I was asked for my thoughts on what most concerned me about the expected US attacks on Iran following the death of three American soldiers over the weekend in Jordan. Some of those thoughts made it into Newsweek.
Below, I’ve provided an extended set of thoughts on what we could expect from US attacks against Iran. It’s divided into best and worst-case scenarios. Not surprisingly, the worst-case scenario is longer:
Most concerning would be an attack on Iran itself that would put the same types of domestic political pressure on Iran to respond that President Biden is facing. It’s hard to see the Iranians, or any nation, being overtly attacked by a foreign country and not responding in some equivalent manner. I think limited attacks on targets in Iran would see commensurate Iranian reprisals. So attacks on Iranian Republican Guard facilities or air and naval bases would see return attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria.
The Iranian response to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani by the US in January 2020 is a good example. Hopefully, that is where it would end. However, there is the danger of it not ending and an escalating tit-for-tat cycle taking hold – insisted upon by internal US and Iranian political pressures. There is also the danger that a US attack on Iran would see groups allied with Iran increase their attacks on US targets in response, including against targets such as the US Embassies in Baghdad and Beirut. Further, anti-Iran groups such as the Islamic State and Kurdish and Baluchi separatist groups could see an opportunity to attack Iranian targets, including civilian targets, as happened earlier this month in Iran. That’s what I see as the dangers of a “best case” from a US attack against Iranian territory; again, hopefully, it’s a replay of January 2020.
The worst case is the US decides to launch significant attacks on Iranian targets in Iran, including Iranian political and military leadership, and indicates that the attacks will be wide-ranging and lasting, i.e., a military campaign that seeks to destroy Iranian military capacity and presages regime change (whether or not that is the actual intent doesn’t matter, what matters is what the Iranians perceive). Such intensive attacks give the Iranians a political motivation and a practical reason to launch full-scale attacks in return.
Iran, with a “use it or lose it” mentality, could launch large-scale attacks on US bases, especially air and naval bases and command headquarters in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain, damaging or destroying the US ability to conduct operations with US Air Force ground-based aircraft. Iranian attacks on US naval ships, focusing primarily on the US aircraft carrier in the region, the USS Eisenhower, using anti-ship missiles, drones and diesel submarines, could not just cause losses and casualties but could, along with the loss of airfields in the Gulf monarchies, prevent US airpower from defending US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. US forces in Iraq and Syria, with limited American air support (US ground-based air support would still come from Turkey, as well as long-range bombers from Europe, Diego Garcia and the US), might then be overrun by large numbers of Iranian-allied Iraqi and Syrian units (the same experienced and very competent troops that defeated the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria). I don’t believe we would see long-range Iranian missile strikes on Israeli targets out of fear of an Israeli nuclear response, but that would not stop Hezbollah from launching tens of thousands of missiles against Israeli bases, ports, airfields, infrastructure and cities.
Cyberattacks are probable, as cyberattacks have already been conducted over the last two decades. So, despite the 7,000-mile distance to the Persian Gulf from the US East Coast, the US public would feel the war in some hard and costly ways if cyberattacks are not limited to government and military targets (if they can even be confined to specific targets).
It must be said that the Iranians are assumably well prepared for this war. Forty-five years of US regime change efforts, including the 1980s war, sanctions, assassinations, bullying, and threats, have left no doubt in most Iranian minds that they must be prepared for war with the US. No nation is immune from incompetence and corruption in its leadership, military, and industry, and the Iranians may be as bad off as the Americans are in that regard. Regardless, the expectation should be that the Iranians have taken the threat from the US seriously and are ready for it.
Questions then abound as to how other nations would respond. Likely, Hezbollah and Ansar Allah would enter the war. Syria and Russia would seemingly be eager to quietly help, or at least not get in the way of the destruction of US forces in Syria. What would the Kurds, in both Iraq and Syria, do watching US forces attacked and destroyed and the Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria now dramatically affected? Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain would have difficult decisions to make as their populations would possibly see the attacks not against them but against the Americans (the Iranian attacks, though significant, would presumably be confined to the US bases). The entire region, minus Israel, along with much of the world, would see the Iranian actions, as they do the Yemenis and Iraqis, as being done in defense of the Palestinians.
At a minimum, within the week, we would then witness a prolonged US air, drone and missile campaign against Iran; a Hezbollah-Israel war that might spill into Syria; US prisoners in Syria and Iraq; and a plunging world economy. Turkey, China and Russia would see a great opportunity in an eventual reduced presence of the US in the Middle East, essentially the US in an isolated alliance with a Fortress Israel. Turkey, Russia and China would present themselves in juxtaposition as calm and reliable partners. Ukraine would need to sue for peace.
The political pressure on the US to “win” in the Middle East would be enormous, the ghost of John McCain would haunt the 2024 elections, and while I don’t think we would see American ground troops in large numbers like in the Iraq and Afghan wars, the idea of a US invasion and occupation of Iran is terrifyingly absurd, the resulting war would make those previous American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem like provincial affairs.
Reprinted with permission from Matt’s Thoughts on War and Peace.
Matthew Hoh is the Associate Director of the Eisenhower Media Network. Matt is a former Marine Corps captain, Afghanistan State Department officer, a disabled Iraq War veteran and is a Senior Fellow Emeritus with the Center for International Policy. He writes at Substack.