The American Legion Magazine | 7.1.12
By Alan W. Dowd

Asked in 2004 about U.S. concerns over Iranian meddling in Iraq, a high-level Iranian official responded with a vague threat: “They know that if Iran wanted to, it could make their problems even worse.”

Eight years and countless casualties later, we know Tehran wasn’t bluffing. At the height of its proxy war in Iraq, Iran was pouring hundreds of millions in cash and equipment into Iraq annually to support thousands of militia fighters.[i] Iran’s army of guerillas used IEDs, snipers and asymmetric attacks to deepen Iraq’s ethnic and religious fractures, strengthen Iran’s influence, and bloody the U.S. military. The numbers are not precise, but it’s estimated that Iranian-made IEDs killed or wounded hundreds of American troops.[ii] “Those weapons going in from Iran,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta conceded last year, “really hurt us.”[iii]

With U.S. forces now withdrawn from Iraq, Iran’s leaders are smugly claiming victory. But that may be premature. Proxy wars, after all, can be waged in more than one direction.

Phase Two

If phase one of this proxy war was fought in Iraq, with Iran using guerilla tactics to take the offensive, it appears that phase two is being fought in a manner more suited to America’s strengths.

Take, for example, the fusillade of cyber-attacks—spearheaded by a computer virus known as Stuxnet—that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program. Stuxnet set Tehran’s nuclear aspirations back two years and “was as effective as a military strike,” according to Ralph Langner, an expert in industrial computer systems.

Iran’s military and nuclear assets also have been targeted by more traditional forms of sabotage. Over the past 18 months, mysterious explosions have destroyed a plant that manufactures a special kind of steel used in uranium centrifuges; leveled a key missile base, killing 17 top military officials, including the man credited with creating Iran’s Shahab 3 missile; damaged a nuclear site in central Iran; and crippled gas and oil facilities. In fact, on a single day last April, four gas pipelines located in different parts of Iran exploded simultaneously.[iv]

In addition, there have been at least six targeted assassinations of high-level Iranian nuclear scientists and military officials since 2007.

No one is taking credit for the string of cyber-attacks, explosions and what one Israeli general cryptically called “things that happen unnaturally.” But it seems likely that a foreign power has a hand in all this.

So sophisticated was Stuxnet that cyberwarfare experts believe it was the work of a top-tier military power, if not multiple militaries and intelligence agencies.

“We have to have offensive capabilities, to, in real time, shut down somebody trying to attack us,” said U.S. Cyber Command commander Gen. Keith Alexander in 2010.[v] Perhaps some of those capabilities were put on display with Stuxnet. 

Moreover, it pays to recall that in 2009, Gen. David Petraeus, who was then commander of U.S. Central Command, signed an order authorizing increased covert operations across the Middle East. According to leaked press reports, the classified order “authorized specific operations in Iran” and made reference to “clandestine activities.”[vi] With Petraeus now running the CIA, it doesn’t take Tom Clancy to start connecting the dots.

Another front in America’s proxy war against Iranis the Persian Gulf, where Iran’s reckless behavior has had the effect of expanding cooperation among Iran’s regional rivals.

Spurred by Tehran’s recent efforts to assassinate a Saudi diplomat, target government facilities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and deploy spies in Kuwait, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—are laying the groundwork for a joint military command.

With an eye on Iran, GCC members also are building up their militaries. The UAE has purchased 4,900 bunker-busting JDAM bombs, and has opened a new naval base on its coast, intentionally east of the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE says the base “will provide a quick response to natural and man-made disasters” (i.e., Iranian mischief). The Saudis recently engaged in a $60-billion shopping spree for warplanes, attack helicopters, missile defenses and bombs. In addition, it appears the Saudis are waging their own proxy war against Iran—in Syria. The Saudis are bankrolling forces opposed to Bashar Assad’s regime, a close Iranian ally.[vii]

The withdrawal from Iraq notwithstanding, the U.S. remains a pivotal Persian Gulf power:

  • The U.S. Navy is doubling the size of its base in Bahrain.
  • Washington is exploring a formal security alliance with the GCC.[viii] In a sign of deepening cooperation, U.S. Special Operations Command has created a joint commando force to partner with GCC military units.[ix]
  • The Pentagon recently leaked word that it has added a new bomb to its arsenal, the “massive ordnance penetrator” (MOP), the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. inventory. When asked if the 15-ton bomb is needed for operations against Iranian targets, a Pentagon official coyly called the MOP “a capability that we think is necessary given the world we live in.”[x]
  • When Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in late 2011, the U.S. Fifth Fleet bluntly warned that disruptions of the vital transit route “will not be tolerated.” While most Americans forget that the U.S. and Iran fought a series of deadly naval skirmishes in the late 1980s, Tehran doesn’t. On a single day in 1988, the U.S. crippled Iran’s navy.
  • The U.S., Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE are building a network of missile defenses in the region.
  • Finally, the U.S. has a just-in-case force of 23,000 troops in Kuwait, with another 4,000 slated for long-term deployment there. All told, some 40,000 U.S. troops remain in the region.[xi]

In a sense, the Gulf is settling into a balance of forces similar to what kept a shaky peace between 1991 and 2003. Only this time, the Pentagon’s focus is on Iran rather than Iraq.

Phase Three

Iran still has cards to play in what one Iraqi official calls “the American-Iranian cold war.”[xii]

  • The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would seemingly deprive Iranian militias of easy targets, but the pullout leaves behind 16,000 American diplomats and civilians. Relative to a Kevlar-clad U.S. soldier, they are all soft targets.
  • Iran remains active in Afghanistan, providing training and weapons to anti-coalition fighters.
  • Tehran could turn up the heat by blockading Hormuz, unleashing its Hezbollah proxies or conducting a nuclear test.

Still, surrounded by hostile neighbors and beset by internal challenges, Iran’s rulers don’t hold as many cards as they might think.
It pays to recall that Iran’s already-tottering economy—with an inflation rate of 20 percent—depends on oil revenues. If demand for Iranian oil dries up or if the price of oil goes down, it would cripple the Iranian economy.

A sharp drop in demand is now likely given Europe’s decision to sign on to a full embargo of Iranian oil. Even China is cutting back on Iranian oil imports.

As to driving oil prices down, Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia informed NATO officials that his country has contemplated punishing Iran by flooding the world oil market. The Saudis estimate that an extra 3 million barrels per day would push prices significantly lower, and they have the reserves to make it happen.[xiii]

The Iranian regime also is politically vulnerable. After all, the anti-autocracy revolutions of the Arab Spring arguably began in Iran—a Persian nation. In the summer of 2009, Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” almost toppled Ahmadinejad and the mullahs. But unlike in Tunisia, Iran’s rulers were ready to fight rather than flee. Unlike in Egypt, the Iranian regime responded with unrelenting force. And unlike in Libya, there was no support—rhetorical or otherwise—from NATO’s club of democracies.

The West’s failure to support the Persian Spring of 2009 could make it more difficult to topple the mullahs today. But the good news is that “Dialogue between different opposition members has become easier” since 2009, according to Reza Pirzadeh, president of the Iranian Green Democratic Congress.[xiv] Moreover, 61 percent of Iranians say they oppose the current Iranian system of government.[xv]

That is something Washington can and must exploit. How? Follow the Cold War playbook.

As Reagan counseled in 1979, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”[xvi] In other words, Washington should publicly press for an opening of Iran’s political prisons, an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs and the beginning of an Iran that is free and self-governing.

A RAND study notes that Iranians are “highly reliant on state-controlled media and educational sources.” In fact, in a sign of how threatened Tehran is by the free flow of information, police seized 2,000 satellite dishes on a single day last year.

RAND suggests that Washington could promote “U.S. broadcasts to Iran and the provision of anti-filtering technology to Iranian webusers.”[xvii] With its deep contacts on Iran’s borders, the U.S. could quietly send satellite dishes, computer hardware and software, smart phones and other technology to help the Iranian opposition communicate and organize a movement to finally topple their rulers.

For Better or Worse

To borrow a phrase, Tehran’s tyrants know that if the United States and its allies wanted to, they could make their problems far worse.

Perhaps that’s happening even now, as the mullahs and their henchmen experience the other side of proxy war.

[i] Lara Jakes, “Militias step up Iraq attacks on U.S. troops,” Military Times, June 30, 2011.

[ii] The Wall Street Journal, “If Iran gets the bomb,” November 11, 2011.

[iii] Elisabeth Bumiller, “Panetta says Iranian arms in Iraq are a concern,” New York Times, July 10, 2011.

[iv] Thomas Erdbrink, “Mysterious explosions pose dilemma for Iranian leaders,” Washington Post, November 25, 2011.

[v] Ellen Nakashima, “Pentagon considers pre-emptive strikes vs. other nation's computers,” Washington Post, August 30, 2010.

[vi] Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast,” New York Times, May 24, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/world/25military.html?hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1326488735-3uHDo7wWV/4gqU6QZ0rk0g; AP, “Petraeus approves Mideast spy missions,” May 25, 2010.

[vii] Craig Whitlock, “For Iran and Saudi Arabia, simmering feud is rooted in history,” Washington Post, October 11, 2011.

[viii] Thom Shanker, “U.S. planning troop buildup in Gulf after exit from Iraq,” New York Times, October 29, 2011.

[ix] Spencer Ackerman, “New U.S. Commando Team Operating Near Iran,” Wired Danger Room, January 19, 2012, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/01/jsotf-gcc/#more-70120.

[x] AP, “Pentagon creating 'massive ordnance penetrator' bomb, aka MOP, as possible Iran, N. Korea deterrent,” October 13, 2009.

[xi] Lolita C. Baldor, “4,000 soldiers headed to Kuwait at year’s end,” Associated Press, Nov 2, 2011

[xii] Ali Allawi, “How Iraq Can Define Its Destiny,” New York Times, January 1, 2012.

[xiii] Hossein Aryan, “How might Saudi Arabia retaliate against Iran for alleged plot?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 24, 2011.

[xiv] John Irish, “Iranian groups to set up national council,” Reuters, January 9, 2012.

[xv] Terror-free Tomorrow, “Polling Iranian Public Opinion: An Unprecedented Nationwide Survey of Iran,” 2007, http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagestft/TFT%20Iran%20Survey%20Report.pdf.

[xvi] Ronald Reagan, Remarks on June 29, 1979, cited in Martin and Annelise Anderson, “Reagan’s Secret War,” p.250.

[xvii] Sara Beth Elson, Alireza Nade, “What Do Iranians Think?  A Survey of Attitudes on the  United States, the Nuclear Program, and the Economy,” 2011,  http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2011/RAND_TR910.sum.pdf.