The frightening reality of a war with Iran
President Trump has said that a U.S.-Iranian military conflict “wouldn’t last very long,” implying that the U.S. would emerge triumphant with minimal costs. While the president is correct that a fight most likely would end quickly and the U.S. would dominate it, the short- and long-term damage to U.S. interests would be devastating.
Neither Iran nor the United States seemingly wants a military conflict, but that does not mean one could not happen. Indeed, the likelihood of such a conflict is higher today than at any time since 2011, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed intent on a massive strike on Iran’s nuclear program, which could have drawn the U.S. into war.
A conflict likely would begin with an Iranian provocation that trips U.S. tolerance, triggering an attack to deter Iran from further provocations. Iran would see this as disproportionate, and the response would quickly escalate. This would be a “fight tonight” war, without a weeks- or months-long buildup of U.S. forces; the U.S. would fight with what it has in the region.
Iran’s strategic goals would be to gain sanctions relief by demonstrating its ability to impact the global economy through control over the Strait of Hormuz; dividing the U.S. from the rest of the world; and gaining international stature by humiliating the U.S. — all while avoiding any internal threat to its regime. U.S. goals would be to bring Iran on its knees to the negotiating table; uphold freedom of navigation; prevent attacks on the U.S. itself; reduce Iran’s capacity to threaten its neighbors; prevent Iran from restarting its nuclear weapons program — and to do all of this with traditional allies and partners.
Though fictitious, here is what such a conflict might look like:
Iran announces that, based on illegal U.S. sanctions and recent provocations, the Strait of Hormuz is closed and it will attack any ships, military or commercial, attempting to transit it.
Dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) small, fast boats immediately begin searching for ships that have not exited the strait. They conduct limited attacks, to avoid a major oil spill, on several commercial tankers, capturing one and taking its crew into custody. Iranian missile sites, many in caves or bunkers along the Strait of Hormuz, are activated. A single missile is fired at and hits a tanker; the crew abandons ship and is captured by Iranian boats. A number of Iranian vessels trying to lay mines in the strait are sunk by aircraft from the U.S. carrier on station outside the gulf, but others offload their mines.
Maritime insurance rates for the region skyrocket, turning away all commercial traffic.
Elsewhere, Iranian La Combattante and Houdong missile boats get underway from Bushehr in the northern gulf and Bandar Abbas in the south, searching for U.S. ships to attack. Although most U.S. combatants have moved to safety on the opposite side of the gulf, and several Iranian boats are detected and sunk by U.S. air power, a few missiles are fired and shot down by shipboard defenses. However, a large group of IRGCN boats finds a U.S. guided-missile destroyer and attacks it. Many of these boats are destroyed, but one launches a torpedo that severely damages the destroyer.
When Qatar refuses Iranian demands that it deny permission for U.S. aircraft to operate from Al Udeid Air Base, Iran launches a barrage of ballistic missiles at the base. Many are downed by U.S. anti-missile systems, but several get through and cause limited damage. Ballistic missiles are launched at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and other bases in the region with similar results.
The U.S. launches Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weapons at all known Iranian air defense and command-and-control facilities along the Gulf coast. Facilities that store nautical mines, as well as two Russia-supplied Iranian Kilo submarines moored in Bandar Abbas, are targeted. Missiles are launched against military airfields at Bandar Abbas and Bushehr inside the Arabian Gulf, and at Jask and Chah Bahar outside the gulf. The remaining Kilo submarine gets underway from Bandar Abbas, is quickly found by a U.S. submarine, and sunk.
Once Iranian regional air defenses are rendered inoperable, the U.S. begins systematically targeting known IRGC and military capability in the Arabian Gulf region using carrier- and land-based air power. Targets include missile sites, ships and boats, command-and-control facilities, military aircraft and logistics capability. Iranian military capabilities degrade rapidly.
In response, Iran launches medium-range missiles at energy infrastructure targets in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. The conflict expands geographically when the U.S. attacks these missile bases.
Iranian proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan hit U.S. bases and diplomatic facilities with suicide attacks and rockets, resulting in U.S. casualties. Lebanese Hezbollah demurs on Iran’s demand that the group attack Israel, not wanting a war that would destroy much of its military capability. Instead, the group conducts deniable pre-planned terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets around the world. The FBI, working with the intelligence community, thwarts two such attacks in the U.S.
As the conflict escalates, Iran initiates cyber attacks against key U.S. financial targets, such as online banking services, ATM machines, and credit card servicing networks. Some of these attacks are successful but most are mitigated by cyber security investments the financial services sector made. Cyber attacks are conducted against sectors of the U.S. power grid; some are successful but quickly mitigated by physical overrides. Several gulf nations report cyber attacks on their oil infrastructure.
The conflict causes the price of oil to skyrocket to more than $250, and global financial markets decline sharply. With China in the lead, Russia and the European Union call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and urge a ceasefire. Iran immediately agrees because of the devastation of its military and the sense that it has gained the moral high ground. The U.S. vetoes the measure but, because of the impact on financial markets and massive diplomatic pressure, quickly negotiates a ceasefire behind the scenes, with Oman acting as intermediary.
Indeed, the conflict does not last long — only four days. Although Iran is militarily defeated, neither side achieves all of its objectives. Because of extensive damage to regional oil infrastructure, and the effort required to sweep mines in the Strait of Hormuz, the price of oil stays well above $150 a barrel. Russia increases oil output and becomes the big economic winner. More broadly, the global economy, showing signs of weakness before the war, slips into a recession. Political divisiveness within the U.S. deepens as each side fiercely levels blame for the debacle. As the economic impact cascades, particularly in the U.S. heartland, the president loses the 2020 election.
U.S. standing in the world is deeply degraded. Even though Iran took the first shot, outrage is expressed at the U.S. by even its closest allies for creating the conditions for conflict and for its subsequent escalation and economic impact. The perception that the U.S. is too quick to use military power rises to levels not seen since the Iraq war. The U.S. loses a significant measure of global influence to China, which portrays itself as a source of world stability. Most of the G-20 nations begin to align around further reducing dependency on the dollar as the global economy’s reserve currency, with a goal of not allowing U.S. unilateral sanctions to define their foreign policies.
In Iran, the conflict knits the population together politically, deeply undermining any “moderate” factions. There is some debate about the way forward, but policy quickly coalesces around the views of the hardliners, who were angered by the original nuclear agreement, which is now in tatters. A decision is made to expeditiously build a nuclear weapon, leveraging several covert, dispersed enrichment sites of which the U.S. and its allies are unaware. Iran’s goal is to never allow such an attack on Iran again. In 2022, a nuclear test is detected that originates beneath the remote Dasht-e-Kavir desert in Iran.
Michael Morell, a career intelligence official, served as the deputy director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013. Adm. James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, a career naval officer, was the ninth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving from 2011 to 2015.
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