A conflict may start accidentally even if nobody wants it as the tensions are getting higher. President Donald Trump has pledged to get tough with Iran since taking office, warning Tehran that it was playing with fire and the US had all options on the table. The threat is very much real, especially after Iran tested a ballistic missile on January 29 – an alleged violation of the UN Security Council’s resolution. The exchange of hostile statements between Washington and Tehran is taking place against the background of US warning and military exercises held by Iran in the Gulf.
National security adviser, Michael Flynn, said the US is «officially putting Iran on notice», condemning the test as a «provocative» breach of a UN Security Council resolution. On February 3, the Trump administration enacted new sanctions on Tehran to provoke Iran into launching large-scale drills.
Tehran denies the test was a violation. It says the missile was not designed to be nuclear tipped. Resolution 2231 (2015) says Iran is «called upon» to refrain from missile tests but is not forbidden to conduct them.
The US Defense Department is considering stepped-up patrols and perhaps even airstrikes in Yemen, aimed at preventing Iranian weapons from getting to the Houthis.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweets that he will discuss the renewal of sanctions against Iran with the US president when he visits the White House on February 15. «It cannot be that Iranian aggression will remain without an answer», Netanyahu said, adding he has ways of «undoing» the Iran nuclear accord. Also onside is Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister. In a recent speech she referred to the “malign influence” exerted by Iran. Like Trump, May has offered unusually strong support for Israel in its standoff with Iran.
There is a lot of loose talk and leaked tales about what a military action might ultimately entail. Nobody knows what’s in store but some predictions are possible along general lines.
The US will start the operation with sea-based cruise missiles and air strikes delivered by at least two aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to knock out key industrial and military infrastructure. With this mission fulfilled, it will focus on weapons systems and concentration of forces. The air campaign will be supported by intensive drones activities and raids conducted by special operations forces (SOF). As hostilities start, world oil prices will go up.
Squadrons of aircraft, SOF teams, rings of interceptor missiles and whole Navy aircraft carrier strike groups supported by drones, surveillance gear, tanker aircraft and logistical support will be required to make it go.
Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOPs) used to strike nuclear sites are not standoff weapons. To carry out this mission, the US will have to use B-2 bombers flying out of Diego Garcia, carrying 30,000-pound GBU-57 MOPs capable of penetrating rock and reinforced concrete to knock out enemy bunker, tunnel and other deep-under-earth installations.
MOPs are not stand-off weapons. US aircraft will have to penetrate Iranian airspace to deliver them to vulnerable targets for Iranian air defenses, especially Russian S-300 air defense systems recently delivered to Iran after international sanctions were lifted. It is safe to assume Iran has installed surface-to-air defense systems to protect their nuclear infrastructure. A lot will depend on professional skills of personnel serving the systems.
The US would be required to destroy Iran’s air defenses before striking the objects related to the nuclear program. Besides striking Iran with cruise missiles, the US Navy will focus on keeping the Hormuz Strait open. The Qatar-based X-band radar station will spot Iranian missiles capable of attacking the warships in as little as four minutes. They will be countered by Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) interceptors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates augmented by US Navy cruisers and destroyers equipped with Aegis missile defense systems.
The US will have to destroy as many missile launchers as possible to protect its assets as well as allied states in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. Each target will require two aircraft each for a total of 90 jets to hit around ten ballistic-missile bases and roughly 20 missile production facilities, and over 20 launch sites. Oil refineries, the power grid, military bases, roads and bridges will be auxiliary targets. Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.
The US ground forces needed allies to control Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the US occupy Iran, a country with a population of over 60 million with mountainous and/or rugged terrain? In theory, it can do it at great cost but does it have to? The occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the US has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
Ground forces will be needed to control the Hormuz Strait shores and exercising control over the Iran-Iraq border. Boots on the ground are also needed to get hold of Khuzestan Province – the country’s oil producing region populated mainly by Shia Arabs. The province borders the northern part of the Gulf and the southern edge of the Iraqi border. Sometimes this region is called Arabistan. The province was the prime target of Iraqi forces invading Iran in 1980.
Khuzestan is the economic heart of Iran, which is separated from the rest of the country by the Zagros Mountains – the largest mountain range in Iran. It can be isolated from the rest of Iran, with American forces having established control of heights and maintaining supremacy in the air. It’s much easier to seize this province than the whole Iran leaving it without oil revenues and fuel for military hardware.
If combat actions start, it would be logical to expect that Iranian Kurdistan will seize the opportunity and try to gain independence. It’s hard to imagine Iraqi Kurds – the US allies – not doing anything about it. Kurds could play the role of ground forces seizing and controlling terrain in the areas adjacent to the Iraqi border. In Afghanistan, Tajik formations also played the role of land forces when US army invaded the country to fight the Taliban in 2001.
This development will complicate the relations with Turkey. No matter what status Kurdistan will have, Turkey could be compensated in a way by strengthening its position in Iranian Azerbaijan.
If US diplomacy is successful, the Persian Gulf monarchies and Egypt may join the battle.
An operation against Iran won’t be a cakewalk. With growing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, its forces confronted close to its shores would not be easily subdued. Iran may not wait to be attacked. It can exploit the element of surprise to launch a concentrated, combined-arms attack against US forces in the Gulf. Drones, coastal radars, military ships and civilian vessels can be used for effective targeting in an attempt to drive American ships toward pre-laid minefields.
Surface fleet will be augmented by shore-based anti-ship missiles. Iran will use short-range ballistic missiles and proxy forces to deliver strikes against US military infrastructure in the region. Iran can cherry pick its targets using long-range conventionally armed missiles or drones against large military or urban targets.
Decoys will be vastly used to complicate American strikes against missile sites. Iran will try to saturate US defenses.
Iranian forces will most certainly try to block the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway through which some 40 percent of Gulf oil exports pass, and paralyze international shipping. It would wreak havoc with the world’s oil supply.
Mine warfare should feature prominently in this effort. Mines could be laid covertly by submarines. It will do its best to hinder US Sea operations by making it engaged in prolonged mine countermeasure operations under the threat coming from Iranian missiles.
Even if Iran’s regular forces are defeated, the US forces in control of territory will be countered by guerilla warfare waged by Basij – a paramilitary voluntary militia force trained to conduct subversive activities. Iran’s proxies, aided by Quds Force operatives, could be employed to threaten US interests in other theaters. Iranian servicemen will fight with prowess as many of them believe in another world. The “battlefront” will include Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen.
The US would defeat Iran, but the unintended consequences would have a ripple effect to destabilize the region for many years. The refugee crisis would aggravate.
The Islamic State terrorist group will most certainly seize the opportunity to strengthen its position. An attack would delay Iran’s nuclear program for some years but would invite retaliation. If the entire territory of Iran is not under control – an extremely costly thing to do – there will be no opportunities for inspection and verification anymore.
Without regime change, an attack galvanize Iran to build a nuclear weapon. If the US topples the Iranian government it will be involved in a nation building effort- something it has failed to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost will be great enough to make this mission infeasible. A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences.
According to Wall Street Journal, the US intends to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran. This attempt will fail. Russia cannot be pressed on foreign policy. Moscow and Tehran are engaged in fruitful cooperation in many areas. The countries are allies in Syria.
Russia is concerned by escalating rhetoric between the United States and Iran and will do its best to reduce tensions between the two countries. It’s worth to note Iran has never been complicit in any links to the Islamic State. Moscow is perfectly suited for the role of intermediary to prevent the worst. If a spark kindles a big fire, the Islamic State will be the biggest winner.