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The US is in for a rude awakening if it strikes Iran



As the Pentagon sends more troops to the Middle East to counter what it says are Iranian threats to shipping traffic and US allies, Washington seems to be hurtling toward direct confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

On June 17, the Pentagon announced that 1,000 more troops would be headed to the Middle East after two tankers were attacked by Iran, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the Gulf of Oman early in the morning of June 13. In May the US sent fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, and other assets to the region as a show of force to Iran.

But that display of firepower hasn’t toned down belligerent rhetoric on either side, and Pompeo has said military strikes against Iran are under consideration.

The US is building a case of Iranian guilt for the tanker bombings, which could be a justification for retaliation strikes. But some experts say that a military strike would not only set off other conflicts in the region, but work against the US’s interests.

Ali Vaez, the Director of the Iran Project at Crisis Group, told INSIDER the most likely scenario is, “a strike against one or several [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities, maybe even some of Iran’s nuclear installations,” pointing out that the latter would be risky, given that there are UN inspectors in Iranian nuclear facilities “all of the time.” But the IRGC — an elite, paramilitary branch which the US sees as responsible for attacks at the Port of Fujairah in May, as well as last week’s attacks — is the assumed target for limited strikes.

Alternately, the US could order a “massive aerial bombardment” against Iran’s air defense systems and nuclear infrastructure.

Read more: An oddly-placed naval mine suggests Iran may have been purposefully pulling its punches in the tanker attacks so far

But none of these options, said Vaez, is ideal; “The best course of action, of course, is not to stumble into a conflict,” which he said the US is doing right now as a result of its Iran foreign policy — or lack thereof.

Although the US would see a limited strike as a warning — “a bloody nose operation,” according to Vaez — Iran would almost certainly retaliate.

Their response would almost certainly include using its proxies — Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and militia groups in Syria and Iraq — to attack US forces or allies in the region.

A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tank artillery at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border, July 29, 2017.
REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

“Lebanese Hezbollah is likely to fire hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles into Israel, Israel is likely to retaliate against southern Lebanon, and maybe even Syria,” Vaez said, also pointing out that proxies in Iraq could attack US assets there, and that Houthi rebels could disrupt shipping in the Red Sea, or even launch an invasion into southern Saudi Arabia.

“So what could start as a limited tit-for-tat has the potential of quickly turning into a regional conflagration,” Vaez said.

Shiite tribesmen, known as Houthis, hold their weapons as they chant slogans during a tribal gathering showing support for the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. A tenuous ceasefire is holding in Yemen despite some violations, as U.N.-brokered peace talks between the country’s U.S. and Saudi-backed internationally recognized government and Shiite rebels start in Switzerland.
AP/Hani Mohammed

Apart from the effect Iranian retaliation to a US strike would have in the region, it’s worth noting that Iran is willing to endure significant losses during conflict.

“Anyone who has studied the military history of the Islamic Republic knows that it has displayed an unusually high level of cost tolerance, with respect to military operations,” said Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, meaning that Iran is willing to sacrifice more than expected to stay in the game. To illustrate this, Talmadge pointed to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, in which Iran lost between 300,000 and 1 million people before it agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire.

So what would be the US’s best strategy, given its current position? Not to have gotten in the position in the first place, of course. “I think the whole situation that we’re seeing right now is largely one of the US’s own making,” Talmadge said. The US decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran Nuclear Deal) set off the current chain of events, she said; if President Donald Trump were to propose an alternative to the JCPOA, the situation might be quite different.

“There’s a bigger strategic picture here in which the United States has undone an agreement that its own State Department certified as actually working very well.”

Failing that, said Vaez, Trump needs to realize that his “maximum pressure” doctrine is no longer effective. “At this stage, it’s best for the US to try to cash in on the leverage that it has created through sanctions to provide Iranians with a face-saving way out of this dilemma.”

Read more: Trump’s Iran strategy is failing to reduce tensions as a top general warns the threat to US troops is still ‘imminent’

In order to negotiate with Iran, said Vaez, the US needs to give up on the idea of regime change there, and make the first concession to Iran. But that’s unlikely to happen, as long as National Security Advisor John Bolton and other Iran hawks are in Trump’s administration.

“You will not be able to successfully negotiate with the Iranians while holding a gun to their head.”

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