Dangerous Reality of an Iran War
A new war in the Persian Gulf could start
accidentally—and would take a toll on U.S. forces.
By Sharmine Narwani
- After weeks of saber-rattling over Iran as the
“number one terrorist state” in the world, the Trump
administration appears to have quietly dialed down
the rhetoric a notch.
Here in the
Middle East, however, where every peep and creak out
of Washington is scrutinized to death, interested
parties haven’t stopped speculating about a U.S.
confrontation with Iran. Fifty days into his term,
Trump’s foreign-policy course remains an enigma. He
swears “all options” remain on the table with
Iran—but do they?
already some early actions that hint at Trump’s
policy directions—and limitations—in the Middle
East. In three key military theaters where U.S.
forces are currently engaged, some important corners
have been turned:
northern Syria, America’s Kurdish allies just
voluntarily relinquished territory to the Syrian
army and Russian forces in order to avoid a
direct confrontation with another U.S. ally and
NATO member, Turkey. Washington has rejected a
Turkish role in the liberation of Raqqa, knowing
that Ankara will not tolerate the ISIS capital
falling into Kurdish hands either. It’s becoming
increasingly likely that the winning formula
will see the city and its environs
to an authority friendly to the Syrian
government, under a Russian umbrella.
northern Iraq, the fight to regain Mosul has
accelerated, with Iraqi forces liberating half
of western Mosul in just twenty days. Under
command of the central Baghdad government, these
fighters consist heavily of Shia militias, many
of whom have received training and equipment
from Iranian forces.
where alarming western headlines warn of U.S.
military blunders and overkill, the media is
missing a bigger story. The U.S. bombing blitz
is actually—not hypothetically, as once was the
Al Qaeda terrorists, working alongside UAE
forces to target Islamist militias who everybody
knows are de facto Saudi allies on the ground.
Just last week, the UAE reportedly upped the
ante by demanding the Saudis
their puppet president Abdrabbuh Mansour
Hadi—ostensibly the “legitimate” Yemeni
authority the western-backed Saudi coalition was
fighting to reinstate.
In a few short
weeks, Trump has taken an axe to Obama-style
dawdling in Mideast hotspots—whether by taking
direct action or by no longer impeding the actions
is that all of these developments, at face value,
serve Iran’s interests in the region and undermine
those of U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
But don’t be
fooled. This is merely Trump’s opening salvo. He has
larger, unknown ambitions, and these recent moves do
not necessarily remove Iran from his sights.
Republic, its allies, and its detractors will remain
part of Trump’s larger geopolitical game. He can use
them to engage or punish more vital targets like
Russia and China, two major powers that have carved
out strategic relationships with Tehran. Iran will
also be a useful tool to provoke or cajole
traditional U.S. allies like Israel, Turkey, and
various Arab monarchies into taking positions
favored by Trump.
several threatening U.S. stances have been
employed—their ultimate aims unknown—with Iran at
their center. There are whispers of a Saudi-led “Arab
that could partner with Israel to target Iran. And
calls for Damascus and Moscow to
Iran from Syria are being heard from various western
and western-allied Mideast capitals.
Waterways: An “Accidental” Confrontation
Iran-as-bogeyman narrative, it is unlikely that
Trump will launch any direct military attacks
against Iran. This is a president who has voiced
contempt for the $6 trillion wasted on Mideast wars
and interventions. More confrontation in the region
will be costly, and is likely to draw him into
clashes with major powers with which he’d prefer to
insists “all options” remain on the table with Iran,
Trump’s choices are actually fairly limited.
Sanctions never worked and the Iran nuclear deal has
ensured that other global players needn’t
participate in future ones. Under pressure from
allies, he has backtracked on his threats to scuttle
the nuclear agreement, which he now seems to
understand would needlessly isolate the U.S., not
Iran. Subversive activities—such as color revolution
plots, propaganda, or cyberwarfare—have proven
futile given Iran’s historic vigilance on and within
its borders. Conventional war would require a
substantial Iranian provocation and isn’t likely to
be sanctioned by the UN Security Council.
But there is
one theater in which a U.S.-Iran confrontation could
the various waterways around the Islamic Republic
and its neighborhood.
have plenty of naval and shipping vessels in close
daily proximity to each other.
are high, rhetoric remains inflamed, and Iran’s foes
in the Persian Gulf and Washington are in a great
position to trigger an event, then fan its flames.
Secretary James Mattis, a committed Iran hawk,
almost did so several weeks ago when he considered
letting U.S. forces board an Iranian ship in Arabian
Sea international waters, according to a passing
mention of the
in the New
understood the import of the close encounter and led
“Trump’s ‘moderate’ defense secretary has already
brought us to the brink of war.”
indeed a distinct possibility if the U.S. makes an
no banana republic. It has endured an eight-year war
with Iraq, which was encouraged, financed, and armed
by great powers and regional states alike. The
Islamic Republic performed a remarkable claw-back
from the assault and went on to
and asymmetrical capabilities to deter future
So when Trump
saw fit to slap sanctions on Iran after a January 29
ballistic missile test, Iranians made sure to fire
just a day after sanctions were announced. And the
Iranian responses keep coming, a reminder that any
military confrontation with Iran will be highly
unpredictable. The Islamic Republic makes sure to
remind us of its
and war game
such as the just-concluded
in the Strait of Hormuz, Sea of Oman, and Indian
between the U.S. and Iran have increased, so have
the number of gulfs, straits, seas and oceans in
which the two nations’ navies and commercial vessels
now operate. The Pentagon insists its naval presence
in so many far-flung west Asian waterways is vital
to thwart terrorism and piracy. But this is Iran’s
backyard, and the Islamic Republic needs little
justification to police regional waterways against
these very same kinds of threats—and to protect its
own territorial and maritime borders.
November visit to Tehran, I asked Dr. Sadollah Zarei,
director of the think tank the Andisheh Sazan Noor
Institute and a MENA expert close to the IRGC, about
this. “U.S. actions give us a behavior precedent in
our naval reach,” he said. The U.S. naval presence
in Iran’s neighboring waters “gives us even more
right to be active in the Persian Gulf, in the Gulf
of Aden, and other waters.” As a result, Zarei
explained, “we are now in the Gulf of Bengal and the
worried about an adversary state brandishing its
vast military firepower within spitting distance? He
cracks a smile and explains calmly: “When the U.S.
is there, Iran’s focus and discipline is better.
They’re useful that way. It brings us together,
creates support for our security forces, our army,
On the other
side of the fence, Washington continues to feed this
Iranian discipline and cohesion by elevating recent
“incidents” in the waterways—mostly unrelated to
Iran—into national media hysterics about Iran.
reporter Gareth Porter has worked to untangle fact
from fiction over U.S. accusations that Iran is
shipping arms to Yemen’s
rebels through some of these waterways. In short,
most of the Pentagon’s claims appear to be
demonstrably false. And because of
2010 State Department cables cache, we now know
that—in private at least—U.S. officials are also
skeptical of their own public charges.
Unpredictability of a Waterways War
U.S. navy command
entered Iranian territorial waters—it’s unclear if
knowingly or unwittingly—and were apprehended by
Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Americans watched as
Iranian television broadcasted the capture of 10
U.S. navy sailors on bended knees, hands behind
their heads. The Islamic Republic followed maritime
regulations and international law in their actions,
and released the officers shortly thereafter. But
the incident brought home, in technicolor, the
unpredictability of waterways operations against
this wily U.S. adversary.
the Pentagon has run war games against Iran to test
its assumptions and hone its responses. But an
acquaintance who has participated in such CENTCOM
exercises told me last year that “the U.S. military
rarely beats Iran in asymmetrical war games unless
it cheats or rigs it.”
Shocked, I was
prompted to dig deeper and discovered the
“Millennium Challenge,” a 2002 U.S. armed forces war
game in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. (blue
team) and an unnamed Mideast adversary (red team),
believed to be Iran.
retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who
led the Red’s asymmetrical response—and resigned
because rules were changed mid-play to constrict his
team’s maneuvers—Reds bypassed Blue’s sophisticated
electronic surveillance system using motorcycle
messengers sent to the frontline and World War
II-style signaling methods, and then destroyed 16
U.S. warships and a significant chunk of its naval
fleet—all on the second day of the three-week
article entitled “War Games Rigged?” published on
appears to have been removed and is reposted
Van Riper slammed the $250 million war game: “It was
in actuality an exercise that was almost entirely
scripted to ensure a Blue ‘win.’”
“We were directed… to move air defenses so that the
army and marine units could successfully land. We
were simply directed to turn [air defense systems]
off or move them… So it was scripted to be whatever
the control group wanted it to be.”
learning from the exercise, the U.S. military seemed
more interested in confirming existing doctrine and
maintaining the facade of invincibility. These are
dangerous attitudes that, in real-life combat
scenarios, can lead commanders to misjudge
capabilities and make foolhardy advances. And Iran
knows this well.
Why are U.S.
armed forces in the Persian Gulf anyway? Princeton
University’s Roger Stern
that between 1976 and 2010, Washington has spent an
eye-popping $8 trillion protecting the oil flow in
the Persian Gulf. As of 2010, the U.S. only received
10 percent of those oil shipments. The
were Japan (20 percent), followed by China, India,
and South Korea.
take note: if access to oil was the real goal of
U.S. presence in the Gulf, Washington could have
achieved it at a fraction of the cost by building
pipelines to bypass that waterway.
mission creep has overtaken U.S. policy in the
Persian Gulf, establishing a policy trajectory few
American presidents have dared to challenge. Of the
eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf, Iran has
the longest coast on the waterway, almost double the
length of its other seven neighbors combined.
hawks continue to insist that Iran cannot be allowed
to challenge U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf, they
should first ponder the potential consequences of
another avoidable war—before a catastrophe humbles
them into silence.
Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Mideast
geopolitics, based in Beirut.
views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the opinions of Information Clearing