Do you see a US-Iran War Coming? Many experts have speculated that the United States is preparing for an attack on Iran, using the invasion of Iraq as an example. However, there are some glaring differences between the Iraq invasion and any potential conventional invasion of Iran.
The first aspect is geography, which greatly plays to Iran’s advantage. All of Iran’s major cities are located deep inside the interior of the country; the nation’s rugged terrain gives a strong advantage to Iran and places a huge liability on the U.S. Other monumental challenge that face any potential invaders include the buildup locations for troops. During the invasion of Iraq, Kuwait was the staging area. Iraq was relatively flat and defended by a ragtag army in disarray after a decade of crippling sanctions. But that scenario cannot be replicated in case of Iran.
Because of Iran’s geographic security, the various ancient peoples eventually coalesced — peacefully and by force — into one of the world’s earliest empires. However, despite the security provided by the mountains to the west and north, the invasions of Iran that have occurred over the millennia were all land-based. Iran’s Zagros mountains to the west and Elburz mountains to the north stymie invasions from those directions, but a determined force can cross the deserts in the east. Alexander the Great did manage to invade Persia through the Zagros, but only after he defeated the main Persian force in northern Iraq.
Any American force that would invade Iran, though this is unlikely, would have to invade by sea. Specifically, the invading force would need to use the few ports along Iran’s southern maritime border in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The Zagros mountains run the entire length of the Iranian coast along the Persian Gulf. Despite having over 1,300 nautical miles of coastline there, Iran has only two major ports because the coast is so mountainous. Both ports — Bandar Abbas and Bushehr — allow access to the central Iranian plain via mountain passes or canyons that wind through the mountain wall. On the other hand, Iran’s southern border along the Gulf of Oman suffers from a similar problem. Chabahar is the only port in the south and is over 1,000 miles away from Tehran, where the bulk of the Iranian population lives. A foreign military could possibly traverse that distance, but the long logistics line to support those forces as they move north would make them vulnerable to attack. The same goes for the other two ports locked inside the Strait of Hormuz. Those ports could make an invasion possible, but the mountain passes contain chokepoints that would hinder a necessary ground-based logistics chain.
Iran is widely assumed to be responsible for drone and missiles attack in Saudi Arabia, at two critical Saudi oil facilities, cutting the country’s oil production by 5.7 million barrels per day and reducing global oil supplies by 5 percent. If the Trump administration decides to retaliate militarily for these attacks, the ensuing confrontation would likely to be labeled another U.S. oil war in the Middle East.
On the other hand beside challenging geography and logistics challenges while attacking Iran, a war in the Persian Gulf would profoundly destabilize the global oil system. If the Trump administration strikes Iran, unilaterally or in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, and targets the state’s oil facilities, these attacks will take more resources offline. Although Iran’s oil output has declined significantly since the United States reimposed sanctions in 2018, the country still produces more than 2 million barrels of oil per day and exports about half a million barrels per day of petroleum products and liquefied petroleum gas to a variety of resource consumers. Airstrikes would remove these supplies for the market.
Tehran has also threatened to retaliate for U.S. or Saudi military action. If the Iranians targets Saudi oil installations, it could incapacitate additional facilities or interrupt repairs at Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais facilities. Iran could also respond to U.S. and Saudi strikes by attempting to interrupt oil transportation. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy has demonstrated its willingness to seize foreign tankers in the Persian Gulf. The corps could also disable oil tankers with mines and other explosives, mimicking the attacks that occurred earlier this year.
Iran could attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. The state has been threatening to block the waterway for months. And, while Iran’s naval forces may not be able to halt traffic entirely or maintain a closure over the long term, the attempt alone would roil global oil markets. Insurance rates for oil tankers transiting the strait have already increased tenfold between May and September. Any effort to block the waterway would provoke another drastic hike. Oil prices would also soar in response to the heightened geopolitical risk.
Despite the challenges, it is unlikely that the U.S. would invade Iran because it is simply not in Washington’s interest to do so. The U.S. footprint in the greater Middle East has shrunk considerably over the past few years due to shifting U.S. interests in the region. Additionally, the U.S. seems far more concerned with trade negotiations with China and the crisis in Venezuela. Adding another military adventure to the mix would make for poor strategy. With U.S. forces still in the Middle East, however, Washington will be keen to ensure their safety in pursuit of the overall mission.
With the addition of the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group and the deployment of several bombers, the United States can only better support its forces in Syria and Iraq while keeping in check any provocative behavior by Iran or its proxies. This is because the Department of Defense created a plan to target Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2007. The plan also called for the near-destruction of Iran’s military over a three-day period. To maintain this tempo, the DOD would need at least three carrier strike groups in the AOR, multiple bomber wings and ground attack aircraft.
Until we see a force buildup nearing the 2007 plan, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. is planning any offensive action in the region generally or against Iran specifically. Moreover, though the United States is now the world’s leading oil producer, as President Donald Trump recently observed, the country is not immune to instability. The oil market is global, so even if the United States becomes a net oil exporter, it will still be affected by rising oil prices. U.S. refineries will pay more for crude, regardless of where it originates. And when they pass this price hike on to their customers, Americans pay more at the pump, which the Trump can’t afford in this all important election year!
The above article is based on the information appearing in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy and Al-Jazeera. Edited and reproduced for SCF by Mark Frank.