Iran’s downing of a US military surveillance drone last week predictably led to another flare-up in tense relations between Tehran and Washington. What could be the implications of a potential conflict between the two nations?
Right after the Global Hawk UAV was shot down, the New York Times reported that US President Donald Trump approved military strikes against Iran, but then changed his mind.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the details. The difference between a ‘strike’ and an ‘operation’ is quite significant, at the very least in terms of duration, and forces and equipment involved. It would be nice to know if the NYT actually meant a single airstrike or an entire air operation.
Moreover, the purpose of any military conflict is to do as much damage to your enemy as possible in terms of personnel, military hardware and other equipment. This is how the goals of any armed conflict are achieved. Of course, it would be best if civilian losses are kept to a minimum, but for the US it’s more of a secondary rather than a primary objective.
Here we need to understand that Iran would instantly retaliate, and Tehran has no small capabilities for that. In other words, it would be a full-scale war. For the US, it wouldn’t end with one surgical airstrike without consequences, like in Syria. And the US seems to have a very vague idea on what a military victory over Iran would look like.
There is no doubt that a prolonged air campaign by the US will greatly undermine Iran’s military and economic potential and reduce the country to the likes of Afghanistan, completely destroying its hydrocarbon production and exports industries.
However, the price the US would have to pay for starting such a military conflict may turn out to be too high.
Should such a war really happen, the stakes would be very high, so there is every reason to assume that Iran’s missiles would not only be equipped with conventional high explosive fragmentation warheads, but would also carry toxic agents and dirty bombs.
On top of that, there are more questions than answers regarding the reliability of the antimissile and air defense systems that the Persian Gulf monarchies deployed to defend their hydrocarbon terminals and other oil and gas infrastructure.
If such a scenario came true, that would bring inconceivable chaos to the global economy and would immediately drive up oil prices to $200-250 per barrel – and that’s the lowest estimate. It is these implications that are most likely keeping the US from attacking Iran.
To solve the problem of Iran once and for all, the US would need to mount a large-scale ground operation, with the US Army invading the country. America would have to wipe out both regular Iranian forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, unseat the current leadership of Iran, and have a military presence in every major city for the next 10 to 15 years, keeping tight control over the entire country at the same time.
For the record, the US failed to do that even in Afghanistan, which is several times smaller than Iran in terms of both territory and population. And almost 18 years of fighting later, the US has achieved next to nothing.