US-Iran military dispute easy to initiate, but difficult to control; conflict will push West Asia into chaos, create global energy crisis

  • A US-Iran armed conflict could result in the closure of the Persian Gulf to all navigation, resulting into a massive energy crisis around the world

  • Even if the US manages to capitulate the clergy-based regime in Iran, it could spark sectarian conflicts in West Asia creating an uncontrollable cauldron

  • An air strike on Iran, supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia, could force Iran’s missile force to fire in bulk to be effective against Israel’s Iron Dome defences

  • In case of a ground action by US forces through Iraq and Syria, Iran may initiate irregular warfare using Hezbollah, which could lead to unpredictable outcome.

  • The only thing predictable in this sordid affair which otherwise bears no rationale, is the effect on the rest of the world as national economies go into a tizzy

The US and Iran have hurtled towards potential military confrontation several times in the past but seldom as seriously as the current situation seems to project. The backdrop is too well known to reiterate in detail. However, as a short reminder, it all goes back to the tumultuous period of 1979-80 when US protégé, the Shah of Iran, was overthrown in an internal uprising which brought the rule of the clergy to Iran and set it on a path of confrontation with US interests in West Asia. These included the security of Israel and the interests of Saudi Arabia, which has remained the chief US protagonist for energy and geostrategic issues in the region. The course of events of 1979-80, including the 444 days siege of the US embassy, hostage taking of 52 US citizens, the abortive rescue attempt and the downfall of a US President due to these failures, left deep scars on the US psyche which remains an important aspect of this narrative. No US administration has ever forgotten it.

Iran was and remains a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) launched an investigation in 2003 after an Iranian dissident group revealed undeclared Iranian nuclear activities; it was discovered that a clandestine nuclear weapons programme was allegedly being developed. That set the course to the current crisis in the making. In the interim, even as negotiations with Iran continued sanctions were imposed. A decade and more later, on 15 July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a framework agreement was finally signed by the P5+1 nations with Iran, placing limits on its nuclear ambitions in return for the progressive lifting of sanctions.

 US-Iran military dispute easy to initiate, but difficult to control; conflict will push West Asia into chaos, create global energy crisis

File image of Iran president Hassan Rouhani. AP

However, the agreement failed to limit the development of Iran’s missile programme. Iran’s reprieve was short-lived even as a change of presidency of the US was underway. Donald Trump had made it clear in the run up to his presidential election that abrogation of the deal would be a priority as it failed to limit Iran’s alleged rogue behaviour in West Asia. In the interim, Israel continued to vociferously oppose the deal.

In the 17th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzilya in 2017, Israel’s major focus was on revealing the enablement by Iran of terror activities of Hezbollah and Hamas, under the shadow of an alleged massive Iranian arsenal of guided missiles stocked on Lebanese and Syrian territory. For the US, the other issue is the overall dilution of US-Saudi-Israeli capability to influence the Levant. The dominant entity in the Levant currently is the Iranian Quds Force, the foreign operations element of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It remains in collaboration with the Hezbollah and a Russian force which is present to safeguard Russian interests, as also the Syrian Army. As an aside, it’s good to remember that the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) after its eviction from Mosul (northern Iraq) was also due to the dual support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad received from Iran and Russia.

President Trump took his time, but finally on 8 May 2018, he announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA leaving the other five nations (China, France, Russia, UK and Germany) in a quandary. US sanctions have been progressively re-imposed allowing time for nations doing business with Iran to make alternative arrangements for essentials such as energy. As part of coercion, the US declared the IRGC a terror entity eliciting a similar response from Iran in declaring the Qatar-based US Central Command too, a terror entity. As part of maximum coercion, the US then withdrew the six month leeway it had given India and seven other nations to continue energy trade with Iran despite sanctions. Expectedly, progressively coerced in a short time, Iran announced diminished commitments to the Iran Nuclear Deal, essentially stating that if a renegotiated deal by the other five nations — shielding it from the US sanctions — was not brought in place in 60 days, Iran would commence enrichment of uranium beyond the permitted 3.67 percent. That essentially would set it on course to achieve the highly enriched uranium for weapon grade status.

The US is playing out its act primarily to draw down Iran’s exports to modify the latter’s attitude. The ‘intent plus’ remains what it has been for many years — regime change. There are US specific dynamics and Arab specific ones which play a role here. For President Trump, it is his commitment given during the presidential campaign, something which will come up once again in a year’s time during the re-election campaign and to ward pressure from the Muller investigation report in Congress. For Israel, it is apparently an existential issue; a strong Iranian presence in Syria under the current Iran dispensation is a confrontation in waiting. For Saudi Arabia, it’s the sectarian domination achieved if Iran remains free to pursue its activities, especially its missile build up and Yemen-based activities.

File photo of US president Donald Trump. Reuters

File photo of US president Donald Trump. Reuters

Presuming the US perceives no limitations to its war strategy, how likely is the US to succeed, and what specific strategy could emerge in the war fighting domain? The US would depend upon Israel and Saudi Arabia to join its effort. A conventional all-out war is ruled out, or anything entailing ground operations for entry into Iranian mainland. A US carrier group, each south of the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, will form the bulk of the naval and air resources while a buildup of ground troops to identified vulnerable hot spots in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia will take place.

In a world of fake news and exploitable networks there will be every effort to paint an Iranian premeditated attack by proxies on US resources to deflect responsibility of conflict initiation. On the other hand, the coercive strategy involving sanctions could be perceived by Iran as potentially emasculative for its economy and survival, resulting in preemptive action against US resources in West Asia. That is perhaps what the US would desire; it could lead to escalation of very large proportions resulting in the closure of the Persian Gulf to all navigation and a massive energy crisis around the world. Military victory under such circumstances cannot be definable but a 5,50,000 strong Iranian force under arms can do much that is unpredictable.

The resultant chaos in West Asia will be of proportions far exceeding anything imaginable. A capitulation by the clergy-based regime may appear against the spirit of the nation and could spark sectarian conflicts in West Asia creating an uncontrollable cauldron. It’s a case where conflict initiation could still be easy but termination could completely spiral out of any semblance of control. Transposing any of the conflict scenarios from the two previous Gulf wars involving Iraq on the emerging situation may not give the right indications or inferences.

Two major actions could take place. First, massive missile and air attacks on Iranian territory against infrastructure and the nuclear facilities are likely along with full control of the air over the Gulf. This could be retaliated in kind by Iran’s missile forces which would need to fire in bulk to be effective against Israel’s Iron Dome defences.

The second action would involve ground forces. Contingent upon how many the US is willing to deploy in Iraq and potentially in Syria (from where it has just withdrawn bulk of the 2,000 troops), it would be opening them up to vulnerability from the scores of proxies that Iran can muster. A ground manoeuvre through Syria and the Levant to threaten Israel may appear far-fetched; it would be an unpredictable act of desperation given that the air above the entire Gulf region extending to the Mediterranean would be under US-Israeli domination. Be that as it may, unconventional and irregular warfare fought with Hezbollah resources in tow can again lead to unpredictable outcome.

The only thing predictable in this sordid affair which otherwise bears no rationale, is the effect on the rest of the world as national economies go into a tizzy. For how long will this go on given the typical Shiaite belief in virtual hara-kiri and the inability of Europe or China to play any major role is a matter of conjecture and not rationale. “Will the US Congress have the calm wisdom and unencumbered focus to deal with escalation at the edge? Will it duly exercise the checks-and-balances powers enshrined in the Constitution?” an opinion piece in Israel’s The Haaretz said. It appears that the lessons of Gulf War II and engineered war situations that were brought into being will need to be recalled in entirety to stop this in its tracks.

Updated Date: May 10, 2019 17:06:16 IST