Director / Editor: Victor Teboul, Ph.D.
Looking inside ourselves and out at the world
Independent and neutral with regard to all political and religious orientations,® aims to promote awareness of the major democratic principles on which tolerance is based.

Iran is Highly Vulnerable to Attack

Share this article
By Martin van Creveld 

Jerusalem - Judging by its behavior, Iran’s leadership is in a panic. It has good reason to be. Over a month has passed since Israel successfully attacked an alleged Syrian nuclear installation, proving that the Russian built anti-aircraft defenses, which Iran too has bought, are vulnerable.

Behind Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stands George Bush. Four years ago, Bush took on Iran’s neighbor to the west and demolished it to the point where it may never rise again. Both men have repeatedly signaled their determination to prevent Iran from going nuclear, using force if necessary. They may very well carry out their threats.

Should they do so, Iran will have little to put in their way. Though rich in oil, Iran is a third-world country with a population of 70 million and a per capita income of $2,440. The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates its defense budget at about $6.3 billion. This is a little more than half of Israel’s and less than 2 percent of what the U.S spends for the same purpose. There probably exist some additional “black” programs, but in this respect Iran is hardly alone.

Should the U.S strike at Iran — we are talking about a strike by cruise missiles and manned aircraft, not about an invasion for which Washington does not have the troops — then Iran will have no way to hit back. Like Saddam Hussein in 1991, its most important response may well be to attack Israel, which probably explains why Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his generals keep making threats in that direction.

Even so, they have few options. Iran’s ground and naval forces are irrelevant to the mission at hand. Iran may, indeed, have some Shihab III missiles with the necessary range, but their number is limited and their reliability uncertain.

Should the missiles carry conventional warheads, then, militarily speaking, the effect will probably be close to zero. Should they carry unconventional ones, then Iran, to quote former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir speaking not long before the first Gulf War, will open itself to “awesome and terrible” retaliation (and the virgins in the Islamic paradise will have lots of suitors).

Iran’s air force is in an even sorrier state. Already in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran’s fleet of old American-built aircraft was barely operational. Since then, and apart from the Iraqi aircraft that fled to it during the 1991 Gulf War (which are probably no longer operational), the only imports may have been some Russian-built fighters. Few people have actually seen these aircraft. Even if Iran has them, they cannot reach Israel without air-to-air refueling, making them vulnerable to being shot down.

Iran must be unhappy with the Russian aircraft, or else it would hardly have embarked on building its own. This Iranian aircraft is known as the Saeqeh, or Thunderbolt. Recently shown on parade, it is a version of the American F-5 Tiger.

Designed in the 1950s and upgraded in the 1960s, the F-5 was rejected by the U.S. Air Force. Instead it was sold to countries such as Iran and Jordan and several Latin American ones that did not have what it took to operate more sophisticated craft. Probably the closest it ever came to combat was in the 1986 film “Top Gun,” when it stood in for some nonexistent kind of Soviet MIG.

Iran appears to have copied some of these aircraft and upgraded them. Yet the Saeqehs do not stand a chance against modern jets. In any case, they are only available in very small numbers. Like the Russian fighters, they can reach Israel, if at all, only with air-to-air refueling.

Another option open to Tehran is to stir up trouble in the Gulf — presumably that is what the Revolutionary Guards’ missile commander, Gen. Mahmoud Chaharbaghi, had in mind when he said he could launch “11,000 rockets” “within a minute.” This, however, is nonsense. Short-range and inaccurate Katyushas apart, no country has nearly that many rockets.

Nor is it easy to see what one may gain by launching all of them simultaneously; even if doing so were feasible, all it would achieve is to leave the country defenseless. Perhaps, knowing well how weak his country’s conventional defenses are, Chaharbaghi was counting firecrackers too.

Trouble in the Gulf will cause the price of oil to skyrocket, but it will not save Iran from being heavily bombed. Moreover, the missile threat is something the U.S armed forces and its allies in the Gulf should be able to handle. Or why else keep 40,000 thousand troops (not counting those in Iraq) and two or three carrier taskforces with over 25,000 personnel in the region?

Iran’s final option is to launch terrorist attacks against the West. However, their strategic impact will be close to zero; after all, 9/11, the largest such attack of all time, did not reduce the capability of the U.S. Armed Forces one bit. A coordinated terrorist campaign, unlike individual pinpricks, is easier to talk about than to organize since too many things can go wrong. Back in 1991, people feared that Saddam Hussein was about to launch such a campaign. In the end, not one attack took place.

None of this means that the U.S and/or Israel should now go ahead and attack. Whether Iran’s large, well-dispersed and well-camouflaged nuclear program can really be knocked out is questionable — the more so because, in contrast to the Israeli attacks on Iraq back in 1981 and on Syria, the element of surprise will be lacking. Whether doing it (if it can be done) will serve a useful purpose is also questionable.

Since 1945, there has hardly been one year in which some voices, mainly American ones concerned with preserving the U.S monopoly as far as possible, did not decry the terrible consequences that would follow if additional countries went nuclear. So far, none of those warnings has come true. To the contrary: In every place where nuclear weapons were introduced, large-scale wars between their owners have disappeared.

Retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former commander of the U.S Central Command, is only the latest in a long list of experts who believe the world can live with a nuclear Iran. Lest Ahmadinejad’s fear-driven posturing cause anybody to do anything stupid, their views deserve to be carefully considered. 

Martin van Creveld, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is considered one of the world's most eminent experts on military history and strategy. His books include "The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force" (1998) and his widely influential ""The Transformation of War" (1991).

Published on® with special permission.



Comment on this article!

Postings are subject to the terms and conditions of®.
Your name:
Follow us on ...
Facebook Twitter