If war comes.
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.
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).
(This first appeared in 2015.)
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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.
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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.
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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:
Iran will likely exploit the element of surprise to subject U.S. forces in the Gulf to a concentrated, combined-arms attack. Using coastal radars, UAVs, and civilian vessels for initial targeting information, Iranian surface vessels could swarm U.S. surface combatants in narrow waters, firing a huge volume of rockets and missiles in an attempt to overwhelm the Navy’s AEGIS combat system and kinetic defenses like the Close-In Weapons System and Rolling Airframe Missile, and possibly drive U.S. vessels toward prelaid minefields. Shore-based ASCMs and Klub-K missiles launched from “civilian” vessels may augment these strikes. Iran’s offensive maritime exclusion platforms could exploit commercial maritime traffic and shore clutter to mask their movement and impede U.S. counter-targeting. While these attacks are underway, Iran could use its SRBMs and proxy forces to strike U.S. airfields, bases, and ports. Iran will likely seek to overwhelm U.S. and partner missile defenses with salvos of less accurate missiles before using more accurate SRBMs armed with submunitions to destroy unsheltered aircraft and other military systems. Proxy groups could attack forward bases using presighted guided mortars and rockets, and radiation-seeking munitions to destroy radars and C4 nodes.
Iran would also try to lock out the Strait of Hormuz:
After initial attacks to attrite U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, Iran will likely use its maritime exclusion systems to control passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Mine warfare should feature prominently in Iranian attempts to close the Strait. As with many of its A2/AD systems, Iran could employ a combination of “smart” influence mines along with large quantities of less capable weapons such as surface contact mines. Iran may deploy many of its less sophisticated mines from a variety of surface vessels, while it reserves its submarine force to lay influence mines covertly. Though Iran may wish to sink or incapacitate a U.S. warship with a mine, its primary goal is probably to deny passage and force the U.S. Navy to engage in prolonged mine countermeasure (MCM) operations while under threat from Iranian shore-based attacks. U.S. MCM ships, which typically lack the armor and self-defenses of larger warships, would be unlikely to survive in the Strait until these threats are suppressed.
Iran could deploy its land-based ASCMs from camouflaged and hardened sites to firing positions along its coastline and on Iranian-occupied islands in the Strait of Hormuz while placing decoys at false firing positions to complicate U.S. counterstrikes. Hundreds of ASCMs may cover the Strait, awaiting target cueing data from coastal radars, UAVs, surface vessels, and submarines. Salvo and multiple axis attacks could enable these ASCMs to saturate U.S. defenses. Similar to the way in which Iran structured its ballistic missile attacks, salvos of less capable ASCMs might be used to exhaust U.S. defenses, paving the way for attacks by more advanced missiles.
Also, according to CSBA, Iran would be rewarded by spreading the field of conflict:
Undoubtedly aware that the United States’ ability to bring military power to bear is influenced by the demand for forces in other regions, Iran may seek to expand the geographical scope of a conflict in order to divert U.S. attention and resources elsewhere. Iran’s terrorist proxies, perhaps aided by Quds Force operatives, could be employed to threaten U.S. interests in other theaters. Iran could conceivably leverage its relationship with Hezbollah to attempt to draw Israel into the conflict or tap Hezbollah’s clandestine networks to carry out attacks in other regions.
The above is only a very small sample of what is an excellent, but frightening, report. CSBA deserves credit for showing what such a conflict would look like, and did not get nearly enough credit when the report was released. While slightly dated, since it was written towards the end of 2011, any defense or national-security wonk should sit down and read it cover to cover. After reading the whole report, along with just a quick parsing of many other documents and resources on Iran’s military over the years, one can easily come to the conclusion that Iran’s forces, when confronted close to its shores, would not be easily subdued. What is referred to commonly as the “tyranny of distance,” combined with Tehran’s growing A2/AD capabilities, creates an interesting challenge for U.S. warfighters if the unthinkable ever came to pass.
Let’s just hope Washington and Tehran can make “frenemies” work over the long haul.
Harry Kazianis serves as Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest.