Who’s Afraid of the Ayatollahs?

Absolute folly of going to war with Iran


Who’s Afraid of the Ayatollahs?
by Gary Sick

Politicians and pundits are curiously schizophrenic when discussing Iran. On one hand, they are prepared to declare, as Mitt Romney did, that the “greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran.” To deal with this threat, he says as president he will “restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously... increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region.” Further, he is willing to consider “blockade, bombardment, and surgical military strikes.”

At the same time, when Iran actually issues a threat, such as the recent suggestion that it would close the Strait of Hormuz if its oil exports were interrupted, pundits and analysts from all sides rushed to assure Americans that in any showdown, Iran would be no match for the U.S. military. The mismatch in forces is so one-sided, they contended with good reason, that Iran would never dare attempt such a misguided action that would bring them into conflict with the mightiest military in the world.

The implication is that Iran, if it ever acquired a nuclear weapon, would be an intolerable threat to the United States and Israel (which have a combined total of well over 8000 operational nuclear weapons), but in the meantime Iran’s leaders are afraid to confront the United States because they are out-gunned.

Without questioning the logic of this proposition, just how worried should we be about Iran? How much harm can Iran actually do to us?

This question is important since, despite all the scare talk, the United States and its allies are actually conducting their relations with Iran as if they were entirely immune to any retaliation. Such policies include the use of drones for both reconnaissance and attack; covert (or officially deniable) actions, such as the Stuxnet worm introduced into the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and/or assassinations of suspect individuals; displays of military force; and destructive unilateral sanctions.

War by Stealth

President Obama deserves admiration for the skill with which he has moved the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts off the front pages, at the same time that he was moving soldiers out of the war zones. This, it is worth remembering, was what he was elected to do.

But as he was ending the most visible part of America’s ongoing wars, he was shifting to stealth warfare: drone reconnaissance and attack, assassinations, cyber warfare, and highly specialized small unit operations. It is certainly true that these tactics are less expensive than large scale combat, and they are less likely to produce negative political responses, at least among Obama’s voting constituencies. But they rely on a perception of impunity that is misleading and ultimately dangerous.

Drones are useful to track the activities of relatively primitive opponents, specifically opponents who have no significant air defenses or technological counter-measures. Over the barren skies of Afghanistan, Waziristan and Iraq, they can operate with little fear of interception or interference.

That is not true in a country with more sophisticated defenses. Recently, a stealth drone was downed in Iran. Iran claims that it spoofed the aircraft into believing it was returning to its base, when in fact it was landing in Iran. The Iranian story is credible, though we may never know all the facts. At least two other U.S. drones had previously been downed over Iran, though they were apparently shot down, not commandeered.

Losing a drone, however embarrassing, is not as costly as losing a manned aircraft. That is the appeal. But the fact that we were flying drones over Iran suggests we thought we could do so with impunity. Did we overestimate our own technological prowess? Did we underestimate Iran’s? Either way, it should be a lesson to those who are now assuring us almost daily that a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could be conducted with little cost and manageable repercussions.

Little noticed was the Iranian announcement that it had rolled up a CIA espionage ring in Iran. If true, this is the third time since the revolution that a major U.S. spy ring was neutralized.

Cyber Blowback?

The introduction of the Stuxnet worm into Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz probably slowed Iran’s production of low enriched uranium for a period of time, but enrichment never really stopped and within several months it had recovered to its previous level. It was a clever ploy, apparently created by one or more national cyber warfare laboratories. Whether true or not, Iran believes it was done by Israel and the United States, and Iran’s interpretation will shape its response.

Whoever planted the Stuxnet worm (and apparently a new version called “Duqu” that has showed up in recent months), probably assumed that its originators were immune from retaliation. Is that really true?

Iran has a very highly developed cyber warfare capability of its own, with a battalion of young, skilled IT engineers. Until now, they have focused primarily on putting down the incipient revolt that followed the contested elections of 2009. In that effort, they were much more efficient than the Egyptians, or Syrians or other Middle East nations who have tried to stop use of the internet for social and political mobilization. But what happens next?

The United States and all other developed industrial states rely on computer-driven systems for their most mundane and most sensitive services, everything from waste disposal sites to dams to nuclear plants. Cyber warfare specialists are openly worried about the vulnerability of these systems to a sophisticated cyber attack. And such attacks, if well planned, leave no discernible fingerprints.

As in the case of the stealth drone, are we as invulnerable as we thought? What if a power plant in your vicinity suddenly and mysteriously exploded or ran amok? You probably would not blame your national security officials, but you might be wrong. In cyber warfare, the playing field is much more level than in conventional warfare.

Are Sanctions the Answer?

More recently, the U.S. Congress has been insisting on sanctions against Iranian banks that, in effect, make it impossible for Iran to sell its oil. That is the equivalent of a military blockade of Iran’s oil ports, arguably an act of war. And these sanctions are being imposed unilaterally, without reference to the United Nations Security Council. Members of Congress can go home to their districts and boast about how tough they can be on Iran, and in an election year that is worth a few votes. President Obama seems unwilling to buck the tide, despite his better judgment.

Iran has responded with harsh words, indicating that if Iran’s oil lifeline is cut off, others will also find their access to world oil markets imperiled. Iran does not need to close the Strait of Hormuz to make a point. Its words make it clear that an act of war by the United States will be treated as such by Iran. Even the threat of a confrontation immediately drove the price of oil above $100 per barrel, which has effects on economies struggling to recover from the recession.

The main reason why Iran’s putative threat to close the Strait of Hormuz was dismissed is because Iran also relies on the Strait to export its own oil. But if Iran’s oil revenue – fifty percent of their budget – is cut off, they would have little to lose by striking out at those they hold responsible, including passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran cannot defeat the U.S. Navy, but the swarms of cruise missiles they could fire both from shore and from their fleet of speedboats could create havoc, as could the flood of mines they could put into the fast-moving waters of the Strait.

If pressed to the wall and facing collapse of their economy, Iran might reasonably try to make life as miserable as possible for those it holds responsible, including the loading facilities and refineries of the U.S. Arab allies across the Gulf from Iran. Iran’s cruise missiles can be used at targets other than ships.

Iran would eventually lose this battle, but the rest of the world would have paid a very high price. A prolonged period of oil prices above $200 and the uncertainty about when normal supplies could be resumed would do real damage to the fragile and recovering economies of Europe and the United States.

I’m sure the members of Congress who are trying to outdo each other in anti-Iran bravado spent little time worrying whether they and their constituents might be harmed in various ways by an Iran that sees itself under attack. Some openly welcome the idea of a third Middle East war, whatever the consequences.

Slouching Toward War

These are the same illusions of righteousness and impunity that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As General Zinni memorably noted, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re going to love Iran. Those who suggest that a U.S. military confrontation with Iran would be surgical, limited, and one-sided are many of the same people who eight years ago assured you that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk.

Remember that Iran has been developing a nuclear enrichment capability for more than twenty years – more than thirty if we include our nuclear cooperation with the shah – all the while as members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. They almost certainly experimented with development of a nuclear weapon during the days of Saddam Hussein, but according to U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) those experiments stopped with the fall of Saddam in 2003. The latest IAEA report, based on the observations of their own inspectors at key Iranian sites, found no evidence that Iran is diverting nuclear material to build a bomb.

The alarms that some are sounding as they openly try to push the United States into another truly catastrophic war in the Middle East are based on the fact that Iran MIGHT choose at some point in the future to build a bomb. Advocates of war try to transform that into a certainty that Iran WILL build a bomb and then use it, probably against Israel. That fear of a suspected nuclear capability as a rationale for going to war should by now sound familiar to most Americans. It is exactly the same argument that got us into Iraq.

An impeccable array of U.S. and Israeli security officials have spoken openly of the absolute folly of going to war with Iran and have warned against exaggerating either the threat or Iran’s intentions. Those voices include the top military leaders and intelligence officials in both the United States and Israel.

After a decade of war and trillion dollar deficits, the United States should be well aware that such adventures can do us real harm. An important set of experienced voices continue to call for a return to negotiations. Iran says it is willing. We risk greatly and unnecessarily if we ignore the chance.

First published in Gary Sick's blog.



A Very Good Objective...

by jirandoust on

Article, but apparently not to some chicken hawks of both Iranian and American varieties who advocate war as long as it is fought by others. Those who would want to see the demise of mullahs at any cost, obviously don't care about the heavy loss of human lives on both sides the Iranians as well as Americans. They certainly don't give a damn about the destruction that will ensue such a disastrous war. They simply close their eyse on the events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe it's time for those who'd want to see the "head of the snake is cutt off" to go back to Iran and go after the snake themselves, rather than sitting here in comfort of their homes and strategizing for others to do it.




by bfarzin on

Mr. Sick's, and most Iranian "experts'" error, is this: They have no understanding and knowledge of what is the ideology of people like Khamenei and his mobster supporters, and what they intend to do to advance it.


There is no way to unseat this gang calling themselves government in Iran without a very large bloodshed-- it cannot be done, unless they commit suicide themselves, which is very unlikely. Therefore, the sooner the rest of the world [and Iranians themselves] decide to "cut-off-the-head-of-the-snake" the better for the remaining population of the world.


Mr. Sick was involved in creating this snake, and may be he should volunteer to be one of the first ones to go!


Easy for you to say....

by bahmani on

I love how pundits (what is a pundit anyway, someone who learned a lot by making a lot of mistakes, and now thinks that will magically stop, by calling themselves experts?)

Mr. Sick, please, think back and try to remember the express damage you and your alumni caused Iran, and the sheer gross mismanagement of your position of a lifetime.

Then and above all apologize to us who know the disaster you left, then apologize again, and mean it, and promise you will not let it happen again.

Then stop talking to us about it, and instead, go and talk to your friends currently in charge and try and convince them of your expertise and experience, and above all the tragic cost of your mistakes. Then repeat it, so they hear you. If they don't (likely), stand and don't leave their offices until they do. Sort of your own one-man OCCUPY protest, if you will.

That's really your only job now. Stand firm and at any cost, do not let your country, the US, make the same mistakes you did when you had the chance to do the right thing and didn't, and instead tried to finesse the un-finessable, with a retarded, half-baked plan that had 0.0000% chance of success.

Because then, like now, you did not bother to take the time to know who you were actually dealing with.

While I have no doubt Mr. Sick loves Iran, and thinks he knows a couple of Iranians well personally, unfortunately I think he and the US, and the world is missing a very large point.

The point is not whether Iran is going to block the straits, or what the price of oil is. Thanks to US consumption and an stunningly irresponsible energy policy, I at least will safely guarantee everyone here and now, that the price of oil will always go up. How fast it goes up, is dependent upon how well or poorly the US executes a foreign policy strategy that affects the speed at which oil prices rise.

But, the real point that is always masked by an American writing about Iran who ultimately always drifts his point to oil, is and should be, the condition of the Iranian people and what they deserve now.

Now that they have been through both kinds of the worst dictatorships imaginable.

Whether it is by the sword of Gideon, or the sword of Gidget, or Mehdi koochooloo's home made sling shot, I don't think Iranians care how they get their freedom, as long as they get it for once, and for good.

Now go and OCCUPY Capitol Hill. That's where your true penance lies, not here, among the wretchedly oppressed.

To read more bahmani posts visit: //brucebahmani.blogspot.com/

G. Rahmanian

Who’s Afraid of the Ayatollahs?

by G. Rahmanian on

70,000,000 Iranian hostages!


Who’s Afraid of the Ayatollahs? Clearly Not the USA, Which Loves

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

The IRI's Ayatollahs in Governement, every single one of them.  Of course War with Iran is stupid, all side can agree on that. However if/when the US replaces one group of Ayatollahs with Another group, the USA will regret it more badly because the none of the Ayatollahs are moderate or containable, the other gangsters in Qom are more likely to be more extreme and push to break out of US's ability to contain them even quicker.  Sick says, "An important set of experienced voices continue to call for a return to
negotiations. Iran says it is willing. We risk greatly and unnecessarily
if we ignore the chance." To say those negotiations will lead to nothing, but achieving the goal of securing the Ayatollahs is to state the obvious and the more years the USA holds off on replacing these Ayatollahs the sooner even amateurs will see the Depth of Love the USA has for them.  The Ayatollahs hour glace keeps getting filled by the USA, we Iranians clearly have no capability of stopping this undeclared US Policy.


Shushtari, past vs future

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

If you go on the past, you will be right 60% of the time in most cases, but change happens too.  The problem for the USA based on this policy called Carter's yet embraced by all sides, is that in the very near future powers like EU minus UK will work with Russia to knock the US out as world leader.  In that sense, this policy was the worst mistake for US National Security for $.  To call it short sighted is an understatement if they are not prepared to resolve it, by treating Iran as a major world power more so than Germany/Japan with the ability to develop industry & a complex high tec first world industrial economy.  This was the real reason, why they destroyed Shah and backed mullahs. Sadly most Iranians think it had to do with oil, due to US medias mass misinformation, yet it won't work on Iranians forever, manipulation rarely ever works for long, no matter how many university research papers are published with key data (yet missing critical data).


Anahid Hojjati

great article

by Anahid Hojjati on

not that I agree with its implied conclusion but it is great because it shows;yet another time, thinking of people like Gary Sick.


isn't this guy

by shushtari on

the same idiot who was on carter's 'iran team'???

this guy, along with the other moron, brzenski, advocated the removal of the shah- they sent huyser to iran, who ordered the neutralization of the imperial army, and had the list of commanders to be assassinated- general badrei, neshat, etc.....

as far as I'm concerend, idiots like him have the blood of millions of iranians on their hands- and they are responsible for destruction of our wonderful country at the hands of their 'saints': khomeini, and the rest of his aftabeh dozd goons who have stolen trillions from iran's natural wealth.



Your Qu is too complex for me to answer Y/N, I don't know?

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

Also keep in mind we really don't have any idea/data what US policy is for the future.  We know clearly what US perceives as its interests, but how it is going to meet those interests is not only secret, but once it makes its move it then has all its faculty and universities to cover up what the US just did, by presenting the US Story through thousands of books and tens of thousads of historical documents which do not reveal all of the truth.  Whether or not he is an appoligist for IRI is tough to say, its easier to say the US Govt, both sides have done everything in their power to play carefully to keep IRI in power and are benefitting.  The USA only has one problem with IRI, that it is not controllable/containable and it is playing in the hands of the strategy of the Russians, for that reason the USA needs another group of mullahs that are on good terms with the EU above Russia and through that game they can control them, but as long as Khameneii Lives (and they have been trying to kill him for a while) he is keeping Iran close to Russia.  Russia's interests are even more complex and not sure if anyone can figure them out.  One would imagine that russia's priority is to make it so that the Nato Forces do not unite and start a war with it to break it's power which is directed towards greater progress, peace & development for Russians, but this view could also be a mistake, because we just don't have information that makes scientific sense, so the idea I put out on Russia is a guess but most likely too simple to be useful. A war may benefit them.

Maryam Hojjat

AmirParviz: Gary Sick Seems to Me IRR apologist or on their pay

by Maryam Hojjat on

Am I Right? 


My Nightmare is not that US starts war.

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

It is that the IRI faced with the political reality of people wanting to out their entire regime, the IRI starts a war.  In this case we have to get the message to our fellow brothers and sisters in Iran to remember the primary enemy is IRI and the secondary enemy is those that want to keep mullahs in politics against the wishes and experience of the people of Iran.  Sadly that includes US Oil Companies, Wall Street and the Military Industrial complex who all benefit through sales and getting higher prices as a result of mullahs policies.  I'm surprised the American people are not sick and tired of getting raped by their own political representatives on all sides and corporations for things that clearly do not serve 99% of the people.  When Obama signed the killing of Americans that was the last straw for me personally, yet Americans just moved on.  War with Iran is Sadly great for corporations that can charge more for oil, more for selling weapons and expensive exorbitantly priced contracts.  Thing is the US people pay for it so badly, the manipulation harms them alot too.  And I'm not too sure the USA can handle both a War and its own #1 priority for the Region which is keeping mullahs in Power or MeK types.  The Problem is The USA and the IRI both play for the same Team, why wouldn't mullahs go out of their way to help their team-mates in the US.Those that brought them to power and will do everything possible to keep their types in power after a war.  From a stand point of Human Rights, Democracy, Peace, Progress This Love Affair is Grotesque. Gary Sick, Perfect name.

Maryam Hojjat

Mr. Sick, IRR/IRI are nonnegotiable.

by Maryam Hojjat on

Great blog.


War, what is it good for!!!!!!

by Bavafa on

The military industrial complex

'Hambastegi' is the main key to victory