Friday, June 28, 2013

Other Projects I've been Working on ...

This past quarter, as I wound up my time as an undergraduate, I took a class on the use of geospatial-information-systems, giving me a chance to play around with something other than Google Earth for a change. As one would imagine, I turned my efforts toward Iran, producing a handful of maps relating to the interdiction of petrochemicals in the Persian Gulf.

The first map shows the potential launch zone for the Khalij Fars ASBM. Since the Khalij Fars is based on the Fateh-110, it's reasonable to assume that it has a similar minimum range. This means that in order to fire upon ships traveling through the strait, the TELs have to be located within a relatively narrow corridor.

In creating the map, I took the range claim of 300 km at face value, which represents an increase of 50 km over the published range of the Fateh-110. While the official minimum range is unknown, for the sake of this experiment, I added 50 km to the minimum range of the Fateh-110.

The second series of maps illustrates the operational profile of select ASCMs launched from the coast, and a selection of fortified Islands from within the Gulf.

The third and final map shows the operational profile of IRGCN HSPBs. The assumed speed is derived from an average of official specifications from MODLEX, and from official statements.


  1. Great work! Happy to see you back. I have a question about something that has puzzled me for awhile and I think a propos. There is relatively little SAM coverage in that part of Iran, at least if you use like I do the work of Sean O'Connor and his SAM-site overview. There is only a HAWK site and maybe a Chinese HQ2 missile site, that's about it. I would think that Iran would have a number of batteries to protect it's offensive forces that would be closing the Straits. Any thoughts?

    1. Why bother deploying expensive AA assets, if you know they'll be quickly taken out by your only likely opponent, the U.S? Besides, the SAM coverage could be quickly "beefed" up in a prelude to war.

  2. Pretty much a Western consumers' nightmare, the prospect of an Iranian counter-blockade,

    Fine illustrations, Galen. You do good work.

  3. Great work as always. It would be interesting to use the same method for minisubmarines.

  4. Hi Galen,

    My contention has been that while all this is relevant (as is mining the Straight, etc.), what is more relevant is Iran's ability to cripple the 18-berth super-tanker pier at Ra's Tanura (NW of Dhamman), with, say, a swarm of HSPB's armed with Noor missiles or ground launched missiles with sufficient range. I'm pretty sure Iran has the ability to destroy that pier, which would halt 5 million bpd of Saudi crude from reaching the world market. A game-changer economically. (1) Please confirm; (2) If Iran does indeed have this capability, would its use be a last resort as, in doing so, it will invite the US to cripple all of Iran's infrastructure? (But won't the US do so anyway?!)

    Thanks in advance.

  5. Greetings UU, good to hear from you again:

    I think there are a number of permutations in the ways that Iran could target the coastal oil facilities. The specifics would, of course, depend on the specifics of the attack and the specifics of their defense, but at the end of the day you are correct: if Iran wanted to, it could inflict significant damage on them.

    Sometime before the end of the year I'm hoping (inshallah!) to do some sort of analysis of this using the same sort of metrics (ex: missile CEPs, fragmentation/overpressure radii) that I used with my early "MLRS as anti-ship weapons" article. So stay tuned!

    However, I also think you're correct in the feeling that this would represent a distinct escalation beyond attacks on shipping alone.

    This reminds me of the situation during the Iran-Iraq war that may shed some light on Iran's strategic choices. Washington made it clear to Tehran in no uncertain terms that if they were to use ASCMs in Hormuz, they would invite attacks on Iran itself. Because of red-lines like these, Tehran limited their naval attacks to those that were tolerated by the USN, and would be guaranteed not to unconditionally draw in the U.S on Iraq's side.

    This political-calculus is why mining was so effective. It's not that mining itself was the best absolute tactic for sinking ships, it's that it was the best tactic in terms of cost-to-benefit ratio. It gave Iran plausible-deniability. Similarly, the use of HSPBs to harass shipping gave the IRGCN the opportunity to continually 'test' the USN's red-lines, and the political will behind them.

    Whenever Iran exceeded these red-lines in a significant way, they'd incur some sort of punitive action (ex: Nimble Archer), which would be followed by an operational pause meant to de-escalate the situation. After these pauses though, the IRGCN would resume their harassment operations, again testing just how far they could go without Washington acting.

    To inject a bit of levity to this concept, I'll point readers to Jeffery Lewis's use of a "Chappelle's Show" skit to illustrate Assad's strategy. Just like Rick James and Assad, the IRGCN may be thought of as a 'habitual line stepper'.

    Returning to your question, an attack on actual GCC territory - rather than just shipping - carries with it symbolic weight that would demand a greater response than attacks on shipping alone (which, it must be recognized, would still induce some sort of response by the U.S). It would also risk far greater collective action on part of the GCC states, who would likely interpret this as a threat to their survival (it's an attack on 'them' rather than just an attack on 'their property').

    This is not to say that Iran would never use this option. In fact, it would be important for Iran to retain this option in reserve as an explicit means of escalation in the same way that the U.S would need to hold the threat of attacking Iran's own oil infrastructure in reserve as a threat of escalation to deter Iran.

    Red-lines are only valuable if you can escalate. There's no incentive for the U.S to refrain from certain military action if they're confident that Iran is already using the full spectrum of their capabilities.

  6. Thanks for your informed and thoughtful reply, Galen-san. The line about the IRGC playing the role of a 'habitual line-stepper' gave me a good chuckle. I had heard the term out-lier, but had not heard the term line-stepper, which is as good if not better. And yes, I look forward to reading your new analysis, inshallah.

    I liked all the nuance you added: it is not just about the ability to project force, but about the cat-and-mouse games that get played out in real life in the battlefield between asymmetrical powers. But to be sure: let me see if I understand you correctly: some people at RFI (the Leverettes' blog) insist that Iran needs nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent, and that failure to produce same ultimately invites an attack, which they allege is inevitable in the long run. I have always felt, based on Iran's geo-strategic position (its proximity to Ra's Tanura etc., and the west's vulnerability; its jugular vein...) that Iran already *has* this deterrent (which is what has prevented her from being attacked, the closest call having come under the Cheney-Rumsfeld administration's late 2007 desire to attack, if memory serves). In other words, if the West attacked Iran like it attacked Saddam's Iraq, that would be a red line for Iran, and it would do its worst, which in turn would most likely bring down the US economy, with its multi-trillion dollar NYSE derivatives market, with its vulnerability to fluctuations in basic commodity prices such as oil multiply leveraged... So I think that the MAD deterrent (Mutually Assured Destruction) is already in place and so there is no need to expend resources on weaponizing nuclear technologies (which Iran is assuredly working on mastering, and has probably reached the threashold many years ago). Do you agree that a MAD deterrence mechanism is in place, or do you think the US can (or feels it can) overcome resistance with acceptable damage?

    By the way, I remember you had at one time an interest in learning more about Iran's religion. If so, you can check out the link I provide in the latest post in my blog, which is a link to the most comprehensive database of books on Shi'a Islam that I am aware of. Check out the section on Creedal Beliefs in the CAtegorized by Subject folder, as well as the Apologetics section for what we Shi'a believe as a mere minimum requirement for entry into the fold of the community of the faithful.

  7. Greetings Humpty Dumpty

    The first part of my answer deals with whether or not Iran needs a nuclear force to deter a conventional attack.

    In this regard I think the answer is clearly no. This calculus might change in the future, but as it stands Iran simply doesn’t face the existential threat that would demand it, especially when one considers the security repercussions of openly becoming a nuclear-weapon state. Granted, this might be an argument for breakout capability. Indeed, this hits at one of the great traits of the international system. States can’t ever be sure that a threat won’t materialize in the future, which gives an incentive to hedge.

    For one, there’s no great disparity between Iran and her neighbors in terms of conventional strength. Moreover, those who fear an attack by the U.S place too much weight in what was ultimately a fleeting experiment in the early 2000s. The notion the U.S can actively remake the Middle East through massive conventional force (aka the Bush Doctrine) died in Iraq. Despite the 2007 rhetoric you mention, there was no serious prospect of regime-change-by-force by, at least, 2004/2005. Washington may not like the Islamic Republic, but they certainly won’t risk a full-blown war to destroy it. They were content with containment when Tehran was a revolutionary state; they’ll remain content with it for the foreseeable future.

  8. But, since you cite the Leverett’s claim, it’s worth investigating their argument. I’m assuming you’re talking about their claims concerning Obama’s 2010 nuclear-posture-review (NPR), which gave ‘no-first-use’ (NFU) negative-security-guarantees to states that were in compliance with the NPT, while exempting noncompliant states. This, to the Leveretts, represents an explicit threat to use a nuclear first strike to enforce compliance with Washington’s interpretation of the NPT. This would represent an imminent, or at least inevitable, threat, which would justify an Iranian nuclear deterrent.

    If you subscribe to this interpretation of the NPR, then I think the Leveretts are correct: Iran does need a NW to ensure their security. That being said, this interpretation is flawed. For starters, one can’t look at the 2010 NPR in isolation. During the Cold War, U.S nuclear policy was understandably targeted towards the USSR, but with the end of this period U.S posture was broadened to specifically address a range of potential threats. Within this context, the contingencies in which the U.S could use a nuclear first strike were actually quite large. By 1994/1995, although giving security guarantees to NPT-member states, the U.S reserved the right to use NWs against NPT-member states in the event of a) noncompliance, b) CBW-use, c) an attack on the U.S itself, d) an attack by an ally of a NW-state, and e) an attack on an ally, or treaty-partner of the U.S. This was echoed in the 2001 Bush administration’s NPR.

    This ‘threat’ can only be understood within the context of deterrence against non-nuclear threats. The notion that NWs exist only to deter NW-use is incorrect, and I think, misguided because it assumes that NWs exist in isolation from a broader conflict.

    During the Cold War, Washington refused to adopt a NFU-policy precisely because it understood that the likelihood of the USSR launching a conventional attack relied on the West’s ability to dictate escalation. That is, if the USSR believed they could achieve conventional victory, they could ‘safely’ attack Western Europe without the fear of nuclear escalation, thus: ‘flexible response’ doctrine.

    A similar logic drove the Washington’s post-Cold-War posture. During the 90s, Washington ‘threatened’ both Iraq and Libya with nuclear-first-strikes as a means to deter the use of chemical weapons against the U.S. The argument being that, if these states believed they could engage in non-nuclear warfare with impunity, they would be emboldened to do so. If, however, they couldn’t be sure about U.S retaliation, they would be more reluctant to do so.

    What’s important to remember in these scenarios is that NW-use still took place within the context of deterrence, deterrence which relied on ambiguity as its mechanism. Target states – whether they were the USSR, Iraq, or Libya – could never be sure that any aggression on their part would be retaliated against with equivalent force. This evokes the same argument I made above in my response to ‘Unknown Unknowns’; coercion by force can only be effective if the target believes you’re capable of escalating.

    Now, whether or not this is an optimum nuclear posture is up for debate. For instance, given that the U.S retains overwhelming conventional supremacy over any non-nuclear adversary, is the threat of NW-use necessary for escalation? The 2010 NPR concluded, with regards to chemical or conventional weapon use, that the answer is: “no”. It is still, however, conceivable to imagine the need to retain flexibility with regards to states who might feel that the NPT-membership grants them cover to develop NWs under the cover of impunity granted to them by a blanket NFU-policy. Whether or not this scenario actually applies to Iran’s nuclear intentions is irrelevant, because it’s precisely this ambiguity that is necessary.

  9. ... and the last part of my comments about the Leverett's argument:

    Moreover, it’s important to note – and the Leveretts fail to do so – that this is not an explicit threat. Whereas they interpret the 2010 NPR as saying “we will strike you”, what it really says is “we retain the option of striking you”. This is made abundantly clear by the NPR itself, which is careful to note that this option does not represent an increased willingness to use a first strike, and would only be considered in ‘extreme circumstances’. Circumstances, which – it should be noted – were already covered in the U.S’s nuclear posture.

    Not wishing to build a straw-man, I should note that according to the Leverett's line of reasoning, the U.S's inherent hostility towards Tehran means they will always be found in noncompliance of the NPT (which, by the way, is an inherently a political document, lacking the means for purely technical enforcement). However, whatever merits this argument has, it has to be remembered that this clause in the NPR is not a 'stick' by which to coerce states, but a 'carrot' to increase the attractiveness of the NPT as a mechanism for collective security. In other words, regardless of Washington's perception of Iran's compliance, it makes nuclear use no more likely than in its absence.

    That being said, one has to recognize the power of perception, and when Tehran sees themselves singled out as one of the few non-recipients of a negative security guarantee, they're probably going to perceive a higher level of threat to their security compared to a world in which the implicit threat is applied universally. However, to understand why Tehran feels the way they do is not to legitimize that world view, a mistake the Leveretts make. Indeed, I could make an equally convincing argument as to why the image of an irrational, fanatical Iran still guides policy-making in Washington, all without legitimizing or otherwise condoning the image.

  10. ... and I'm afraid that that veritable tirade about perceptions of the NPR has eaten away the evening. It seems that my thoughts on a nuclear vs economic deterrent will have to wait until Sunday, or since I'll be gone canoeing, perhaps until Monday.

  11. Thanks, Galen-san. I cross-poseted your detailed response on GoingToTehran.Com (the Leverettes' blog), and you got a very detailed response from Richard Steven Hack, if you want to give it a read... Unfortunately there was a misunderstanding in that I had stated that "*some people* [meaning commenters] at RFI (the Leverettes' blog) insist that Iran needs nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent," and you thought I meant the Leverettes themsleves. But I think that is a minor point which does not take away from the points you made in any way.

    - UU.

  12. I'd be interested in reading what he had to say. Can you provide a link to the comment-thread in question? I've always had a difficult time finding the right one on RFI.

  13. I don't know what Flynt or Hillary's stance is on whether or not Iran needs to become a nuclear power in order to be able properly to defend itself against the US. But fyi and Smith, two commenters at RFI (now GTT), hold that Iran needs to go nuclear. The rest of us commenters hold that Iran does not need to do so, as its geostrategic position already gives it a MAD deterrence.

  14. Ah ha! That's why I couldn't find the cross-post on RFI, it's now called GTT. I've managed to located it now.

    I'll see if I can't formulate a response.