Behind the mind games in the Gulf
By Richard M Bennett
Psywar is the name of the game with Iran and both Israel and the United States
appear to be raising the ante significantly with a combination of military
exercises and public pronouncements that could be taken to suggest that all
options are now firmly back on the table.
While the growing psychological pressure being exerted has so far had little
clear discernible effect on Tehran's government, the same cannot be said of the
Within the ranks of the secretive religious leadership in the holy city of Qom
there appears to be both confusion and disagreement about the after-effects of
the disputed presidential election in June that saw President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad re-elected, and in the
response to international pressure over Tehran's continuing nuclear
The fault lines are there and the West will no doubt hope to exploit them.
However, this will not be easy as none of the various competing factions led by
Grand Ayatollahs Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader; former president Ali
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; Ali Montazeri or others are particularly warm to the
West and outside interference by Washington will certainly not be welcome.
This also applies to the reportedly growing influence of Iraqi Shi'ite leader
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who appears to have offered his support to what must
pass for the moderate or reformist wing of the Iranian religious leadership.
Washington must also be well aware that any form of overt interference could be
costly and in the end prove counter-productive.
While US intelligence provides an extremely high level of technological
surveillance of Iran with advanced satellite and terrestrial platforms, a
number of widely reported HUMINT (human intelligence) setbacks and failures in
recent years have left the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with few useful
assets within either the Iranian military or the intelligence community.
Robert Sale, reporting in the Middle East Times of March 31, 2009, claimed,
"The CIA had lost its entire agent network in Iran when a CIA headquarters
communications officer was about to send instructions to an agent via its
Sale explained that the CIA officer had attempted to download data intended for
a single operative, but accidentally hit a button that sent it to the entire US
spy network in Iran.
The information was received by a double agent who quickly passed it on to his
case officer in MOIS (Ministry of Intelligence and Security). The Iranian
counter-intelligence service was then able to wrap up the entire network within
days, reportedly leaving Washington virtually blind.
Whether this report is totally correct or an exaggeration, the CIA has appeared
to be critically short of good intelligence in recent years and this may have
significantly contributed to a number of seemingly contradictory reports on the
state of Iran's nuclear program, which many suspect is geared towards
developing nuclear weapons.
Israel's Mossad, however, appears to still have some good sources both within
Iran and Iranian communities abroad, as do a number of Western European
intelligence services, but none are believed to be high-ranking officials or
those who could provide a genuine insight into Tehran's long-term intentions.
This said, the in-fighting between senior clerics backing either Ahmadinejad or
his main defeated rival, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, has
provided a glimmer of hope that Iran's leadership is no longer truly united in
continuing to defy the world community over nuclear weapons, or even perhaps
recognition of Israel.
The remaining chance for a peaceful solution could rest on those senior
religious leaders who may now believe that there is little benefit to be gained
from pursuing the present confrontational course and that a normalization of
international relations would be in the best long-term interests of the region
as a whole and the Iranian people in particular.
Others might, however, suggest that the only policies that the clerics really
wish to pursue are those that will keep them in supreme power in Iran.
Military options One of the latest hikes in this potentially dangerous
psychological warfare game to see who blinks first has been the much reported,
but so far unconfirmed, claim that Saudi Arabia may have privately offered to
allow Israeli military aircraft safe passage through its airspace for a strike
on the joint enemy - Iran. This has been vigorously denied by Israeli sources
and, unsurprisingly, has not been confirmed by the Saudis.
It does, however, fit in nicely with the growing belief in some quarters that
while Saudi Arabia may still be unwilling to accept the de jure state of
Israel, it probably now views the regime in Tehran as a very real threat to the
continued survival of the Saudi Kingdom.
Meanwhile, members of Iraq's parliament have warned Israel not to attempt to
use Iraqi airspace to attack its powerful neighbor. This is a somewhat
disingenuous statement as the Baghdad government simply does not have the
military means to prevent such an overflight.
Only the United States might have the genuine capability in the region and it
is unlikely in the extreme that President Barack Obama would order US fighters
aloft to intercept an incoming Israeli strike on Iranian strategic targets.
Britain's Daily Telegraph recently claimed that Israel was actually negotiating
with the United States for permission to fly over Iraq as part of a plan to
attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
All of this follows the constant reports of extensive rehearsals by the
Israelis for just such an operation. These have been heavily influenced by the
hard lessons learnt during the less than impressive air war in southern Lebanon
in 2006 against the Iranian-backed forces of Hezbollah and the rather more
successful air raid on a secret Syrian special weapons facility in 2007.
It is reported that Israeli strike aircraft have flown a number of test runs to
an area off Gibraltar, roughly the same distance from Israel's main air bases
as the most sensitive strategic targets in Iran.
The New York Times of June 20, 2008, reported that "US officials say Israel
carried out a large military exercise this month that appeared to be a
rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. More
than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters took part in the maneuvers over the
eastern Mediterranean and Greece in the first week of June. The exercise
appeared to be an effort to focus on long-range strikes and illustrates the
seriousness with which Israel views Iran's nuclear program."
The Times of London reported several months ago that the Israeli Defense Forces
(IDF) was making determined preparations to be able to launch a massive strike
on Iran's nuclear facilities within a short period after the operation was
sanctioned by Israel's government.
A senior Israeli defense official apparently told The Times, "Israel wants to
know that if its forces were given the green light they could strike at Iran in
a matter of days, even hours. They are making preparations on every level for
this eventuality. The message to Iran is that the threat is not just words."
The rumor mills have been further fed by the reported delivery this year of an
unusually large shipment of advanced US weapons to Israel. This apparently
included more than 3,000 tonnes of deep-ground penetration, bunker-busting
air-dropped munitions, arguably sufficient to destroy a significant proportion
of Iran's heavily defended nuclear facilities.
It has been claimed that the stockpiling of US-made bunker-busting bombs by
Israel has been ongoing since 2005. These are believed to include more than
5,000 smart bombs, probably made up of at least 500 BLU-109 one-ton
bunker-busters that can penetrate two-meter-thick cement walls and 1,000 GBU-39
bunker-busters precision-guided by satellite to their targets.
Israel may also have now acquired the BLU-113 deep-penetration weapon, an
improved GBU-28, a major shipment of which was received in August 2006 at the
height of the air war in Lebanon. This variant is believed to be capable of
penetrating some three meters of reinforced concrete - which would probably be
sufficient to destroy the well-protected Iranian facilities at Natanz.
Israel also possesses a range of indigenous advanced air-launched stand-off
weapons, such as the Delilah-GL with a range in excess of 300 kilometers and
the Popeye Lite, which is also in service with United States Air Force as the
AGM-142 Have Nap
These and other assets in combination with an IDF air fleet of about 100
specially modified long-range F16I Sufa and 25 F15I Ra'am strike aircraft may
be sufficient to destroy or significantly degrade much of Iran's nuclear
This goes with the proviso that the attacking aircraft are provided with a safe
zone for in-flight refueling
It has recently been reported that an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine armed
with US Harpoon missiles and capable of carrying the 480-kilometer or so range
and nuclear-armed Popeye Turbo cruise missile has been allowed to transit the
Suez Canal on its way to the Red Sea.
As long ago as 2000 it was reported that Israeli submarines had carried out
cruise missile firing tests in the Indian Ocean, possibly in cooperation with
the Indian navy.
The small Israeli submarine fleet with three submarine-launched cruise
missiles-capable vessels could still provide a significant addition to Israel's
strategic reach and allow for simultaneous sea-launched missile attacks on
important targets considered to be beyond the acceptable target zone for strike
The US administration recently further raised the international stakes. Vice
President Joe Biden told ABC reporter George Stephanopoulos when interviewed on
July 5 that Israel had the right to determine its own course of action with
regard to the Iranian nuclear threat, regardless of what the Obama
administration chose to do.
It would be right to point out that this neither indicates a change in US
policy nor a "green light" from Washington for an Israeli attack. It does,
however, indicate that the Obama administration is aware that it can only
restrain Israel so far and certainly not beyond the point where the Israeli
government genuinely believes its security has been or soon will be
Biden made this clear when asked whether the Obama administration would
restrain Israeli military action against Iran, "Israel can determine for itself
- it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do
relative to Iran and anyone else."
Biden appeared to hint that Obama was looking to take a harder line toward Iran
over its contentious nuclear program. It is unlikely that even the
oft-outspoken Biden would have been willing to make such a clear statement
without it being in firmly in line with the thinking of both the president and
the State Department. Obama subsequently strongly denied that his
administration had given a green light to Israel to carry out an attack on
Iran. (See Obama
discredits Iran 'green light' Asia Times Online, July 9, 2009.)
Whatever the mind games being played in the Gulf, whatever the rhetoric, the
hyperbole and the countless claims and denials, it remains highly unlikely that
even a successful Israeli attack on Iran could avoid some form of direct US
involvement eventually, and most probably within a matter of days or even
Any Iranian retaliation would almost certainly be swift and involve widespread
attacks on the US and other Western interests throughout the region. Such a
deadly response would quickly require some form of major US military response.
However, should an Israeli attack be a failure, a more than possible scenario,
then the US may have little or no alternative but to finish the job, as a
failed attack would leave Iran enraged and vengeful, and if it is not already,
set it on the path to nuclear armament.