Panel Discussion: What Would A War Against Iran Look Like?

Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

This week’s post is a panel discussion featuring several of our main podcast contributors. In this transcript of our chat discussion, the team debated the prospects of a possible armed conflict with Iran. They also discussed what a military strike against Iran might look like and what the aftermath could be. Ever since the United States broke its commitment in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal), the prospect of war with Iran has risen higher and higher. The recent downing of an American drone by Iran and Iran’s stated goal to begin enriching uranium past the previous limits of the deal all indicate that diplomacy is mostly being abandoned. So what would a war against Iran look like? The Orientalist Express team answers. It should be noted that these comments are not necessarily an endorsement of military conflict, but merely an attempt to predict what could happen.

Stephen Howard: Can we talk about the two tanker ships which were attacked off the gulf of Oman today and everything that's happening now because of it? This has got me a little nervous.


Nicholas Hayen: It's all the pretext they need to start a war. Is it bad I'm questioning the word of the secretary of state?

Stephen: They seem to be jumping hard to conclusions! "We know it was Iran, we have the evidence, but we can't show you." You line up the CIA, FBI, State, Joint Chiefs, and NSA directors and leadership to say that and I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.

And what if it's the Revolutionary Guard??? They're not directly tied to the civilian government and have massive amounts of autonomy, I don't consider an attack by them as an attack by Iran itself. But there's no nuance in policymaking anymore, and lawmakers couldn't tell the Afghan Taliban from Tehrik-i-Taliban after how many years?? I think we're dangerously close to war, and a war that we shouldn't have. And I'm NOT a dove on US National Security.


Nick: I agree. Completely unnecessary and the dormant realist in me is screaming about how stupid a war would be.

Julius McMurray: Should I be worried about war with Iran or the power vacuum that result from a US operation that would invariably destroy the entire Iranian military?

Daniel Storm: I feel like we would absolutely crush the actual army.

Julius: Ok to be more precise, which is worse?

Daniel: And then face like a six country war with IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).

Julius: Ok, power vacuum is worse, got it.

Daniel: Quds force and all their friends.

Toms Ratfelders: Plus Iranian military is a lot stronger than Iraq had.

Julius: Yeah I remember reading once that the US once destroyed the entire navy or air force of Iran in 12 hours back in the 80s. I can't remember which. We are good at state vs state warfare, and we're better at killing terrorists than we get credit too. For example, looking at countertenor operations, you know the US was involved when an airstrike takes out 50 insurgent commanders all at once when local forces could only pick off a couple at a time. I'd like to add that "I looked into it, it was Operation Praying Mantis, in 1988, and the US destroyed half the Iranian naval fleet in approximately a day.

Stephen: Ok so two notes, 1) if we attack Iran their conventional forces won't just hit us, they'll lash out at the entire Sunni Arab Middle East, 2) their Revolutionary Guard and Quds force in particular is absolutely adept at asymmetric warfare, and will cause pain long, long after the civilian government falls.

Daniel: It’s real hard to conduct asymmetrical warfare when you can’t talk or get resupplied. Also pretty sure we can knock out some of their assets with SF and then kill all their conventional forces with air power.

Stephen: Like we did with the remnants of the Iraqi army? That went well.

Daniel: I mean have you seen pictures of the highway of death? I’m just saying we can cripple their ability to militarily fight. Still gonna have an insurgency on our hands.


Nick: Yeah kinda burying the lead there lol. The insurgency is what's going to be the big problem.

Daniel: I mean is it? Why do we need to hold ground in Iran? If our entire point is the regime, topple it. Let’s support some moderates with weapons and money.


Nick: Good point. But remember when supporting "moderates" worked? .....ever?

Julius: Look if we wanna topple the regime we'd need a pro-western strong-man with experience as a military general to immediately take the reigns.

Daniel: Nick, tons of examples.


Nick: I'm being snarky Daniel. I know it's worked before I'm just skeptical we can pull it off here.

Julius: Otherwise the country would be so unstable that the country would turn into a terrorist Disney land.

Daniel: Julius, you really think so? I mean we're dealing with Persians here /Shias. Nick, I guess I’m just frustrated that everything has to be full on invasion/occupation. Just think we can break it and strong man it up.

Julius: You could be 99 percent Shia but it only takes a handful of lunatics to sneak into Iran and deep into urban cores to mess things up. And if the country no longer has a counter-terrorism apparatus because we destroyed it then yeah I'd worry.

Daniel: I mean I would be interested to see the intel on Sunni movement from Iraq to Afghanistan. IEDs usage increased drastically in 2006 which I wonder if you could blame (former Iranian President) Ahmadinejad, who was a hardliner. But I mean there is a rather distinct difference between Sunni jihadists and Shias.


Stephen: What does being Shia have to do with it? Remember the Mahdi army? Hizbullah? Shias were the ones who invented the suicide bomb. The idea of martyrdom is engrained in Shia thought through the suffering and death of Ali. And it doesn't even need to be domestic groups, see Syria. What percentage of the fighters there are foreign?

Daniel: It is widely recognized that the rise of suicide attacks in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has been predominately a Salafi-jihadi phenomenon:

1. While some suicide attacks are also strategically used by other insurgent factions (both Islamist and nationalist Iraqi groups), most of the known perpetrators are non-Iraqis who are globally recruited or voluntarily come from neighboring countries (such as Saudi Arabia) or other parts of the world.

2. Despite a decline of attacks since 2008—partly due to the U.S.-led “troop surge” and the bolstering of the state armed forces—Iraq remains a breeding ground for suicide operations. These operations are organized by either Sunni Iraqi groups (Islamists and nationalists) who use such military tactics against U.S. and Iraqi forces, or the global jihadist groups such as al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) that mainly target the Shi`a civilian population to weaken the Shi`a-dominated government in Baghdad by deliberately creating a sectarian or communal conflict.

3. In the context of the U.S.-led occupation and the ensuing sectarian violence, however, one question has remained largely ignored by analysts: Why has Iraq not experienced suicide violence on the part of the Shi`a?

I know less about Hizballah pre 90's tactics but I think now its primarily state warfare with rockets and stuff. In your defense Iran used a ton of human wave attacks to defend against Iraq in the 80's.

Stephen: So I think it's just the level of desperation. Who was "winning" in Iraq? The Shia. So they didn't have to preform martyrdom attacks because history was trending in their favor


Daniel: I think they just do human wave attacks to take back Shia shrines or to turn back the Iraqi tank brigades. There's thought put into their use/death vs Salafist jihadist just want to blow themselves up for whatever reason (money,allah,respect, anger, etc.).


Stephen: Not in the Iran-Iraq war, they used human wave attacks to take fixed defensive positions. They used them well inside of Iraq. I'll give you that their efficiency dropped drastically as soon as they got off Iranian soil, but they still worked. It took US munitions to turn them back, and chemical weapons.

Daniel: So yeah hopefully we have a target list of all govt and IRGC buildings. Bomb them, freeze all their accounts.

Julius: So if, in theory, Iran's regime completely collapsed and their national security apparatus went into the toilet, would Afghanistan be the springboard for terrorists, or Iraq, or both?

Daniel: And drop CIA trained paramilitary in to hand all the monies over to whoever wants to run it.

Julius: The Taliban might be willing to fund or endorse or sponsor radicalism into Iran if Iran was weak enough.

Daniel: I think the Kurds in the north and the Shia's in the south would be a natural buffer against Sunni movement into Iran. I think you are right about the Taliban though Julius.

Julius: Right now the Taliban is trying its best to export its extremism into Central Asia but it can't because those CA states have functional national security infrastructure and strong borders.And of course, need I mention Islamic State in Khorasan? They're a growing force in Afghanistan... Terrorism, Tourism, all the rage!

Stephen: I disagree about the Taliban, they're at their base a national, not a religious group. So, it appeals to Pashtuns, and very few others. It's why they never got traction in North Afghanistan. Islamic State in Khorasan is a real threat though, if this plays out like we're theorizing.

Julius: But Taliban likes to promote spinoffs in other places like Pakistan. It can happen in other areas.

Stephen: Like Tehrik-i-Taliban? They're completely separate and even fight between themselves.

Julius: The Taliban are projecting influence into the Persian speaking world, and not for no reason.

Stephen: I'm not saying they'd get no traction. Sure, some would come over. But at heart, that group is national, and it is inherently limited by that. I don't think it can transcend it either.

Daniel: Isn't Dari spoken by half of Afghanistan?

Stephen: Far west and northeast, both areas controlled by Massud after the Soviet rollout.


Nick: Ok so let's pretend for a minute that this all works and we manage to remove the regime without sparking a full insurgency and power vacuum. From an internal political perspective do we think the Iranian people will just welcome their new puppet overlords? I know a lot of people hate the regime right now, but foreign coups have a tendency to make people sympathetic to their government and angry at the attack on their sovereignty.

Stephen: If we do get them overturned, the only group we'd put in power would be the Mojahedin-e Khalq. They're the equivalent of the Cuba lobby in the Congress.


Nick: Sounds like a no then. I guess I'm not seeing how this doesn't still become a US problem even if the initial "plan" goes well.

Stephen: I guess we can go in, blow stuff up, and leave, like what Daniel said. Honestly, I'm not sure where/when the world decided "you break it, you buy it", but it's not a law.

Julius: If there were no risk of a regional war we could destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, and destroy all allied insurgent forces outside of Iran, and leave the regime intact. Like trimming back weeds. But again it's the risk of regional war I'd worry about.

Stephen: Agreed completely.

Nick: I think we have to consider the precedent we further if we start saying it's cool to just topple countries we don't like and walk away. That's going to wreck relations with more than a few countries I would think.


Stephen: You're right, but depending on the FP paradigm we shift to it might not matter. In a sphere of influence world, what people think about you, depending on their strength and location, may not matter.


Nick: True. I suppose that's why things seemed simpler in the Cold War. Didn't need to care as much what other nations thought as long as they were on your side.


Additional Notes from the Editor: It’s important to remember in the debate about military strikes against another country that war is always unpredictable. Once an armed conflict breaks out, there is no controlling what happens next. When considering a war with Iran, the average American must consider what such a war would mean for themselves and for the world. The costs of a nation like Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon are high, but so are the costs of another long and likely brutal war in the Middle East. Even a limited strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would likely result in high civilian casualties from radiation as most of the locations are near major cities. Both at home and abroad, war can have devastating impacts on the economy, our psychological health, and the physical health of those caught in the crossfire. When we remove meaningful diplomatic options to solve problems, then war is the only resort left. Don’t confuse angry aggression with strength and leadership.