By William M. Arkin
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Does the United States have a war plan for stopping Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons?
Last week, President Bush dismissed news reports that his administration has been working on contingency plans for war -- particularly talk of the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons against Tehran -- as "wild speculation." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld chimed in, calling it "fantasyland." He declared to reporters that "it just isn't useful" to talk about contingency planning.
But the secretary is wrong.
It's important to talk about war planning that's real. And it is for Iran. In early 2003, even as U.S. forces were on the brink of war with Iraq, the Army had already begun conducting an analysis for a full-scale war with Iran. The analysis, called TIRANNT, for "theater Iran near term," was coupled with a mock scenario for a Marine Corps invasion and a simulation of the Iranian missile force. U.S. and British planners conducted a Caspian Sea war game around the same time. And Bush directed the U.S. Strategic Command to draw up a global strike war plan for an attack against Iranian weapons of mass de struction. All of this will ultimately feed into a new war plan for "major combat operations" against Iran that military sources confirm now exists in draft form.
None of this activity has been disclosed by the U.S. military, and when I wrote about Iran contingency planning last week on The Washington Post Web site, the Pentagon stuck to its dogged position that "we don't discuss war plans." But it should.
The diplomatic effort directed at Iran would be mightily enhanced if that country understood that the United States is so serious about deterring the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons that it would be willing to go to war to stop that quest from reaching fruition.
Iran needs to know -- and even more important, the American public needs to know -- that no matter how many experts talk about difficult-to-find targets or the catastrophe that could unfold if war comes, military planners are already working hard to minimize the risks of any military operation. This is the very essence of contingency planning.
I've been tracking U.S. war planning, maintaining friends and contacts in that closed world, for more than 20 years. My one regret in writing about this secret subject, especially because the government always claims that revealing anything could harm U.S. forces, is not delving deeply enough into the details of the war plan for Iraq. Now, with Iran, it's once again difficult but essential to piece together the facts.
Here's what we know now. Under TIRANNT, Army and U.S. Central Command planners have been examining both near-term and out-year scenarios for war with Iran, including all aspects of a major combat operation, from mobilization and deployment of forces through postwar stability operations after regime change.
The core TIRANNT effort began in May 2003, when modelers and intelligence specialists pulled together the data needed for theater-level (meaning large-scale) scenario analysis for Iran. TIRANNT has since been updated using post-Iraq war information on the performance of U.S. forces. Meanwhile, Air Force planners have modeled attacks against existing Iranian air defenses and targets, while Navy planners have evaluated coastal defenses and drawn up scenarios for keeping control of the Strait of Hormuz at the base of the Persian Gulf.
A follow-on TIRANNT Campaign Analysis, which began in October 2003, calculated the results of different scenarios for action against Iran to provide options for analyzing courses of action in an updated Iran war plan. According to military sources close to the planning process, this task was given to Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, now commander of CENTCOM, in 2002.
The Marines, meanwhile, have not only been involved in CENTCOM's war planning, but have been focused on their own specialty, "forcible entry." In April 2003, the Corps published its "Concept of Operations" for a maneuver against a mock country that explores the possibility of moving forces from ship to shore against a determined enemy without establishing a beachhead first. Though the Marine Corps enemy is described only as a deeply religious revolutionary country named Karona, it is -- with its Revolutionary Guards, WMD and oil wealth -- unmistakably meant to be Iran.
Various scenarios involving Iran's missile force have also been examined in another study, initiated in 2004 and known as BMD-I (ballistic missile defense -- Iran). In this study, the Center for Army Analysis modeled the performance of U.S. and Iranian weapons systems to determine the number of Iranian missiles expected to leak through a coalition defense.
The day-to-day planning for dealing with Iran's missile force falls to the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha. In June 2004, Rumsfeld alerted the command to be prepared to implement CONPLAN 8022, a global strike plan that includes Iran. CONPLAN 8022 calls for bombers and missiles to be able to act within 12 hours of a presidential order. The new task force, sources have told me, mostly worries that if it were called upon to deliver "prompt" global strikes against certain targets in Iran under some emergency circumstances, the president might have to be told that the only option is a nuclear one.
Contingency planning for a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack, let alone full-fledged war, against Iran may seem incredible right now. But in the secretive world of military commands and war planners, it is an everyday and unfortunate reality. Iran needs to understand that the United States isn't hamstrung by a lack of options. It needs to realize that it can't just stonewall and evade its international obligations, that it can't burrow further underground in hopes that it will "win" merely because war is messy.
On the surface, Iran controls the two basic triggers that could set off U.S. military action. The first would be its acquisition of nuclear capability in defiance of the international community. Despite last week's bluster from Tehran, the country is still years away from a nuclear weapon, let alone a workable one. We may have a global strike war plan oriented toward attacking countries with weapons of mass destruction, but that plan is also focused on North Korea, China and presumably Russia. The Bush administration is not going to wait for a nuclear attack. The United States is now a first-strike nation.
The second trigger would be Iran's lashing out militarily (or through proxy terrorism) at the United States or its allies, or closing the Strait of Hormuz to international oil traffic. Sources say that CENTCOM and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have developed "flexible deterrent options" in case Iran were to take such actions.
One might ask how these options could have any deterrent effect when the government won't talk about them. This is another reason why Rumsfeld should acknowledge that the United States is preparing war plans for Iran -- and that this is not just routine. It is specifically a response to that country's illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons, its meddling in Iraq and its support for international terrorism.
Iran needs to know that the administration is dead serious. But we all need to know that even absent an Iranian nuke or an Iranian attack of any kind, there is still another catastrophic scenario that could lead to war.
In a world of ready war plans and post-9/11 jitters, there is an ever greater demand for intelligence on the enemy. That means ever greater risks taken in collecting that intelligence. Meanwhile, war plans demand that forces be ready in certain places and on alert, while the potential for WMD necessitates shorter and shorter lead times for strikes against an enemy. So the greater danger now is of an inadvertent conflict, caused by something like the shooting down of a U.S. spy plane, by the capturing of a Special Operations or CIA team, or by nervous U.S. and Iranian forces coming into contact and starting to shoot at one another.
The war planning process is hardly neutral. It has subtle effects. As militaries stage mock attacks, potential adversaries become presumed enemies. Over time, contingency planning transforms yesterday's question marks into today's seeming certainty.
William M. Arkin writes the Early Warning blog for washingtonpost.com and is the author of "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World" (Steerforth Press).