If I Wanted to Attack Iran

by Dave Schuler on March 2, 2012

I have repeatedly pointed out that I do not want the U. S. to bomb or invade Iran. I think it would be illegal, immoral, and futile. It would be worse than a crime; it would be a mistake.

For more on this see here and here.

However, if I wanted to attack Iran I wouldn’t attack its hardened nuclear development facilities or its population centers or even its military. I would attack its oil fields, its oil refineries, and its fuel depots. I would do it with drones and I would keep it up until the present Iranian regime collapsed.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

sam March 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

Or maybe just take out its electrical grid?

Dave Schuler March 2, 2012 at 9:31 am

If by that you mean an EMP attack, that crosses a Rubicon that need not be crossed. Additionally, it would take out electrical power indiscriminately. Hospitals would not be spared. If the Iranians elect to use increasingly scarce fuel for purposes other than essential humanitarian ones, that would be their decision rather than a condition forced on them by us.

sam March 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

I wasn’t thinking EMP. We took out the Iraqi grid by dropping carbon fibers on the stations:

One version of the Tomahawk used in the Gulf war deployed small spools of carbon-carbon fiber thread over Iraqi power plants and electric grids. The fiber spools unwound and fell over the live wires. The resulting shorts blew most of the Iraqi electric power grid for the remainder of the war. Iraqi efforts to clear the spools and restart the electric plants were foiled by desert winds which blew more spools back into the live wires.

Serbian forces have also felt the Tomahawk “lights out” warhead filled with carbon-carbon thread. The USAF was also so impressed with the non-lethal warhead that it has installed it in a special GPS guided version. The USAF carbon-carbon spools are dispensed by small “submunitions” that are deployed by the GPS bomb over the intended target.

sam March 2, 2012 at 9:52 am
Dave Schuler March 2, 2012 at 9:55 am

I think that would be harder to implement with Iran than it was with Iraq. Iran is much larger and less centralized. In Iraq once you’ve taken out Baghdad’s power system you’ve pretty much done it.

Icepick March 2, 2012 at 10:21 am

Take out their oil fields? Talk about wrong headed. Exactly how is pissing off EVERYONE IN THE WORLD that uses oil going to put pressure on the Iranian regime? The Russians might secretly approve (as it makes their crude more valuable), but the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans, etc will be PISSED. The American automobile user will be PISSED.

It’s one thing to temporarily crimp supply by use of sanctions (I will pretend for this exercise that I believe that would work), but destroying infrastructure would put a crimp in supplies to be measured in years.

Not to mention that the rebuiilding of those fields would likely drive Iran not to Haliburton but to competitors from nations not friendly to our interests. That is, the business of rebuilding would make our competitors stronger.

Plus, whether the Iranians love their regime or hate it, an attack on their country AS A WHOLE (and the destruction of their biggest inidustry would count as such) will no doubt drive more Iranians to support their regime, at least short term.

Your plan seems to capture all the worst features of sanctions and war, and I’m not seeing any upside.

Icepick March 2, 2012 at 10:24 am

Add India to the list of countries we’re pissing off just by talking about sanctions.

Icepick March 2, 2012 at 10:31 am

Article on Iranian-Indian oil ties.

Two relevant quotes:

India is the world’s second-largest importer of Iranian crude after China. It imports more than 300,000 barrels a day of crude or about 11 per cent of its oil needs, worth about $12bn a year. Between them China, India, Japan and South Korea account for more than 60% of Iranian oil imports.


At the heart of India’s defiance is a fear that an oil shock could halt its fast-paced economic growth, which is already faltering – economic growth fell to 6.1 per cent in the quarter to the end of December, the slowest in three years.

Oil prices have risen 15.1 per cent since the start of the year over concerns about supply and while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have filled some of the shortfall, prices are expected to continue to rise if Iranian supplies are choked off.

Iran also offers India access to Afghanistan without the need to go through Pakistan and helps in efforts to improve relations with India’s 160m-strong Muslim community.

Next week India will send what Rahul Khullar, commerce secretary, described as a “huge delegation” to Iran to boost trade and investment.

steve March 2, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I think I would limit it a bit. Attack their refineries. They could still export and not piss off our allies (as much), but there would be no gas, kerosene or diesel for the Iran people. Are you sure you want to make oil fields world wide prime targets?


Ben Wolf March 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm

How about we stop ginning up reasons to attack countries which commit the crime of insufficient subservience to the United States? Were I running Iran I’d be headed for nuclear weapons at full speed, given the outright aggression the U.S. and Israel consistently display toward others.

Andy March 2, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Any use of military force must have a viable political purpose and be achievable. I think that is the main error in your “what if” scenario – namely that regime collapse can be achieved by cutting of Iran’s oil through military action. In short, I don’t think it’s at all clear that the action described would produce that result. Additionally, even if the regime does collapse, there is certainly no guarantee that the next regime will be more amenable to US demands (whatever they may be).

On a more operational and tactical level, you’d want to consider long-term vs short-term effects. A campaign that seeks to destroy Iran’s oil industry is going to greatly hurt Iran over the long term, so the damage will not be focused on the regime. Going after all parts of the industry (wells, refineries, transportation, etc.) is a strategy to cripple Iran’s oil production over the long term. Instead, you’d want a campaign that would allow oil exports to resume quickly should a new regime come into power. Iran is actually quite vulnerable there – a blockade would cut off about 95% of exports. Blockades are hard to enforce though. Alternatively, last I checked about 85% of Iran’s exports go through the Kharg Island terminal in the northern Persian Gulf. Destroy the right parts of that facility and you’d create a short term oil crisis in the country.

Finally, you would not have a choice not to attack their military. You’d be going to war against them and so they will be attacking you like it or not. Knowing that we would not want to give them the initiative, time and space for any kind of successful attack, so military forces would inevitably be targeted.

And, for the record, this is analysis, not advocacy since I am also opposed to war with Iran.

Dave Schuler March 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I think the points I was trying to make with this post have been lost so I’ll make them explicitly rather than implicitly as I was doing.

1. If Iran does, indeed, have a nuclear weapons development program and the objective of attacking Iran is to get Iran to end that program nothing short of regime change will effect that.

2. The Iranian people must remove the regime.

3. Consequently, the morale of the Iranian people must be a target of any attack.

4. You attack the enemy where he is weak not where he is strong.

Over the period of the last weeks or months I’ve seen any number of articles and posts laying out, with supreme confidence, how Israel will use bunker-busting bombs to reduce Iran’s nuclear development and postpone it by a couple of years. See here and here. I think that’s poppycock. If the Israelis are serious and if they plan to get Iran to eliminate its nuclear development program they have options other than a front-on assault on hardened development facilities. Further, unless they’ve been building their own the number of these weapons in their possession is quite limited. Unless their human intelligence in Iran is a lot better than I suspect it is they don’t know where all of the nuclear development facilities are or even which facilities are the main ones.

Attacking the refineries and leaving the oil fields alone is a good suggestion if that discourages the Iranian people enough that they overthrow the regime. Otherwise it’s inadequate. The option is especially attractive since a lot of the capacity is located handily along the coast.

Any attack by anybody will annoy the Chinese (and delight the Russians). That’s a sunk cost of any attack.

Andy March 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm


#1 I don’t agree regime change is the only option and as I noted above regime change isn’t any guarantee unless one is in a position to dictate the policy of the new regime. Not very likely. Better to get the Iranian people to actively oppose any nuclear weapons program.

#3 The main point of my comment was to suggest that military force isn’t very good at this. Military attacks often have the opposite effect.

#4 True with some caveats. The most obvious is that one must have the capability to strike where the enemy is weak.

If the Israelis are serious and if they plan to get Iran to eliminate its nuclear development program they have options other than a front-on assault on hardened development facilities.

Since 1973 Israel’s strategic doctrine is based on the assumption that it cannot influence the intentions of its enemies except through deterrence – ie. underlying Israeli strategic thinking is that its enemies (pretty much everyone in the region) would try to crush Israel given the chance. Therefore Israel is obsessed with capabilities and seeks to ensure it’s superiority in every area in order to deter but also to decisively win any conflict. It’s for this reason that Israel cannot accept even the potential of a nuclear Iran. So, in the Israeli view, there are no other options between attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure or Iran giving up the nuclear fuel cycle.

steve March 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I dont think regime change will accomplish much. AFAICT, nearly all of Iran wants nukes. Besides, bombing has an iffy history on decreasing morale. This would have to go well beyond regime change. I suspect that we are talking about 20-30 years of attacks. I think it would have to include land based attacks.

However, if you wanted to try bombing, I would still try the refineries first for the most direct impact on Iran and less impact elsewhere. I am dubious that it could work. These are the same folks who used real live people to clear mine fields in the Iran-Iraq war. We may not like them, but I would not assume they are cowards.


TastyBits March 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Any military action by the US is limited by logistics. A quick limited air campaign is possible, but anything for a longer period will be difficult. Airspace would need to be negotiated for flyovers, and host countries may not allow flights (including refueling) to originate in the bases. For ground troops, I do not see how it is possible. Iraq would be the staging area for the buildup, but that is no longer possible.

A naval blockade is possible, but again logistics is a problem. Friendly (or not hostile) host countries of our port facilities may become unfriendly (or hostile). More importantly, Iran is now the dominate power in the region, and they have numerous proxy groups to support them.

Knowledge, materials, and hardware/machinery are needed to produce nuclear weapons. Without these, progress will halt. Somebody has been attacking the knowledge (scientists) and hardware/machinery (Stuxnet virus and sabotage). If Israel is behind these efforts, they must have an intelligence network within Iran. This network could be used to confirm adequate damage was done by any air strikes.

Regime change is probably not going to occur. The present sanctions are reported to be causing economic turmoil in Iran, but I doubt it will cause an uprising in Iran. The last time it did not turn out well, and if nobody is helping the Syrians, nobody is going to help the Iranians.

If military action is to be taken, it should take out as much military capacity as possible starting at the borders. Taking down their air defenses and command & control facilities would leave them vulnerable to invasion. Striking their military facilities will weaken their regional power, and in their neighborhood, weakness leads to unpleasantness. If Iran is weakened enough, the regime will be forced to divert resources to actual internal and external enemies in additional to potential Israel or US threats.

Anywhere violence (or a credible threat) is normal, the strong are on top. NOTE: Strength includes the will to overcome not only weaponry. In these societies, threats can come from any direction, and they often are not frontal assaults. As such, the more avenues of vulnerability increase weakness, and being the “weak horse” is not recommended.

This strategy is not without negative aspects, and I am not endorsing it.

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

Icepick March 2, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Striking their military facilities will weaken their regional power, and in their neighborhood, weakness leads to unpleasantness.

Who (besides us) will be crazy enough to try to invade Iran? Iran is not a small nation, and only two of its neighbors are comparable: Turkey and Pakistan. Turkey actually is a little smaller, population-wise, and they’re tied into NATO. I can’t see them wanting to fuck with the Iranians on their own under any circumstances. Pakistan is much larger than Iran, but they’re unlikely to attempt much because of their issues in Afghanistan and Kashmir. There’s a reason the Iranians and Indians are on reasonably good terms with each other.

Iran is probably the only nation in that part of the world that can afford to be “weak” – they’re just too much for any of their naighbors to take on.

More pertinently, when was the last time the Iranians waged an offensive war?

TastyBits March 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm


Who (besides us) will be crazy enough to try to invade Iran? …

The US is not going to be invading anybody soon, and for Iran, it would be logistically difficult at best. An air campaign is possible, but it too would be difficult.

… Iran is not a small nation …

Too much emphasis is placed on size. For an invasion to nation-build or liberate, the size needs to be substantially smaller than Iraq, but in my opinion, anything is too large. The size as a factor depends upon the purpose of the invasion. Not all territory needs to be controlled. For Iran, the purpose may be to control the oil fields, obtain a coastal footprint, occupy the Strait of Hormuz, buffer zone, Tehran, an amusement park, etc. “Winning hearts and minds” should not be a criteria for an aggressive invasion.

Iran is probably the only nation in that part of the world that can afford to be “weak” – they’re just too much for any of their naighbors to take on.

The purpose for nuclear weapons is to ensure their dominance. They attract the various countries and groups because they are perceived as a powerful country. If that image is damaged, they will begin to lose control/influence of their various friends and allies.

Damaging or destroying their ability to defend their border makes them susceptible to invasion, and this weakens them. Resources need to be diverted to restore the defenses. This lessens their ability to meddle in Iraq, and the meddling is less effective because of their weakened state. Depending upon the extent of this, the Sunnis or Kurds could begin to shift power in Iraq. Internally and externally, Iran would experience power shifts.

It is possible that nothing would change, but I doubt it. The results would not necessarily be positive for the US in or out of the region, but it would minimize the oil flow issues of attacking the oil production. It is possible it would weaken the regime enough for it to be overthrown, but I am skeptical. With enough chaos, it is possible
the covert actions by Israel(?) could be increased.

Again, I am not endorsing any of this, and I do not see anything stopping Iran from eventually getting nuclear weapons.

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

michael reynolds March 2, 2012 at 10:08 pm

I think we need to see some competition in this. So, here’s what we do: divide Iran in three parts and pursue three different plans of attack.

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