Such attacks would present the Obama administration with the option of undertaking a limited war against Iran by striking its warships and shore-based anti-ship missiles to keep the Gulf open for business.
“One of the things that Iran has exercised, has the capability to do, is shut down the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Johnson said. “The best-case scenario is they shut it down for a week. The worst case is they shut it down for three to four months.”
He said Iran could unleash small boats laden with explosives “that we don’t have adequate covers for. Add to that the ability to fire multiple missiles. Our naval force will try to stop it, and that’s the hope.”
Mr. Johnson, now a consultant on counterterrorism, said Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has orchestrated attacks against the U.S. in Iraq, also likely would hit targets in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.
“I think we would be looking at a significant wave of terrorist retaliation by them,” he said.
Over the past two weeks, Israeli media have reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seeking consensus on attacking Iran’s nuclear sites ahead of a U.N. atomic agency report last week that said the Islamic republic has engaged in activity consistent with building a nuclear weapon.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a former senior Pentagon official who runs the Center for Security Policy, said Iran’s ruling mullahs have always had designs on attacking the U.S., and an Israeli attack might prompt them to do so.
“I think they will try to do as much damage to as many of us as they can,” Mr. Gaffney said. “My guess is they will try options to have Hezbollah cells engage in attacks around the world against our forces.
“I think they will probably try to retaliate directly against the Israelis, of course, perhaps with missiles, perhaps through their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Iran this year launched an aggressive public relations campaign to convince the West that it has assembled a powerful arsenal of guided anti-ship missiles that can be launched from hard-to-find mobile batteries on shore.
In addition, Tehran said in February that it had begun mass production of a ballistic missile with a range of nearly 200 miles. In August, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally unveiled another anti-ship missile, the Ghader.
“The best deterrent is not allowing the enemy to dare to attack the country,” he said.
Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush and President Obama have advised caution in choosing a military option to slow Iran’s drive to build an atomic bomb.
But retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed that an updated war plan exists.
“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said last week. “And those consequences could involve not only not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but, more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region.”
John Pike, who directs GlobalSecurity.org, said oil-producing Iran likely would retaliate against Israel directly through its surrogates — Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip to Israel’s south, and the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the Jewish state’s northern border.
“Attacking Persian Gulf shipping is tricky for them, since the Saudis are not completely dependent on the Persian Gulf, whereas Iran is,” Mr. Pike said. “But attacks would drive up the price of oil, which would benefit Iran.”
The hard-line Islamic state also could take the momentous step of attacking the U.S. homeland.
“If Iran was bold, they would infiltrate commandos across the Mexican border and blow up elementary schools in Iowa,” Mr. Pike said. “Attacking U.S. and Saudi targets is risky for them because there would still be lots of stuff in Iran that could be blown up in retaliation, and Iran would run out of things of value before the U.S. ran out of bombs.”
But the Israeli military would face a daunting challenge.
Iran has so many scattered, buried nuclear sites — perhaps 50 or more —s that Israel’s air force and its U.S.-provided long-range F-15s would have a difficult time executing the kind of broad strategic campaign needed to hit most of them.
“And by virtue of dispersing them, Israel’s best chance is to get one or two targets. On top of this, [Israeli pilots] still have the problem of penetrating an integrated air defense system and doing so over a long distance.”
Mr. Johnson added: “If they were using nuclear weapons, they might have a chance of really causing significant damage to these sites.”
“There are really not much more than half a dozen critical targets in Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “Iran needs their entire complex, so Israel does not have to destroy everything in order to disable the program.”
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