Thursday, January 26, 2012

Phase II: Why the US wants to attack Iran

   Looks like the US is playing musical chairs with its carrier groups in the Gulf of Oman.

   The USS Stennis Carrier Group moved to the Indian Ocean last week so the US could transit another carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, through the Straits of Hormuz just to remind the Iranians how screwed they'd be if the shooting starts. The carrier was escorted by the cruiser USS Cape St. George, two destroyers, the Royal Navy anti sub frigate HMS Argyll and even the French got an invite and sent along their own La Motte-Picquet anti sub frigate to fill out the international nature of the party. That's pretty interesting and those frigates show the West's concern at the Iranian submarine threat and the small chance that the Iranians might manage to land a torp in the nuke belly of a carrier. Sure, it's unlikely but the Chinese did manage to sneak a diesel powered sub into the middle of a carrier group during USN exercises off Taiwan in 2006. So nothing's impossible. Also, the USS Enterprise carrier group is on its way and due to arrive in the Gulf in March which is an interesting choice considering it's the oldest nuke carrier in the US fleet, secretly nicknamed the "Mobile Chernobyl" by sailors and due to be decommissioned later this year. Warships passing through the Strait are pretty typical moves but a combined US, UK and French flotilla is unusual and reeks of dick waving to show the pesky Persians what they might be dealing with if they try any 'funny stuff' like mining Hormuz and blocking world oil supply.

   Grab popcorn but don't microwave it just yet.

   I still say this war is way too scary to enter a shooting phase but that's only because I want to believe Western leaders are not insane. And I keep getting proved wrong on that point. This week's naval moves off the Iranian coast had me rummaging through my library for obligatory Sun Tzu quotes and the best I could come up with was  "Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate." The Euros came up with an extraordinary moment of their own this week by way of an oil embargo on Iranian oil purchases that won't take effect till June and is actually a subtle attempt to stop this war from entering the shooting phase. It's a move designed to appease the trigger happy US and Israel so they don't go straight to the bombers and risk setting the world on fire. Of course, the Israelis are still not happy and don't believe it'll stop that theater parity Shia nuke.

   Truth is, nothing is going to stop that nuke.

   Even if the US and Israel do conduct air strikes on Iran's 15 nuke sites, they still can't physically damage an idea. The Iranian nuke program is diversified enough that even a concerted bombing campaign can at best only delay it a few years. Nobody can put the nuclear genie back in the bottle anymore. So this week I got to thinking of this war in wider global proxy resource war terms and that's when things started making more sense.

   Iran is sitting on the fourth largest oil deposit on the planet and has huge reserves of natural gas and that's a sweet energy prize by any account. It's kind of like Inca gold and the Spanish Main in the 16th century... everybody wants a piece of the action. The fun thing about oil is that while it's in the ground, its value is theoretical but not actual. That's actually a plus. For example, when the West grabbed Iraqi oil, they didn't go in right away and start extracting spice like Hungry Hippos. That oil is fine where it is for now. It is control of the real estate above the deposit and a say in how and at what rate those reserves get extracted that really matters. And that's why the Green Zone in Baghdad houses the largest US embassy in the world even after the US pulled out combat troops. Sure, the US can let foreign competitors in to extract the spice and sub contract the work out to other nations, but so long as oil is a dollar based commodity, US economic hegemony of world energy remains intact.

   The interesting player here in all this is China. Though a long way from being a military superpower, its economic power is rising fast, so fast that the US and Europe fear the loss of traditional Western dominance of the global economy. The gaping weakness of the Chinese rise is energy supply. And without a credible naval fleet to protect the flow of spice, the weakness of China gets exposed... Chinese dependence on sea borne oil delivery and their susceptibility to a blockade sometime in our proxy resource war future. What the West really fears here in the global energy game of Risk, is Iran having unfettered control of its own huge energy reserves, selling those reserves outside the dollar to geopolitical rivals (China) and facilitating the rise of a pan Pacific hegemon that could contest Western dominance at some point later this century.

   That's why Iran is in the cross hairs.

   Their whole nuke program is symbolic of their determination not to play nice in the petro dollar chessgame and the question remains, will they get Tomahawked this year because of it?

   Let's get to the fun stuff.

   How would this war play out if the US does attack Iran? In a nutshell, really badly for Iran. Initially at least. The problem for the Iranians is their dated air defence system based mainly around the Soviet S-200 system. For perspective, Gaddafi fielded this against the US when Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 and even pre stealth F-111s managed to do serious damage for the loss of only one plane. These days, with modern EW jamming in the mix, the US and Israel will dominate the skies above Iran unopposed. Also, the US already knows where all these S-200 sites are which makes them really easy to target. Every time those fixed SAM radar antenna get switched on for maintenance or calibration it's like painting a big fat bulls eye on your air defense network. That goes for the more mobile Soviet Tor (SA-15) system too even if it can drive around, stop, find a target and drive off again. Strangely, the Iranians do have a fighter wing of Shah era US F-14 Tomcats which is pretty funny when you imagine some flailing Persian Top Gun Maverick trying to get a lock on a US bogey. In any possible strike scenario, Iran is pretty much defenseless against 5th generation Western tech. Along with the usual rain of Tomahawk missiles, air delivered bunker busters and the Israelis ruthlessly following up behind, Iran is going to wake up the morning after the raid with a serious hangover. And, I suppose, this is where we get to the the really interesting question.

   What will the Iranian response be?

   There are so many options it's hard to keep track. One option not often discussed is the concept of Iranian restraint. I've thought about this lately and it does have merits if you're an Iranian general. What happens if they do nothing? Sure, it's a long shot. But what happens if the Iranians let the world see reactors on fire, spewing radiation across the Persian landscape, broadcast pictures of dead babies to the world and try to play this out in the gladiatorial arena of world opinion? You just got sucker punched for a nuclear weapon you don't even have. In a social media world, the idea that Iran could play the wounded stoic here is a viable option and could be worth a try to make it clear who the real 'bad guys' are. Another reason why I like the idea from the point of view of their crazy theocracy is that getting bombed usually results in the "London Blitz effect". Getting bombed by external enemies rallys populations around whatever power structure happens to be in place and sure would hurt CIA funded opposition groups operating in Iran. All those Green revolution kids on the streets of Tehran getting whipped and shot by Basij thugs would suddenly swing rogue if an external enemy bombed their mom's house.

   Smart leaders in history like Churchill capitalized on stuff like that.

   The problem with politicians and the religious freaks who run countries these days is that they are rarely that smart. The Iranian theocracy is no different. So the question remains, do the Iranians go loud and bust out their myriad asymmetrical options and retaliate against the bombers once Natanz is burning? Who knows? Let's examine the Iranian options:

  • Unleash a thousand speed boats and mine the Straits of Hormuz back to the Stone Age. Oil price hits $200 a barrel until US/Euro/Japanese minesweepers clear the Strait. It'll take two months to declare the all clear. Meanwhile, in the West, we cry like babies because feeding our car hurts, bread has doubled in price and nobody can afford a new flatscreen. 

  • The Iranians launch their limited supply of Shahab IIIs against Israeli population centers. Tel Aviv gets hit and the Israelis launch a reciprocal strike on the civilian population of Tehran. The doomsday Iranian theocracy doesn't like it. Escalation possibilities ensue. A nuclear missile versus chemical missile war. Mass casualties happen on your TV. (Unlikely).

  • The Iranians launch Chinese Silkworm missiles (and Shahab IIIs) across the Persian Gulf, hit Saudi oil installations like Ras Tanura and set the world economy on fire. The world enters a new paradigm of what the fuck? Oil hits $300 a barrel, food prices double and you wish you were a farmer who could grow his own food.

  • The Iranians engage in proxy warfare and pressure Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon to bombard Tel Aviv with the thousands of missiles the Iranians have already supplied them with. The IDF responds with a massive attack on Southern Lebanon and attempts to rectify their 'defeat' in 2006. Thousands die but nobody cares in Western countries because food tastes nice.

  • Iran activates their foreign asymmetrical "terrorist" cells in the US and Europe, they blow up stuff in Western cities and make already unruly citizens decry another bullshit war that didn't have to be. Meanwhile, Western countries turn into police states because everybody could be a terrorist. Oh wait, that's already happened.

  • The Iranians do nothing, lament their dead babies and garner worldwide everyman support because they're just another victim of globalization and the ongoing corporate takeover of the world's real estate. Occupy Wall Street protesters finally start wrecking shit.

   What's most disturbing is that Western leaders seem prepared to play this casino game of chance. How will the Chinese and Russians react if Iran is burning? That's the real question in this whole cluster fuck. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil. Russia has provided enriched uranium and scientists to run the Iranian reactor at Bushehr since 2009. If Russian nationals die in that attack and if that destroyed reactor is spewing Fukushima levels of radiation across the landscape, what's next? The Russians may be happy to issue stern protests at the UN while secretly laughing to themselves as oil, Russia's main export, pushes beyond the $150 dollar a barrel mark; the mark that crashed the world economy in 2008. Since the Russians rely on oil exports to keep their economy flowing ($110 a barrel oil is the estimated minimum price to keep that former superpower economically growing and appease their restless but dwindling population), the Russians will benefit from the US and Israel's stupid war against Iran.

   China, on the other hand, will be pissed. With the just announced Euro embargo, the Chinese have already started demanding discounts on Iranian oil. If there's one thing you can say about the Chinese, they're smart as hell and playing the long game. 5000 years of contiguous history and Sun Tzu can't be wrong. They will see a Western attack on Iran as yet another chess move to block their economic growth and secretly take note of who their real enemy is. One billion people can't be wrong as they continue to conscript their cheap village labor into factories to supply American Wal Marts with cheap plastic goods. For now. Even if Iran is burning, China could be smart, like they've always been, and yet again play the waiting game. In the wake of a US/Israeli attack on Iran's nuke sites, China and Russia will supply the Iranians with military technology to prevent such an attack from ever happening again. It'll be a Rubicon moment in their eyes, the moment when the Western energy lust went a bridge too far. Hell, the Iranians might finally receive a shipment of the Russian S-300/400 SAM system that would make a repeat attack orders of magnitude more difficult for foreign air forces. But, of course, it'll take a year to train Iranian crews in the operation of that sophisticated 5th generation technology.

The Russian S-400 SAM system... The Iranian dream...

   Meanwhile, we're all living in Blade Runner.

   Let's face it, the US, the Euros, the Russians, the Chinese, India, Pakistan and the Israelis will eventually have to face the truth of what Oppenheimer unleashed in the New Mexican desert in 1945. This is what Oppenheimer said after the first nuke exploded on earth. It still gives me shivers... "We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." In the coming 21st century sci fi dystopia future world, every nation of consequence is going to have nukes. Does Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD philosophy) mean we upright apes get to escape our fate?

   No nation wants World War III right now.

   But then again, no nation ever wanted a World War ever and yet we dumb humans always manage to stumble into one. That's if  20th century history is anything to go by.

   2012 is starting to feel like 1912 all over again.