When American War Plan In Iran Visioned Israeli Strikes Against Soviets
By Amir Oren
Juxtaposed with current news regarding the U.S. military relationship and its Iranian context – please see preceding Fifth Fleet update – It may sound fantastic now and was probably not really feasible even then, but according to the Pentagon’s own Joint Chiefs of Staff, sometime in the mid-1980’s, American military planners wanלted Israel to take part in a war which would start in Iran and spread to the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Israel Air Force would be tasked with striking Soviet ships and other units.
This comes not from some scoop-seeking scholar, but from the horse’s mouth. David B. Crist, Senior Historian at the JCS specialising in Iran and its 43-year conflict with eight U.S. administrations, is a Reserve Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel with combat deployments in the Middle East and Special Forces background. He has been privy to secret contingency plans, observed Iran’s activities in the Persian Gulf and beyond and appears to be IDF-friendly, having being associated with the pro-Israel Washington Institute.
Recently, Crist unloaded unto the Joint Chiefs website an unusual and even dramatic presentation: “U.S. Central Command Campaign Planning Against The Soviet Union, 1979-87”. It was originally shown to the current Commanding General of CENTCOM, Frank McKenzie, a fellow Marine, and his officers. Military history centers are not academicy oriented, though they aim at the most thorough research. Their mission is to provide today’s cadre with case studies of past events, in order to distill relevant lessons for immediate and future use in either the same places or in similar dimensions of warfare.
The Pentagon’s decision to give Crist’s seemingly confidential briefing wider distribution may have been intended to orient more officers towards the considerations and constraints involved in war against the Islamic Republic of Iran, with israel or without it. Conspiratorial minds would also see it as a signal aimed at Tehran, translating mere saber-rattling rhetoric into concrete combat schemes, with assigned units and projected timelines.
Earlier this week, the calendar highlighted the 31st anniversary of Desert Storm, a turning point in the American military posture in the Middle East. Up until that time, Arab countries were reluctant to host U.S. troops and headquarters, for fear of domestic repercussions and neighbourly subversion. The Americans came over to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait by fighting Iraq, staying ever since around the region, including in Syria, but their original nemesis has been Iran, capturing its Embassy and diplomats, causing it to self-abort the “Eagle Claw” rescue operation and then engaging in maritime friction as the U.S. safeguarded reflagged oildom tankers.
What started as a Corps-size (3-Star) Rapid Deployment Force grew into a full-fledged Central Command, filling the blank left by the European and Pacific Commands, which used to watch over the Gulf from both directions, but never gave it their undivided attention. A year ago Israel was moved under this Unified Command Plan from EUCOM to CENTCOM. It is now quite routine for the Israeli Navy to practice interoperabilty with the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet and for the IDF to train with fighter squadrons under AFCENT – in exercises such as last week’s Desert Falcon – but this was not the case in the last quarter-century before the Millennium, and it was definitely not imagined by most to be pointed against Russia.
Defense collaboration (rather than simply assistance) between the Pentagon and Tel Aviv’s Hakirya HQ began following the Yom Kippur War, picked up steam after the Camp David accords – when Egypt, too, joined the American orbit – and took off momentarily under Reagan, with Defense Minister Sharon signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Secretary of Defense Weinberger. This document reflected a tug of war between Washington, wishing to paint its relationship with Israel as anti-Soviet rather than anti-Arab, and Jerusalem with an opposite policy, fearful of alienating Moscow.
This agreement was almost immediately cancelled when Israel annexed the Golan Heights. It was revived and approved upon when Shamir and Arens replaced Begin and Sharon. Washington welcomed them, along with Military Intelligence Chief Ehud Barak and his Planning colleague Menachem Einan, for a re-launch of talks abd the setting up of mechanisms, protocols and joint projects, including pre-positioning sites for munitions in Israel for immediate availability in emergency.
Reading Crist’s account, it now turns out that some key American officials, most prominently Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, had creative ideas for taking the new partnership to the next level. Armitage, Colin Powell’s closest friend and later Deputy Secretary of State, forged a warm bond with Barak and Major General Uri Simhoni, the Defense Attache (who passed away last month, several weeks after their buddy, Powell).
The Soviets were always suspected of harboring a plot to invade Iran, perhaps with help from the inside by the Communist-leaning Tudeh party. But following the Soviet incursion of neighbouring Afghanistan and Khomeini’s taking power in Tehran and vowing to export the Islamic revolution, the old scenario was refreshed. Now the motive would be to prevent the spread of Khomeinism to the USSR’s Moslem Republics and to Afghanistan, or to stop “the fragmentation of the Iranian state caused by internal strife or defeat in the (1980-88) Iran-iraq War”.
The “Large-Scale Soviet Invasion Plan” Crist found in the files showed arrows drawn south from Armenia and the Caspian Sea towards the capital and then on to Isfahan, Khuzestan and Bandar Abbas, with the invading forces drawn from a pool of “24-29 Mechanised or Armor Divisions, one Airborne Division and 700-1000 strike aircraft”.
U.S. counter-strategy, according to Col. Crist, was “to deter the Soviets from invasion” by being capable “to deploy and sustain a credible force to the region, with the clear indication that a Soviet attack on a vital American interest would mean war with the United States. If a conflict begins, be prepared to attack and defeat any Soviet effort to control the oil of the Middle East”. Also, and this is where Israel comes in, “widen the conflict beyond just the Middle East to other areas where the U.S. and our allies hold military advantage”. The documents quoted are from SECDEF Weinberger to JCS Chairman David Jones, an Air Force General, and vice versa.
This sounds like a potential limited version of World War III, Nuclear weapons – if not Strategic Air Command strikes inside the Soviet Union, at least Tacticsl ones, mines and Special Forces man-borne demolition packs – included. But in such a war, Europe will be the main Theater, the Navy will resist diversion from the Atlantic and the Pacific and the contingency forces assigned to Iran in an isolated crisis, such as the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, will be more needed elsewhere.
The “1004” plan proposed a so-called Horizontal Escalation, whereby American forces would operate from Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and a Saudi jumpboard into Iran, “the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group working with the CIA an unconventional warfare to develop a resistance movement disrupting Soviet forces by blowing bridges and attacking their rear areas” – and have moderate, pro-Western countries in the region “operate against Soviet client states, especially those with historic animosity”, such as Syria.
This, specified Crist’s documents, “would include Israel, who would insure the safety of the Suez Canal by striking Soviet forces in the Eastern Mediterranean”.
While Israel was earlier drawn into dogfights with Soviet fighters over Egypt and struck transports bringing equipment to Syria, its leaders from Ben-Gurion to Eshkol and Golda to Dayan always commented that have no illusions regarding the IDF’s ability to withdtand a Soviet onslaught. But the American planners let their imagination run wild, and it had its uses for their Israeli counterparts.
“We went along with the simulation,” recalled an Israeli defense official who had a central role then, “because it helped foster a closer relationship with our professional opposite numbers, who up until that time were more reserved. Indeed, we looked at options stemming from Superpower conflict around the Syrian or Cyprus, with the possibility of our being drawn in and clashing with Soviet Air or Naval units. It was a modular, multi-part scenarion, potentially based around Iran as a flashpoint but with other narratives as well. As is customary with military organisations, it is not a plan, per se, that is important, as it will inevitably have to adapt to circumstances, but the practice of planning, in this case together.”
This was the seed of what has by now blossomed into a forest. The Soviet Union disintegrated shortly thereafter, but Russia is back in force in Syria and Iran is a perennial headache, so while the plan unearthed by the JCS historian was never put to a test, it is too early to consign it to a museum display.