Fighting Iran Is a Historically Bad Idea
Where do the tit-for-tat escalations lead?
In the history of Bad Ideas™, few are usually as bad of an idea as fighting a war against Persia in any of its incarnations over the last ~2500 years. That includes modern-day Iran. But Bad Idea™ be damned, the current US administration is either hell-bent on further provoking conflict in the area, willfully incompetent, or both. Incompetence in fighting Persia has been fatal many times in the past, and to those with better strategies than ours.
In short, unless your name is something like Alexander the Great, Trajan, Khalid ibn al-Walid, Genghis Khan, or Timur the Lame, you’re going to have a bad time trying to fight Iran. It’s no accident that only military geniuses have succeeded while countless others have failed. Speaking of failing, I fail to see any military geniuses running amok at the moment. But let’s get back to now. A quick note: In historical terms, “Persia” and “Iran” will be used interchangeably in this post for the sake of convenience.
Those paying attention to unfortunate news from the Middle East will have heard about the death of three soldiers from the US in a camp in Jordan a week ago. US forces followed up with some 85 separate strikes across Iraq and Syria, killing dozens but failing to do any real damage to Iranian forces or their proxies. Back-channel talks were likely to have ensured any Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) weren’t present at US airstrike points to help alleviate tensions. So, in addition to the unfortunates killed, including civilians, we’re mostly looking at blown up warehouses and cow sheds, rearranged piles of rubble, and patches of sandy mud turned into muddy sand at great cost as even B-1B bombers flew all the way from the US for the mission.
More dangerous yet, a US Destroyer, the USS Gravely, came within moments of being struck by a Yemeni missile on February 2nd. More on that in a moment.
What is clear is this: The US needs to find a way to extricate itself from any potential conflict with Iran and do it fast. There are several main reasons that fighting Iran in any capacity is a dumb idea and will fail. To wit:
Directly striking Iranian territory, especially economic or infrastructure assets, will ensure a larger war that the US cannot sustain.
A war in the Persian Gulf will have massive ripple effects on the global economy that will weaken already shaky foundations.
No war against Iran has ever been attempted by air or sea, and for good reason.
Should a war go to the ground, the only land tenable in Iran is in the flat lands around Ahvaz. The mountains in the interior of the country are impenetrable to forces supported only by maritime units.
Victory conditions in any conflict against Iran are nebulous at best, and the current American stance is purely reactionary.
Fighting Iran’s militia proxies in nearby countries will not make them go away, as the last 20+ years of US experience in the Middle East demonstrate.
Toppling Iran’s government would in no way improve the security infrastructure in the region and would only lead to further conflict, as happened in Iraq and Libya.
Now, for the moment, a direct war with Iran is not on the table. I can imagine criticisms already: “Sam, you silly goose, a major war and especially a land war between the US and Iran is simply out of the question.”
There are many scenarios, however, in which the conflict goes direct and hot. The longer the Israeli conflict goes on, the more likely a US-Iranian conflict becomes. And the longer a US-Iran conflict drags on, the more likely it is to go to the ground, since bombing Iran into submission is a non-starter.
So, while I agree that any conflict will not begin big and land-based, it could result in that down the line as mission creep expands. We’re driving down a slippery slope without brakes. Unfortunately, I don’t see an off-ramp anywhere close. Do you? If so, I’d love to hear what it is.
Stairway to Heaven, Escalator to Hell
The recent moves are just one escalation in an ongoing tit-for-tat scenario with no apparent exit. One may hope that cooler and wiser heads in both Washington and Tehran would realize that a war between the two countries would be disastrous for both — as well as the world in general. But with no real way to back down, where does all this go? We’re looking at a wag-the-dog scenario in which the US does not control Israel’s moves yet supports them, and Iran does not fully control its proxies moves but supports them. Neither party can be expected to relinquish support of their allies in the region. Neither Iran nor the US would benefit from a war, but the maelstrom seems set to pull both countries into broader conflict.
Furthermore, with Israel showing no signs of stopping their war and indicating they intend to fight Hezbollah next, all with US support, the conflict will continue to rage on unabated. There was no way it would ever stay contained, either — especially not with US bases and other assets strung out like bait all over the region, just daring someone to strike.
Well, they struck, and successfully. It’s not the first attempt — there have been well north of a hundred strikes on US bases in the area since October 7 — nor will it be the last. And strikes from anti-American forces around the region are intensifying. As mentioned above, the USS Gravely came within seconds of being struck by a Houthi missile while operating in the Red Sea. The missile penetrated rocket-based air defenses and was finally shot down by the ship’s close-in weapon system (CIWS), the last line of anti-air weapons a ship has.
Should this trend continue, it’s only a matter of time until a US Navy ship is damaged or sunk, followed by all hell breaking loose. What happens when the Houthis or anyone else realizes they can fire three missiles at the same time and likely score a hit?
To sum up US frustrations in the region, there are few better examples than the following two clips juxtaposed. In one, President Biden says the United States is the most powerful country in the history of the world and of course can support two conflicts (in Ukraine and Israel). In the other, Biden notes that the air strikes on Yemen have not stopped attacks on ships, but will continue nonetheless.
The big picture is where we can find some context. What’s it been like in the past to fight Iran? What strategies are available now and what has worked before? What can we expect from Iran? Let’s start with a geography and history primer to make sure we’re all on the same page.
A Fortress of Mountains
A problem has troubled military minds for thousands of years: How on Earth do you defeat Iran when its geography makes it a fortress of mountains? Long before Persia was unified, its inhabitants vexed the kingdoms of Mesopotamia by raiding and retreating into the mountains. The land is rugged and easily defensible. The only successful defeats from the west have come when Persian power was centered in Mesopotamia itself and could thus be militarily defeated there. Think Alexander at Gaugamela, Trajan at Ctesiphon, Heraclius at Nineveh, or the Battle of al-Qadisiyah during the Muslim conquest of Persia. Simply put, it’s easier to fight on flat land.
To those who would argue that ancient warfare and modern warfare are entirely different, I’ll disagree on one key point: Defeating an enemy almost always requires taking and occupying their territory, fifth generation warfare be damned. If you want to defeat Iran from the west, you have to control Iraq first. Considering how that went for the US the last time, I’ll not recommend it be tried again. Trajan failed to hold Mesopotamia as did Heraclius, and thus Rome failed to take down Persia for good. The Rashidun Caliphate succeeded in conquering the region, but only after Sasanian Persia had bled itself white fighting a 26-year war against the aforementioned Heraclius and his predecessors.
Note that I’m not going into detail into conquests from the east like Genghis Khan’s, which are largely irrelevant to today’s circumstances since the US can’t fight Iran in its north or east.
Note further that Iran’s population is widely distributed throughout the country, though concentrated in its north and west. Bombing campaigns from US bases in Bahrain and Qatar, for example, would have to cross significant amounts of territory covered by more-than-adequate air defenses to get near population centers. Bombing Tehran, for example, like senators Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn have suggested, would very likely result in US casualties. What if airmen are killed or shot down and captured?
The US could certainly strike along the coast and damage energy and port infrastructure, but that would lead to intolerable economic disruption worldwide. More on that in a bit.
I remain of the opinion that the US has no stomach for a war with large losses and would quickly face political backlash at home that would rival the Vietnam War-era protests.
So, that currently leaves the US in the unenviable position of being relegated to fight Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen with no feasible way to win. The militant groups represent a hydra that simply regrow another head for each cut off. And an event like the sinking of a US ship could easily expand the conflict to a direct war.
Again — what would victory conditions look like in any US-Iran conflict, whether direct or proxy? Since “degrading” enemy forces is not a long-term winning strategy against a country of 90 million with an industrial base and modern armaments, what’s next?
No Long-Term Solutions
It seems the best the US can hope for right now is to keep things at a slow boil until Israel finally throws in the towel or declares victory and goes home. But with the Gaza Strip leveled and a conflict with Hezbollah looking to heat up, the conflict is far from over. Yemen’s Houthis are still targeting ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, including US warships. You can expect that to continue as long as the Gaza crisis continues.
Even with Gaza alone, consider: The entire place is destroyed. There are still millions displaced. Should the war end tomorrow, where would they go? They can’t return home to rubble. How does this story end?
The map above depicts damaged buildings in Gaza in red. You may note that practically every inhabited place has been blown up. Those who oppose Israel in the Middle East will not soon forget that.
Indeed, US support for Israel has irreversibly damaged US influence in the region, worsening a trend that was already well underway. Erstwhile US allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and the UAE will find their stance towards the US at odds with their citizens’ inclinations in support of Gaza. While that doesn’t mean we can expect direct conflict between those countries and Israel, it does mean the US would lack critical support in any potential conflict with Iran.
Another option that may be tempting for the US is to strike Iranian oil and gas facilities on the coast. The fattest target is the tiny island of Khark, circled in red below, where much Iranian energy is stored and shipped. Oil refineries like the one in Abadan are likely to be considered targets as well.
But, while Khark or Abadan may make for a fat, appealing target, attacking it would have severe ramifications worldwide. First, it would all but ensure a broader war in the Persian Gulf and retaliation from Iranian forces against US troops, ships, and more. Disruption in the Persian Gulf would lead to a cascade of economic disasters worldwide, including an energy price shock not seen since 1973 — or since the Nordstream Pipeline bombing, if you’re German. In short, it would be a mess.
The ~20 million barrels of oil per day flowing through the Strait of Hormuz would be imperiled, and then God only knows what happens. The Red Sea being shuttered to much maritime traffic is troublesome enough. A look at oil fields, pipelines, and energy trade routes in the Middle East can help put this in perspective. The map below is a few years old but still pretty close to accurate.
Iran Is No Weakling
Of course, one cannot overlook Iran’s own military capabilities. Should the fight go direct, Iran would represent the strongest adversary the US has faced in decades — arguably since WW2, or at least Korea. Iran’s precision-guided missile force is no joke, with plenty of ability to demolish targets in Israel and American bases as well as American ships throughout the region. Even without nuclear warheads, the payloads of Iranian missiles present a serious and theater-wide threat. Then there’s their land and air forces which, while no match for their US counterparts, would have the benefit of short supply lines, the high ground, and home field advantage. They’d also have local numerical superiority since the US cannot reroute its entire military force to the region.
Add into that the very strong possibility that Iranian-aligned sleeper cells are waiting in the US and Europe for their “go” sign and it’s clear there are many ways Iran could do serious damage against the US and its allies. Simply put, if Iran or its proxies had not put operatives in Western countries during the recent period of open borders, they would be woefully derelict of duty. Even unarmed, a few dozen guys with basic hand tools and cell phones can do drastic damage to communications and disrupt economic activity. Any idiot can call in a bomb threat or break a fiber optic cable, for example. Add firearms to the mix and things get way worse. Remember the 2014 Silicon Valley electric substation attack? If not, it’s worth reading about again. Imagine that — times 100.
There but for the Grace of God Go We
Following the bombing of a Marine barracks in 1983, President Reagan withdrew US troops from Lebanon. While he endured criticism at the time, in the long run it was a wise decision. After all, what was gained by stationing US troops in harm’s way? Wouldn’t a similar move on a larger scale now seem equally wise?
US troops in the Middle East largely serve as a tripwire for Israel. One could argue they’ve been put there cynically to absorb attacks and make a path towards escalation. The deaths of the 3 US service members are sad indeed — and they were entirely avoidable.
The US should have withdrawn from the region long ago. Instead, generations of US soldiers have been stationed in the Middle East, costing the country trillions of dollars, thousands of deaths, and its reputation as a force for good in the world. The chaos of the last 20+ years has also led to millions dead — and that in a region famous for long memories and grudges.
Unfortunately, Israeli influence in the US is powerful enough to keep the US embroiled in the region. The Israel-Palestine conflict is the root and stem of the current problem. It is nowhere near over, and Washington is not encouraging it to end either. Rather, it seems set to expand to Hezbollah and Lebanon.
I would love it if people somehow got the message that we were on an incredibly dangerous path, could come together in peace instead of acrimony, and lay down a workable plan for stability. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. Too much blood has already been spilled and too many foreign policy mistakes have been made. It almost appears as if the US is suffering from Gambler’s Fallacy in the region. “Just one more war and we’ve got ‘em this time.”
Then again, there’s always the underlying Rosetta Stone of US foreign policy which is to control the four key access points to the Heartland of Halford Mackinder’s theory. Those are Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. But that’s its own idea, and I’ll discuss that more in another post.
To briefly recap before signing off: The US and Iran are closer than ever towards a direct conflict. Such a conflict would be ugly as sin, and would drag on for ages…unless it went nuclear. Nobody involved in the fight would come out of it better off. But like so many other times in history, once things get out of control they take on a life of their own.
Does anyone have a more rosy assessment? Let me know in the comments if you do.