If we would attack Iran with a combination of air and naval power, we could neither expect victory through regime change (air attacks seem to harden the attacked government, at least temporarily) nor limit ourselves to this-or-that nuclear reactor (which would merely tick off more people while delaying the inevitable). Instead, an air-attack against Iran would have to aim at medium-term weakening of the government, with the specific goal of the Islamic Republic falling sometime after the end of hostilities.
While professionals may talk logistics, I’ll stick to strategy, and note that Iran is open to attack, bordering American forces on the west (Iraq), the south (Persian Gulf / Gulf of Oman) and the east (Afghanistan).
With all this in mind, theoretical anti-Tehran air strikes should first seak to disable Iran’s anti-air capabilities, and then (in no particular order)
- destroy every refinery in Iran. There have already been riots across the country because of fuel shortages. While Iran is rich in crude oil, years of American sanctions and international wariness of the Mullahs have allowed Iran’s refinery capacity to disintegration. Already, Iran imports 40% of its gas and diesel fuel. Knocking out her refineries could more than double that number. Increasing Iran’s reliance on imported fuel forces any post-conflict government to impose rationing and price controllers on her citizens, while starving her of much-needed cash that will go to buying new supplies.
- destroy communication links between ethnic regions of Iran. Persians in Iran are half again more numerous, as a percentage of the population, than Serbs were in the old Yugoslavia — 51% to 36%. Further, much of the “minority-majority” areas border the heavily populated (and very easy for us to access) western portion of Iran, bordering Iraq: the Kurds, Lurs, and Arabs all live on the Iraqi frontier. Additionally, Iran has a sizeable Azeri population in the north-west, a restive Baluchi minority in the south east, and a Sunni minority near Turkmenistan in the north-east. We should not assume that an air war will spark secession. However, the goal should be to increase the stress and cost of national unity, diverting resources that could be used by the regime in other areas.
Other targets are more obvious (regime elements, military formations) or more tangentials (the ports on the Caspian Sea), but tremendous damage can be done to Iran’s freedom-of-action by forcing them to become more reliant on international supplies of fuel and sub-national suppliers of security. War, when total victory is not militarily achievable, is ultimately about changing the correlation of forces. With this in mind, a war with Iran is certainly “winnable.”