- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BANDAR ABBAS, Iran

Evening crowds stroll around the fringes of traffic-filled Yadbod Square, renamed Martyrs’ Square after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in central Bandar Abbas.

Though the city experienced what passes here for spring, it was another day when daytime temperatures soared beyond 85 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity put a clammy film over everything.

In the evenings, families come out to enjoy the cool air, sitting on plastic chairs at tables outside neon-lit ice-cream and pizza restaurants on the shorefront.

In the event of U.S. air strikes on Iran, this important port at the head of the Strait of Hormuz would be one of the most heavily targeted urban centers. Though it lacks any nuclear sites, Bandar Abbas is one of two centers of activity for the Iranian navy.

“Sometimes, I think I’m the only worried person here,” said Fariba, a middle-aged housewife raising two daughters, whose own childhood was scarred by having to flee her hometown of Abadan after Iraqi troops invaded in 1980.

“None of my friends listen to the news. They prefer to talk about the shopping they did that day. When I tell them we might experience war again, they shrug and say it doesn’t make any difference.”

“My mother is very nervous,” explained Parinaz, her 18-year-old daughter, who attends a state-run school for gifted children. “Every time she listens to Radio Farda, she thinks American Special Forces are about to land in central Bandar Abbas and attack us.”

Radio Farda is a Washington-sponsored radio station that transmits Persian-language news that tends to highlight developments regarding Iran’s nuclear program and its poor human rights record.

With summer temperatures in this Persian Gulf city often exceeding 122 degrees Fahrenheit, residents take advantage of good weather. Soon, the city will be swamped by crowds visiting for the Persian New Year holiday (Noruz, beginning March 21) and a sea of tents will spread across the promenade, making it impassable.

After the 15-day holiday, the heat sets in. Six long months of summer begin and residents huddle in the air-conditioned interiors of their homes.

‘An important target’

“Bandar Abbas is the Iranian navy’s primary port,” said Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and operations at the National War College in Washington.

“Because of the U.S. fear of attacks that would interrupt the flow of oil out of the Gulf, I believe the Iranian navy facilities there would be an important target, [but] I expect this would leave open the flow of commercial goods through the port,” he said.

A 30-page Iranian contingency plan bearing the stamp of the Strategic Studies Center of the Iranian Navy (NDAJA) was leaked last year by Hamid Reza Zakeri, who defected from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

It described a strike plan and schematically laid out Iran’s military and strategic assets from the Strait of Hormuz to the port of Bushehr near the Iraqi border.

The action would be coordinated by a single operational headquarters that would integrate missile units, strike aircraft, surface and underwater vessels, anti-ship missiles, mines, and coastal artillery.

According to the same plan, a U.S. invasion force would be decimated in the northern Indian Ocean before entering the Persian Gulf in three “mass kill zones” that run from Bandar Abbas to the ports of Jask and Chabahar.

Testing missiles

This month, Iran continued preparations by test-firing a new land-to-sea missile that it claimed has a range beyond 180 miles.

“We have successfully fired a cruise missile … hitting targets in the Sea of Oman and northern Indian Ocean,” said Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi of the Revolutionary Guard. “This missile can hit all kinds of big warships in all of the Persian Gulf, Sea of Oman and northern Indian Ocean.”

The new Russian Tor-M1 surface-to-air defense shield that has reportedly been deployed around some of Iran’s nuclear facilities was also tested. Offensively, the Iranian military would deploy waves of explosives-packed boats against U.S. warships, according to the leaked attack plan.

This month, Ali Shushtari, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard ground forces, announced that Iran has stealth drones, and indicated in an interview with Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency they could be used to target U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.

“We have built birds without passengers that can carry out suicide operations on the U.S. Navy, at any depth necessary, to make them leave the region in disgrace,” he said.

Strategic port

Bandar Abbas has been one of Iran’s most strategic military areas ever since Darius the Great’s army commander embarked from there for an expedition to India between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

The port continued to be important during Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century B.C. The Portuguese navy, the Persian Safavid Empire, local Arab dynasties and the British took turns controlling the area before it reverted to Iranian control in the 20th century.

More recently, the Iranian navy has made up for the imbalance in its hardware and equipment by emphasizing asymmetrical warfare in its military doctrine, planning to mine the Persian Gulf as an exercise in area denial, and developing surface-to-surface missiles able to hit shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

The effectiveness of these rockets was demonstrated by Hezbollah last summer when one hit a high-tech Israeli gunboat off the Lebanese coast during the five-week conflict.

“This is another weak point of the enemy, because we have certain methods for fighting in the sea so that war will spread into the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean,” said Mojtaba Zolnur, a high-ranking Revolutionary Guard official, according to the Jan. 25, 2005, edition of the Iranian newspaper Aftab-e Yazd. “We will not let the enemy inside our borders.”

A watchful eye

Some 40,000 men serve in Iran’s conventional and Revolutionary Guards navy based at the ports of Bandar Abbas and Jask further southeast on the Persian Gulf shore.

The coastline of Bandar Abbas bristles with military radars and anti-aircraft batteries as well as sprawling navy camps whose walls are daubed with revolutionary slogans and quotes from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, emphasizing national independence.

The arrival of two U.S. Navy battle groups has not gone unnoticed in Bandar Abbas, where foreigners are eyed with suspicion, and the town has many Iranian intelligence personnel.

In February 2005 U.S. congressional testimony, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, at the time director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, addressed the possibility that Iran would use mines to block the Strait of Hormuz when he mentioned a “layered strategy” that employs naval, air and some ground forces to block the straits. Iran’s purchase of North Korean fast-attack craft and Russian midget submarines bolsters this capability.

Moreover, Iran compensates for its limited air power and surface-vessel capabilities by emphasizing the buildup of its anti-ship missiles that are based on Chinese technology.

There have also been reports that Iran bought missiles from Ukraine last year. Most commercial shipping is within range of missiles based on islands in the Persian Gulf like Qeshm.

In an effort to limit hostile air power in the region, Iran might target air bases to its south, or it could try to strike aircraft carriers outside the Gulf.

‘Bigger problems’

Submarines could be used for the latter assignment, and the port of Chabahar on the Sea of Oman is being modified to serve the Kilo-class submarines Iran bought from Russia in the 1990s.

Jask is reportedly a center for Iran’s long-range missile program, with most of the Chinese-supplied rocket technology stored at Revolutionary Guard secure sites.

“People are living under the line of poverty who eat only rice for their whole life, who haven’t even seen Bandar Abbas,” said a member of a local legislative council in Hormozgan province, who requested anonymity.

“People here don’t care about the threat of the Americans coming. They’ve been hearing this talk for the past 25 years. They have bigger problems to worry about.”

In the event of an attack, the Pentagon will discard Cold War-era plans, which called for moving on Tehran from Persian Gulf ports such as Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, close to Pakistan’s border.

The towns will still be among the first to be targeted by U.S. carpet bombing or even Marine Corps units, according to former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, to protect the Strait of Hormuz from Iranian attack.

But military planners reportedly fear that, as with the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, it will prove impossible to hit the mobile-missile platforms along Iran’s nearly 1,400-mile coastline.

Iranian missiles would be able to target Washington’s key U.S. Arab allies, such as Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and the American military bases that they host on their soil.

• The reporter’s byline has been withheld for fear of official retaliation for visiting a restricted area.

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