PS. Events overtook my writing of this blog post. Looking forwards to a resolution of the Stealth Question and the Aircraft Carrier Question.
How would an Iran War be fought?
Quick overview of different scenarios/strategies in approximate order of severity:
I certainly don’t expect military miracles from a (largely brain drained) 90 IQ nation with largely obsolescent military technologies. It will need outside support from the real Great Powers – that is, Russia and China – to hope to come away with something better than a Pyrrhic victory (at best).
Regardless, Iran does have the capacity to make life hard for the US.
Cyberwar: Advantage = low cost, but will nonetheless likely invite US retaliation, even though the US has been waging cyber war on Iran for years (Stuxnet). I also don’t see it accomplishing much.
Resumption of nuclear program: This is a no brainer at this point, though – if the declarations are seriously followed through upon – they will almost certainly invite eventual Israeli/American strikes. OTOH, Iran has had many years to harden its nuclear facilities. I assume it didn’t sit on its hands during this period, and making blast-resistant concrete is one of the few (only?) areas in which Iran is a world technological leader. If successful, can achieve lasting security, though the end spurt will be fraught with severe dangers.
Attacks on US troops in Iraq: Continuation/intensification of existing policy. The Shiites now hate the US again, enough for them to vote to eject them out of Iraq (with the US apparently refusing to do so while making noises about sanctioning Iraq if it does). So this makes this than even easier option.
Increase support for Houthis: Presumably will happen, though don’t know if they can do much more than what they are already accomplishing.
Missile attacks on US bases: Coffins will make for a visceral show of vengeance, but won’t kill many US soldiers, consolidate the US against them, and will invite a devastating response.
Missile attacks on Israel: Bombing Tel Aviv is very based, redpilled, and powerful (see right), but what happens next? You’ll kill a couple dozen civilians – maybe 100 if you get lucky and get a square hit on an apartment block – but you will now be at war with both Israel and the US with nothing to really show for it. Those missiles would probably serve more productive uses elsewhere. Besides, Iran has Hezbollah to do the heavy lifting in this theater. Too bad for Lebanon, but oh well.
Missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure: Oil infrastructure is actually surprisingly resilient to missile attacks (oil and gas pipelines aren’t hard to repair). Iranian IRBMs aren’t very accurate. Perhaps relying on special forces will be more effective, or even better drones, as we saw last June. Of course point defenses at these installations will be strengthened and low hanging fruits will be rapidly picked off. That said, I don’t believe Iran has any chance whatsoever of making a major dent in Saudi oil production even over the medium term.
Close Strait of Hormuz: I have written about this at length before (see links above). This is Iran’s current most feasible “nuclear” option, so long as it doesn’t have actual nukes. I’ll just quote in extenso from my April 2018 article:
Anti-ship missiles: The bulk of the Iranian arsenal is based on Chinese C-802 missiles, which are similar to Harpoons and Exocets. Unless fired in salvoes, the USN can probably deal with them, though they would pose a credible threat to passing oil tankers – enough of a risk, possibly, to get insurers to stop covering the Strait of Hormuz route (which is ultimately what really matters). Ironically, at this point, many of them might start using the Northern Sea Route.
Mines: Iran’s naval mine stockpile is opaque, though its possible that it would be even more of a threat to shipping. It would be helpful to begin mine-laying operations before open outbreak of hostilities if at all possible, since doing so would become far harder afterwards. (However, since the US will be very much on the watch out for this in the wake of its destruction of Syria, a covert mine-laying operation will not stay secret for long).
One solid option would be to keep most of the anti-ship missiles in reserve, and use them primarily to attack US mine-clearing ships (which are less well defended than its capital ships, and far more fragile than double-hulled, multi-compartment oil supertankers). This might even force the US into launching ground operations on the Iranian coast, which will add body-bags to economic pain and possibly plunge it into political crisis.
Major problem – even back then US oil production had reached record highs, and has continued soaring into the stratosphere throughout 2019, so that it now produces more than 50% as much as Russia and Saudi Arabia. In a stunning refutation of the peak oil thesis, it is now close to self-sufficiency in petroleum and other liquids production. The North American continent as a whole would not be in overall surplus.
Of course oil is a globally traded and highly fungible commodity, so while an oil shock would be great for shale oil producers it would still be ruinous for the US economy. However, self-sufficiency opens the possibility of closing off the American or North American market, mitigating the price shock at home while making it even more acute abroad… and tanking the Chinese and European economies in the process. Which would admittedly be a pretty nice side benefit!
Ironically, exercise of Iran’s nuclear option may well actually be much worse for its putative (if fair weather) friend China than for its American nemesis.
US goals seem to consist of some combination of the following elements, although they are implemented in a somewhat haphazard fashion.
- Contain Iran’s potential as a Shiite hegemon in the Middle East.
- Even better, regime change it into a US ally and alternative gas supplier to Europe vs. Russia.
- Avenge the Holy 52.
- Assure Israel’s security in the Middle East, esp. as the sole nuclear power there.
Obama’s policy pursued the more modest objections, containment and denuclearization. The Trump regime’s objectives are more maximalist and have been aggressively pursued, up to and including outrageous human rights violations such as depriving Iranian gamers of League of Legends, as well as much more minor things such as destroying their economy and whacking their generals.
Should they step up their game:
Aeronaval campaign: My take is that modern automotive infrastructure basically annulls air power’s capacity to really cripple an economy (roads are quickly repaired, and there are millions of trucks). Serbian SAMs, despite being heavily outdated, continued posing a threat to NATO fighters to the very end of the campaign. Iran has ten times as many people as Serbia, and 20 times the land area. It is a good bet that Iran is not going to be subdued through pure air power.
Limited occupation: Strait of Hormuz clash is unpredictable IMO since it will test US naval capabilities against Shkvals, Bastions, etc. Geography favors Iran, since there’s plenty of islands and inlets for the Bastions to shelter behind, and the shallow seas will maximize the effectiveness of its three diesel subs. Also depends on whether Iran can get the jump on the US. May have to undertake limited occupation of Iranian southern coastline to put an end to it, especially if Russia provides support.
Occupy Iran: The US would need at least half a million troops – more likely a million – to effect a wholesale occupation of Iran. This is more or less flat out impossible short of a draft.
Relying on contractors is one thing. But average Americans themselves are not what they once were. The one really nice thing about the “Great Awokening” is that it crimps US capacity to fight imperialist wars.
- More than a third of millennials polled approve of communism
- Army splits with West Point grad who touted communist revolt
- Most upvoted post on /r/ChapoTrapHouse for a couple of days following the assassination of Soleimani calls on draftees to engage in sabotage.
At this point, it will be politically extremely unpopular and may topple the US into unrest if not insurrection.
Although Iran is hardly an ally or even a good friend of either Russia or China, neither can afford it getting vassalized by the Americans. So we will likely see limited involvement from both of them in support of Iran.
Chinese involvement: Iran’s ability to threaten the Strait of Hormuz presents it with another possibility. China in particular has been recalcitrant about standing up for Iran against the US, e.g. forbidding Kunlun Bank from handling Iran payments (as it did with the pre-JCPOA sanctions). The implicit threat of closing down the Strait of Hormuz may encourage China to play a more cooperative role, especially with respect to financial support, perhaps weapons supplies, etc.
Incidentally, there were already rumors of big deals in the works several months ago:
Among other benefits, Chinese companies will be given the first refusal to bid on any new, stalled or uncompleted oil and gasfield developments. Chinese firms will also have first refusal on opportunities to become involved with any and all petchems projects in Iran, including the provision of technology, systems, process ingredients and personnel required to complete such projects.
“This will include up to 5,000 Chinese security personnel on the ground in Iran to protect Chinese projects, and there will be additional personnel and material available to protect the eventual transit of oil, gas and petchems supply from Iran to China, where necessary, including through the Persian Gulf,” says the Iranian source.
In reality, as pointed out by an Iranian commenter, this was very likely a leak by the Iranians to signal to the Americans that they have options should they refuse to drop sanctions and the Europeans make no effort to mitigate them. Now sure, this would not be optimal from Iran’s perspective, since it would basically make them into an economic colony of China. But they’d hardly have other chances in the event of a “warm” or outright hot war with the US.
Russian involvement: Russia would be stupid to avoid making a US air campaign against Iran even harder, so it would probably support Iran by default. This would presumably involve helping Iran with oil exports (selling its oil as its own), providing weapons, training crews, and perhaps even going head to head against American fighters under conditions of plausible deniability (as during the Korean and Vietnam wars). At the narrow level, this will hone skills and provide access to American miltech. At the broader level, it will create an opening for exploring geopolitical feasibilities elsewhere in its Near Abroad.
Involvement in Iran is not entirely riskless, since Russia’s position in Syria remains vulnerable. But they are substantially mitigated by Russia’s ability to escalate outside that theater (e.g. the Baltics).