How Iran would retaliate if it comes to war
Military analysts say the Islamic Republic would strike back in unconventional ways – targeting American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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But that has not kept Iran from rhetorical chest-beating, with an active military manpower of 540,000 – the largest in the Middle East – dependent on some of the lowest per capita defense spending in the region. Iran "can deal fatal blows to aggressor America by unpredictable and creative tactical moves," the senior commander Brig. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid said in late May. "It is meaningless to back down before an enemy who has targeted the roots of our existence."Skip to next paragraph
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Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei also warned of far-reaching revenge in 2006. "The Americans should know that if they assault Iran, their interests will be harmed anywhere in the world that is possible," he said. "The Iranian nation will respond to any blow with double the intensity."
Analysts say Iran has a number of tools to make good on those threats and take pride in taking on a more powerful enemy. "This is not something they are shying away from," says Alex Vatanka, a Middle East security analyst at Jane's Information Group in Washington.
"They say: 'Conventional warfare is not something we can win against the US, but we have other assets in the toolbox,' " says Mr. Vatanka, noting that the IRGC commander appointed last fall has been "marketed as this genius behind asymmetric warfare doctrine."
"What they are really worried about is the idea of massive aerial attacks on literally thousands of targets inside Iran," says Vatanka, also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. "Their reading of America's intentions in that scenario would be twofold: One is to obviously dismantle as much as possible the nuclear program; and [the other], indirectly try to weaken the [Islamic] regime."
Any US-Iran conflict would push up oil prices, and though Iran could disrupt shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf, its weak economy depends on oil revenues.
But nearby US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf provide a host of targets. Iran claimed last October that it could rain down 11,000 rockets upon "the enemy" within one minute of an attack and that rate "would continue."
Further afield, Israel is within range of Iran's Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, and Hezbollah claims its rockets – enhanced and resupplied by Iran since the 2006 war to an estimated 30,000 – can now hit anywhere in the Jewish state, including its nuclear plant at Dimona.
Closer to home, Iran has honed a swarming tactic, in which small and lightly armed speedboats come at far larger warships from different directions. A classified Pentagon war game in 2002 simulated just such an attack and in it the Navy lost 16 major warships, according to a report in The New York Times last January.