Iran's headstrong attempt to join the world's nuclear-weapons club is setting the stage for a military confrontation that nobody wants, but may happen anyway. The Obama administration has decided to ratchet up the rhetoric in its outreach with Gulf State partners.
Israel's view on the matter is clear—a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to its existence, and it has demonstrated the resolve to deal with such threats militarily. Iran's recent test firing of missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv only heightens Israel's imperative to act.
The question for the United States is: What will Iran do in the wake of an Israeli attack that Iran will almost certainly assume has U.S. support?
Speculation about Iran's retaliatory options has thus far focused on Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz, shutting the oil spigot and driving the price of oil far above current levels. Some also believe that Iran would increase its support of terrorist actions directly against the United States and Israel — effectively declaring war on the West.
Yet Tehran's counter-punch would not have to be so bold to be effective and deadly.
A less discussed, but equally dangerous, option for Iran is to dramatically step up its support of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. This response is far more likely and, consequently, more worrisome.
Iran already provides financial and military support to Shiite militias in Iraq, including the most violent and extreme among them. Weapons caches that include improvised explosive devices can be traced directly to Iran. Tehran is also a likely source of mortars, short-range rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and a variety of small arms and ammunition.
Iran has a history of supplying surrogates to do its fighting. Along with Syria, Iran provided Hezbollah sophisticated weapons used against Israel in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Perhaps of most concern to Israel was a variety of rockets with ranges of 20 to 100 kilometers. During that war, despite the best efforts of the Israeli Defense Force, the daily barrage of rockets did not end until the cease-fire took effect.
Hezbollah also employed high-end antitank guided missiles, which took a heavy toll on the Israeli Army, as well as air-to-ground missiles, anti-ship missiles and even unmanned aerial vehicles. None of these weapons has shown up in significant numbers in Iraq or Afghanistan—yet.
If Iran did introduce them, the level of violence and the risk to civilians and military installations would escalate significantly. Air-to-ground missiles and antitank guided missiles, integrated with improvised explosive devices, would dramatically increase risks for U.S. and coalition soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Particularly worrisome would be the introduction of portable air-defense missiles, commonly known as MANPADS, into Afghanistan. Mobility in Afghanistan depends upon airplanes and helicopters. Threats to flight would severely hamper current operations.
In this regard, we should remember that what unhinged the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was a similar increase in enemy capability when the United States gave the Mujahedeen Stinger missiles. The battlefield, including cities, could get much deadlier.
Iran can accomplish this without directly engaging coalition personnel with its own military forces. In essence, it can deliver a Lebanon-like war to Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a scenario the United States and Israel must seriously consider before pulling the trigger.
Col. David E. Johnson, Ph.D. (U.S. Army ret.) is a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 and Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era.
This commentary appeared in Providence Journal and GlobalSecurity.org on February 25, 2010