Iran and U.S. Options for Preventive Military Strikes

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a summary briefing on US preventive strike options in Iran by Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan. This new briefing is entitled “Analyzing the Impact of US Preventive Military Strikes Against Iran's Nuclear Facilities,” and is available on the CSIS web site at:

The Limits to US Preventive Options

These analyses show just how vulnerable Iran is to a major series of US preventive strikes. It should be stressed, however, that the fact that US preventive strikes can be effective is not a reason for choosing military options over negotiations. There are several key points to be kept in mind in interpreting this brief and the more detailed studies on which it is based.

  • First, the US has military options for preventive strikes that Israel cannot come close to matching if it has the support of its Arab Gulf allies. This does not, however, make such military options desirable if there is any hope of successful negotiations with Iran, or more desirable than some form of containment. 

    Any such conflict would have a major impact on world oil prices for an unknown period of time at a point the global economy is in crisis. It could trigger serious clashes in the Gulf and spill over into other parts of the region, including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the Levant, and lock the US and its Southern Gulf allies into a period of overwatch and restrikes for years to come. The warnings about the “law of unintended consequences” from two US Chiefs of Staff – Admiral Mullen and General Dempsey – are fully justified.
  • Second, full and lasting success requires the support of the Arab Gulf states and other Arab states as partners and allies.

    A single round of US preventive strikes could be far more effective than strikes by Israel, but effectively dealing with the Iranian nuclear and missile effort militarily then requires time for damage assessment, restrikes when necessary, and an indefinite period in which any suspicious Iranian activity requires restrikes – unless Iran then negotiates full compliance with US resolutions and IAEA inspection. This requires the support of the Southern Gulf states for basing, and the defense of the Gulf and oil exports.
  • Third, dealing with the nuclear issue alone does not secure the Gulf or the region. 

    Any US military action must take into account its responsibilities to all of its allies in the Middle East, and especially the states on Iran’s borders or in the Gulf. The US must be prepared to be a partner in dealing with any Iranian threat or attack that affects their security. This can range from missile and air defense to active participation in asymmetric warfare.
  • Fourth, recent US analysis shows how critical it is to secure the flow of energy exports through the Gulf, and how dangerous any form of military action can be to the US and global economy.

    The volume of Gulf oil exports amounts to some 20% of all the world’s oil production of 87 million barrels a day. Any major disruption affects the entire economy of Asia and all world oil prices – regardless of where oil is produced. It can lead to panic and hoarding on a global basis and the US economy will be no more exempt from the resulting rise in energy prices and limited exports to the US and other  industrial and trading states than any other major economic power. Energy independence may happen someday, but today it is a foolish, dangerous myth.

Understanding the Correlation Between Preventive Strikes and the Threat to the Global Economy

The Strait of Hormuz is a critical part of such a defensive effort. An August report by the EIA summaries just how important the Strait is:

At its narrowest point, the Strait is 21 miles wide, but the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles, separated by a two-mile buffer zone. The Strait is deep and wide enough to handle the world's largest crude oil tankers, with about two-thirds of oil shipments carried by tankers in excess of 150,000 deadweight tons.

…Flows through the Strait in 2011 were roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide. More than 85 percent of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea, and China representing the largest destinations. In addition, Qatar exports about 2 trillion cubic feet per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Strait of Hormuz, accounting for almost 20 percent of global LNG trade. Furthermore, Kuwait imports LNG volumes that travel northward through the Strait of Hormuz. These flows totaled about 100 billion cubic feet per year in 2010.

The challenge, however, is regional and means the US must be prepared to defend the entire Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and not simply the Strait of Hormuz. Gulf oil production and loading facilities, and tanker traffic can be attacked anywhere in the Gulf. Iran can use a mix of mines, submarines, submersibles, drones, anti-ship missiles, small craft, and assault forces anywhere in the Gulf region to threaten the flow of oil exports.

Iran can cherry pick its targets in an effort to pressure and intimidate the US and Southern Gulf states. It can use long-range conventionally armed missiles or drones against large military or urban targets as terror weapons. It can attack sporadically and unpredictably in a war of attrition or attempt to “swarm” US and Gulf naval forces.

Iran controls key island in the shipping channels inside the Strait. It is steadily building up its sea-air basing capability in the Gulf of Oman, and its ability to use submarines and other weapons to attack tanker and shipping traffic outside the Gulf. While some analysis focuses only on the Strait per se, Iranian exercises cover a far wider range of scenarios and present a vastly greater military challenge to the US and its allies than a localized Iranian effort to “close the Strait.”  

Moreover, there are only very limited alternatives to shipping oil through the Gulf, the Strait, and the Gulf of Oman. Once again, a recent EIA study highlights the problem: 

Most potential options to bypass Hormuz are currently not operational. Only Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) presently have pipelines able to ship crude oil outside of the Gulf, and only the latter two countries currently have additional pipeline capacity to circumvent Hormuz. At the start of 2012, the total available pipeline capacity from the two countries combined, which is not utilized, was approximately 1 million bbl/d. The amount could potentially increase to 4.3 million bbl/d by the end of this year, as both countries have recently completed steps to increase standby pipeline capacity to bypass the Strait.

Iraq has one major crude oil pipeline, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Iraq-Turkey) Pipeline that transports oil from the north of Iraq to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. This pipeline pumped about 0.4 million bbl/d in 2011, far below its nameplate capacity of 1.6 million bbl/d and it has been the target of sabotage attacks. Moreover, this pipeline cannot send additional volumes to bypass the Strait of Hormuz unless it receives oil from southern Iraq via the Strategic Pipeline, which links northern and southern Iraq. Currently, portions of the Strategic Pipeline are closed, and renovations to the Strategic Pipeline could take several years to complete.

Saudi Arabia has the 745-mile-long Petroline, also known as the East-West Pipeline, which runs from across Saudi Arabia from its Abqaiq complex to the Red Sea. The Petroline system consists of two pipelines with a total nameplate capacity of about 4.8 million bbl/d. The 56-inch pipeline has a nameplate capacity of 3 million bbl/d and its current throughput is about 2 million bbl/d. The 48-inch pipeline had been operating in recent years as a natural gas pipeline, but Saudi Arabia recently converted it back to an oil pipeline. The switch could increase Saudi Arabia's spare oil pipeline capacity to bypass the Strait of Hormuz from 1 million bbl/d to 2.8 million bbl/d, which is only attainable if the system is able to operate at its full nameplate capacity.

The UAE constructed a 1.5 million bbl/d Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline that runs from Habshan, a collection point for Abu Dhabi's onshore oil fields, to the port of Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman, allowing crude oil shipments to circumvent Hormuz. The pipeline was recently opened and the first shipment of 500,000 barrels of oil was sent through the pipeline to the Fujairah oil terminal where it was loaded on a tanker and sent to the Pak-Arab Refinery in Pakistan. The pipeline will be able to export up to 1.5 million bb/d, or more than half of UAE's total net oil exports, once it reaches full operational capacity in the near future. However, the UAE does not currently have the ability to utilize this pipeline completely, until it ramps to full capacity. In late May, Fujairah ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al-Sharqi noted that this pipeline capacity could rise further to a maximum 1.8 million bbl/d.

Saudi Arabia also has two additional pipelines that run parallel to the Petroline system and bypass the Strait of Hormuz, but neither of them have the ability to transport additional volumes of oil should the Strait of Hormuz be closed. The Abqaiq-Yanbu natural gas liquids pipeline has a capacity of 290,000 bbl/d and is running at capacity. The IPSA (Iraqi Pipeline through Saudi Arabia) is used to transport natural gas to Saudi Arabia's western coast. It was originally built to carry 1.65 million bbl/d of crude oil from Iraq to the Red Sea, but Saudi Arabia later converted it to carry natural gas, and has not announced plans to convert it back to transport crude oil.

Other pipelines, such as the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (TAPLINE) running from Qaisumah in Saudi Arabia to Sidon in Lebanon, have been out of service for years due to war damage, disuse, or political disagreements, and would require a complete renovation before being usable. Relatively small quantities, several hundred thousand barrels per day at most, could be trucked to mitigate closure of the Strait of Hormuz.

Choosing Negotiation Over War

This is why it is so important to make every effort to find a negotiated solution at a time the risk of war continues to grow because of Iran’s nuclear efforts, threat of Israeli preventive war, and the pressures sanctions are putting on Iran and its steady build-up of its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf and the region.

The best way out is successful negotiations. It is a mix of comprise and trading real US and European economic incentives for Iranian concession on the nuclear issue.  It is limiting Iran’s stockpiles and enrichment efforts and placing equal emphasis on detailed agreements that limit the other ways it can move towards a nuclear weapons capability through fully IAEA-verifiable limits on weapons-related research and technology efforts, reactor construction, and centrifuge production and development. It is working out some form of agreement on the military build-up and deployments in the Gulf that can reassure all sides –creating a stable mix of deterrence by local, US, and allied forces.

At the same time, the US and its European, Arab, and Israeli allies cannot ignore the need for real military options and the fact negotiations may fail. There is a very real risk that Iran is not ready or willing to negotiate on a credible basis. Iran’s leaders have shown over the last decade – and in many ways since Iran came under missile and chemical weapons attack in the Iran-Iraq War – that they feel a nuclear-armed missile capability is the only way to both protect Iran and allow it to emerge a major – if not dominant -- power in the region.  |

It is far from clear that the strategic perceptions and values of each side will come close enough together to produce meaningful negotiations on the nuclear issue, and any broader pattern of accommodation that will limit the risks and arms race in the Gulf and the region. This is particularly true because the ideologies of each side are so different, there are so many other sources of tension, and third parties like Israel could trigger a conflict.

This is why it is so important for Iran to understand that military posturing cannot defend it against US preventive strikes, and that the US and its allies will fight on the basis of their strengths, and not on Iran’s terms. There is a tendency in analyzing the military balance in the region to focus on what Iran could do if the US fought on Iran’s terms, and on US and Gulf vulnerabilities rather than US and Gulf ability to strike and escalate. It is Iran, however, and not the US or its Gulf allies that will truly suffer if a serious conflict takes place.

As the more detailed analyses reference below make clear, Iran faces the fact that its build-up of asymmetric forces, and weak conventional forces, leave it vulnerable to US and Israeli preventive strikes, and even Saudi and other Southern Gulf air attacks. Its threats to “close the Gulf” depend on limiting US and Southern Gulf ability to escalate, to use conventional forces to attack the full range of Iranian forces and military production facilities, and counter any Iranian attacks on Gulf energy and economic facilities by destroying far more of Iran’s military forces or economy in return.

Asymmetric warfare, however, is as much a matter of asymmetry in the scale of targeting and the intensity of conflict as in the means used at the tactical level. It is here that Iran needs to know what it might face, particularly in the context that once it initiates a conflict that threatens the economies of other states, it must expect reprisal in kind as well as the prospect of losing many of its military forces and facilities, and its military production facilities.

Some of Iran’s greatest vulnerabilities are economic, and are targets that would produce negligible civilian casualties. As the US shown in its attack on Iraq in 1991, one does not have to use weapons of mass destruction to use weapons of mass effectiveness. In fact, a very limited number of precision strikes could do far more damage today than hundreds of conventional bombing raids in World War II.
Iran’s limited refinery capability is one such set of targets, along with its main fuel storage facilities. Stealth delivery platforms could target a relatively few key components with high cost and long replacement lead times. Iran could lose its electric grid and national gas system, as well as key road and rail links. It could see its ports mined and shipping halted by far more advanced system than it can deploy, and these are only a few of the target arrays involved. As Iraq learned after 1992, Iran could also face years after a clash or conflict in the Gulf in which its energy exports were limited.

These options are no more desirable for either side than preventive strikes. The question for the US, its allies, and Iran is whether they can be flexible and pragmatic enough to negotiate.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has also developed two major reports on Iran’s military forces and the balance in the Gulf:

  • Iran and the Gulf Military Balance - Part One: Conventional and Asymmetric Forces, available on the CSIS web site at
  • Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions, available on the CSIS web site at


Abdullah Toukan