Week of January 10, 2020

Iran and the United States: Mutual Options


This week, the US killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force, at Baghdad’s Airport.

The Pentagon said it was a defensive action taken with the approval of President Trump because further attacks were planned against American targets soon.  The US also said that Soleimani also had approved the attacks on the US Embassy.

The reactions were predictable.  Iran threatened “severe retaliation” against the “criminals” responsible for killing Soleimani.  The Democrats said the killing only heightened tensions in the Middle East.  Meanwhile, President Trump said that Soleimani “should have been taken out years ago.”

Trump decided to escalate rather than matching Iran tit-for-tat. Trump crossed a red line by killing General Soleimani.  American responses in the past have been against “Iranian proxies” or have been economic in general.

The potential for future violence was made clear as oil prices shot up as investors were worried that Iran could shut down the Strait of Hormuz.

So, is the Middle East on the verge of plunging into a major conflict?


US Reaction and Options

In many ways, to Trump and hardliners in this administration (like Pompeo and Esper) the attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad made sense to Iran.  Two of America’s most humiliating defeats in the Middle East have involved American embassies – the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the storming of the American diplomatic bases in Benghazi in 2012.  Taking over the Baghdad site would have humiliated the US and likely brought about the defeat of Trump in the upcoming elections, just as the 1979 capture of the US embassy in Tehran led to the defeat of President Carter in 1980.

President Trump isn’t like Presidents Carter or Obama.  Within minutes he had ordered 100 US Marines in Kuwait to Baghdad and put US forces around Baghdad on alert.

In this case, however, the US has made it clear that retaliation will not be limited to economic sanctions or attacks on what being labeled “Iranian proxies”.  The US has shown it is willing to carry out strikes on Iranian officials.  Secretary of Defense Esper has also said additional attacks are in the offing.

“If we get word of attacks,” Esper said, “We will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives.  The game has changed.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Esper responded, “Do I think they might do something? Yes, and they will likely regret it…Our aim is to deter further Iranian bad behavior that has been going on now for over 40 years.”

Although most Democrats have condemned the attack, this attack by the US will only improve Trump’s popularity amongst his supporters primely, Trump after seeing scenes of Iraqis attacking the US Embassy,  he thinks Americans favor any action that prevents such attacks in the future – especially in light of the Benghazi attacks that led to the death of the American Ambassador to Libya.


So, what will America’s response be?

The first action was the ordering one brigade (750 soldiers) from the 82nd Airborne to the Middle East.  Unlike previous deployments in the past, which were generally technicians who supported missile systems and such, the 82nd Airborne is a combat unit that is structured to deploy within hours into a hostile environment.  These are troops trained to fight, not repair and operate radar and missiles.

These forces have already arrived in the Middle East.

Additional soldiers from the Immediate Response Force will be deployed soon.  Reports are that an additional 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne will be sent and deployed across the region.  Again, they will be combat forces, not support personnel or technicians.

Other official actions are warning Americans (including American oil workers in Iraq) in the region to leave, hardening American targets, and evacuating non-essential Americans from embassies and consulates.

There is also additional security in American cities like New York.

The US Navy in the area of the Strait of Hormuz will also be repositioning itself.  The aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman (CVN 75) will likely move east of the Strait of Hormuz in order to carry out strikes outside the range of Iranian boats or aircraft.

Smaller ships like destroyers or frigates may be readied to carry out convoy escort duties if Iran tries to harass commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

A Marine Expeditionary Unit backed up with the USS Bataan (LHD 5) is currently crossing the Atlantic for a deployment in the region.  Once in place, their Marine contingent can deploy across the region within hours.  And, like the troops of the 82nd Airborne, Marines are combat soldiers, not support personnel or technicians.

US Air Force units in the region will be on heightened alert in case they will be needed to support ground forces or shipping the Gulf being attacked.  Air defense systems will also be on the alert for Iranian aircraft of missiles.

Although future American responses are unknown, we can be sure that they may not limit themselves to strikes against “Iranian proxies”.  The US has made it clear that the Iranian command structure is now fair game.


Iranian Options

It seems clear that Iran was taken aback by the ferocity of America’s response to the embassy attack. If it anticipated this sort of attack, Soleimani never would have appeared in person at the Baghdad Airport.

Iran now must devise a response whose outcome is extremely difficult to calculate. There is a significant probability of a major escalation.

Iran well may decide on a limited, symbolic action. However, if it chooses restraint, its prestige in the region will diminish.

Iran has decades of experience in using asymmetrical warfare to fight the US and its allies.  This makes it the most likely option.

However, Iran has already made it clear that it has increased its readiness for conventional warfare.  American made F-14 fighters are patrolling its airspace and its missile command is ready to attack if ordered.

To American war planners, the F-14 is considered no match to advanced US fighters and they haven’t been able to receive F-14 spare parts from America since 1979.  And, the Iranian missile force is extensive, but not all have arsenal has the precision accuracy guidance.

The biggest threat is an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz – an economic weapon that threatens the energy independent US less that it does Europe and China.

Undoubtedly the US has more forces in the area of the Strait than Iran does, so an overt closure of the Strait would be unlikely.  However, the use of mines (as they did in the 1980s) and covert attacks like those of a few months ago would raise the risk to commercial shipping and create a jump in energy prices that would slow the world economy.

Iran’s regional strategy rests on a combination of irregular warfare based on allies’ fighters in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and strategic deterrence including intermediate-range missiles and cruise missiles.

One option is to carry out missile attacks via their Yemeni allies.  This has been successful in damaging sites on the Saudi peninsula but has had limited impact on American forces.

The most aggressive course of action is to attack an American asset. In the extreme case, Iran could use a combination of intermediate-range missiles, cruise missiles and drones to attack major American bases like the one in Doha.

The September attack on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia exposed the weakness of US air defenses. The Patriot anti-missile system can’t shoot anything flying lower than 60 meters, and Iran has low-flying cruise missiles. A successful strike against Doha certainly figures in American calculations. In late September, US Central Command temporarily moved command and control of the Doha base to a remote facility in Tampa, Florida, because the base is a “sitting duck” for Iranian missiles.

If Iran were to attack Doha, America’s response likely would be extensive. To American military planners, two dozen missiles or bombing sorties could severely damage out Iran’s economy in a matter of hours (a threat implied by Trump statement and Senator Lindsey Gramm). Fewer than a dozen power plants generate 60% of Iran’s electricity, and eight refineries produce 80% of its distillates. A single missile strike could disable each of these facilities, and bunker-buster bombs would destroy them. Without much effort, the US could destroy the Port of Kharg from which Iran exports 90% of its hydrocarbons.

More likely is a limited attack, perhaps on a smaller US naval vessel in the Gulf, or on a smaller US base somewhere in the region. The problem is that Iran would have to inflict enough damage to restore its credibility without inviting massive US retaliation.

Undoubtedly, Iran will respond.  However, their likely response will play to their strengths.  The source of the attacks will be vague enough to cause the US to hesitate about using a military response against Iranian targets.

Of course, not all US and Iranian options are military or economic.  One only must remember the US-Israeli computer viruses used against Iranian nuclear computers to realize that the US can make its response damaging, but hard to respond to.

It seems that US might be miscalculating, they are basing their position on the assumption that when Trump ordered the firing of 50 cruise missiles into Syria, critics said this was a major escalation in the region and threatened the peace.  But nothing serious happened.

Iran enjoys “twisting the Eagle’s tail feathers.” But it doesn’t want events to spiral out of control.  On the other side, President Trump is anxious to pull troops out of the region and isn’t eager to mire the US in another conflict in the region.

Both sides have solid reasons to avoid major escalations to a full-scale war, but no one can guarantee it can be avoided when the missiles start flying.


American Options in the Middle East

So far what looked like the beginning of a full-scale war in the Middle East has suddenly calmed down – except for a few rockets.  A dramatic missile attack by Iran on American bases in Iraq came off according to President Trump without causing a single American casualty, although 22 Iranian missiles were fired.  Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif seemed to signal the end of the current hostilities by calling the attack “proportionate measures in self-defense,” and adding “we do not seek escalation or war but will defend ourselves.”

President Trump also seemed to signal a return to a calmer atmosphere by nearly repeating what Zarif said.  In remarks made at the White House, Trump said, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Although the return to calm is hopeful, both sides signaled that other hostilities might occur in the future.  In his speech, Trump declared, “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”  That implies that sometime in the future Trump will carry out some operation against Iran.

Trump did offer an olive branch by saying “we should work together on this (ISIS) and other shared priorities…We want you to have a future and a great future.”

In the vein of Trump’s comment on Iranian nuclear weapons, Ayatollah Khamenei also intimated this wasn’t the end by saying, “An important incident has happened.  The question of revenge is another issue…Military actions in this form [referring to the missile attack] are not sufficient for that issue.”

In other words, both sides have kept their options open.

So, what are America’s military options in the Middle East?  A lot depends on what American military presence is in the region and what they can do.


The American Military Presence in the Middle East

The American military presence in the Middle East may seem large, but it’s important to see what types of forces are in the region.  In fact, only a small number are considered combat troops.

To better understand this, the American forces can be broken down into three groups.

Combat Troops.  These are combat trained forces that specialize in small unit tactics and can be used to carry out ground attacks on enemy forces or hold American positions that are under heavy attack (like the American embassy).  Only a small number of combat forces were in the region until about two weeks ago.  And, most of them were in Afghanistan.

Technicians.  These are soldiers that maintain weapons systems like air defense, radar, and aircraft.  They can be called upon to defend a base, but aren’t trained for offensive operations.

Support Troops.  These range from medical personnel to supply and transportation.  They are not trained for combat operation.

While all Army and Marine forces are trained for combat, Air Force technicians aren’t.  Naval personnel are trained in carrying out their mission on board ship.

What this means is that the American presence in the region is primarily designed for maintaining weapons systems; aircraft, missile defense systems, cruise missiles, and drones.  There was a small Marine reaction force in Kuwait, until it was dispatched to Baghdad to protect the US Embassy.

The attack on the embassy changed everything.  A brigade of the 82nd Airborne was immediately dispatched to the region and other units of the 82nd are expected to arrive soon.  These are stationed in Kuwait.

About 2,200 Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were sent to the Middle East from a training exercise in Morocco.  They will remain stationed onboard ships.

In addition, US Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment were sent.  Rangers are considered an elite unit.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team has been earmarked for the region, probably to protect the Embassy in Beirut.

By the time all the units reach the Middle East, the American presence will be about 80,000.  And, a greater percentage will be combat troops.  This gives the US more options in terms of response.

As it stands now, the largest US force is in Afghanistan (14,000 troops). This is followed by Kuwait and Qatar, which has about 13,000 troops each.  There are 7,000 in Bahrain, 6,000 in Iraq, 3,000 in Saudi Arabia, 3,000 in Jordan, and 5,000 in the UAE.

US forces at sea total about 5,000.

Syria, which is seeing a drawdown in US forces likely has about 800 American troops.

This doesn’t mean that the US can’t deploy more forces if necessary.  The 101st Airborne Division is also an airmobile rapid reaction force.  There is also heavy equipment like tanks that are prepositioned in the region if necessary.


American Options

Until a week ago, the major American military response option was the use of air power, combat aircraft, drones, or cruise missiles.  The US Air Force could rely upon locally based combat aircraft or bombers stationed in the US.  The Navy would be responsible for any cruise missile attacks as well as aircraft sorties from aircraft carriers in the region.

These attacks would have generally targeted Iranian backed militias in Iraq or Syria.  The US Navy cruise missiles would have targeted areas with more effective air defense systems like Iranian territory.  It would have been cruise missiles that would have probably been used if President Trump had decided to carry out his threat against the Iranian leadership.

Cyber-attacks against the Iranian infrastructure are possible.  However, an American cyber-attack would probably result in an Iranian retaliation on America’s computers.

The other option would have been more aggressive patrolling of the Strait of Hormuz.  This would have used destroyers, frigates, and helicopters to stop and board Iranian shipping.  Small numbers of Marines would have been used for the boarding.

These options were available before the recent deployments to the region.  So, why is the US sending combat troops to the region?

It appears that the US had intelligence that Iranian backed militias would carry out offensive operations against American facilities besides the US Embassy.

The forces sent to the region are combat trained forces that are specialized in inserting into hostile environments.  They would be ideal for landing into an American military base, which is under attack by Iranian backed militias.  Combined with air support, they could hold off any attack.  At the same time, they can bolster security at American facilities not under threat.

This, in part, explains why the Iranian government limited their response.  Although they could have escalated the attacks, they realized that, in the end, they were more vulnerable to American attack than the US was vulnerable to Iranian attack.

Although the US couldn’t have carried out any invasion of Iran, they can carry out major attacks on the Iranian leadership and its nuclear infrastructure.  Sea launched cruise missiles could have punched holes in the Iranian air defense, while American stealth aircraft could have opened a path through Iranian airspace for bombers to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

Meantime, other cruise missiles or drones would have targeted Iran’s command and control.

This is what the Iranian leadership would have feared the most.  They will tolerate attacks on their militias.  They don’t want America to target Iranian leaders.

Although it seems that calm has been restored in the region, it’s important to remember the first words that came out of Trumps mouth when he addressed the nation on Wednesday.  He said, “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”

Unless the US has a method for sabotaging the Iranian nuclear program that implies more military action is to be expected – at some time.