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Jun 28, 2010 | 22:07 GMT

U.S., Israel, Iran: Rumors of Striking from the Caucasus

VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
In theory, the Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan would not be bad locations for basing airpower to strike Iran, and rumors that preparations were under way for such a strike go back to at least 2008. Now a current spate of reporting has revitalized the rumors, which have never proved to be accurate. There would simply be too much visible activity involved in the run-up to a Caucasus-base air campaign against Iran to keep those preparations secret, and such a strike is not likely high on the list of current U.S. strategic priorities.
Rumors have been flying that air bases in the Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan might be used by the United States or Israel to carry out air strikes against Iran. As far as STRATFOR has been able to determine, these rumors can be traced to the Bahraini news source Akhbar al-Khaleej, which claimed last week (citing only "sources") that recent reports of Israeli warplanes operating from an air base in Saudi Arabia were merely a disinformation operation designed to distract attention from U.S. or Israeli efforts in the Caucasus. This current spate of reporting may have originated with a June 18 article by the sensationalist American opinion writer Gordon Duff. However, rumors of Israel using Georgia as a base for a strike on Iran go back to at least 2008. These rumors have never proved accurate, and STRATFOR has no credible evidence that the current rumors are any different. (click here to enlarge image) In theory, the Caucasus would not be a bad location for using airpower to strike Iran. In the American scenario, combat aircraft operating from such bases would supplement those operating from other bases around the region as well as a number of aircraft carriers (at least double the number currently with the 5th Fleet, which is two). Much of Iran's air defense network is oriented primarily toward Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, since an air attack would most likely come from U.S. combat aircraft operated from Iraq, bases in the Gulf Arab states and aircraft carriers at sea. In addition, bases in the Caucasus would be much closer to some key targets like Tehran and its environs. Being able to approach from the Caspian would allow U.S. warplanes to spend much less time over Iranian territory and less time in transit, allowing the generation of more sorties. And with air bases in the Caucasus, the United States would essentially be able to strike at Iran from all sides, further complicating Tehran's already significant air-defense challenges. There are roughly a dozen major airfields each in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Some of these (including the major airports) appear to be active fields that could be of sufficient quality for American combat aircraft. But none of the best fields are at all isolated, with most of the runways being within sight of at least a farming community, if not an entire city. This would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to conceal the preparations for, much less the arrival of, squadrons of combat aircraft. (click here to enlarge image) The more isolated strips are generally Soviet-era and would likely require considerable improvement involving heavy equipment and mountains of raw materials before they could be used by American combat aircraft. And even active, usable Soviet-era fields, designed for Russian aircraft with more rugged landing gear, are rougher than American standards for higher-end U.S. fighter jets. Similarly, considerable refurbishment — if not outright fabrication from scratch — of fuel filtration and storage facilities would likely be required. And in many cases, additional tarmac space would be extremely desirable for the efficient turnaround of combat and support aircraft. The bottom line is that all this work would take a considerable amount of time, and if a strike was in the offing, the work would have had to have begun months ago. And the effort would have been extremely difficult to disguise from locals, who not only would have noticed the increased truck traffic and other activity but likely would have felt some spill-over effect from the massive effort on the local economy. In any event, fighter squadrons and the infrastructure and support they require are very hard to conceal. Similarly, moving fighters and transport aircraft into even an active airport or airbase is likely to be noticed across a fairly broad geographic area — broad enough that tight controls on information would prove difficult. This would be especially true of an isolated and long-neglected strip, since the enormous increase in engine noise and flights would be immediately obvious to even the most casual observer. Meanwhile, there would also likely be shipments of ordnance and materiel by ground. All of this would be difficult if not impossible to conceal from Moscow, since the Russian FSB has a strong presence and situational awareness in both countries, and it could not be hidden from Russian spy satellites. These logistical realities have led the United States to seriously telegraph its intentions before, in both Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 as well as in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The inability to conceal such a buildup does not preclude a major air campaign, but it does make it hard to hide the preparations for one. And it is more than just a technical challenge. The reasons for the United States not to attack Iran — and to do what is necessary to dissuade Israel from doing so — are manifest. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, Iran has not decided whether to pursue development of a nuclear device, and if decided to move forward, it would be at least two years away at that point from a limited and crude nuclear capability. Then there are the challenges of knowing where to strike, since intelligence is extremely limited on the disposition of Iran's nuclear facilities. In the meantime, the political and security dynamics in Iraq remain extremely fragile, and the global economy is still only limping forward — the last thing it needs is a crisis in the Strait of Hormuz. The American withdrawal from Iraq, the mission in Afghanistan and the economic recovery are simply higher priorities for the White House, and there is little indication of a meaningful shift in these priorities. Until one is seen, the raw U.S. capability to strike at Iran is little more than a negotiating tool.
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