Iran War Games Aimed at Warning Shot to U.S. Allies
By Tony Capaccio
Nov. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Iran's 10-day war games this month were aimed at intimidating U.S. allies in the region and dissuading them from cooperating in a potential strike against the Tehran government, American military officials and analysts have concluded.
The Gulf of Oman exercises were the third this year and the most provocative, the analysts said. Volleys of short-range missiles suggested Iran could overwhelm missile defenses such as those of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. New anti-ship missiles and practice attacks on barges showed an ability to disrupt oil traffic, and Iran's first firing in a war game of a new missile showed a potential to strike Israel.
The games were ``designed to intimidate the smaller nations in the region in a way that I haven't quite seen before,'' Army General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said in a Nov. 15 interview.
Analysts say Iran's intent was to gain leverage in the dispute over its nuclear program and to remind the world that, if attacked, it is capable of a broad, sustained response that would roil world oil markets, set back U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and potentially drag the region into a wider war.
Michael Eisenstadt, an Iran expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Iran has often tried to use war games ``to intimidate, but the context and the extent of the missile firings'' is much different from past exercises.
The message to the region ``is don't even think once about assisting in a preventive strike,'' Eisenstadt said.
Iran has defied international calls to suspend its nuclear program, and the United Nations said the nation last month doubled its capacity to produce enriched uranium. Iran says the fuel is needed to generate electricity. The U.S. suspects the program is a precursor to building nuclear weapons.
Eisenstadt said the exercises, which ended Nov. 9, reinforced a message Iran sent several months earlier through Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim group it supports in Lebanon, in its war with Israel.
During the war, Hezbollah struck an Israeli ship with a guided missile obtained from Iran and fired almost 4,000 Iranian- supplied short-range missiles into Israel -- a demonstration of Iran's firepower and ability to widen any war against it, Eisenstadt said.
Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who has conducted U.S. war games on Iran, said that if Iran were attacked, Hezbollah would immediately attack Israel. ``That's almost a certainty,'' he said.
`Don't Lose Iraq'
Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Iran and its surrogates could take a toll on U.S. facilities in the Middle East and seriously undermine efforts to secure and stabilize Iraq. ``We don't want to lose Iraq in the course of taking down Iran's nuclear program,'' Pollack said.
President Bush will travel to Amman, Jordan, for a closed meeting tonight with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to propose ways to accelerate the transfer of security responsibility to the Iraqis.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pledged this year that he'd turn his militia on U.S. forces in Iraq if Iran, which also has a Shiite Muslim majority, is attacked.
Iran's armed forces include 398,000 regular troops, about 120,000 of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps created under the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic republic in 1979, and about 2 million reserves.
`Come After Us'
Most of the army is arrayed along the Iraq border and is capable of sustained guerrilla warfare. Abizaid, 55, said these ground forces have been practicing guerrilla tactics on the assumption the U.S. would invade.
``We shouldn't ever underestimate Iranian military power,'' Abizaid told reporters in Washington in September. Iran has ``the most powerful military force in the region except for the United States, but the mismatch between our military power and their power is very, very substantial.''
Pollack said that, while Iran's military lacks modern communications, country-wide integrated air defenses and modern aircraft, it would use what it has in unconventional ways that could prove effective in the short run. ``They are going to come after us in the Persian Gulf,'' he said.
In the war games, analysts said, Iran fired at least three different anti-ship missiles near the 33-mile Strait of Hormuz, through which an estimated 25 percent of the world's oil traffic flows.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which conducted the war games, has as many as 1,000 boats up to 60 feet long with long-range torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as five high- speed Chinese catamarans armed with long-range missiles.
U.S. Central Command officials estimate Iran may have up to 5,000 naval mines deployable by planes, boats and submarines.
``An attack could include over 100 boats in coordinated groups of 20 to 30 approaching simultaneously from multiple axes,'' the Office of Naval Intelligence said in an assessment before the war games.
Iran used such tactics in late 1987 and early 1988 against U.S. ships and U.S.-flagged tankers in the Persian Gulf after the President Ronald Reagan's administration sided with Iraq in its war with the Islamic republic.
Since then, Iran has developed an extensive network of bases and communications on the small islands in the Strait.
In addition, Iran last week started taking delivery of 30 Russian-made, short-range air-defense missile systems that it purchased in December 2005, according to the Russian news service Interfax. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said these systems would ``significantly enhance'' Iran's ability to prevent U.S. planes from protecting ships in the Persian Gulf.
The war games -- coupled with Iran's refusal to halt its nuclear program and its president's insistent calls for Israel's destruction -- prompted Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh to say Iran must be stopped. Preemptive military action should be a last resort, ``but even the last resort is sometimes the only resort,'' he told reporters in Jerusalem.
Israel's reaction was in part prompted by the firing of the Shahab-3, Iran's new medium-range missile. It has an estimated range of 800 miles (1,300 kilometers), enough to hit Tel Aviv, said the Office of Naval Intelligence. The missile is believed to carry a new cluster munition warhead that might be a threat to military formations, bases and civilians.
The war games were ``not merely exercises to train military personnel,'' said Yiftah S. Shapir, a military analyst with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. ``They were carefully geared for their political purpose.''
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