The Buzz

How Would Iran Attack America?

Editor's Note: Considering recent events in the Middle East, TNI is republishing the below piece from 2015. 

While all sides here in Washington battle to shape public opinion over the Iran nuclear deal, we should not kid ourselves—this is not Obama’s “Nixon goes to China” moment, nor should we expect Air Force one to touch down in Tehran anytime soon.

Call me a pessimist, but I am not that impressed. There is a long way to go from a “framework” to an actual hard deal—with decades of mistrust making the road to a deal even longer and tougher. So before we start awarding Nobel Prizes, a hard look at the facts when it comes to the U.S.-Iranian relationship are in order.

The facts are simple: Washington and Tehran are locked into a long-term geopolitical contest throughout the Middle East that will span decades—a similar contest in many ways to Washington and Beijing’s battle for influence in the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific regions. While President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be toasting one another from afar, the geopolitical showdown between these two countries is certainly not over—no nuclear framework will change that.

Over the long term, the U.S.-Iranian struggle throughout the Middle East could very well be a mini-Thucydides trap, to steal the phrase from my beloved Harvard’s resident geostrategic guru, Graham Allison—the classic tale of how when a rising power meets an established power, war is oftentimes the most common result (eleven out of fifteen times, per Allison). Taking such a long view of U.S.-Iranian relations only reveals stormy seas ahead. No serious foreign-policy or national-security mind can see a long-term partnership beyond maybe short-term alignments in Iraq and decreased tensions from Iran putting its nuclear program on ice for ten years (Remember, folks: In ten years, Iran can slowly expand its nuclear program, and in fifteen years, it has no restrictions on the amount of uranium it wishes to produce...then what?).

Looking at any map reveals a whole host of challenges. From Yemen, to Syria, to Lebanon and over the long term in Iraq, it is quite clear Washington and Tehran have too many areas of contention for their relationship to turn rosey. Iran is a nation that, like China, feels history has certainly not been kind, especially at the hands of Western powers. Tehran, while not trying to create an empire of sorts throughout the Middle East, as some have offered, certainly seems focused on expanding its regional interests and influence—as any power on the rise would naturally seek to do. The natural defense of such interests could, by default, turn Iran into the Middle East’s new regional hegemon. Look far and wide into the soul of U.S. diplomats, and that is the real fear (and a shared one among Washington’s allies in the region). While many in the Middle East and beyond fear Iran’s possible nuclear aspirations, such weapons are only a part of a much bigger geostrategic challenge.

So the real question seems quite simple: Will America and Iran come to blows over Tehran’s regional aspirations? I, for one, certainly hope not. I think the best possible solution to these countries’ conflicting goals would be for both sides to take a very pragmatic approach—to align their interests in areas of shared goals, while agreeing to disagree, and even competing in many areas across the wider Middle East—“frenemies,” if you will.

However, as history has shown us time and time again, the end result we want does not always come to pass. This piece will explore the various ways Iran could strike U.S. forces if conflict ever occurred. Looking specifically at Tehran’s military capabilities, one quickly realizes Iran’s military, while not nearly as advanced as the United States’, is certainly tough enough to constrain Washington’s strategic objectives through large parts of the Middle East, especially as one approaches Iran’s borders.

From China with Love: Iran Loves A2/AD

While the pages of many publications—including this one—are filled with various ideas and concepts that detail one of my favorite subjects, Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD), other nations are adopting this smart asymmetric strategy, and Iran is one of them. While nowhere near as advanced as China’s various sea mines, ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, cyber weapons and C2 and C4ISR systems, Iranian A2/AD still packs quite a punch.

So what would an Iranian A2/AD campaign against U.S. forces look like? Well, let us assume Iran decided, for whatever reason, to strike first and strike decisively—the best way to utilize any A2/AD force. The best research to guide us in such a discussion is a 2011 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) that looks at Iranian A2/AD capabilities and possible U.S. responses, titled: “Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial Threats.”

The real highlight of this report is that it sketches out an Iranian A2/AD campaign against U.S. forces in the timeframe between 2020 and 2025 with what CSBA assumes Iran would have developed in terms of military capabilities by that time. The scenario also assumes a U.S. force posture at roughly 2011-levels. While these qualifiers do detract slightly from the accuracy of the scenario, CSBA does show the reader quite effectively what Iran could do.

For starters, as noted prior, surprise will be the key, with Iran going all in with a massive strike:

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