they need to obtain hard data on where Iran's assets are.

Think of it like flipping the light switch on in the kitchen, and tracking down what scurries where. It is always an easier task to detect targets in transit than when they are standing still.

Regardless of what we discover or how we do so, actually doing something about Iran's weapons remains a formidable challenge. The Iranians learned the lessons of Iraq well, having instituted a flexible, mobile, dispersed and hidden WMD program from the very beginning.

Whereas the United Nations inspections teams in Iraq were able to achieve great success (in infamous hindsight) against the Iraqis, the Iranians possess multiple advantages. They've never had to deal with roving inspections, their WMD infrastructure never suffered military attacks, and, perhaps most important of all, they've enjoyed open trade with three of the most corrupt nations in the world: France, Germany, and Russia. Oh, and let's not forget whatever perks gained via A.Q. Khan's network, as well as those from Iran's trading relationship with North Korea.

I expect that the United States is pursuing as many intelligence avenues in Iran as possible. The Hersh piece mentions an American relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientists knowledgeable of Iran's efforts, a promising development if true. The U.S. will not allow itself to be fooled again-- especially when Iran's intentions are significantly less opaque than Saddam's (they've never really hidden their desire to possess nuclear weapons). If America's leadership is as confident about the nuclear capabilities of Iran as I suspect they are, that means we will most certainly require actionable intelligence prior to any military action.

Actionable intelligence is the most difficult kind to obtain, however, as we've learned to our embarrassment. It's one thing to develop circumstantial intelligence, i.e. the kind that looks good at the U.N. Security Council. It's an altogether more difficult challenge to acquire intelligence that you can use to target, capture and/or destroy sites deep in Indian Country.

Thus, even if the Hersh article is 100% correct (and if it is, I'm King of Australia), the bottom line remains: there are no good military options here. Iran's WMD infrastructure has too many targets, too much uncertainty, and significantly more robust defenses than Saddam's Iraq, circa 2003.

Given our lack of available ground forces, as I see it, the only viable military option in Iran involves something like the air campaign in Desert Storm, relying on many weeks or even months of precision bombing against suspected WMD sites. The challenges with that operational plan are many-- finding the right targets, ensuring destruction of the targets, and protecting your own forces; the last being the most worrisome.

Right now, our Iraq expedition suffers from the importation of foreign jihadis. While the majority of interventionists arrive via Syria, neither is Iran innocent in the game. American military action against Iran would inevitably unleash greater Iranian intervention into Iraq. Almost certainly not of the conventional variety-- in such a scenario Iran would just end up losing badly against American forces-- but a flush of Iranian irregulars and terrorists could end up swamping whatever hope Iraq has for independence.

Aside from the air campaign scenario, there does exist one other conventional option: regime change from below.

The obvious difficulty in this option is that while everyone in Washington seems to take it for granted that Iran is highly susceptible to revolution, no one quite knows for sure. And, even if revolution in Iran *is* likely, there are few obvious consolidated opposition groups available to support, no "Northern Alliance" to equip. Absent a military-backed coup, the Ayatollahs probably have little to fear from a scattered domestic opposition, at least in the interim.

Another danger inherent to any American military strike is whether or not such action separates the regime from its power base, or alternatively strengthens a connection. I'm not an expert on the Iranian polity, so I don't know what the odds are for either, but I suspect that at the very least the latter concern-- collective defiance against foreign intervention-- is a significant possibility. After nearly thirty years of theocracy, many Iranians hate their mullahs. What's unknown, however, is if the Tehran street is forced to choose between the oppressive Ayatollahs and the attacking Americans, who would win out as the lesser evil.

So, nothing but bad options abound. The center, however, cannot hold; *something* has to give in the coming months. I just hope that whatever happens, it happens in our-- and the Western world's-- favor.

UPDATE: I missed it before I wrote this post, but earlier today, Sobekpundit echoed many of my points, only in fewer words. Commendable brevity on his part. . .

Where I disagree with my good friend is in his second point, where he writes "a few well-placed cruise missiles could knock out military installations without unneccessary destruction." I fear that the challenge is much greater.

Full disclosure: I'm an airpower zealot. I believe that airpower unleashed is entirely capable of ensuring victory for the joint force, and in special circumstances may even be able to achieve victory all by itself (much depends on how you define "victory").

I do recognize, however, that since the Second World War, airpower has never been unshackled from political constraints. Even in Desert Storm, the war closest to the ideal, political considerations still played a role, especially after the accidental destruction of the Al Firdos bunker with its civilians inside. To date, arguably the most effective air campaign was the Iraq War in 2003, but in that instance ground forces were able to "flush the fox from the henhouse," providing mobile targets for the firepower of allied bombers.

Perhaps the most likely parallel to a potential Iranian air campaign is the bombing over Kosovo and Serbia in 1999. While I doubt that Rumsfeld's Pentagon would institute rules of engagement anywhere near as restrictive as those in place during the Kosovo campaign-- it must be remembered that those rules were in place to protect Allied aircrews, not civilians-- the pressure to restrict bombing to known WMD targets would be overwhelming.

Outside of Iranian air defenses, strikes taken against traditionally military targets such as barracks and troop concentrations, let alone attacks against the regime infrastructure, might plausibly be off-limits. The Administration may feel that the only possible way to obtain legitimacy for such bombing would be to restrict it to WMD targets. Not to mention, such tactics may be intended minimize civilian casualties, which always look their worst when trumped up on Al Jazeera.

The problem with such a restriction, of course, is that the enemy is not compelled to follow suit.

As mentioned above, Iran could easily respond with unconventional attacks, probably within Iraq. Even worse, Iran could launch a limited conventional response, with the most likely attacks including but not limited to: short- and intermediate range ballistic missile strikes against Iraq and the Gulf states; cruise missile strikes against surface and naval targets, including commercial shipping and tankers; mining the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz; and finally, submerged attacks in the Persian Gulf. Each one of these military options allows Iran to fight well above its weight, all without ever driving a single tank out of a barracks.

Limiting ourselves to WMD targets alone, there are still dozens of potential sites that require destruction, if they can even be found If Iran were to respond, however, with any of the attacks mentioned above, the air campaign might be forced to escalate beyond its capacity to do so. So, what do we hit? With what? In what order? How do we tell when we've been successful? How do we even define success? How does it end?

Bottom line: it would take plenty more than a few cruise missiles to crack this nut.

Proof once again, as though it were needed, that See-more has only two modes: "Shrieking Ninny" and "Incredibly Retarded & Self Serving Shrieking Ninny".

Assuming it's the latter, what recourse exists? Probably none, right? Because now, the operations, if they exist, are completely in damage control mode.

"Gee, thanks a lot Sy"
Excuse me, I seem to have stumbled onto The Belmont Club by accident. Damn, Dave, you must be pretty darn good at your day job.

In regard to your third thesis, I often assume that the adults in our government are mostly competent. I hope that doesn't bite me in the ass.
Hey, it can be profanity and humor here all THE time.

As for your hope. . . yeah. Right. Uh-huh. Sure. No, really. Yup.
Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about it.
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Semper Fi!

Bill Adams
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