London, Asharq Al-Awsat – With Iran and the international community increasingly at odds over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the region is bracing itself for an escalation, ranging from economic sanctions to pre-emptive or surgical strikes against a number of nuclear sites across Iran. If several Western countries, headed by the United Statesman are currently weighing the options at their disposal, the Islamic Republic is in turn, preparing itself for a confrontation, either on the military or economic front. What are Tehran’s preparations according to the country’s elite military brass?
In early January, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the Republican Guard, spoke for the first time about his country’s military preparations in case of an attack against it. He cautioned Iranian opposition groups against taking part in any action against the regime during these “sensitive” times.
His stark warning followed Iran’s biggest military maneuvers in December in the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean, in which the country’s navy and air force took part. The military tested its submarines, warships, missiles, jetfighters and gunship and conducted exercises to strike against short and middle-range targets (including Israel), using surface-to-surface missiles and to destroy the enemy’s oil, military and security installations. These latest exercises confirm that Iran has begun to mobilize its armed forces in preparation for an expected confrontation, with a number of officials believing that a conflict is inevitable and that an attack will occur sooner rather than later.
While research centers specializing in military issues across the United States and Europe are collaborating with their respective government in order to analyze Tehran’s military abilities, and the likelihood of a war breaking out between the Islamic Republic and Israel, or between Iran and the United States, a number of centers in Iran are busy looking into different scenarios in case of a war with the US.
One of the most important centers in this regard, the Center for Defense and Strategic Studies affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, recently held a closed session, with most senior research fellows in attendance, including former officers in the Army and the Guards. The session featured a heated debate between those who called for a general mobilization to confront the upcoming war and those that believed the US was unlikely to attack Iran.
A military source has indicated that Washington is faced with three alternatives:
1- To let Israel offer logistical support for the United States and its allies by attacking the Bushehr nuclear reactor, north of Tehran, and 8 nuclear and military targets across the country. If this were to occur, Iran could:
A- Respond to the Israeli strike by firing Shahab 3 missiles towards Israel. However, support for this view amongst army and Revolutionary Guards officers is weak because of the expected Israeli retaliation. Its proponents, nevertheless, indicate that if Israel attacked a thousand targets in Iran, the damage would be less than Iranian missiles striking five Israel targets.
B- Attack Israel indirectly using suicide bombers either through Hezbollah in Lebanon or Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, as well as mobilizing the revolutionary forces affiliated to Iran in the region to target US interests.
2- To attack Iran directly. In this case, Iran could retaliate in two ways:
A- Strike against US military installations in the region using missiles, shut the Hormuz Strait, and halt its oil exports.
B- Launch a military attack against American, Western and Arab military and economic installations in the region and aim its Shahab 3 missile towards Israel, a medium range ballistic missile with traditional warheads (More than 130 missiles of middle and long range are currently directed at military and economic bases and installations in nearby countries around the Persian Gulf from several bases and fixed raised platforms in Iran.)
In this respect, it is important to note that President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad and extremist leaders in the Basij forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the security services, especially supporters of Sheikh Mohammed Taqi Mosbah Yazdi, the president’s spiritual guide, support a military attack, with some even calling for pre-emptive strikes.
An officer in the Jerusalem Corps said, “We should to carry out a hundred suicide operations, simultaneously, and aim a hundred missiles against Israel and the US bases in Qatar and Iraq, as well as a number of oil and economic installations in the region, prior to being attacked. In this manner, we will paralyze the American forces and their allies. If Washington were to attack us afterwards, we can incite a hundred popular uprisings in Muslim countries.”
However, would Iranian strikes achieve their objectives? Are the Iranians capable of withstanding a lengthy confrontation? The answers would surely depend on the size of the Iranian armed forces.
The latest figures and statistics on the size and capacity of the Iranian military confirm that the Iranians have succeeded, since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in expanding their armed forces and producing new missiles.
After modernizing their arsenal and conducting successful training exercises, the ground forces, affiliated to the army and the Revolutionary Guards have raised their defense and attack capabilities. On the other hand, the navy and the air force continue to suffer from a lack of equipment, including airplanes and boats, because of the sanctions imposed by countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, who produce 70% of Iran’s airplanes.
Below is a brief survey of the different Iranian military forces and their respective weapons:
1- The ground forces:
The armed forces include an estimated 260,000 soldiers and officers. Most are conscripts and an estimated thousand are professional soldiers. The ground forces are divided into four corps, each one with a central authority that oversees two military regions. The four corps include 11 armored, infantry and commando brigades. Iran currently has a range of missiles, such as ground to air and air-to-air missiles.
2- The Iranian air force:
The Iranian air force played a pivotal role in the war against Iraq and targeted military and industrial Iraqi installations. It currently suffers from a significant lack of fighter jets and air missiles despite spending an estimated 3 billion dollars in 2005 to buy planes and modern equipment from Russia, the Ukraine and China.
3- The Iranian navy:
Around 22 thousand officers and soldiers make up the Iranian navy. They are distributed in 8 large naval bases and 14 secondary bases along the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, the Caspian Sea, despite acquiring Russian Kilo Class submarines at the end of the Iran-Iraq war and bought warships and missile boats from China and Russia.
Given the strengths and weaknesses of the Iranian army outline above, what are the military options available for Tehran?
The shortcomings of the Iranian military, especially in the air and at sea, have prompted a number some of the Islamic Republic’s top military brass (including Major General Ahmad Kazemi, commander of the ground forces, who was killed last week with 8 of his aides in a plane crash near Oromieh) to oppose any military confrontation with the United States. These officers recently wrote to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Guide, warning of the dangers of president Ahmadinejad’s actions and statements calling for a confrontation and for wiping Israel off the map. They emphasized that Iran was in no position to enter into a war with the US.
However, in spite of this, the president and some of his military advisors continue to believe that a confrontation is imminent and that it is crucial to increase military readiness and mobilize public opinion, in Iran and the Muslim world. Some of the procedures recently taken in this respect have included the creation of garrison to recruit would-be suicide bombers and train them for operations against the West, called the “Lovers of Martyrdom Garrison”. Volunteers from Arab and Muslim countries receive military and ideological training in camps overseen by the Revolutionary Guards.
Most Iranian sources agree that economic sanctions, such as those imposed by the Security Council on Libya, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, will not be an effective weapon against Iran because it would be the people who would suffer and a number of countries are ready to supply Iran with what it needs, even by illegal means, in order to achieve political or material gains.
Analysts believe that the only weapon that can successfully hurt Iran is oil, given that the Islamic Republic currently imports 60% of its needs of refined oil and gasoline from overseas, because of the shortage of refiners and the rise in local consumption, reaching more than 60 million liters per day.
A recent study by the Institute for International Energy Studies in Iran has revealed that the country’s gasoline reserves would cover consumer needs for 45 days only. In case sanctions were imposed, after a three-month period, Iran would find itself paralyzed and popular demonstrations and street protests are likely to be held, mirroring that which took place in the former Yugoslavia, the Ukraine and Georgia. Only last month, during a US Senate meeting on the Iranian nuclear program, a lawmaker suggested a study should be commissioned to examine the effects of gasoline sanctions on Iran, indicating that Washington was considering this alternative.
For its part, the Iranian government has taken a series of steps such as withdrawing its hard currency deposits in European banks and stockpiling huge amounts of foodstuff and medicine as preliminary and preventive measures, in case its nuclear file is referred to the U.N Security Council. However, there is still the possibility for a solution to the current crisis, through the unpublicized talks between the more sensible members of the Iranian regime, the European Union and the International Atomic Agency.