As a bastion of foreign-policy realism, the Center for the National Interest (CNI), formerly the Nixon Center, is known around Washington for hosting very lively discussions among experts, and Friday’s session, entitled “War With Iran: Economic and Military Considerations”, was particularly engaging, and virtually unanimous — and almost unanimously scary — in its conclusions.
The three presenters were Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, who served as deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command and commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, among many other posts; Geoffrey Kemp, a CNI fellow who served as a Gulf expert on Reagan’s National Security Council; and J. Robinson West, the chairman and founder of PFC Energy who has also held senior positions in the White House, the Energy Department, and the Pentagon under various Republican administrations. Kemp, it should be noted, is working on a major study, due to be released in January, on the issue that was under discussion.
Of the three, West’s assessment was particularly grim. He asserted that Iran, with its arsenal of ballistic and shorter-range missiles and the Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) elite Qods Force, could without much difficulty take more than eight million barrels of oil a day off the market — specifically 5 million barrels from Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility and the pipelines that run to the Ras Tannurah terminal on the Gulf just across from Iran (the missiles, he said, may not be too accurate, but “something is going to hit something); another 2.5 million barrels that run through southern Iraq where “the Iranians have a lot of agents” who could presumably wreak havoc on the pipelines; and as much as another one million more barrels that are pumped from the Caspian Sea to Ceyhan, Turkey, on the Mediterranean. (“If Iranians have agents on the ground, these pipelines are very vulnerable,” he said.)
“You could lose eight million barrels a day of production, and it would not come back quickly,” according to West. “We believe the price of oil will go above $200 a barrel,” he said. (Brent crude is currently selling at about $112/barrel.) Moreover, he added, that conclusion does not take account of any Iranian effort to block the Strait of Hormuz (an eventuality which, he said, he believed the US Navy could clean up quite quickly) or the possibility that Tehran may also use its missiles to strike the huge LNG facilities in Qatar. If they did, “the lights go out in South Korea and Japan,” he said.
“From my standpoint, the cost would be just enormous,” West said. “For them to tie up the oil business wouldn’t be that difficult.” Echoing Kemp, who had spoken just before, he predicted that Washington will come under great pressure from “people on our side” to stop the war.
Fitzpatrick said he agreed “completely” with West’s assessment regarding the vulnerability of the oil infrastructure in the Gulf and Iraq and also stressed the vulnerability of tanker traffic both in the Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz (especially compared to 25 years ago during the “tanker war”). While the U.S. Navy can deploy some defenses against Iran’s sea-skimming missiles that travel almost at Mach speed, he said, tankers are helpless against them. “[The Iranians] are able to hold critical geography at risk,” he said, adding that the biggest problem U.S. forces would face would be a “bolt out of the blue” by which he meant a unilateral Israeli attack with little or no notice to the U.S. Once hostilities began under those circumstances, he said, Iran can be expected to move its mines into position, and “one mine makes a minefield.” They would also disperse their ballistic and anti-ship missiles very quickly, he said, making it far easier for them to strike back in the Gulf and beyond.
As to the cooperation Washington would get from its Gulf allies, “obviously, they are more pro-U.S. than most of the countries we deal with, at least the leadership,” he said. “The problem we will have is with the populace.” Moreover, in order to secure the Strait, it’s almost certain you would have to put “boots on the ground,” at least on the three islands that lie in or close to the Strait. “This is going to be a messy war to win fast,” he said, noting that it took NATO 78 days of bombing to break Milosevic’s will in Serbia, which is “postage-stamp size” compared to Iran’s territory. “If the [Iranian] people believe they’re right, they’re going to hunker down,” he said, adding that he was quite uncertain “how would we make Iran capitulate.”
(The general sense of the participants in the discussion, who included other experts in their own right, was there was no way to “win” the war — meaning, eliminating Iran’s nuclear program — without occupying the country. “Militarily, you’re back to Desert Storm at a minimum,” said Fitzpatrick, who noted that U.S. troops in that conflict used Saudi Arabia as their launching pad. “To get to Iran, you’d have to go through either Pakistan or Iraq,” he noted. “I don’t think we’d be able to come through Iraq,” he asserted. “Then we’d be fighting two wars.”)
Kemp focused primarily on the larger strategic consequences of an attack on Iran. If the U.S. and/or Israel launched the attack, he said, “we can expect extremely strong opposition from Russia, China, Brazil, and even India. ….I do worry that we have not clearly thought through how some of our allies might behave”, he added, recalling, in particular, Germany’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and Turkey, which also declined U.S. requests to use its territory as a launching pad into Iraq but is now close to war with Iran’s major ally in the region, Syria.
Moreover, “if we get involved in yet another war in the Middle East, what’s going to happen to the ‘rebalance’ in Asia” in what is a critical moment in that region, especially if we have to pay for it with dollars borrowed from China?
Ultimately, he suggested, the financial costs inflicted by such a war may force Washington to back down, much as Britain and France were forced to withdraw from Egypt during the 1956 Suez War when then-President Dwight Eisenhower threatened London with a run on the pound if the European powers did not withdraw.
Dmitri Simes, the former head of the Nixon Center and noted Kremlinologist, warned that an attack on Iran would be a “game-changer” in relations among the great powers. Russia, which he last visited earlier this month, was likely to react particularly harshly, he predicted — not only by lifting its own sanctions against Iran, but also quite possibly expediting the long-delayed sale to Tehran of its highly-touted S-400 anti-aircraft missiles systems, in addition to renewing cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program. If U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran lasted more than a day or so, “you are opening a Pandora’s box” in terms of Russia’s and possibly China’s response, he warned.