In event of an Iran-Israel showdown, what would US military do?
Iran was top of the agenda Monday at the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. A recent war game gave US military officials a sense of the threat exposure from operating in a narrow waterway such as the Strait of Hormuz, off Iran's coast.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington Monday to meet with President Obama â€“ which comes in the midst of increasingly vocal warnings from Pentagon officials urging caution on any military action in the region â€“ has brought these questions into sharp focus this week.
These questions, too, were at the heart of one of the largest US military war-game exercises in a decade, meant to mirror the conditions that US troops would face if Iran were to, say, shut down shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
The war game, dubbed â€śBold Alligator,â€ť included some 16,000 US Navy seamen and Marines, as well as a a contingent of US allies from Europe and Australia, and took place near Norfolk, Va., last month.Â
Yet Iran conducts its own war-game exercises, too, designed to practice how best toÂ make US military operations in the region difficult, defense analysts note.
The Pentagonâ€™s exercise, for its part, was designed to explore what might happen when US troops face threats in a populated, â€śbuilt-upâ€ť area like the Persian Gulf, according to senior US military officials.Â
Operating in seaway as narrow as the Strait of Hormuz â€“ one of the most important in the world for US commercial interests â€“ becomes â€śvery difficult when you talk about irregular threats,â€ť says Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of US Marine Corps Forces Command.Â Those threats include the widespread mining of the Strait, as well as small boats that could swarm US vessels.
The war games also explored the threat that Iran could pose with its shore-based cruise missiles, to which US ships might be exposed â€śunder certain circumstances,â€ť according to Harvey.
In any case, if the Pentagon were forced to respond to, say, the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, it would likely make extensive use of Special Operations Forces first, according to Hejlik. Such special forces â€śare going to condition that battle spaceâ€ť prior to any US Navy mission, he adds.Â
US military officials have been careful to emphasize, however, that it is not their first choice to attack Iran.Â
Thatâ€™s because they are unsure how Iran would respond to such an attack, top Pentagon officials say. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said uncertainty surrounding Iran's response to a a military strike is â€śthe question with which we all wrestle and the reason we think that itâ€™s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.â€ť
The problem is, too, that even a â€śsuccessfulâ€ť military strike on Iranian nuclear targets would likely delay Iranâ€™s nuclear ambitions only for a limited time.Â
More likely than closing down the Strait of Hormuz â€“ which would be nearly certain to provoke a US military response â€“ Iranian officials would choose a more subtle, complex response.
â€śClosing the Strait â€“ [discussing] that is fine for talking heads on TV â€“ but that doesnâ€™t have anything to do with the complexityâ€ť of Iranâ€™s potential response to a military strike, saysÂ Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It might use free-floating mines in the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, or conduct military exercises that wouldnâ€™t justify a military response but that would give other nationsâ€™ commercial vessels pause before traveling in the region, thus affecting commerce. These are all scenarios that the Iranian military also war games, Dr. Cordesman notes.
Iran might also engage in covert acts that it would ensure are difficult to attribute to the regime, such as sabotaging Saudi oil fields. Iran is â€śvery careful to test out all the ways they can apply pressureâ€ť on the interests of the United States and its allies, Mr. Cordesman adds. â€śAnd they practice all of this.â€ťÂ