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Iran confident US can't choke off its economy. Iranians claim key targets are out of US range; US officials disagree

Iranians supporting their Islamic government say they are unshakably confident that their country will eventually gain the upper hand in its confrontation with the United States. This faith in final victory is the result of two main beliefs:

Time is on Iran's side. The US government can't afford financially to maintain a major fleet in the Gulf region indefinitely, they say.

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Iran's ``strategic depth'' is such that few of its economic targets are within reach of the US's Middle East task force. This would make it difficult for the US to choke off Iran's economy.

Indeed, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair, and F-18 bombers aboard the US carrier Ranger, stationed in the Sea of Oman, are light aircrafts with limited combat radius. For example, an A-6 with the maximum military load has a range of about 500 miles, according to Jane's All the World's Aircraft. The latter argument has been set forth time and again by Iranian officials in conversations with Western diplomats and this correspondent.

Iran's strategic depth has become a matter of debate among European and American analysts monitoring the Gulf conflict.

``We have only five small cities on the Persian Gulf shore,'' an Iranian ambassador says. ``Iran's major industrial zones are around Isfahan, Tehran, Tabriz, and Mashhad, four cities that are clearly out of the radius of action of the A-6, A-7, and F-18 bombers. Even our oil terminal on Kharg Island is 500 miles from the Gulf of Oman, where the US carrier sails. So long as Arab monarchies on the southern shore of the Gulf won't grant landing permission at their airports to long-range heavy bombers like the B-52, we'll be safe.''

A US official with NATO in Brussels vehemently denies this claim, saying that US aircraft in the Gulf region have midair refueling capacities. ``US bombers could even fly all the way from mainland US to Tehran without a single stop,'' he says.

European diplomats with NATO are much more cautious. ``Midair refueling is pretty feasible when carrying out targeted bombing raids with a limited number of aircraft. But refueling several bombers while above a hostile country like Iran could prove a tricky task,'' one diplomats says.

An analyst with the Middle East department of a European foreign ministry also says that US logistical problems are all the more serious because, for security reasons, the Pentagon has thus far kept its only aircraft carrier in the region outside the Gulf itself.

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``This shows you,'' the analyst says, ``that choking off Iran's economy wouldn't be easy: Its oil refineries, for example, are scattered across the country.''

Iran's main oil terminal on Kharg Island has the reputation of being indestructible. The island's loading installations were designed in the 1970s by Western engineers who had been ordered by the late Shah to build ``an impregnable fortress.''

During a visit to the island in 1975, this correspondent was shown how most pipes run underground and can be easily by-passed if damaged or destroyed. Also, oil can flow into the tankers by gravity, which means that attacking the pumps that feed the island would be of little use.

During the 1979-81 hostage crisis, the US considered trying to halt the flow of Iranian oil. ``But after careful studies by the US military, [we] came to the conclusion that the only way to do it would be to drop paratroopers on the island and systematically blow up all its facilities,'' says a former US official who dealt with the crisis.

Bombing raids against Iran's military installations would be difficult as well. When on the ground, Iranian warplanes are protected by sturdy shelters built under the imperial regime. Silkworm missiles are mobile. But Western analysts agree that, while being a trump, Iran's strategic depth is also a weakness. The country has huge mountainous border zones above which is difficult to detect intruding aircraft.

Since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, the weaknesses of Iran's radar warning system have allowed Iraq to mount numerous air raids deep inside Iran. In 1977 the late Shah, aware of this problem, ordered seven AWACS radar planes. The aircrafts were never delivered.

Western analysts also say that Iran underestimates the firepower of the US Middle East task force. ``Bearing this in mind,'' said a public relations officer with the army of a NATO country, ``last week's destruction of Iran's Rostam oil platform by the US Navy was an adequate response to the firing by Iran of a Silkworm missile against a reflagged Kuwaiti tanker.''

Indeed, for this public relations officer, the platform had previously been attacked in vain, time and again by Iraq. ``The Iranians,'' he said, ``have now realized the difference between an attack carried out with light Exocet missiles and a carefully planned raid carried out with adequate weapons.''

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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