Iran vs. US: A Look Behind The Curtain

Iran vs. the US: A Look Behind The Curtain

Image result for oil tanker attacked
Saudi Oil Tanker Attacked In The Red Sea

The US and Iran are locked in an escalating dispute that has roots in conflicting economic, religious, and political interests in the Middle East. The current Iranian crisis began in 1979 with the abrupt disintegration of a close relation between Iran and the US. I try to untangle the post-1979 history of the knotty relationships the US and Iran have had within the Middle East region in order to understand the likely state of affairs that will exist when we enter the coming election year.

This story is more lengthy and complicated than my usual postings so proceed if you have time, patience, and interest in the subject, and are confused (like I was) about the prospects of war and its likely participants.

Background: The Evolving Conflict Between The US And Iran

Following the death of the prophet Mohammad in 632CE, Muslims became deeply divided on who should be the leader of Islam. Violent disagreements about who should lead Islam persisted for the next few decades. A minority of Muslims worldwide (10%) belong to the Shia denomination, believed the leaders of Islamic states should be chosen from among Mohammad's family. The majority (90%) of Muslims worldwide belong to the Sunni denomination which opted to believe the leader of an Islamic state need not be a descendant of Mohammad. In Iran, the proportions are reversed; today, roughly 90% of Muslims in Iran belong to the Shia denomination. Picking a fight with Iran is de facto taking on Iran plus militant Shia scattered throughout the Middle East who are armed and supported by Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution and established the Islamic Republic of Iran in late 1979 after disposing of the American-backed leader of Iran. Relations prior to 1979 were friendly and mutually advantageous. The current conflict between Iran and the US began in 1979 when Iranian students took 52 embassy employees hostage for more than a year. The US responded by imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

Since 1979, conflicts between the countries have increased: Iranian backed groups have attacked and killed hundreds of US troops, the US executed a naval strike,  and a missile fired from the USS Vincennes mistakenly downed a commercial airliner killing all 290 people on board. Iran, in turn, has backed anti-American groups outside Iran such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

Ali Khamenei, (commonly referred to as "Ali") succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and hardened Iran's animosity towards the American lifestyle and its people. Ali became the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is the commander-in-chief of Iran's armed forces including the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Within the IRGC is the Quds force, liaisons charged with creating and backing violent external groups that oppose the US and its allies. Ali's attitude towards the US was succinctly summarized when he stated: “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it." He also offers to back any external group engaged in hostilities with Israel, a “cancerous tumor” that, he says, must be "cut off".

Iran's Military Proxies

Hezbollah Fighters
The Quds force has effectively helped Iran establish control of many militant groups by arming and backing Shia-dominated militias in adjoining countries. Today, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are substantially controlled by Iran. In addition, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan are powerful Iranian allies ready to support Iran's objectives and defend any threat to the middle east region. These geographic areas house the proxy militias that make Iran a formidable potential enemy of the US and its allies in the Middle East. Should a war pitting the US against Iran break out it would be unlike any war the US has previously fought.

It is unlikely Iran would initiate direct combat and invite traditional warfare. However, Shia allies armed and trained by Iran have over decades inflicted serious casualties. It is likely there will be an escalation of assaults launched by proxies against US assets. At the end of May, Houthi forces launched another drone attack on Saudi Arabia and Yemeni drones bombed hangars at Najran airport where Saudi fighter jets are housed. Iran essentially seeks to nurture its allies and proxies to the point where they, and by extension Iran, can take control of other countries.

Countries Encompassing Iran's Most Loyal Proxies

US Middle East Allies

UAE and the US just activated a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that formally underscores a four-decade close relationship. The agreement pledges to maintain and promote stability in the region. The two countries have excellent financial, political, and military relationships. The Trump administration approved arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Like all relationships between the US and Middle Eastern countries, there are conflicting interests. The UAE fears democracy and the US quietly looks the other way regarding human rights.

Qatar is a strategic ally of the US. The US maintains al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, our most advanced and well-equipped military in the Middle East. It also is the most forward listening post in the region. However, Iran has a significant influence on Qatar. Qatar has close business relations with Iran, and the two countries jointly own the largest natural gas field in the world. More concerning are Qatar's ties with enemies of Israel. Qatar is friendly with the Gaza-based Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), is close to Hezbollah’s leadership, supports the region’s Muslim Brotherhood organizations, hosts a delegation of Taliban officials in a five-star hotel—and has cozy financial and political relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, initiated imposed an economic blockade on the country, and is aggressively lobbying the Trump administration to end friendly relations with Qatar. Iran recently tried to seduce Qatar by providing access to its air, ground, and sea space and send food and other supplies to the country. While Qatar has mixed allegiances in the Iran-US tension, it also has the opportunity to act as a trusted broker to lessen the tension.

Oman has a warm and trusted relationship with Itan but also serves as a reliable backchannel between Iran and the US, and has its own security, geopolitical, and economic interests at stake in the Iran-US dispute should it escalate. It also is in the precarious position of sharing with Iran the Strait of Hormuz. Oman was a key proponent and facilitator of the JCPOA (aka the Iran nuclear deal - now abandoned by President Trump) and could act as a peacemaker in the present Iranian dispute with the US. What Oman’s government would most desire is for the US to return to the JCPOA and for Iran to fulfill its obligations under the accord.

The US considers Saudi Arabia and Israel to be the two strongest allies in the Middle East, however, conflicting goals have complicated those relationships. 

Relations with Saudi Arabia were weakened by Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. However, for several years following the World Trade Center attack, the Saudi's remained politically and militarily attached to the US despite many controversial aspects of the relationship that the US overlooks due to the importance of Saudi Arabia's oil production, our need for military security in the region, and financial entanglements.  Relations have been further strained by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That incident caused Congress to strongly favor sanctions on Saudi Arabia including banning arms sales to the Saudis. Trump, citing the loss of billions of dollars and the security threats posed by Iran declared an emergency to circumvent Congress and approve an 8 billion dollar sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.  In addition, Oil has declined in importance since shale oil production has turned the US into a net oil exporter. Nevertheless, an abrupt halt in oil Saudi oil production would increase world oil prices enough to hurt the US economy.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are both experienced in proxy battles. The two countries have been engaged in a regional cold war using proxies in four countries to do the fighting. Iran backs proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan where US troops are based. Iran also backs proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen (Houthis). Despite uneasy relations, these proxy "wars" ensure the US can count on Saudi Arabia to be an Iranian enemy and a US ally. This month, Saudi Arabia joined the US warning Iran not to engage in any attempts to initiate war against the US or the Saudis.

Israel is a US ally and recipient of US military support. In addition, it receives substantial international aid and political support from the US. In the past, Israel has been engaged in skirmishes with Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Iraq but remains uncharacteristically silent about Iran and the US trading threats; Israel has made no statements from the Israeli security apparatus, government, or prime minister since the US sent additional warships and planes to the Gulf. Israel's position is understandable -- it has the most to lose. Israel is surrounded by Iran's proxies: Iranian forces in Syria, Iran-backed militants in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon which has been reported to have just received sophisticated weapons from Iran.

However, short of war, the present tensions between the US and Iran could have the greatest effect on Israel's and Saudi's concern for free access to shipping lanes that Iran has threatened to block. There is no substitute for these shipping passages (ships passing from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Oman must use the choke point in the map to the right). These shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz is the most important oil "chokepoint" in the world. According to Wikipedia, "35% of the world's seaborne oil shipments and 20% of oil traded worldwide." passes through this chokepoint. The strait is protected by the US Fifth Fleet but the fleet must protect another 2.5 million square miles of sea that includes the Suez Canal which is now owned by Egypt, the recipient of the most financial aid the US gives to any country in the world except Israel.

Potential Paths To War

A war between the US and Iran likely will not be initiated as an unprovoked attack by one or another of the two countries, it is likely to be initiated in one of four ways.

  1. The US will use a pretext already in place or create one in the future, to attack Iran or its proxies. The pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction started the war between the US and Iraq. 
  2. One or more of Iran's proxies and/or a US ally will initiate an incident that will spread much the way the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo started WWI,.
  3. There will be a misunderstanding like when the US and its allies sent proposed conditions for Japan to surrender during the Pacific War and Japan responded ''mokusatsu,'' which was intended to mean in the context that Japan was reserving comment but was mistakenly translated by the US and the UK to say Japan opted to disregard the demands with contempt. The US responded by dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. 
  4. The incentives of the leaders of Iran and/or the US diverge from those of the people they represent. Economists and political scientists call this the "principle-agent problem". (A recent article in Military Review explains why the principle-agent problem leaves the US Army ill-suited to engage in a proxy war because of a bias towards a binary conventional war mindset.)
In each of these cases, an accumulation of hostilities set the stage for an act of war.

The US has suggested several pretexts for attacking Iran or its proxies.  Trump administration Iran hawks have made intentionally ambiguous and broad threats towards Iran and their proxies threatening military action if "U.S. personnel, facilities or interests are attacked by Iran or its proxies". The US has already claimed it is "highly likely" that Iran is behind the explosives attack on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman but stopped short of retaliating without evidence of what proxies were involved. By making such broad threats, 

Proxy-initiated war
There are several militias in the Middle East on both sides that are itching for war, and there are ongoing attacks that could escalate into war. A little over a week ago,  on May 19, a Katyusha rocket landed less than a half-mile from the US Embassy in Baghdad. Oil tankers and pipelines have been sabotaged and two Saudi oil pumping stations were attacked by a long distant drone - Houthi militia claimed responsibility.

Saudi Arabia appears to be a prime target in Iran's proxy plan. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is, according to the Trump administration, attempting to establish a permanent base in Lebanon where Hezbollah, the most powerful militia in the world, is more powerful than the Lebanese Army. Today (May 31, 2019) Hezbollah's Secretary General said "...know well that any war on Iran will not remain confined to Iran's borders. The entire region will burn", leading to all US forces and interests in the region being "annihilated". Although this appears to be bluster, it portrays a level of hostility that could easily be ignited.

Fortunately, Russia, an ally of Iran, recognizes the potentially explosive proxy relations surrounding Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In an attempt to subdue tension in the region, Russia rejected an Iranian request to buy S-400 missile defense systems. The S-400 missile system can be equipped with four types of missiles capable of covering from 40 to 400 kilometers.

Israel is struggling to maintain relations with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman while Iran has significant allies in Syria, Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. These are a lot of wild cards in a high stakes game that could turn bluffs into a Middle East war.


Thus far misunderstandings have been sufficiently muted to avoid armed conflict.  The US accused Iran of moving missiles into the Persian Gulf and, believing the missile movement to be in preparation for an offensive strike. The US, believing that the act put US assets in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar at risk, responded by moving an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers into the region. It is not clear if the US reaction was sincere or a potential pretext for military action. Nevertheless, this is the type of misunderstanding that prompted the US to enter the war in Iraq. US military intervention in Iraq was blamed on an erroneous claim that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction.

Principal-agent problem

A principal-agent typically occurs when the agent acts solely in his/her own interests rather than the interest of the principal. The principal is the party that legally appoints the agent to make decisions and take actions on its behalf; in the current context current US-Iran dispute, the motives and incentives of our elected politicians (the agent) and the American public (the principal) could diverge over a dispute with Iran. (Iran may have their own such divergence but I do not have enough information to speculate on that prospect.)

The US Senate reintroduced the stalled “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act,” apparently as a precaution against war hawks like Bolton and Pompeo circumventing Congress to initiate military action against Iran as a diversion from Trump's legal troubles and desire to win reelection. An opinion piece in the Tennessean cited several indications that suggest such motives: "...September 2018 request to the Pentagon for military strike options against Iran; the State Department’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization; Pompeo’s assertion against expert assessments that Iran is connected to al-Qaeda; and the related suggestion that a presidential decision for military action against Iran may be covered under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force." If these motives are behind the Iranian dispute, the Trump administration would be creating a deadly serious principle-agent problem.

The Likelihood Of A War

“The U.S. can destroy the Iranian navy in a day, but it will find it is attacked in six countries by proxy networks,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute think tank. Both Iran and the Trump administration know this and publicly state that they do not want war. Yet the rhetoric persists. In a CBS interview, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke proclaimed "President Trump is escalating tensions, is provoking yet another war in the Middle East..."

Anticipating war
  • At a time when Iran is suffering greatly due to US sanctions, the U.S. took aim at eliminating Iran's access to revenue from oil by effectively ordering countries worldwide to stop buying Tehran’s oil or face sanctions of their own. 
  • Additionally, the U.S. designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Iran responded with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, where about a third of the world’s oil export vessels pass through.
  • On May 19, Trump tweeted "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"
  • Iran warned that if Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia don't help Iran circumvent US sanctions and help Iran sell its oil, Tehran would increase its enrichment of uranium, a fuel that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and building the world’s deadliest weapon.
Doubting war
  • Despite the Trump Administration’s aggressive stance, there have been no major incidents in the Persian Gulf since an Iranian drone approached the U.S.S. Nimitz in international waters as a F/A-18 was trying to land on the aircraft carrier.
  • Trump adamantly denies he wants a war with Iran.
  • Iran just warned armed groups tied to Iran to refrain from taking any action that could provoke American retaliation.
  • More than 70 retired admirals, generals, and ambassadors wrote in an open letter to President Trump telling him to avoid war with Iran. They pleaded: “As President and Commander-in-Chief, you have considerable power at your disposal to immediately reduce the dangerous levels of regional tension.” The group strongly encouraged Trump to employ "...aggressive diplomacy rather than unnecessary armed conflict." 

Three Likely Outcomes

1. Trump is bluffing. 
In North Korea, when Trump threatened Kim Jong Un labeling him “little rocket man,” and threatened "fire and fury" there were warnings to head to the bomb shelters. There was no fire and no fury. Trump recently called for regime change and threatened military military intervention in Venezuela. Both threats died without significant concessions from either country. Nor did Trump follow through when he promised to shut down the government if he didn't get his money for the border wall. 

Of course, there are many occasions when Trump was thought to be bluffing and wasn't: trade wars were implemented, and he wasn't bluffing when he made it clear that anyone in his administration who disagrees with him gets fired. Nevertheless, Bluffers are successful when they are unpredictable. But Trump has a record of backing down when the stakes are very high; he prefers to let his war hawks, Bolton and Pompeo, bluster on his behalf and later take credit for a "resolution" attributed to his unparalleled negotiating skills. Expect this to play out during next year's presidential campaigns.

2. Oil fuels fire and fury. Production and transport of oil will be sabotaged in the early stages of a larger conflict. Because there is no large-scale substitute for oil, countries will be pressured to form stronger alliances with either Iran or the US allies in the Middle East to maintain access to transportation routes and oil fields. Neutral groups will be forced to choose sides. Both both WWI and WWII were preceded by prewar alliances. If there is a third world war brewing, it is likely that most of the Middle East countries will choose to coalesce around US allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE). Iran will accelerate its efforts to support, arm, and mobilize its proxies. Over time the state-sponsored armed forces will join the Iran alliance in countries where Iran's proxies are dominant. The US and its allies will fight in a conventional force-on-force manner and the Iranian allies will employ guerrilla-style warfare typical of terrorists.

Global disruptions of oil supply will cause countries outside the Middle East (e.g., China, Japan, India)  to align with one or the other alliance. Russia has significant oil reserves and is closely aligned with Iran. Access to Russian and Iranian oil will attract some neutral countries to join that alliance. These dynamics could foster a classic world war and, unlike WWII, both sides will have access to nuclear weapons creating a frightening scenario.
3. Bickering continues. Skirmishes in the Middle East will continue and threats of larger scale military activities will be volleyed by opposing forces and minor violent conflicts will continue without drawing the US or Iran into full-scale binary war. President Trump will encourage the chaos as a diversion from investigations into his alleged misconduct and manipulate it to enhance his reelection prospects. 
The leadership in Iran will grow weary of the economic hardships imposed by US sanctions. Iranian oil exports will continue to drop despite attempts by Russia and China to circumvent the sanctions. Iran's domestic inflation will soar and the economy will show signs of collapsing. Out of desperation, Iran will move closer to abandoning the residual nuclear deal (JCPOA) but will be unable to create nuclear weapons. Iran will remain obstinate hoping Trump will lose reelection thereby opening the door to a diplomatic reconciliation with the US.