Week of June 29, 2019

Think Tanks Activity Summary
(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)


The potential of war with Iran is one of the major focuses in the think tank community.  We include a spectrum of these pieces in this week’s Monitor.This week’s analysis looks at potential military options for both Iran and the US.  We see that the viable options are limited for both sides.

The CSIS looks at Iran’s cyber capabilities.  They note, “Iran’s trajectory shows how a medium-sized opponent willing to allocate resources can build cyber power. Three military organizations play leading roles in cyber operations: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij, and Iran’s “Passive Defense Organization (NPDO).” The IRGC is the perpetrator behind a series of incidents aimed at American targets, Israeli critical infrastructure, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States. The Basij, a civilian paramilitary organization controlled by the IGRC, manages what Basij leaders say are 120,000 cyberwar volunteers. The number is probably exaggerated, but the Basij uses its connections with universities and religious schools to recruit a proxy hacker force. The NPDO is responsible for infrastructure protection. To ensure coordination between cyber offense and defense, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei created a “Supreme Council of Cyberspace” composed of senior military and intelligence officials.

The American Foreign Policy Council The says the US is isolated in terms of Iranian policy.  They conclude, “Nevertheless, Trump’s credibility issues, and America’s lingering credibility issues related to Iraq and the ill-fated search for weapons of mass destruction, have left our closest allies wary of believing U.S. contentions. Such wariness could complicate any U.S. effort to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Since the United States reportedly lacks the requisite number of ships to do the job itself, it would need to build a coalition of nations that our disgusted and distrustful allies may be reluctant to join. We are a long way from the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when French President Charles de Gaulle told former Secretary of State Dean Acheson that he didn’t need to see the proof of Soviet missile activity in Cuba because “The word of the President of the United States is good enough for me.” At next week’s G-20 gathering in Osaka, Trump would be wise to begin repairing the damage of more recent times.”

The Washington Institute looks at Iran’s militias in Iraq and the instability they cause.  They conclude, “The United States should not let such incidents undermine the bilateral relationship or trigger further diplomatic drawdowns—as long as the Iraqi government can demonstrate that it is taking concrete steps to assert its sovereignty and strengthen control over militias. The most proximate issue to watch is Abdulmahdi’s cleanup effort in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, where smaller militias (many backed by Iran) are blatantly refusing to follow his legal orders. To enable the removal and disciplining of noncompliant militia leaders in these areas, he will need to mobilize the state’s security sector and rally support from key political actors such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or Badr Organization commander Hadi al-Ameri. If he can do so before he visits Washington, U.S. leaders should treat his efforts as a clear indication of good faith and future intentions—a small step, to be sure, but a difficult one that should be quietly applauded and reinforced.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at what is happening with Iran, the US, and the Gulf.  They conclude, “The U.S. has other defensive options it can roll out. During the “tanker wars” of the 1980s, the U.S. allowed foreign-oil tankers to reflag as American ships. In addition, the U.S. adapted oil-platforms in the Gulf to use as surveillance posts, monitoring and responding to shipping threats. All of this is to say that the U.S. can establish a sustained presence in the Gulf with low risk, at a reasonable cost, keeping the waters open forever. Iran knows they can’t win a war of intimidation in the Gulf. Why do they bother? Well, it’s a tough neighborhood. If they don’t act tough, they will lose all respect. Moreover, the mullahs have fond memories of how their taking of American hostages helped deny President Carter a second term. Maybe they hope that, by roiling the waters anew, they will help turn Trump out of office in 2020 and perhaps get a more compliant replacement.”

The CSIS looks at the Turkish elections.  As they conclude, they warn, “Despite the political wound the Istanbul election constitutes for Erdogan, it is important to note that he retains full control over all aspects of policymaking at the national level and does not have to contest scheduled elections before 2023. By focusing on major foreign issues, he will attempt to distract attention away from the troubled domestic political scene and economic problems. Erdogan will also hope that this will enable him to shore up domestic support, similar to the way he had taken advantage of the resumption of the conflict with the PKK to help the AKP to regain the parliamentary majority in the November 2015 repeat elections it had lost six months earlier. However, he is now operating in a more difficult political, economic, and international environment with problems in each of these areas exacerbating those in the others.”

The Heritage Foundation says U.S. should be patient but firm in leading the international response to Iran’s provocations.  They note, “Iran’s June 19, 2019, shoot-down of a U.S. Navy surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz, and a series of attacks on ships in the Gulf of Oman off Iran’s coast, have ratcheted up tensions between Iran and the United States. Such asymmetric tactics are the opening skirmish in what is likely to be a protracted and intensifying crisis over Iran’s escalating uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its allies need to respond effectively to Iran’s covert maritime threats, and as they do so, they should bear in mind that Iran’s most potent threat is on the nuclear front.”


Iran and the United States Military Options

With all the talk coming out of Tehran and Washington, one would think that the two nations are on the brink of war.

But, are they?  How would they benefit? And, what are the military options?  Some options like an Iranian missile attack on Israel or US forces in the region would be suicidal according to some US military analysts and despite the Iranian threats are not to be taken seriously.

Nor is the US or Trump willing to start a war with Iran that America could inflict serious militarily damage but lose politically and will be drawn to a long and open conflict.

Despite all the talk, the “fighting” between the two is non-human.  Iran has shot down a drone and the US has launched cyberattacks – hardly the reason for a bloody conflict. Both Trump and Iran’s talk seems more for public consumption and bluffing.

Trump is hardly eager to go to war.  Long before he became president, Trump made it quite clear that he opposed intervention in the Middle East.  And, these opinions still govern his actions.  On Sunday during a Meet the Press interview, Trump was asked if he felt that he was being pushed into a war with Iran.  Trump responded, “John Bolton [National Security Advisor] is absolutely a hawk.  If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, okay?”

Trump went on to say that he preferred to hear from both sides before making up his mind.  He also praised Bolton by saying that ultimately, “he’s done a very good job.”

So, it appears that neither side wants to find itself in a conflict.  However, as the events surrounding World War One show, it is easy to back into a war for the wrong reasons.  For the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was a desire to establish hegemony over the Balkans.

Which raises the question: Is Trump or Iran willing to risk a war to establish more influence in the Middle East?  In many ways, they are like the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 – militarily a paper tiger and economically weak.  Iran has no neighbor like Germany to assist it any conflict.  Russia will not risk its own policies for the Strait of Hormuz like Kaiser Wilhelm did for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

US pundits claimed that although Iran has a population of about 80 million and some impressive weapons like ballistic missiles, WMD, and Russian air defense systems, the nation is economically strapped by sanctions and much of their military is suffering from lack of logistical support.  Availability of aircraft, ships, and other military equipment is low.  And, any prolonged conflict would wear them out.

Also, they contend that Iran has specialized in asymmetrical warfare – mainly by the IRGC, not the military.  The military is lacking in training and the IRGC is limited to its experience in Yemen, Syria, etc.  Going up against a major power is a totally different scenario.

They assert that even the Iranian air defense systems, which are celebrating the downing of the American drone are less powerful than they might imagine.  The US knows that it was flying in Iranian airspace, which is considered acceptable in peacetime – especially beyond the three-mile limit but didn’t expect the Iranians to attack them. According to some Washington analysts the Iranian success was due more to surprise than technological superiority.

Iranian air defense forces aren’t as good as the Russian forces, yet Israeli aircraft regularly penetrated them in Syria.  No doubt they are claiming, if American wants to enter Iranian airspace for military operations, the Iranian air defense system will not be able to stop them.

On the other hand, the US isn’t invincible.  It has a large military that is currently spread thin cross the world.  Assets like aircraft carriers are potent but can’t be sent to the Middle East quickly.  A build up of forces can take months as it did in both invasions of Iraq.

The current American fleet can carry out operations in the region but will quickly “wear out” if they don’t get reinforcements.

Military Options

So, if neither Iran nor the US is prepared for a major conflict, what realistic options are available for both sides?

For the US, the obvious choice is the typical American response – a massive cruise missile attack.  This was pretty much implied recently when President Trump said any military option wouldn’t mean “boots on the ground.”

However, if the United States launches air strikes on Iranian targets or leadership, Iranian cyber action is likely.  Iran has probed U.S. critical infrastructure for targeting purposes. How successful an attack would be is another matter. The kind of massive denial of service attacks Iran used against major banks in 2011-2013 would be less effective today given improved defenses. The most sophisticated kinds of cyberattack (such as Stuxnet or the Russian actions in the Ukraine) are still possible based on some Iranian capabilities, but poorly defended targets in the United States (of which there are many) are vulnerable—smaller banks or local power companies, for example, or poorly secured pipeline control systems.

Are there military options that don’t include a cruise missile or cyberattack attack?

The obvious location for any military action is the Strait of Hormuz.  It sees 21 million barrels of oil going through its narrow passage each day.  That is about 25% of the world’s oil consumption.  Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia have oil pipelines that bypass the Strait of Hormuz, the unused capacity can only accommodate about 19% of the oil that passes through the strait.

Most of the oil going through the Strait of Hormuz is destined for China, India, Japan, and South Korea.  That means that any attempt by Iran to cut off the oil shipments will probably lead to these nations helping the US break any embargo.  And, this doesn’t include likely help from NATO (Britain has already pledged to help).

The most logical Iranian move would be to block the Strait of Hormuz with its navy, IRGC boats, and mines.  However, the tanker war of the 1980s showed that in the long term, it was unsuccessful.  In fact, it encouraged the US Navy to expand its anti-mine warfare capability.

During the “tanker wars” of the 1980s, the U.S. allowed foreign-oil tankers to reflag as American ships. In addition, the U.S. adapted oil-platforms in the Gulf to use as surveillance posts, monitoring and responding to shipping threats.

The US Navy, along with other nations could break any blockade of the Strait.  GCC nations, NATO navies, and other involved Asian nations could escort oil tankers through the Omani side of the Strait.  Land based aircraft and aircraft from any carriers could provide air support against any attempt to “swarm” the convoys by IRGC boats.  The American amphibious forces currently in the region could board any Iranian ships.

Iran would find itself limited in response.  Although they can harass shipping in their own territorial waters, which cover half of the Strait, they would risk a major conflict if they try to harass any shipping in Omani waters.

This leaves Iran with only one option that avoids a direct conflict – mine warfare.  As they appear to have done with some of the tankers in the last month, Iran can seed part of the narrow waterway with mines.  This gives them plausible deniability for any tanker damage caused by them.

This explains the drone incident.  Half of the waters of the Strait of Hormuz belong to Iran.  However, the US doesn’t want Iranian submarines or ships to transport mines through the Iranian part of the Strait and into the open sea east of the Strait.  It was the drone’s job to remotely inspect Iranian traffic for any potential mines.

The Iranians didn’t want any American surveillance of traffic in their part of the Strait.  And, one way to “push back” the American Navy without causing casualties was to shoot down the drone in Iranian airspace.  However, that will only hamper surveillance a bit.  American aircraft can still monitor ships from Omani and UAE airspace.

Also expect American destroyers and frigates to patrol close to Iranian waters in order to carry out anti-submarine patrols.  As we noted in an earlier analysis, the Iranian Navy has focused on sonar warfare in the Gulf region and they are very likely to use that knowledge to sneak out of the Gulf and into open water.

There are few viable military options for either side.  Most center around the Strait of Hormuz, but in the end, the West can keep control of the Strait, although it will see some casualties – especially amongst oil tankers.

Are there other options?  Iran could encourage their allies in Yemen to make more trouble for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.  Additionally, they could directly or indirectly target American installations and bases in the region.

The Iranians could launch missiles from their islands in the Gulf like Abu Musa,, but that would only encourage the US and UAE to attempt to target missile batteries there and wage a campaign to regain control of the Island and that would lead to open conflict to target UAE cities.

The US could carry out air strikes on Iran, but as Trump discovered last week, they come with a political cost – both internationally and domestically.  The war between Iran and the US has been waged by artificial proxies.  Drones and computers are easy to replace, and the citizens of both America and Iran aren’t too bothered with those type of losses.

Although the rhetoric can get hot between Iran and the US, both sides realize the reality of conflict is much more dangerous.  Neither side wants to antagonize the other side with human casualties.  That’s why the tanker war of the last few weeks has been murky enough to tie it to Iran.  And, that’s why both sides seem committed to letting technology and artificial intelligence fight this conflict instead of humans for now.



Iran and Trump – Here’s What’s Really Going On

By James Carafano

Heritage Foundation

June 20, 2019

There are wars and rumors of war. And then there is Trump’s policy toward Iran, which fuels endless speculation. Despite much public handwringing over the announcement that the Pentagon is sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Gulf region, there are no signs the U.S. plans to escalate the stand-off with Tehran. I spent 25 years in the Army, but it doesn’t take a military career and a war college diploma to deconstruct what is going on. Let’s start with numbers. A thousand troops do not an invasion force make. Even counting the additional troops deployed last month on the strength of intelligence concerning an Iranian threat to shipping and (potentially) U.S. forces and assets in the Middle East, the number of U.S. boots on the ground are far too small to suggest a build-up for any major offensive action. Now, let’s look at the kind and scale of troops being sent. They are completely consistent with what is required for “force protection”—defending U.S. forces in the region, as well as policing the Hormuz against malicious attacks on shipping.

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U.S. Should Lead Patient But Firm International Response to Iran’s Provocations

By James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

June 21, 2019

The slow-motion confrontation between Iran and the United States has accelerated in recent weeks. Iran’s June 19 shoot-down of a U.S. Navy surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz, and a series of attacks on ships in the Gulf of Oman off Iran’s coast, have ratcheted up tensions on many fronts. The U.S. and its allies need to respond effectively to Iran’s covert maritime threats, and as they do so, they should bear in mind that Iran’s most potent threat is on the nuclear front. Tehran has threatened to exceed the limits established by the nuclear agreement if the European Union fails to protect Iran from U.S. sanctions by July 7. Washington must calibrate its response to the drone and tanker attacks with an eye to mobilizing international support in the approaching crisis over Iran’s surging uranium-enrichment operations, a much more important issue, which has triggered Iran’s bellicose maritime threats.

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Erdogan Loses Istanbul: Reasons and Implications

By Bulent Aliriza

Center for Strategic and International Studies

June 25, 2019

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who was backed by most of the other political parties opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), won the Istanbul mayoral repeat election on June 23, forced by the AKP’s challenge to the original result on March 31, with 54.2 percent of the vote against the AKP candidate Binali Yildirim’s 45 percent. The difference of over 800,000 votes between the candidates served to underline the severity of the electoral setback for Erdogan and the AKP, as the gap announced by the YSK after a recount of the first vote was only 13,000. The AKP lost votes in all 39 of Istanbul’s districts, while the CHP exceeded the AKP vote in 11 districts that the latter had won on March 31. With an insurmountable gap impervious to another challenge, there was also no repeat of the controversy provoked by the official Anadolu Agency’s inexplicable delay in providing results in the last election. Yildirim conceded early into the count and Erdogan followed up with a brief congratulatory tweet.

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Iran and Cyber Power

By James Andrew Lewis

Center for Strategic and International Studies

June 25, 2019

Iran has rapidly improved its cyber capabilities. It is still not in the top rank of cyber powers, but it is ahead of most nations in strategy and organization for cyber warfare. Iran has a good appreciation for the utility of cyber as an instrument of national power. Its extensive experience in covert activities help guide its strategy and operations using cyber as a tool for coercion and force, and it has created a sophisticated organizational structure to manage cyber conflict. This means any attack on the United States will not be accidental but part of a larger strategy of confrontation.  Iran sees cyberattacks as part of the asymmetric military capabilities it needs to confront the United States. Iran’s development of cyber power is a reaction to its vulnerabilities. Iran is the regular target of foreign cyber espionage. Iran and Israel are engaged in a not-always covert cyber conflict. Stuxnet, a cyberattack on Iranian nuclear weapons facilities, accelerated Iran’s own cyber efforts. What Iran’s leaders fear most, however, is their own population and the risk that the internet will unleash something like the Arab Spring. Iranian security forces began to develop their hacking abilities during the 2009 “Green Revolution” to extend domestic surveillance and control. These domestic efforts are the roots of Iran’s cyber capabilities.

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US finds itself isolated in Iran conflict

By Lawrence J. Haas

American Foreign Policy Council

June 22, 2019

President Trump’s opportunity at next week’s G-20 summit to reset U.S. relations with close allies is a particularly timely one, for it comes as Washington suffers the downsides of its frayed relations in connection with one of its biggest global challenges of the moment — its rising tensions with Iran. After launching a pressure campaign against Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 global nuclear deal and re-imposing economic sanctions that are squeezing Iran’s economy and causing serious hardship among its people, Washington is now blaming Tehran for recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman and sending another 1,000 troops to the region to monitor Iranian activities and protect the troops already there. And yet, in its efforts to force Tehran to negotiate new limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and to abandon its wicked ways in the region and beyond, it is Washington that finds itself largely alone. Particularly telling are the suspicions in European capitals and elsewhere that Trump’s fingering of Tehran for the tanker attacks looks eerily like the events of 1964 that prompted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution — which gave President Lyndon Johnson broad authority to wage the Vietnam War.

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Iran-Backed Militias Test the Credibility of Iraq’s Prime Minister

By Michael Knights

Washington Institute

June 19, 2019

On June 19, an unidentified militia fired a rocket toward the heart of Iraq’s oil sector in Basra province, with the munition landing just one hundred yards away from accommodation facilities used by U.S. and international engineers working on the country’s largest oil fields. It was the eighth rocket attack on U.S.-linked facilities in Iraq this year, directly following strikes on coalition training facilities in Taji and Mosul on June 17-18. Although no foreign nationals were killed in this week’s strikes, two Iraqis were injured, and the incidents have disrupted Washington’s local diplomatic presence. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil are on half-manning after all nonessential staff were withdrawn in early May due to security fears. Previously, the Basra consulate was shuttered last September after receiving rocket fire. The Mosul and Basra strikes are particularly troubling because they follow a stern warning from Prime Minister Adil Abdulmahdi that all Iraqi militias should cease independent military operations, not just at home but across the Middle East.

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