How would a war between Iran and the US unfold? If it so decided, the US could without doubt launch an attack that would devastate any Iranian military ambitions. It would take time to assemble the huge forces required but the wrecking of Iran’s military-industrial complex, targeting its nuclear, missile and drone programmes, could be completed in weeks. Beyond that are many uncertainties – and the UK could be drawn in, like it or not.
War with Iran would be very different from the 2003 Gulf war. Back then, a US-led coalition had control of the Persian Gulf and could marshal tens of thousands of troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for the assault across the border into Iraq – a geographical advantage not available for an attack on Iran.
Saddam Hussein's regime was terminated more or less according to plan, but an immensely costly seven-year war followed. Even now, Iraq is deeply insecure and divided – and subject to considerable Iranian influence. Regime change in Iran itself could be more difficult still: last week I argued that, in the event of war with the US, Iranians would tend to unite rather than threaten the government. This is one reason why tens of thousands of US “boots on the ground” in Iran simply won’t happen, even if US super-hawks such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo yearn for regime change.
Given the range of views in Washington, with these hawkish elements now counterbalanced by some more cautious voices, a deliberate attack on Iran seems less likely than a month ago, and this trend is boosted by some unexpected assessments from military analysts.
This is in marked contrast to the US going to war in Afghanistan after 9/11, when there were few dissenting voices in Washington. Even in the run-up to the Iraq war there was a reasonable unity of opinion, at least at first. An unusually significant example of the difference today is a double report in one of the main US military news outlets, Military Times: its journalists have talked to many serving and retired military about the conduct and likely path of a conflict as well as a number of academic analysts about the consequences of such a war.
Military professionals are echoing those more normally described as peace researchers
Even a sustained air assault faces problems, these experts point out, not least because of geography. With its long border down the eastern coast of the Persian Gulf, Iran has many ways of making things difficult for US naval forces: mines, speed boats, anti-ship missiles and mini-submarines. All that plus shallow seas would keep larger warships well out in the Arabian Sea.
It is true that the US and any coalition partners would have easy access to bases in the western Gulf states, including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman, though the Saudis would be reluctant to have uniformed US forces on their territory because of the risk of public opposition to a ‘crusader’ presence. The problem for the Pentagon is that Iran has built up a wide range of surface-to-surface missiles that could reach these bases in spite of anti-missile defences. The US would therefore need to have aircraft carrier battle groups out in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. A single Nimitz-class carrier has just been deployed to the region; one indicator of a US determination to go to war would be a second or even a third carrier in the area.
None of this means that the US cannot do huge damage to Iran’s military power, not least through cyber-attacks. But what is most striking in the Military Times reports is that experienced military professionals are talking about Iran’s ability to respond after the first, intense phase of a war with warfare – echoing those more normally described as peace researchers.
Asymmetric Iranian warfare could close down commercial shipping and start a surge in oil prices. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps would fight to this end in the Persian Gulf itself, but further afield proxies would launch attacks on the Suez Canal and mine the narrow 10-kilometre-wide Red Sea channel between Yemen and Eritrea.
More than 2,500 km to the north-east, in Afghanistan, Iran could make plenty of trouble for US forces. The capacity for action in Iraq would be even greater: Iraqi Shi’a militias, many of them trained by the Revolutionary Guards, were decisive in ending ISIS domination of the north of the country.
Even if the US greatly damaged the Iranian military machine, most of these asymmetric actions could continue. As the Military Times assessment puts it:
All the while the network of proxy Iranian jihadi cells from the Middle East to Central America find novel and makeshift ways to poke, prod and provoke the United States by hitting soft targets whenever and wherever possible.
Another element that is being forgotten amidst the current tensions concerns the UK. With France and Germany, it opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord that these countries and others had agreed with Iran. Having done so, it is difficult to see how the Europeans could support a full-scale war, leaving the US isolated beyond its regional supporters of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Awkwardly for the UK, however, any major US action against Iran would require both direct and indirect British aid. In the Gulf itself the main British presence is a small but competent force of minesweepers, which would immediately be needed to counter Iranian mines. A substantial US strategic air base lies on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia – controversially, still British territory. Nearer to home is the important US staging base of RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, one of only three bases outside the continental US that can handle the B-2 strategic stealth bomber.
The UK also houses major US intelligence facilities, not least at Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire and Croughton, north of Oxford. Perhaps most intriguing is the huge munitions depot at Welford near Newbury in Berkshire. According to a specialist US defence news outlet, three weeks ago a US air force unit moved a huge quantity of munitions from an unnamed port of entry to Welford. In a five-day operation 121 containers with 450,000 pounds of net explosive weight were delivered by 71 trucks, the largest operation of its kind in a decade.
If there is a US war with Iran then Welford is highly likely to be involved. It is a reminder that the US-UK military relationship is deeply entrenched, so much so that the British government would find it very difficult to extricate itself from that war, whatever it claimed in public.