The war drums in Washington are beating the steady staccato they often do when the hint of conflict is teased to a conflict-hungry media and war-weary public. While I get the impression that Trump himself does not want a full-blown conflict here, he is easily impressionable both by America’s more unsavory allies as well as people in his administration. Right now, even if he is just being used as a public face of the stick in a carrot and stick approach, John Bolton is easily the most dangerous man in the world.
But I have made my views quite clear on dangerous and flawed U.S. policy towards Iran on multiple previous occasions. I want to examine a more interesting issue right now…what if the worst comes to pass and there is, in fact, a U.S.-Iran war in the near future? More specifically, what if Iran far outperforms expectations, or America far underperforms, or both?
It is not as much a position for provocation’s sake scenario as you might think. While its nearly impossible to see Iran winning a conventional conflict against America, they would obviously not be foolish enough to fight in such a way like, say, Iraq did in 1991. The First Gulf War was such an overwhelming American military victory that basically stopped everyone-for the time being-from seeking to directly challenge the US with vast formations of tanks and planes. In a strange way, that victory has unintentionally been bad for Washington, which is far less skilled outside of such conventional warfare.
While every strategist around the world must know that Iran would be a far tougher nut to crack than say Iraq or Libya, and private conversations are almost certainly filled with such concerns among military brass, the public face of the issue so far has been one of self-confidence. For all we know it may be warranted, but there is a stronger case to be made for Iran being able to do serious damage to the U.S., and possibly even come out winning more than losing in a direct confrontation. I feel there are military officers who know this and who could talk down the more ridiculous congressman into continuing our present low-level siege warfare. But with Bolton, Tom Cotton, the Saudis, and possibly the Israelis all pushing for a greater escalation, it is quite possible that a cascade of events could drag countries to places even against their own wishes a la summer of 1914. Here is how that could happen in the very real possibility that Iran outperforms the expectations of our political elite:
Iran today has probably more raw potential military power than North Vietnam did in 1964, if a far smaller pool of battle hardened veterans. Its ability to strike throughout the region is greater, and its population’s strong desire-no matter their politics towards the present government-to avoid a return to being an American puppet could be forged into a type of total war mobilization that would never be able to be replicated in the U.S. The Forever War and the various mistakes of the United States policy leadership since 2003 and onwards have alienated the public from the Pentagon and the interventionist mindset far beyond repair. That already gives Iran a leg up on morale for a long haul battle.
Iran’s special forces have become as hardened in Syria as U.S. forces are through their constant deployments. They have built long term relationships with state and non-state actors alike in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq (and possibly to a much lesser extent, Yemen), all of whom know that while the United States will not always be in their near abroad, Iran always will be. Meanwhile, Iranian ally Hezbollah showed in 2006 it can be called upon to tie many Israeli forces down if needed. Their performance in Syria more recently also is impressive.
Iran would most likely cede the air to the overwhelming superiority of American jets, but it’s land-based missiles could wreak havoc on the ships that launched them and their logistical support. They could bypass many American technological advantages by the use of physical and human communication and launch terrorist attacks against American allies-especially European ones who are far more reticent about U.S. hawkishness towards Iran. Meanwhile, oppressed Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia (which tend to live in the regions with the countries oil fields) could be mobilized as a fifth column to damage that notorious and unpopular government from the inside.
Even assuming that the initial stages of the conflict go quite well for Washington, Iran’s ability to damage American allies and dependents combined with its ability to hold out in a conflict longer means that in order to squeeze out a victory the U.S. might be forced to use ground troops in the region. This might work in Iraq where the terrain and local divides could provide an in, though the casualties would be immense as a civil war was touched off. Most likely, I think, Iraq tries to play the neutrality card between the two countries. Either way, to bring about some kind of victory at this point U.S. troops (and more and more naval and air resources) would have to be dispatched, possibly entering Iran proper. A country filled with mountains and large cities. If they even could. After all, a U.S. military exercise in 2002 (with estimated Iranian capabilities than being less than they are now, and American power stronger and more belligerent at that point than at present) showed they might not even be able to land.
As the current Syrian War shows us, cities play the role of castles and forts these days more than ever before. A great place to bog down an invader and give them lots of PR when it comes to the infliction of human misery on people. Around these cities is the difficult terrain of the Iranian plateau and who knows how many emergency cave complexes and hidden bunkers to back up the asymmetrical fight. All of these points, once again, towards Iran being able to last a long time.
And the longer it lasts, much like say the United States in the 1770s, the more likely foreign support for Iran increases. This support could be direct (Russian jets from Syria over Iraq and Iran) to indirect, with an increasingly distracted America coming under pressure in the Taiwan Strait, Ukraine, the Baltic, or Afghanistan from coordinated Chinese and Russian action. If so, the cost of even a hard-won victory and the fall of Tehran would fatally undermine the U.S. global position not just in the Gulf but around the world. This means the Pentagon will be reluctant to commit the full and decisive forces it would need to truly beat Iran, and thus Iran’s chances of outlasting, embarrassing, and undermining America increase. Meanwhile, the hard anti-American left and right alike are driven to win in Europe as a new flood of refugees pours out of the region, radicalizing the internal politics of American allies and moving these countries from seeing Washington as a guarantor of peace into the primary underminer of it. As it becomes more and more obvious that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the most gain from the belligerence-and are most likely working directly with Al Qaeda type organizations to fight a fully sectarian war, people around the world-perhaps especially American troops will start to wonder why anyone would die for the Gulf Arab leadership and their jihadist friends.
For the most dramatic outcome, you just might have Iran being the spark to create a truly global anti-American balancing act. An event which for many powers in the world probably feels far overdue. America’s ability to act unilaterally outside of the Western Hemisphere will be effectively gone for good, and the embarrassment would probably set off a political bloodbath at home. I believe this analysis holds true even if the war is a technical victory for Washington. Considering that this would have resulted from a war of choice, it would go down in history as one of the biggest great power self-owns in history. Upon the level of Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia in 1914, The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, or the numerous Carthaginian attacks on the city-state of Syracuse-that latter example being the very one I am currently reading about which inspired this post. No one would have predicted that little Syracuse could have drawn with and even occasionally defeated the western Mediterranean’s then-greatest power, but with terrain, audacity, and a greater appetite for sacrifice than their opponents, they did. Considering that present day Iran lives under such existential threat by American power that their military and strategic apparatus is likely far less complacent in terms of promotion, doctrine, and self-confidence, it was easy for me to think of this connection. Especially when reading about Carthage’s vast sums of money not being able to offset their extreme adversity to casualties when fighting abroad.
Of course, considering the regional and international coalition that Iran would face, it is also true that even an Iranian victory would be incredibly costly and thus they would wish to avoid all-out conflict in the first place. Let us hope Washington’s notoriously bumbling elites can be convinced to see present events in the same light.
There we are. I guess its time to be labeled an Iranian shill now.