What a War between Iran and America Would Actually Look Like
The Trump administration appears ready to decertify Iranian compliance with the the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite a lack of evidence of Iranian violations. For critics of the JCPOA, this represents a move in the right direction; the goal of U.S. policy should be the end of the Islamic Republic and the overthrow of the existing regime in Tehran. As long as this regime exists, no matter how constrained it is by bilateral and multilateral agreements, it will seek to undermine the stability of the established order in the Middle East through overt and covert military means. This position is held in the United States by figures such as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and by policymakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton. The desire for regime change is also shared by some in the Middle East, including significant elements of the Israeli and Saudi national security states.
To be fair, few of these voices have called for a military campaign to overthrow the Islamic Republic, and generally for good reason; there is little prospect for success and little appetite for paying the costs necessary to succeed. Still, it’s worth evaluating what a war for regime change might look like. The decision of the Bush administration to commit itself to regime change in Iraq undoubtedly helped lead to the war, even if war was not initially the intention. If the Trump administration similarly commits itself to regime change, then war may come sooner or later.
Invading Iran and dictating terms to an occupied Tehran would be one way to achieve regime change. However, the United States would struggle to directly overthrow the Islamic Republic regime through force of arms. The United States lacks regional bases necessary to build up the forces that would be required to invade Iran, destroy its armed forces, displace the revolutionary regime in Tehran, and then control the country on behalf of a new, more amenable government. Conceivably, the U.S. military could deploy in Iraq, but this would likely require another war of regime change against the current Baghdad government. Alternatively, the U.S. could ameliorate some of the basing requirements by undertaking an amphibious forced entry into Iran. This would make U.S. forces particularly vulnerable to Tehran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles, however, likely incurring very heavy casualties. Moreover, it would not resolve the problem of occupying the country post-conflict.
One of the core critiques of the JCPOA from regime change advocates is the argument that the sanctions regime installed by the United States could have, eventually, induced the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Consequently, any military campaign of regime change would likely concentrate on undercutting the economic stability of Iran, in the hopes of creating popular discontent and a counterrevolution. Instead of an invasion, the United States would probably try to induce regime collapse through a policy of military and economic strangulation, led by airstrikes, sea-launched cruise missile strikes and the vigorous employment of special operations forces.
An economic strangulation campaign would lean very heavily into the U.S.’ financial and trade toolkits in order to limit Iran’s commerce with the rest of the world. However, since few international partners are likely to be enthusiastic about the campaign, it would probably include some kinetic measures designed to prevent the transit of cargoes to and from Iran, especially of sensitive technical equipment.
The early stages of the campaign would target Iran’s existing military infrastructure, including air bases, naval bases and ballistic missile installations. These attacks would do significant damage, notwithstanding existing Iranian air defenses, which would also come under attack. Iran’s naval and air forces would suffer terribly, and widespread strikes would also exact a toll on Iran’s missile forces. Basing would presumably be provided by U.S. Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, although the willingness of the Saudis to sponsor a long-term military campaign against Iran is in serious question.