Iran might pound Persian Gulf cities with ballistic missiles and use swift boats to attack American war ships in an attempt to dissuade a U.S. attack on its nuclear arms sites, a new report states.
Tehran likely would employ a mixed game plan against the U.S. military consisting of "advanced technology" and "guerilla tactics," according to a research organization with close ties to the Pentagon.
Before that, Iran would first lean hard on weaker Middle Eastern nations to convince those states to deny Washington access to bases on their soil, it states.
Some of the report's grimmer scenarios predict Iranian ballistic missile launches on Gulf cities in an attempt to convince other nations to resist providing support to an American military operation.
The report also forecasts efforts by Tehran to use Shiite Muslim "proxy groups" to attack U.S. allies in the region. Similar groups plagued the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq for years, and some officials and experts said some acted with Tehran's backing. [Cantor Presses for More Pressure on Iran.]
Anthony Cordesman, a Pentagon adviser, acknowledged Iranian officials might give some kind of support to extremist groups in a place like Yemen.
But he cast doubt on the likelihood that Iran would fire missiles at Gulf cities, or if its missiles would even work. [How Iran Could Affect Your Wallet in 2012.]
"Iran is much more likely to look at this and realize when you see this type of exchange, you ignore the fact that there are no rules as to how the U.S. and others would respond," said Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
An Iranian missile barrage on Gulf population centers, he said, could lead the United States and its allies to "take out their oil refineries."
"Then, their economy grinds to a halt," Cordesman said. "If Iran can't export [oil], it can't earn. And that creates critical problems for the regime."
"Every time they escalate, they open themselves to attack on their own refineries, their own missile systems, and their navy and air force," Cordesman said.
Iran also could use new weapons, like advanced ballistic missiles, to attack U.S. bases and other forces positioned around the Persian Gulf, wrote Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, in the report.
"Iran's hybrid strategy would continue at sea, where its naval forces would engage in swarming 'hit-and-run' attacks using sophisticated guided munitions in the confined and crowded littorals of the Strait of Hormuz and possibly out into the Gulf of Oman," according to the report. "Iran could coordinate these attacks with salvos of anti-ship cruise missiles and swarms of unmanned aircraft launched either from the Iranian shore or from the islands guarding the entrance to the Persian Gulf."
For those reasons, Pentagon officials would be wise to move U.S. forces and naval ships beyond the suspected range of Iran's arsenal, the report states. The U.S. also should steel its bases in the region to limit the damage Iranian missile strikes could do to those sites, while also inking deals for a series of "distant" sites from which military operations could be launched, the report states.
But Cordesman said there is little evidence to show Iranian missiles could reach American war ships. "Nobody has said Iran has successfully tested their long-range missiles, especially with these kind of warheads," he said.
Iran's growing arsenal of weapons also would require Defense Department brass to take a second look at the kinds of weapons it is buying, Gunzinger states. He calls for stealthy bombers that can evade Iranian radars and missile systems, drone aircraft that can operate off aircraft carriers, an amphibious troop vehicle "optimized for ground combat operations," among other new weapons.
The CSBA analyst acknowledges such changes will be difficult as the Pentagon begins implementing $350 billion in budget cuts that will span a decade. (The department claims that will equal a real-world cut from planned spending of over $480 billion.)
"Achieving this within an increasingly constrained budget will require defense planners to make difficult decisions," Gunzinger writes, "the United States cannot meet the challenges that Iran could pose to its vital interests in the Gulf by simply spending more and adding new capabilities and capacity."
With most of Washington – and the GOP presidential candidates – debating whether the United States should use military force to halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, the report paints one of the first sketches of how a U.S.-Iranian conflict might play out.
The Pentagon will need to change how it fights and what it buys – even amid declining annual budgets – to deal effectively with Iranian systems fielded in recent years, says CSBA. These weapons and supporting platforms are tailored to significantly hinder the U.S. military's ability to move freely within an enemy's territory – including the air, at and under the sea, and increasingly in cyberspace.
The report from comes just weeks after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called a nuclear-armed Iran a "red line" for Washington and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed Pentagon officials are examining Iran strike options.