Sunday, June 22, 2008

If You're Concerned About the Price of Oil, Watch Israel and the U.S. Fifth Fleet

Israel, it's just been reported, recently conducted a military exercise that appeared to simulate an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Two years ago, Israel fought a war in Lebanon against Iran's proxies, Hezbollah. Things didn't go well for Israel, to a large degree because Israeli intelligence severely underestimated Hezbollah's military capabilities. No doubt Israel now takes Iran very seriously, just as Iran takes Israel very seriously. The exercise could be the prelude to the real thing. This is all the more likely because the hawkish, but soon to be concluded George W. Bush presidency may offer the Israelis a degree of support that future presidents, chastened by the failure of the Iraq War, would not provide.

The Iranians will probably have trouble stopping an Israeli air raid. Israel's capability for long distance air attacks is legendary. Iran's air force is a mulligan stew of miscellaneous aircraft, some pretty modern but most out of date and lacking in spare parts. Many of them are not in operational condition. Iran's air defense system is of uncertain quality, with an apparently disappointing performance in the Iran-Iraq War during the early 1980s.

But the Iranians appear to subscribe to the notion that the best defense is a good offense, and have a good understanding of asymmetric warfare. Iran has built up its ballistic missile force, and is modernizing its navy with submarines, frigates and other ships that can deliver missiles. Missiles are hard to stop. Israel found this out in its 2006 war with Hezbollah, during which Hezbollah missiles bombarded Israeli cities that no enemy airplanes could possibly approach.

Iran likely hopes to prevent an Israeli attack through a policy of modified mutual assured destruction. If Israel bombs Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran likely will do everything it can to stop the flow of oil to the industrialized world. With its arsenal of missiles, Iran would surely bombard Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Persian Gulf oil producers. Since the most productive oil fields in the world are in eastern Saudi Arabia, an easy ballistic missile shot from Iran, Iran's ability to disrupt the world's oil markets is plain to see.

While the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other Persian Gulf nations have modern military aircraft, courtesy of the United States, F-15s aren't designed to stop barrages of hundreds or thousands of missiles. Indeed, they might need reinforced concrete bunkers as protection against such attacks. And even if the Saudis and Kuwaitis have Patriot missile defense systems, those systems won't defend oil tankers trying to pass through the Persian Gulf from Exocet or other cruise missiles.

All of which is a long way of saying that if Israel attacks Iran, the U.S. will have to get involved, like it or not. The best way to stop Iranian retaliation against oil producing nations would be air attacks by U.S. forces against Iran's missile forces. The Israelis don't have the capability to launch the massive attacks needed against Iran's missiles. Only the United States, with its vast surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and its enormous array of cruise missiles, piloted aircraft, drone aircraft and smart weapons, could have any hope of containing Iran's missiles.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is assigned to the Persian Gulf region, would play a crucial role. While the U.S. already has air forces involved in the Iraq War, those forces likely aren't enough to fight on the Iranian front as well as the Iraqi front. The Fifth Fleet, beefed up with more than its usual complement of carriers, would have to be brought to bear.

Thus, the movements of the Fifth Fleet and Israel's pronouncements about Iran bear watching. If there's a scenario for $200 a barrel oil in the next six months, this is it. After that, a new President will reside in the White House, no doubt putting a restraining hand on Israel's air force. It's possible that the Bush administration's turn in the last couple of years toward diplomacy in the Middle East will bear fruit. By all accounts, few Iranians want war with America, and even fewer Americans want war with Iran. But if we had control over events, oil wouldn't now be trading at $135 a barrel.

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