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A Tempest in the Gulf Teapot : All Our Modern Naval Power Can't Match Iran's Tricks

July 05, 1987|LES ASPIN | Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is currently on a trip to the Persian Gulf

The Iranians have our number. They have figured out our soft spots and they are exploiting them very well. If we are going to confront them successfully--and not emerge yet again with egg all over our faces--we had best learn how to deal with them.

There are two points to keep in mind. First, our concentration on sophisticated military defenses is largely irrelevant since the Iranians do not intend to attack us head-on, but rather through the back door (or through the garage door, with, for example, a truck bomb). Second, their primary means of striking at us is political rather than military; they make every effort to exploit what they perceive as psychological weaknesses, such as the American concern for human life, to achieve their goals without having to tackle us head-on.

Look at our military plans and the public debate over them. In Congress and on the editorial pages, questions are raised about the sufficiency of defense plans for the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers. Why don't we have an "air cap"--planes continuously in the air over the Persian Gulf? How are we going to knock down those Iranian Silkworm missiles?

The tendency is to concentrate on the most sophisticated threat the Iranians have, which is the Silkworm. Our mind-set ranks threats in order of technical sophistication. But that's not how the Iranian mind works. They realize full well that to challenge us on the level of technical sophistication is to play to our strong suit. So they will go around it.

Furthermore, they have no intention of hitting us in such a way that we, or the world, would know for sure who is behind the attack and could justify swift retaliation. Rather, they will hit us in such a way that no Iranian fingerprints are left at the scene of the crime.

The truck bomb is one example of this two-track approach. The sea mine appears to be the latest. Four ships--one of them Soviet, none of them American--have hit mines in the last month in the same area of the Persian Gulf. Are the mines Iranian? No one can prove it. Are they a sophisticated means of warfare? No, but they did the trick. The Soviet tanker that hit the mine was being escorted by a modern Russian warship dripping with electronic gear--all of it useless for defense against the Iranian choice of attack.

The Iranians have proved innovative-- downright ingenious. I have no doubt that there are several rooms in Tehran right now filled with men planning the new tactic to follow the mine-laying.

Meanwhile, our military is devoting time and resources to confronting the Silkworm missile. It refuses to assign its best minds to contemplate unsophisticated threats.

And that is the problem. The Iranians are taking advantage of our mind-set. While we are building barricades to keep out yesterday's truck bombs, and scratching our heads to defeat today's mine threat, they are preparing to deploy some other novel threat, which will confound and defeat us for weeks or months.

While our military refuses to take "minor" or unsophisticated threats seriously because it knows it can defeat them in time, the Iranians are in effect employing guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, switching from one to the other. For them, it is not a question of defeating us, but of wearing us out.

Hanoi perfected this approach--a combination of attrition, psychological warfare and diplomacy. Iranian officials frequently cite the Vietnam precedent. They are fully cognizant of the possibilities of going over the heads of American leaders. They are frequently inept when they try, as with the absurd press conferences they staged during the hostage episode. But they were impressed with the results.

Before the Stark attack, few Americans objected to the reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers. Afterward, the reflagging suddenly became a very controversial issue. Now, after 37 deaths that Iran didn't even have anything to do with, we are debating withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. We withdrew after a few hundred deaths caused by truck bombings in Lebanon. We wouldn't attack Iran during the hostage crisis because we would have imperiled the 52 hostages. lives. In each instance, the value that we place on American lives makes us look hesitant, and as a consequence, Iran feels it can manipulate the United States. Tehran is perfectly willing--and, because of our mind-set, able--to shed more American blood to induce the American public to compel a withdrawal.

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