Air superiority over Zagros Mountains key in potential conflict with Iran

By Al-Mashareq

A picture shows a clear view of the mountains as seen from west of Tehran on January 4, 2016. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

A picture shows a clear view of the mountains as seen from west of Tehran on January 4, 2016. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Control of the skies over a key mountain range in Iran would play a major factor in a potential future conflict.

The Zagros mountains, a southern extension of the Caucasus, run from southeastern Turkey through northeastern Iraq and roughly follow Iran's western border down south along the coast of the Persian Gulf up to Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz.

The range forms a natural barrier not only with the western border with Iraq but also along Iran's southwestern border along the Persian Gulf.

An assault through the Zagros Mountains is not feasible, as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein discovered in 1980, a report by the think-tank Stratfor noted in December 2011.

The 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq demonstrated two realities, according to the report.

"The first is that a determined, well-funded, no-holds-barred assault from Mesopotamia [Iraq] against the Zagros Mountains will fail (albeit at an atrocious cost to the defender)."

"The second is that, in the nation-state era, with fixed borders and standing armies, the logistical challenges posed by the Zagros make a major attack from Iran into Iraq equally impossible."

Supporting an attacking force requires logistics, and pushing supplies through the Zagros -- from either side -- in any great numbers is nearly impossible, the report noted.

A conflict scenario

A potential ground conflict would most likely occur on Iran's borders along the Persian Gulf, especially given the regime's strategy of threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and attacking maritime vessels in the event of war.

Published in 2019 by Rand Corporation, the "Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond" report envisions that Iran would begin a conflict by attacking merchant ships and any warships attempting to protect the merchant traffic passing through the Strait and into the Gulf with anti-ship missiles, small craft and mines.

Other tactics would involve attempting air strikes early in the conflict and deploying special operations forces into Gulf states to enable further attacks on shipping and to disrupt opposing military operations.

For their part, opposing forces would be limited to securing key islands in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz and conducting raids on areas along the Iranian coast being used as missile launch sites or to support the operation of Iranian small attack craft, according to the report.

The Iranian forces most likely to be involved would be smaller units deployed around the approximately half dozen island bases, such as Abu Musa, Al-Farsiyah, Khark, Larak, Kharg Island, Qeshm and Sirri.

If the conflict were to continue for several weeks, opposing forces could then also potentially conduct raids to clear areas in southern Iran being used by Iranian forces, the report said.

Air superiority over the Zagros Mountains, which sit north of the potential conflict zone, is key in this scenario.

Opposing forces would try to suppress Iran's limited air defences and conduct strike operations to halt attacks and coerce the regime to end the conflict, it said.

The focus would initially be on air bases, then on missile launchers and their targeting capabilities, warships and small attack craft, and naval bases, according to the report.

Control of the skies would also prevent Iranian forces from moving south through the rough terrain of the mountains, inhibiting the regime's ability to reinforce its forces on the coast.

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