UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Tensions between Iran and the US have reached their highest point in recent times. The nuclear agreement with Iran concluded in 2015 is in limbo.
The Trump administration uses sanctions to strangle Iran’s economy, and in May it sent an aircraft carrier, missile defense systems, and four bombers to the Middle East. In addition, Washington evacuated support personnel from its embassy in Baghdad, as intelligence services reported that Iran was preparing to strike at American targets with its indirect military units abroad.
The United States also stated that it was most likely Iran that had recently damaged oil tankers under the flags of Saudi Arabia, Norway and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In addition, the United States administration believes that Iran has temporarily deployed missiles on small ships in the Persian Gulf. In early May, John Bolton, the presidential adviser on national security, publicly threatened Iran and expressed his readiness to respond to any Iranian attack “undertaken by a mediated force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (sic) or the regular Iranian armed forces.”
The good news is that the real situation is not as bad as it might seem. It seems that none of the players – perhaps with the exception of John Bolton – want a war. Iran’s military strategy is to avoid a direct clash with the United States. Washington took a tough public stance, backed up by the deployment of an additional military contingent in the region, but this step cannot be called sequential, or extremely unusual. If the United States, in fact, was preparing for war, the flow of military equipment and military personnel to this region would be significantly larger in volume.
The bad news is that war, however, continues to be possible. Even if neither side wants to fight, an incorrect assessment of the situation, a missed signal, as well as the logic of escalation can lead to the fact that even a minor collision can cause a big fire – with devastating consequences for Iran, the United States and the Middle East.
The conflict is likely to begin with a minor attack by Iran, of which it can deny involvement, for one of the goals associated with the United States. According to this scenario, Iranian leaders conclude that it is time to decisively respond to the actions of US President Donald Trump. Shiite militias in Iraq with ties to Iran strike an American convoy and kill several soldiers, or Iranian operations units attack another tanker in the Persian Gulf, which this time leads to an oil spill. From past experience, Tehran knows that such attacks do not cause direct retaliation from the United States, provided that it is possible to somehow deny their involvement. For example,
However, this time the situation is different. Following the Iranian attack, the Trump administration decides to strike at several military targets in Iran – just as they hit the Syrian targets in 2017 and in 2018 after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Using the air force and naval forces already deployed in the Middle East, the United States strikes Iranian ports or a training camp for Iraqi Shiite forces in Iran. Through public and private channels, the United States government reports that it is conducting a one-time strike to “restore deterrence,” and if Iran surrenders, it will not face other consequences. Ideally, Iran engages reverse gear, and that’s it.
But what will happen if Iran does not respond in the way Assad did? Ultimately, Assad fought, in fact, for his survival in a long-standing civil war, and he did not want to further involve the United States in this confrontation. Iranian leaders have significantly more options than the besieged President of Syria. The Islamic Republic can use its henchmen in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to launch an attack on the United States and its partners. It has ballistic missiles in its arsenal that can hit targets in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Its mines, as well as land-based anti-ship installations can create a crisis in the Strait of Hormuz and cause an increase in oil prices on world markets.
In relations between the United States and Iran, there is a significant likelihood of misinterpretation of the actions of the other side, especially when both of these players are forced to act in a time limit based on vague information and in the presence of deep mutual distrust. Iran may misinterpret a single strike by the United States and perceive it as the beginning of a significant military campaign requiring an immediate and harsh response. Particularly serious can be considered the danger of the United States sending vague signals to Iran, given Trump’s tendency to post harsh messages on Twitter, as well as the fact that his national security advisers offer a more “hawkish” agenda than he does.
Both sides will also face a serious security dilemma, since the defensive measures of each side may seem aggressive to the other side. Suppose that during this kind of crisis, the United States decides to send aircraft carriers, battleships, bombers, and military personnel to the region to protect itself and its allies. Iranian military leaders may conclude that Washington is about to launch a larger attack. Imagine also that Iran decides to protect its missiles and mines from a preemptive strike from the United States and for this begins to withdraw them from storage and disperse them. The United States can interpret such defensive measures as preparing for large-scale escalation – and respond with the same preventive strike that Iran tried to avoid.
According to another scenario, all of these escalation pressure options lead to a larger conflict. The United States is drowning several Iranian ships, attacking the port and several training camps. Iran sets mines and attacks American ships in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s mediated forces kill dozens of American soldiers, humanitarian workers, and diplomats in the region, while Iran’s missiles strike American bases in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, causing limited damage. At each stage, Iran is trying to save face by demonstrating its determination, but is not yet starting a full-scale war; Washington, trying to “restore restraint,” each time more aggressively strikes back.
At this point, the United States is faced with a choice: continue escalating in response to a blow, or crush the enemy by destroying as many of its military facilities as possible, as the United States did during Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991 year. The Pentagon recommends a “powerful strike” in order not to leave US forces vulnerable to further Iranian attacks. Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support this plan. Trump agrees, because he considers a large-scale operation the only way to avoid humiliation.
The United States sends about 120 thousand soldiers to its bases in the Middle East, and in this case their number will approach the figure for the number (from 150 thousand to 180 thousand) of soldiers deployed at any given moment in Iraq from 2003 to 2008. American aviation strikes at conventional military facilities in Iran, as well as at a significant part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure – in Netense, Fordo, Erak and Isfahan. Until the military begins a ground invasion and does not try to overthrow the regime in Iran, however, ground forces are already being sent to this region, and if necessary they are ready for an invasion.
After some time, the Iranian armed forces are crushed, but before that they conduct a powerful full-scale offensive. Iran is increasing the number of landmines, and is also organizing numerous small boat attacks on US forces in the Persian Gulf. Missile attacks, cyber attacks, and other similar acts of sabotage against targets in the Persian Gulf cause a sharp increase in oil prices for several weeks or months, and, possibly, the price of oil reaches 150 dollars per barrel or even exceeds this level. Iran launches the maximum possible number of missiles at US military facilities. Many missiles do not hit the target, but not all. Iran’s mediated forces attack US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Iran-backed Hussite rebels in Yemen are increasing the number of missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran may even try to carry out a terrorist attack on the embassies of the United States or on military installations around the world – but most likely they will be unsuccessful, since such attacks are difficult to carry out.
Israel is likely to be drawn into this conflict due to clashes with Hezbollah militants, members of Shiite militias and political parties in Lebanon. Iran has a huge influence on Hezbollah, and it can attack Israel using its arsenal of 130,000 missiles and thus trying to raise the price of this conflict for the United States and for one of America’s closest allies. As a result of this kind of attack, it seems that Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system will be disabled, and then Israel will have no choice but to attack Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon and, possibly , in the south of Syria. So the clash between the United States and Iran now covers the whole region,
Even at that moment when the main military operations will be stopped, the conflict itself will not end yet. It will be difficult to destroy the Iranian mediated forces using conventional warfare tactics, while their representatives will attack the American soldiers and armed forces of America’s allies in the Middle East for many more years. US air strikes will cause the Iranian nuclear program to lag behind its implementation plans for a period of 18 months to three years. However, air strikes are not capable of destroying scientific knowledge and available technologies, and then Iran can make the implementation of its program even more secure and begin to create nuclear weapons – and this is the goal that it has refused so far.
Moreover, even if the United States enters into this conflict, hoping thus only to weaken Iran militarily, they will soon face demands at home, as well as calls from Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the destruction of the Islamic Republic. As a result, the United States may be involved in the operation to overthrow the regime, which they launched in Iraq in 2003 and in Libya in 2011 – but this time it will be significantly larger in scale. The population of Iran today is 80 million, which is more than three times the population of Iraq at the time of the outbreak of the Iraq war. The topography of Iran is much more complicated than in Iraq. Over time, the price of such an invasion will amount to trillions of dollars. And also the destabilizing effect of the refugee crisis
The United States may instead try to overthrow the regime of the Islamic Republic without resorting to an invasion, as they tried to do in Iraq in the 1990s. However, unlike many other Middle Eastern countries that have become unstable in recent years, Iran is not an artificial formation of the period of European colonialism, but a thousand-year-old civilization with deep-rooted nationalism. Iranians are unlikely to respond to a major war with the United States by accusing their leadership and attempts to overthrow it. But even if they do this, the most likely result will be a transition from clerical rule to a military dictatorship led by a powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the worst case scenario, internal collapse can lead to civil war,
Even if the situation does not develop according to one of the worst scenarios, any war with Iran for many years will tie the United States to another Middle East conflict. Such a war and its consequences are likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, which will put not only Trump, but also future American presidents in a difficult position. Such commitments would mark the end of the United States’ proposed shift towards competition at the superpower level with Russia and China.
Most likely, all participants are aware of the existing threats – not least the leadership of Iran, for which the war with the United States will become especially catastrophic in its consequences. For this reason, both sides will continue to try to avoid a full-scale war. However, sometimes there are wars that no one wanted. The Trump administration and the leadership of the Islamic Republic should act much more carefully if they do not want to plunge their countries into a dangerous and costly spiral that quickly gets out of hand.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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