The tension in the Middle East is palpable. More potential triggers for regional conflict exist at this time, than any in recent memory. As Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi recently warned the IDF senior leadership during an annual situational assessment held Monday, August 27th, “It will be an environment dealing with a series of crises – regional and domestic – which raises the threshold of sensitivity of all the players and may lead – even without advance planning – to flare-ups.”
While it’s seemingly impossible to “expect the unexpected”, it is possible to expect the worst and plan accordingly. For that reason, attempting to examine a “worst case scenario” for a future regional conflict is a useful thought exercise.
Imagine for a moment it’s an unseasonably warm evening in October, Iranian Air Defense commanders are surveying their radars, and the coast seems clear. Suddenly the screen blips out. The commander attempts to reach his superiors in Tehran’s Ministry Of Defense. There is no response. Israeli electronic- and cyber-warfare are targeting Tehran’s air defense and command and control systems at the very moment that a large wave of fighter-bombers, representing the core strength of the IAF, come screaming overhead.
An Israeli Dolphin-class submarine surfaces at the limits of its 1500-km cruise missile range just long enough to launch, its missiles targeting the residences of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei, and top Iranian commanders in a decapitation strike. While some members of the Iranian high command are killed, the primary key figures, including Khamenei, survive.
The Israelis strike most heavily at the heavily-fortified Fordo facility outside the city of Qom, and at Natanz, both enrichment facilities. They also target the reactor at Arak, but they ignore the civilian reactor at Bushehr, with its Russian advisory personnel, and Parchin, because of successful Iranian efforts to scrub the site of evidence of its role in building warhead components and nuclear weapon triggers. Pilots are ordered to drop any remaining ordinance on Iranian long-range missile bases in an effort to minimize the coming retaliatory strikes.
A manually launched Surface-to-Air missile hits an Israeli fighter jet, and its pilot is forced to eject. Israeli Search and Rescue (SAR) commandos launch from a base inside Iraqi Kurdistan, but thanks to a campaign of leaks from American officials about Israeli cooperation with countries and factions bordering Iran, the Iranians are prepared. When the SAR team comes under heavy fire they are forced to turn back. The pilot is captured alive, and displayed on Iranian state television.
The Israeli jets leave Iranian airspace, pausing only briefly to refuel over Northern Iraq before returning to Israel to refuel and rearm.
The Iranian response begins. Hezbollah in the north, and Hamas in the West, and Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the Sinai, all begin by launching a steady of missiles into Israel, primarily targeting civilian population centers. While the Israeli missile defense program is excellent, casualties begin to mount as technology is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. While its proxies focus on mass casualties, the Iranians use their surface-to-surface missile capability to target Israeli air fields and command and control, seeking to disrupt Israeli attempts to take out Hezbollah launch sites.
President Obama speaks to the nation announcing support for Israeli’s right to preemptive self-defense, but privately administration officials are fuming at the timing, and don’t provide anything more substantive than vague moral support. The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had previously said the U.S. did not wish to “be complicit” in an Israeli attack on Iran, and U.S. statements heavily emphasize that Israel acted alone. This offers a tacit nod to Iran, which had previously received assurances from the Obama Administration that if Israel attacked Iran, it would be on its own.
Throughout the region, the Arab states condemn Israel. In Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the U.A.E. these denunciations are formulaic and tepid, but Turkey, Egypt and Qatar are virulent against the “Zionist entity” and its “criminal attack”. In Iraq, President Nour al-Maliki issues a stinging communiqué against Israel’s violation of their territory and airspace. Egypt goes on full military alert.
Israel begins its assault into southern Lebanon, targeting Hezbollah missile sites and command and control, and actively moving in to secure territory. The IDF has learned its lesson from setbacks during the 2006 war, but Hezbollah has been preparing for this eventuality as well, and progress on the ground is grindingly slow. When a grad rocket scores a direct hit on a family home in southern Israel, killing all the residents including children, Israel moves against Gaza as well, but is forced to do so with only minimal air support as Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries stationed in the Sinai in violation of the Camp David Accord threaten Israeli jets operating in the skies above Gaza. That means taking heavier casualties on the ground among IDF troops. Even after the IDF moderates their tactics, the Egyptians provide arms and equipment to the Sinai jihadists fighting alongside Hamas.
Jihadist forces initiate strikes from the Golan, provoking fierce skirmishes. When Israel counterattacks, Assad may launch surface to surface missiles at Israel as well.
After weeks of fierce fighting, with casualties heavy on both sides, there is no obvious sign that a conclusion is approaching, but pressure begins to grow internationally for a resolution, with the U.S. weighing in favoring a cease-fire on the basis of returning to status quo antebellum.
In conclusion, the Israelis have lost hundreds, possibly thousands of lives; thousands of lives have also been lost in Lebanon, Iran and possibly Syria. Iran’s nuclear weapon program may have been set back a few years at best. Hamas and Hezbollah remain active in at least some form. The Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, which had been counting on Israeli success to humble their Shiite antagonist, now agree to make non-aggression agreements with Tehran. In the end, despite the attacks, the Iranian regime emerges effectively strengthened, even if their nuclear weapon ambitions are delayed by one to three years.
Why is this a worst case scenario? Could it not be worse? Certainly Iran could launch missiles against American bases in the region, target shipping and oil rigs in the Gulf, as well as mine the straits of Hormuz. Iran, or Syria could also tip their missiles with chemical warheads, possibly increasing the number of Israeli or American casualties substantially. They could also potentially unleash Al-Quds or Hezbollah terror attacks against the American homeland, with the potential for mass casualties. However exercising any or all of these options would certainly guarantee American military intervention. While the Israelis can launch only a single strategic air strike against Iranian facilities before they must return to gear up to defend against the Hezbollah counter attack, the U.S. would almost certainly retaliate against such Iranian actions with a full air campaign, which would lead to substantial degradation of Iran’s nuclear capability and/or seriously disrupt the Iranian security forces, to an extent that the regime may not survive. While initial casualties would likely be more severe in such a case, the ultimate strategic outcome would be a victory for Israel and the U.S. By comparison, if Iran targets only Israel, it is able to isolate one of its enemies, and is more likely to be able to secure victory, or at minimum, the appearance of victory.
This isn’t to suggest that Israel shouldn’t strike Iran. The Israelis may have no choice but to act to delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, even if for a few years, particularly since the U.S. has expressed no willingness to act. Nor will an Israeli strike necessarily play out in this manner, particularly if Israel utilizes capabilities previously unreported, and if Iran has failed to establish low-tech redundancies to their command and control, weakening their ability to counterattack. There’s also no guarantee that Iran will be able to restrain itself and avoid bringing the U.S into the war.
What the scenario DOES suggest is that when (not if) hostilities kick off in the Middle East, there is the potential for events to move fast and furiously, and for a conclusion to hostilities that severely weakens Israeli, and American, interests, particularly if the Obama administration continues to believe it can sit above the fray.
Originally published at https://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/detail/israel-strikes-iran-worst-case-scenario
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