Iran: More War(s) In the Middle East? There Still May Be Options.

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The United States cannot ignore military challenges from Iran or the threat Iran may return to a serious nuclear weapons program. At the same time, President Trump’s decision to delay retaliatory strikes on Iran for shooting down a U.S. Navy RQ-4 surveillance drone is a wise one. The United States needs to think long and hard before it engages in any form of serious conflict with Iran or uses force in ways that can trigger a serious risk of major escalation on both sides.

The human and financial costs of war alone are reasons for caution. So is the fact that it is unclear that the United States can turn a favorable military outcome into a favorable grand strategic outcome and create lasting stability and peace. The United States is already fighting too many wars that have no clear end, and there are other options that the United States can still pursue instead of major military action.

Putting a War with Iran in the Proper Strategic Context: Losing by “Winning”

There is no specific term in game theory for a game in which every move by every player makes things worse for all the players and where the only way to win is not to play. In some ways, however, this is the kind of game the United States, Iran, and our Arab security partners are already playing in the Gulf.

Even if we totally avoid any form of major new clashes or conflicts with Iran, all the players are already involved in other conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, where all the players tend to lose more with every move and do so even when they are the more successful player and "win" relative to the other players.

  • The Iran and US/Arab sides are clearly hostile, but it is difficult to simply call Iran the "aggressor." The tensions between Iran and the United States and its Arab partners now date back to at least the fall of the Shah and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. There have been periods where it seemed that Iran might be willing to seriously work with the United States and/or Arab states to ease tensions, and the same has been true of the United States and/or Arab states in reverse.

In broad terms, the 40 years since the fall of the Shah in 1979 have been ones of recurrent tension and a long series of new "crises" in relations on both sides. The end result has been a long series of Arab efforts to limit Iran's influence and capability to compete in strategic terms, matched by Iranian efforts to exploit every tension and division within the Arab states and opportunity to increase its influence. Each side views the other as the aggressor and reacts accordingly. Once again, the end result has been that each step in the game reinforces the tension, arms race, and risk of conflict.

  • The risk of a war in the Gulf is not the risk that a new, serious conflict would start but rather that it would make the existing conflicts even worse, as well as sharply increasing the risk of a major war between Iran and the United States—one that would have a major impact on Gulf petroleum exports. The United States and its Arab strategic partners already confronting Iran in an asymmetric power struggle that involves sporadic fighting with Iranian back elements in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—as well as Iranian and Arab support of radical and violent elements in other nations.

The practical problem for all the sides involved is that this competition effectively prolongs the "no win" conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Every step that affects Gulf petroleum exports (and shipping imports) affects the revenues of both Iran and the Arab Gulf states and the prices and all other states must pay for energy. Iran cannot possible win any war that involve less serious escalation, but the damage and cost of a more serious conflict—and the risk of destabilizing Iran—will outweigh the benefits to the U.S. and Arab side.

The U.S. focus on Iran’s missiles and nuclear programs deals with very real risks, but it also ignores the overall shifts in the military balance in the Gulf, and Iran's motives. Iran has been the victim of an Iran-Iraq War where poison gas and real weapons of mass destruction have been used against it. Iran and the Arab Gulf states are also caught up in massive, decades-long conventional arms race where the Arab side has focused on air power and precision strike capability, backed by steadily growing and more technically advanced U.S. sea, air, and missile power.

The Arab states (and the United States) have decisively "won" this race in terms of major arms imports and precision conventional strike capability. However, the net effect has been to push Iran into developing major new missile and asymmetric warfare forces, while remaining on the edge of creating a nuclear option. The Arabs have spent hundreds of billions on new forces. The United States has become deeply involved in trying to deter Iran and has to deploy and fund its own forces. Every move in the game has increased the cost to all sides, as well as the potential risk if a major conflict takes place.

The United States tends to view the Iranian-Arab arms race, and Iranian reaction to its own military presence in the Gulf, in terms of an Iranian nuclear threat that could offset U.S. and Arab conventional strength and potentially escalate to a nuclear strike on the United States. No one can dismiss this risk, but Iran has other motives and military needs that drive its efforts. Iran has faced a Western and then UN arms embargo ever since the fall of the Shah and beginning of the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis nearly 40 years ago. It has only had token imports of now aging export versions of Russian Su-24 and Mig-29 combat aircraft. It has not really modernized its air force in decades.

As a result, Iran’s development of large conventionally-armed missile forces, Revolutionary Guard asymmetric warfare forces, and arms transfers and aid to third parties like Hezbollah, are its only "equalizers" in dealing with the immense U.S. and Arab advantage in conventional air and sea power. Iran cannot compromise on the missile issue without losing a key tool in its ability to compete, but its commitment to missiles now drive a new cycle of confrontation with the United States—compounded by Iran's transfer of missiles and rockets to Hezbollah and the Houthis.

Winning Battles, and Even the War, does not Mean Meaningful Victory

There is no doubt that the United States can win any major fight in purely military terms. The United States alone could win, and the United States and its Arab strategic partners combined have a vastly superior ability to use force. They have a critical advantage in precision air strike capability, and in all the major aspects of air and sea power. Iran has no truly advanced fighters and many that date back to the Shah. It is just beginning to deploy the S400 surface-to-air missile system—its first serious improvement in any key aspect of its air defense in decades.

Iran’s mix of fighters and land-based air defenses could be suppressed relatively quickly— leaving it vulnerable to U.S. and partner precision air and cruise missile strikes on all its high value targets. Iran also can do little to retaliate effectively beyond using its limited asymmetric warfare capabilities. Even if Iran fires volleys of its ballistic missiles, they still lack the precision and lethality to do more than hit large area targets like cities or airbases with largely random effects.

Iran’s forces are not organized to project land forces or carry out major amphibious operations, and any major effort to deploy its land forces against other Gulf countries would have to move through Iraq, would require major new and highly visible Iranian deployments, and would be roughly as vulnerable to air strikes and joint warfare as Iraqi forces were during the First Gulf War and in 2003.

The Risk and Cost of a Major Clash or Conflict

This does not mean that any major U.S. and Arab military action against would be some form of “cakewalk.” It would take time for U.S.-led forces to largely suppress Iran’s complex mix of asymmetric and missile warfare capabilities, and there might be a serious crisis in the flow of petroleum out of, and commercial shipping into, the Gulf for at least several weeks. Such a war would cost lives and billions of dollars, inflate petroleum prices for weeks to months, and have at least some negative impact on the global economy.

It is doubtful, however, that Iran could seriously limit the flow of petroleum long enough to have a major economic impact. Iran would also suffer economically as well as Arab exporters and petroleum importers. It is now as—or more—dependent on petroleum exports and imports of other goods, as any of its Arab Gulf neighbors.

The United States could also counter Iranian asymmetric attacks by retaliating with precision strikes on Iran’s civilian targets on a proportionate basis. This could include limited attacks designed to temporarily cripple Iran’s power grid, hit key transportation nodes, and disrupt its entire economy. It could use such strikes to reduce Iran’s domestic energy supplies and future ability to export oil and gas by destroying key equipment in its eight major refineries, 19 major pipelines, and oil export terminals at Kharg, Lavan, Nekkja, Assaluyeh, and Sirri Islands. The United States could also destroy key Iranian military production and nuclear research and development and fuel processing facilities—hitting at the core of Iran’s ability to create meaningful missile and nuclear weapons program.

But, Winning Battles and Wars is Meaningless Unless You Can Win a Peace

There are, however, good reasons why escalating to serious levels of attack, and “winning” serious military encounters and a war with Iran, could easily end in becoming yet another war that has no clear or good end. The historical precedents, and America’s ongoing long wars, send a clear set of warnings.

The United States has already “won” the military side of wars with Iraq, and defeated enemy forces in virtually every direct battle, in Afghanistan. The United States has not, however, achieved any meaningful form of grand strategic victory. It has not created a stable peace or regime in Syria or Afghanistan. Its role in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and the other states—wars where it played a role in regime change has so far been equally inconclusive and uncertain. The United States not only is fighting “long wars,” it is fighting open-ended ones where staying in the war does not give the United States any form of true victory in grand strategic terms but leaving the war can mean the United States suffers serious strategic losses.

The United States needs to carefully exercise “strategic triage” before it escalates to major levels of conflict, and particularly before it escalates to conflicts that have no clear end or favorable grand strategic outcome that justifies their cost in blood, money, American influence, and damage to America’s strategic partners. The United States has already spent close to two trillion dollars on such wars since 2001, but so far, tactical victory after tactical victory has only been the prelude to further fighting or dealing with the equivalent of failed states.

Dreaming of Regime Change is Not a Reason to Go to War

The United States needs to consider this reality in depth before it engages Iran at any major level, particularly if the goal or hope is to force some form of Iranian regime change. So far, the history of “regime change” has largely been one of “regime collapse” and/or the rise of authoritarianism and repression. Iraq is at best a tenuous success, and that only after a third round of war. The new “regimes” in Libya, Syria, and Yemen are divided nightmares, as are the regimes in the Sudans and Somalia. Political upheavals have created major political and economic challenges in Algeria and Egypt and flows of refugees from the Syria war now threaten the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

It is all too easy to talk about war triggering “regime change” in Iran. This assumes, however, that the Iranian regime is far more unpopular than it really seems to be. It exaggerates the size of popular demonstrations and the extent to which the Iranian people are actively hostile to the regime as—distinguished from seeking changes in its behavior. It assumes that they do not see their Arab neighbors as being as much the aggressors as their Arab neighbors see the Iranians. It assumes, that the impacts of the Iran-Iraq War, the Arab side of the Gulf arms race, and along series of Sunni and Shi’ite clashes in the region do not make Iranians see their Arab neighbors as a threat.

It also assumes that a critical mass of Iranians who have been educated by the current regime since 1980 – well over half the population -- do not accept charges that the U.S. backed the Shah at the people’s expense. That they do not see the U.S. as having backed the Arabs in the Iran-Iraq War and in the years that followed at their expense. That they are not angry at the fact that the U.S. left the JCPOA, weakened the more moderate elements of the regime that supported the JCPOA, and imposed sanctions that damaged the ordinary life of virtually every Iranian.

It ignores the extent to which the Iranian regime has already tightened control and increased its internal security efforts. It assumes that U.S attacks in a major actual war will not trigger a wave of Iranian nationalism and hostility to the U.S. and Iran’s Arab neighbors. It also ignores the regime’s ability to use tools like the popular forces in the Basij Resistance Forces, and internal security forces in the Vevak, to stay in power.

Regime Collapse – and/or Iranian Anger – is Not a Grand Strategic Victory

And, even if the war should actually cause the regime to collapse, then regime change to what? Even if a combination of the sanctions, a failed economy, and new military action should lead to major new popular post-conflict upheavals in Iran, it is unclear that such upheavals could bring any form of stable, friendly government to power. There now is no meaningful opposition movement with the capacity to govern or that has broad popular support. The Shah’s son has no real following, and the remnants of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran or the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, PMOI, or MKO) are remembered largely for being Saddam Hussein’s mercenaries and past their role in terrorism.

More broadly, the United States should have learned by now most revolutions and outside efforts at regime change fail unless there already is a strong opposition that has experienced leaders and that have the capability to both govern, and quickly win popular support. In other cases, extremists or authoritarians soon take over, or the end result is a weak and divided government that cannot govern effectively, feeds internal tensions and divisions, and cannot deal with rebuilding and developing the country.

Consider such other cases in the region. The new regime in Tunisia has proved to relatively capable, but this regime is a case where there already were many elements of an effective opposition, and one that emerged without any major outside interference. It may become a lasting success but it faces serious challenges.

In Iraq, the United States has had to fight two wars against Saddam in Iraq, and then a third war against ISIS. It has been some 15 years since the United States invaded Iraq, occupied it, and attempted a major effort at nation-building. And yet, Iraq is at best a faltering and uncertain success.

As for the war in Afghanistan, it has also demonstrated that the United States has no clear solution to “nation building.” Afghan ground forces are still critically dependent on U.S. airpower and advisory and combat support. Afghanistan has yet to hold a fully credible election, has divided leadership, and an economy dependent on foreign aid and narcotics exports. It is unclear its coming elections will be any more successful than the past ones. And, U.S. past failures have now created a situation where there is little chance of Congressional or popular domestic political support for another major aid or civil nation building effort.

Libya, Syria, and Yemen are still at war. All three nations are deeply divided, have suffered serious civilian casualties, and face major financial problems in rebuilding and/or funding development. Moreover, Syria and Yemen, and their neighbors face critical problems in dealing with millions of refugees and displaced persons. For all the talk about peace negotiations, it is unclear that a “peace” on any such statement can bring lasting stability, put the country on a solid path towards development, or offer alternative to authoritarianism and renewed forms of extremism and civil conflict.

And, Iran it is a far more challenging case than these other wars. Unless some extraordinarily competent replacement for the current regime suddenly emerges—and does in spite of the lack of evidence that the current regime has any clear alternative other than its own more “moderate “elements, the challenge will be far greater than in any of America’s other long wars to date.

Sheer scale will be a critical issue. Iran is a nation with some 83 million people and an area of over 1.5 million square kilometers deeply divided by mountain ranges and deserts. Expectations will be higher. Iran has reached a medium level of economic development and has a GDP of over $1.6 trillion, although it already is in a major economic crisis—as much from its own bad economic policies as from the impact of U.S. sanctions. Any post-conflict attempts to occupy, transform, and/or stabilize Iran is likely to be far more difficult and costlier than the failed U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Such a post conflict effort would also confront the United States with having to deal with Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan at the same time. It would probably trigger major new problems with Russia—as well as create new problems for the United States in dealing with Turkey and the Arab Gulf states. And yet, if the United States is not prepared to establish a major post-conflict civil and military effort in Iran and provide massive aid, U.S. grand strategy can easily become, “win a few major tactical victories, create a new failed state, and pray for a miracle to occur!

Possible Alternatives to War: Shifting Back to Modifying the JCPOA

The United States may still have alternatives, although it is late in the game to try to exploit them. The United States can ride out the current set of Iranian provocations while building up a clear capability to fight if it must. It can then work with our European allies to make it clear to Iran that it is willing to work with such allies and the UN to trade specific changes in the JCPOA for specific forms of sanctions relief.

Secretary Pompeo has already said there now are no preconditions for talks, and the United States could agree to defer discussions of the other elements of the 12 demands the Trump administration made at the time it withdrew from the JCPOA. The United States could focus on working with Europe to persuade Iran to deal with the most critical time limits and inspection issues in the JCPOA. Iran would lose little by extending the JCPOA’s time limits, and by formally agreeing to renegotiate the treaty at a fixed point reasonably distant in the future, it would show it will not seek nuclear weapons as long as no other regional power attempts to proliferate.

Given the Supreme Leader’s statements, it may be too late to get an Iranian response until, and if, Iran sees what the result of U.S. military escalation will actually be. However, if the administration starts publicly offering such options now, this might still have a major impact on Iran. It would also reduce outside opposition to future U.S. military action if it this does prove necessary, and set the background for more productive trans- or post-conflict negotiations.

The U.S. needs to act now to offset the feeling in many other nations that the United States is over-reacting, issuing badly supported and unconvincing charges against Iran, and driving the crisis towards war. One critical aspect of U.S. strategic communication should be to make a convincing case that Iran is the cause of any future military action, not the victim.

Possible Alternatives to War: Changing the U.S. Approach to the Iranian Missile Threat

The United States could also start dealing with Iran’s missile threat in ways that go beyond a narrow focus on the nuclear proliferation issue. The nuclear threat is real. It is clear that some key Iranian hardliners believe that Iranian nuclear-armed missile threat could offset U.S. and Arab conventional strength in the Gulf, and that Iran should at least to develop the capability to escalate to ICBMs and a nuclear strike on the United States

No one can dismiss this risk, but the United States needs to remember that Iran has been the victim of an Iran-Iraq War where poison gas and real weapons of mass destruction have been used against it. More importantly, Iran’s missile programs are a response to the fact that Iran and the Arab Gulf states have been caught up in a decades-long conventional arms race. This is a race where the Arab states have focused on air power and precisions strike capability and have been backed by massive U.S. sea, air, and missile power. As noted earlier, the Arab states (and the United States) have decisively "won" this race in terms of major arms imports, and superior precision conventional strike capability. Iran has not been able to properly modernize its air force for decades.

As a result, Iran’s deployment of conventionally armed missiles, development of capabilities to conduct asymmetric warfare—and activities like aid and arms transfers/ties to third parties like Hezbollah and Houthi—are its only "equalizers" relative to the immense U.S. and Arab advantage in conventional air and sea power.

This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to reach some bargain over missiles. One answer would be for Iran to agree not to test an ICBM-capable missile, and to allow inspection of its medium and longer range tactical and theater missile forces to ensure that they only have conventional warheads.

Some tailored form of Missile Technology Control Regime and inspection regime could address the nuclear risk in Iran’s missile efforts without requiring it to unilaterally give the U.S. and Arab Gulf states a critical advantage. More broadly, the United States could propose a broader arms control effort that would limit future arms buys and deployments on both sides, and potentially freeze the most destabilizing aspects of both the missile and air aspects of the regional arms race.

Possible Alternatives to War: Offering a Broader Approach to Ending the Regional Arms Race and Reducing Regional Tensions

One has to be very careful, however, to begin at levels that address the immediate crisis. At present, there is little or no practical chance that the United States, or any outside third party, can bring Iran, the Arab Gulf states, and the United States together to consider broader alternatives to reducing the tensions between them, each side’s efforts to dominate the other, and end the regional arms race. Focusing on more ambitious regional solutions may be attractive in theory, but tensions have already reached a level where making such an effort now would probably become a hollow political exercise.

If the United States—either independently or working with European allies—can make progress on the JCPOA or missile issues, however, such an effort might may have a much better chance of success. It also seems worth at least raising such options on an unofficial or “second track” level. The more all sides can see a future that actually benefits all the sides on a broader level, and that actually addresses their grand strategic concerns, the higher the possibility that serious negotiations can eventually begin and that they will see a reason to compromise over the nuclear and missile issues.

  • One limited option is the creation of some kind of collective crisis management effort. The United States could begin by offering to participate in a crisis management center—either in some neutral location or in the form of virtual reality—where the United States, its Arab partners, and Iran could communicate securely and directly address any military issue or threat. Such a formal center for direct dialogue might avoid or limit new forms of missile attacks, tanker attacks, drone shoot downs, and U.S./Arab reactions and reprisals. They also might be expanded to cover Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Informal versions of such dialogues have worked in the past, and focusing on the narrow military and security dimension might reduce the problem for all sides of creating a more formal diplomatic dialogue before any given side is ready.
  • A second, more ambitious, option is confidence building measures. There have been efforts to bring the sides together in the past. The United States and Iran did cooperate for a while in Afghanistan before the “axis of evil” speech, and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal had some success in dealing with Iran. Talk, however, needs to have tangible indicators of progress and create some more tangible basis for trust. Confidence building measures offer a wide range of ways to accomplish this. Transparency in exercises, changes in deployments, and over arms sales can help. Mutual inspection agreements and agreements on patrolling the Gulf and Gulf of Oman, on support of third country forces and arms transfer, are two of many other alternatives.
  • The most critical major step—but one that will probably take time to address— would be to agree on limits to the regional military build-up and arms race. Tensions are now so high, and the problems in placing meaningful limits on forces that are so asymmetric, that trying to end the decades long confrontation between Iran and its Arab neighbors and the United States is little more than an idealistic dream. It is possible, however, for analysts outside government to begin considering what options might work, and to try to find ways back away from levels of military effort that even the wealthiest Gulf states cannot really afford.

This latter option is the only secure end game to the present process of confrontation, clash, and near conflict. Iran and all the Arab Gulf states face critical problems in funding economic development and job creation. However, at a time when most NATO countries spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on military forces, and the United States spends around 3.2 percent, Bahrain spends 3.8 percent, Iran spends 4.6 percent, Iraq spends 7.5 percent, Kuwait spends 4.3 percent, Oman and Saudi Arabia spend 11.0 percent, and Qatar and the UAE probably spend more than 10 percent. All need funds to invest in civil development, economic growth, job creation, and social services—the preserve regimes, meet critical popular needs and fight extremism.

The best option for every state in the region—and for the United States and every importing state outside the Gulf—is to shift from a vastly expensive set of military programs and unstable mixes of airpower and missiles, and asymmetric and conventional forces. It is to find some path towards a focus on peaceful development. Such an option may not be feasible now, but it is at least possible that it can be created over time if the current crisis does not escalate into a major war.

Possible Alternatives: Cooperation in Dealing with Peripheral Conflicts

Finally, if the United States, its Arab partners, and Iran can find an alternative to war in the Gulf, they may be able to address practical approaches to ending the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen in ways that produce lasting stability, recovery, and development—as well as sharply limit the incentives to return to ethnic and sectarian conflict, tribal divisions, and extremism and terrorism.

The current level of confrontation almost forces Iran to try to exploit every fault line in the region to gain asymmetric allies and influence to offset the military advantages of the United States and the Arab states. It encourages Iran and Arab states to take sides on a sectarian (Shi’ite vs. Sunni) and ethnic level. And, it encourages both Iran and Arab states to fund and arm non-state actors, and covertly risk supporting extremist and terrorist groups.

The end result has been another extension of the “no win” game. Iraq, for example, comes under constant pressure from both sides in ways that encourage its divisions, ethnic and sectarian conflicts, and the rebirth of movements like ISIS. All outside powers would benefit from a strong, truly independent, and stable Iraq.

As for Syria, all of the outside states now involved are to some extent part of Syria’s problems rather part of any lasting solution. Syria is still at war, and isolated from other Arab powers. If Assad can win in Idlib, Syria is all too likely to return to thug-authoritarian rule under Assad in a form that will leave Syria isolated, as well keep millions of refugees outside the country, block major aid for recovery and development, and leave the Hezbollah and Iranian volunteers backing a sectarian dictator in repressing the vast majority of his people.

Yemen has become a tragedy within a tragedy. It was an economic and demographic nightmare before the fall of Salleh and is now far worse off after years of civil war. It may well become an even worse tragedy than Syria. At the margins, the fighting in Afghanistan has renewed attacks on the Hazara and Afghan Shi’ites and its own problems for Iran.

In each case, there is little immediate prospect of things getting better, and a strong prospect that things will get worse. Even in Iraq, tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite are again becoming a steadily more serious. Once against, however, finding some solution to the present crises with Iran, rather than triggering another war, would offer the hope of being able to address the issues involved in some form that might bring last stability and peace.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy