Oil tankers seized. Drones shot down. Mysterious attacks on Shi’ite militias. America and her allies seem to be stuck in an inertia feedback loop, leading to war in the Middle East. This time with Iran.
Washington seems to believe that this war will be winnable, even easy. With much the same gusto that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had when leading his country into a disastrous war in Afghanistan, Donald Trump remains certain that the United States would steamroll Iran. However, Iran may not roll over as easily as Trump seems to think.
Iran is currently the dominant military power in the middle east and is quickly becoming a rising global power. However, the structure on which Iran has based its power is unusual and specifically designed to protect itself on a variety of levels.
The first unique strategy employed by Iran is their “forward defense”, which is lead by Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The forward defense strategy uses regional allies and proxy groups to undermine Iran’s enemies and keep them away from Iranian soil, all without risking direct conflict. Such groups include the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shiite militias in Syria, and groups in Palestine. These groups allow Iran to maintain a certain power balance which protects them from frontal assaults.
The second part of Iran’s strategy is their use of ballistic missiles, some of which are able to hit parts of Europe. Iran’s proxy groups often use ballistic missiles in their own strategy, efficiently combining forward defense with long range ballistics.
Iran has also given missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon, (although they deny it), and Houthi rebels in Yemen often stage attacks on Saudi Arabia with missiles. Iran focuses on cheap, inexpensive missiles in order to unleash massive amounts at one time, overloading the enemies systems and causing massive damage.
The third, and perhaps most powerful weapon Iran has its disposal is its ability to disrupt the global economy. 1/5th of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz which is only 24 miles wide at one point, and Iran is in an amazing position to control it.
Although difficult to stand up to the overwhelming naval might of the United States, Iran is able to disrupt commercial shipping through the use of asymmetrical strategies. Mines deployed in the strait hinder commercial shipping, and allow Iran to funnel vessels into kill zones where their naval strategy of swarming enemy vessels with tiny, inexpensive watercraft and speed boats equipped with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.
In a 2002 US war game, “Iranian” commanders attacked US forces using combinations of these asymmetrical strategies. The “Iranian” forces unleashed a massive salvo of cruise missiles overwhelmed American electronic sensors and destroyed 16 warships, including on aircraft carrier. In a real war, the destruction would be equivalent to 20,000 lives. The “Iranians” were so successful in the opening stages of the war game, that the game was reset and changed to ensure a US victory.
Iran has the capability to deploy such strategies in Yemen, where the Houthis and the Quds Force could shut down Red Sea trade via the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which sees about 4% of the world’s traded oil pass through it. Combined, Iran’s ability to cripple the global economy is a serious weapon at their disposal and one they will be willing to use.
President Trump may think that Iran is simply another nation willing to roll over to the USA, but if he continues on his reckless path towards war he will be in for more than he bargained for.