Assessing the likelihood of US-Iran war

Assessing the likelihood of US-Iran war

Key points

  • In the short-term significant military clash or outright war unlikely.

  • Both sides have other options, and war no longer the first/default option.

  • Indirect conflict will thus significantly increase.

  • So cyber to increase - enterprises in oil and gas sectors, and those in other strategic sectors linked to US, Saudi, and Israel, likely to be actively and individually targeted.

  • In the medium- and long-term, however, the prognosis is more complex.

  • Trump policy designed to render Iran incapable of power, so if US economic pressure continues Iran’s leaders may conclude that all-out war preferable to slow strategic death.

  • If Trump remains President, and the Ayatollahs keep their grip on power in Iran, military confrontation of some form is thus a significant long-term likelihood.

Full analysis

As US-Iran tensions continue to rise I am (understandably!) increasingly being asked to assess the likelihood of war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To answer this question the true nature of the strategic context needs to be grasped. But so does the true nature of what ‘war’ actually means in 2019 and going forward. Both factors are widely misunderstood.

Central to the current crisis is a profound change in US policy that came with the election of Donald Trump. President Trump has been entirely convinced by US allies in the Middle-East – from Saudi Arabia to the UAE to Israel – that Iran is seeking regional hegemony and aims to impose its extreme (Shiite) Islamic system upon the region and beyond, a nightmare scenario for the US and its (mainly Sunni Arab) allies. The logic behind Trump's complete rejection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal signed by his predecessor with other world powers) emanates entirely from this viewpoint.

This has led Trump to adopt a policy designed to render Iran incapable of power - near-total economic isolation to stop it being able to funnel billions into Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to tip the regional balance of power, and to dramatically worsen it's domestic economic strife, all in the hope that this inhibits Iran's strategic reach and maybe even forces a radical change in State policy.

Whereas in the past this might inevitably have led these countries into war with one another, the dynamic today is more complex, and indeed more nuanced. States rarely go to war directly with other States anymore - most military conflicts now are so-called 'Asymmetric' ones, fought by States against proxies of enemy States or with insurgents/terrorists/non-conventional forces.

And if you are a state like Iran - with significant military prowess but no match for the might of the US military machine - the priority thus becomes attaining specialism in achieving strategic objectives either indirectly or at least semi-directly. Thus Iran's decades of support for proxies from Gaza to Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen - lots of money, lots of weapons, lots of advice, but (until the outbreak of the civil wars in Syria and Yemen anyway) few of their your own actual troops and commanders.

By doing so they have dodged, evaded and circumvented US pressure for decades - breaking with this model and engaging in a direct conflict with the US, supported as it would be (overtly or tacitly) by most of the Arab world and Israel, would be a huge strategic gamble.

Iran v Saudi proxy cartoon.jpg

For major powers like the US, strategic objectives can also be attained today without having to default to military action. A whole suite of economic and technological measures are at hand that can be leveraged to massive and concerted effect, with cyber capability proving an absolute game-changer in this regard - realities that President Trump has started to grasp, as he publicly acknowledged after calling back the air strike.

Trump is certainly a chaos factor, with his penchant for impulse-based decision-making undoubtedly complicating matters - news that he told congressmen and senators that his decision whether or not to approve air strikes on Iran would be made by “My gut” was unsurprising, but no less frightening. But even for a Trump "Killing 150 people" (as he subsequently characterised the likely effect of this particular air strike) no longer needs to be the first response, even for a US president wishing to look 'tough’.

Instead the US leveraged these other tools, first a cyber strike - the Washington Post reporting that the US responded to the downing of its drone with major and sophisticated cyber-attacks that disabled the control systems of Iran’s rocket and missile launchers - followed by a new raft of economic sanctions.

Thus on both sides isolated military acts - a downing of a drone, attacking some oil tankers, or even an air strike in response - does not in 2019 inevitably mean war. The ‘Itchy trigger finger’ syndrome – that nearly led to US-Soviet nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 - is still alive, but a vastly less likely scenario today.

So in the short-term a significant US-Iran military clash or outright war - even with Trump in charge in the US, and the Ayatollahs in charge in Iran - remains unlikely.

Indirect conflict will thus significantly increase, with Iran likely to leverage to the maximum their regional allies and assets (in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Yemen, etc) to cause as many headaches for the US as possible and to try and create doubt and/or disunity amongst the US’s regional allies. Russia, China and indeed Turkey will be vital Iranian allies in this effort.

Iran proxy cartoon.jpg

Iran has for some time also been planning to use asymmetry as a deterrent against US military action - in recent years a number of Iranian-funded Hizbollah cells across the globe (from the UAE to Cyprus to the UK) have been broken-up, with multiple resultant convictions for planning future attacks in these countries. Intelligence and counter-terror agencies in the West and the Gulf fear that Iran will seek to apply pressure, and try to sour local public opinion, by waging ‘war’ not on the battlefield but via terror attacks on cities in the homelands of their adversaries.

And expect a rise in the cyber conflict on both sides, which will have significant commercial consequences for the private sector - enterprises in the oil and gas sectors, and those in other strategic sectors with strong links to the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, are likely to be actively and individually targeted.

It may indeed have started already - over the weekend cybersecurity companies CrowdStrike and FireEye were cited in news reports claiming that hackers linked to Iran have targeted US government agencies and a number of oil and gas firms with waves of attempted breaches. Oil and gas assets linked to the US, and in particular to Iranian adversaries in the Gulf, will remain priority targets.

In the medium- and long-term, however, the prognosis is more complex. If US economic pressure - that is almost now a full blockade - continues to grow it will become as large a strategic threat to Iran as being attacked. Iran’s leaders may come to the conclusion that all-out war is preferable to a slow economic and strategic death. As war might unite Iran's people around the regime, it might be preferable to the slow strangulation Trump is planning.

Trump hopes that it is exactly this that will bring Iran to the negotiating table, a belief no doubt encouraged by his complete misunderstanding of why he managed to find himself at one with Kim/the North Koreans.

The regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran have since 1979 defined foreign policy success as the ability to withstand and reverse US pressure, and this believe is only being reinforced by Trump’s policies and statements. Expecting pressure to naturally result in Iranian concessions or capitulation is simply naive and wishful thinking.

If Trump remains President, and the Ayatollahs keep their grip on power in Iran, military confrontation of some form is a significant long-term likelihood.