The Iranian-Saudi Cold War has defined our foreign policy in the region for the last decade. The current theaters in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Oman and Bahrain have all come to relative stalemates. Iran needs to open a new front that allows them to gain a real victory over the House of Saud and declare itself the hegemonic authority of the Middle East. Regardless of whether or not the Iranian government sanctioned attacks on civilian targets in the Strait of Hormuz, the reality is that it helps Iran towards this goal as now they’re claiming ownership of the Strait: one of the most critical strategic locations in the world. So, what does that mean for the United States and when will we declare war on the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Let’s be clear on one thing: we are going to declare war on Iran. Are we going to do it this month? Maybe not. However, the only way to avert a full war with the country is with a path both Presidents Obama and Trump have refused to take: full involvement and investment in the Middle East. Military investment, financial investment; you get the idea. By pulling back after the Bush Administration, we created a chasm Iran and their allies in Russia have worked to fill through chaos. An Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is not in our interest. It immediately antagonizes democratic governments in Africa, fundamental shifts our shared goals with Europe and the United Kingdom and leaves us alone to push back against a Russian government to operate in North and South America. On top of that, a nuclear Iran is an immediate threat to Saudi Arabia. Yes, Israel is the obvious target. However, because it is the obvious target, it would be the least likely to be targeted by Iran in a nuclear strike.
So, war will happen. The only thing we can control is how it happens. In this post, I want to war game the two most likely scenarios on how this will start once we declare war on Iran. I am not currently interested in the long haul, so this will only cover the opening maneuvers and how America can position itself to effectively push back on Iran. None of them are very pretty and we only have ourselves to blame. You cannot leave your role on the world stage and then get upset when it gets harder to confront global issues. Hopefully, this is a lesson for us all.
Scenario #1: If Iran has a viable nuclear arsenal and we declare war on them, I believe the first move would be a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz: followed by strategic attacks on any remaining American and Saudi ships in the region. From there, Riyadh will be attacked within the first 48 hours of our declaration. If this happens, the Iranian military will move capitalize on the chaos and seize Mecca and Medina; which means invading Jeddah. Whatever remains of the Saudi Royal Family will pull their forces into the country in expectation of this. We will be asked to send our Navy into the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman. We will also have to send troops to help the Saudis secure the borders of Iraq and Yemen in case the Iranian government is tempted to use its proxy armies to cause trouble.
The only good thing about this scenario is that the Iranians will not risk a nuclear attack on Jeddah because of its proximity to Mecca. My best guess is if we can secure the Red Sea, we’ll be in a position to force a naval battle for the Strait. We can take advantage of that by securing the Red Sea right now. Instead of taking a provocative stance in the Persian Gulf, we should move our forces to the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman. That will cause the Iranians to rethink a war position far more than parking naval carriers and battleships on their front door. We also need to secure our naval bases in Bahrain by any means necessary.
Scenario #2: A non-nuclear Iran will be more focused on ending the proxy wars around the Middle East than making an immediate jump at Saudi Arabia. If they succeed, they’ll have boxed the Saudis in and achieved their hegemony. I also believe Russia will help them heavily in this effort as a drawn out conflict will only complicate their own plans for us. Within the first 24 hours of our declaration, I believe Iranian loyalists in Iraq and Yemen will declare themselves the true governments of their countries and began an aggressive campaign to overthrow the current civilian regimes. I’m talking about a move that will take days, if not hours. In this scenario, the most influential player on the board won’t be the Saudi Royal Family or Ayatollah Khamenei, it is Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.
Al-Sadr is positioning himself to be the kingmaker in that country in a role similar to Khamenei in Iran. His followers will seize parliament and the Presidential residences. Meanwhile, that will allow Iran to move armor and personnel across the border with little resistance. My guess is that they’ll first try to take Basra. However, the Iranians will open multiple fronts on the border to speed up a collapse if possible.
The good news is that most of this we can put into check now by renewing our partnerships with the Iraqi government and autonomous Kurdish government in the north. President Trump needs to get both Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to the White House as soon as possible to discuss the Iranian threat and what the American government can do with them now to secure a stable, democratic Iraq. The goal of this meeting should be a new agreement promising to support the civilian government and current constitution in the case of an invasion from Iran. Having the Kurdish autonomous government also support such an agreement ensure their help in the war to come.
My hope is that this would cause Iran to rethink this strategy. Either way, that gives us an advantage in Iraq while giving the Saudis room to effectively fight in Yemen. From their, our goal should be the removal of Iranian loyalist forces in these countries and the restoration of stable, allied governments. However, this would not be immediate. Iran will not let go of their proxy wars easily and a direct invasion of Iran to secure Tehran is not viable at this moment. This type of war would be a slow grind: similar to the Second World War before 1944. We will be fighting Iran in Iraq, Yemen and several other countries before even coming close to stopping their aggression for good. And unlike our previous engagements in the region, we will not have the option of pulling back.
If Iran picks this scenario, it will be because they think they can outlast us. All current evidence is they’re right. My hope and prayer is it will not come to either scenario and we will be able to avoid full confrontation with Iran. However, until a new option presents itself, our best bet as a country is to get ready because the alternative of allowing Iran to achieve its ambitions in the Middle East, is unacceptable.