Iran: The Long-Term

As we await POTUS’ speech to the nation this morning I think there are some things we can know, and others we can reasonably suspect.

First, looking at the general reaction on social media, for and against, statist and haters, there seems to be few that understand what this conflict really is. It is asymmetric, it is not WWIII and cannot be (unless some vastly remote and unlikely set of circumstances play out and that is as likely as snow in Miami).

Asymmetric warfare can describe a conflict in which the resources of two belligerents differ in essence and, in the struggle, interact and attempt to exploit each other’s characteristic weaknesses. In asymmetric warfare, the smaller opponent picks targets, measures action by cost versus gain and above all else crafts operations to ensure it remains in the fight. It requires realism and rationalism and patience. Iran has demonstrated again and again, and specifically last night, that it is capable and willing to play the long game.

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For instance, the satellite imagery above from the al-Assad airbase shows that Iranian missiles clearly missed the areas that look to be CHUs (containerized housing units). We now know that the Iranians informed the Iraqis before the attack, knowing full well the Iraqis would tell the Americans. In this way, Iran was fairly certain that troops would have time to seek shelter. We can conclude that this was a saving face response for Iran, they reacted, they were able to claim heavy casualties in their national media, satisfying their populace. They did not kill US soldiers, and apparently not even any Iraqis, therefore it was only a minor escalation.

For Iran, this was strategic, patient and measured. They acted, saved face and put the ball in the US court. This does not mean in the Iranian mind this conflict is over, it simply means that the leadership in Iran is smart enough not to escalate so much as to force a decisive engagement that they cannot win. They will live to fight another day.

Their next actions will be just as measured, whether through proxies or direct action.

If Iran now awaits a US response what might that be?

As reported yesterday, the US has repositioned B-52s to Diego Garcia

By my assessment 5th FLeet has at a minimum seven platforms afloat capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. Certainly, the US could launch a robust cruise missile response, but that would likely be overkill in the optics of international affairs at this point. It would also certainly not be enough to destroy Iranian capability, it would be, just like the Iranian attack a message.

A message will not change the perspective of Iran. They believe, rather firmly, that concession or weakness will lead to regime change efforts. They likely see no option to pull back, a message will not deter them at this point. For the first time in centuries, the Persians are poised to regain ascendancy in the region, this is a do or die time for them. A message will not deter them.

I suspect if Trump is determined to force the issue he will use patience and build forces and force Iran to act next, and only strike when he has sufficient power in the region. We will likely hear Trump proclaim that we are willing to leave but we are showing force in the short-term and that Iran should not act. We shall see.

Update: 11:42 am

based upon the content of POTUS’ speech this seems to have been predictable last evening.

Social media and the MSM will bash him, left and right, but this seemed to me to be perhaps his greatest moment, and I am neither a fan nor a hater. Knee-jerk launching a bunch of missiles would have been the easy answer, this path took patience and wisdom.

The Conflict with Iran in the Short-Term

Update:

https://twitter.com/onlyBarryLClark/status/1214700684907552769

My assessment below still stands despite this. The US is still in a predicament vis-a-vis Iraq, leave and allow Iran unfettered influence or stay and become an occupier. Obviously, within the Iranian calculus, they saw enough popular support in the region to press a rocket attack sooner rather than later to force the US hand.

I suspect this has increased the risk of escalation. No US president ever ignores an attack on US troops, and to properly attack Iranian sites the US needs to beef up airpower and bases in Afghanistan and perhaps Uzbekistan and secure permission to conduct operations from perhaps Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I suspect the next move will be a US strike with cruise missiles while the big brains come up with a name for the operation and begin plans to forward position more air power. It really comes down to how many Americans were/are killed in this attack tonight.

In the roll-up of troops below, I missed the deployment of 2 or 6 B-52s to Diego Garcia yesterday. These are primary delivery systems for cruise missiles in this scenario.

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Last evening I received inquiries from a young man that occasionally asks my opinion on matters such as this concerning the potential that something bigger may occur related to Iran. He has a wedding planned this spring and his bride to be is obviously concerned he may not actually be here.

I told him I suspect there is at worst a 33% chance of anything ‘real’ occurring and even in the worst-case scenario, it would not involve a Desert Storm style ground invasion. At most, all that is realistic is a pre-Desert Storm build-up and air campaign. Even that scenario requires many more iterations of additional events.

Upon consideration, if I were in charge of Iranian strategy, and if they react and act rationally and in a calculated manner that leverages their advantages, I think that 33% assessment is perhaps too high, much too high for the coming months.

So what do we know?

Khamenei Wants to Put Iran’s Stamp on Reprisal for U.S. Killing of Top General (reported by NYT). In the previous years Iranian direct action has been conducted through proxies, and in almost all cases included plausible deniability. Based upon the passions at home and the positive sentiment Iran enjoys at present in the region after the assassination of Suleimani they must and likely will act directly and overtly. This is not the same as acting stupidly or bluntly. I believe their next action will come soon but it will be measured and focused toward a specifically American target, not a GCC, European or even Isreali target. Perhaps the easy and vulnerable target of al-Assad airbase in Iraq with a limited missile attack. They will use strategic patience to wait for the right target at the right time that just affects the US. It will be proportional, so as not to cast them into the terroristic narrative. So yes, they will act but it will not involve anything like closing the Straits of Hormuz or hitting Saudi oil fields.

The Iraq Parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi soil. If and when the US leaves this is a tremendous victory for Iran. The US is now in a quandary, stay as unwelcome occupiers or leave and allow Iran unlimited influence. The Pentagon has confused the issue by releasing a statement that US forces will leave followed by a statement by SECDEF that no decision has been made. Iran will pace its next move after all this gets sorted out, so as to not influence the Iraqis to change their minds. Iran will act once the US begins to leave or decides to stay against the will of the Iraqi government.

The deployments to the middle east of ground troops by the US does not indicate that the big brains in the Pentagon believe there is an imminent threat of Iranian massive action. Since May the US has sent approximately 14,000 additional troops to the region. Since the current events began the US has sent(T&P):

  • 3,500 paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division, who were sent to Kuwait.
  • A “contingent” of Army Rangers with the 75th Ranger Regiment.
  • Around 2,200 Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit that are embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan.
  • About 100 Marines from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, who deployed to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad as part of the Special Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response – Central Command.

This really comprises a “speed-bump”, deterrence, rapid reaction and force protection deployment, not really the sort of thing that can conduct or withstand sustained offensive or defensive operations. Trump in his most wise statement of military doctrine I have ever heard him utter told a reporter a couple of months ago, if he wanted to fight Iran he would send a lot more troops.

Sending the light forces, the Marines and paratroopers first pays homage to centuries of gunboat/saber diplomacy. It tells the other side that you are serious and gives them the option for the next move.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly. These recent deployments do not have a name. Military folks love to give operations a name. Once you give it a name, it is real, game on. This is perhaps the best proof that things are not really serious yet. Once some iron major comes up with a name, that makes it past a council of colonels for approval but a group of generals, then you should worry.

I think Iran will be patient, they will probably leverage their newfound sympathy in a place like Afghanistan, overcoming centuries of animosity toward the Persians, to work with groups there to affect their direct action strike Khamenei wants.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Iran

The United States has been in a proxy war with Iran for years. It has been fought with hard and soft power, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Iranian special forces have been conducting unconventional warfare (UW) operations in Iraq while US forces have conducted foreign internal defense (FID). This is all certainly not new.

I suppose one of the most interesting and ironic things to come out of the death of Qassem Soleimani was the mad rush of youngsters checking the Selective Service website to see if they would be drafted. There was such a panic the website was overwhelmed. No worries little girly boys, the military is not going to pull you out of your Gender Studies college program. You are not needed.

In terms of the morality of killing a man as an individual, well that is something else to consider. Ever since Sherman and Lincoln made it fashionable in the Western mind to ignore centuries of jus ad bellum principles, the gateway to assassination was opened wide. It began with burning cities, progressed to firebombing and now to outright assassination – we have devolved far but that is another topic.

The middle east is something of a pickle. It has been such since the 1920s and the attempts by the major powers to carve up countries where none previously existed. It persisted through the 20th Century with governments supported by the West that were often totalitarian. Perhaps the very best thing we could have done is let it all work itself out in the early 1990s. To allow a stong Shiite and a strong Sunni duality to check one another. Perhaps right after the Cold War was the time to walk away and let them work it all out. Alas, that is not the nature of power, it never seems to just back away.

Here we are, thirty years on. The Sunnis in Iraq are impotent, Iran is unchecked, in the Islamic world only Saudi Arabia can stand against them and despite all the money the Saudis spend on defense they are a paper tiger, inept and inefficient. What to do?

On principle, it seems that stepping away is the wisest and most moral option. Practically I am not certain that is possible, or perhaps better stated, realistic. Americans are too concerned with their own comfort. Folks left and right, would not long tolerate a situation where Iran was able to dictate oil prices and availability. I may be a man that detests war while realizing the necessity to fight when forced to but I also understand the mindset of those in the world around me. The most fervent statists will call for escalation, the most radical liberals will call for appeasement but neither will suggest pulling away. Therefore, if there are only two realistic options on the table, engagement through appeasement and stalwart willingness toward aggression, I begrudgingly and sadly must side with the later (with caveats and perhaps, in the end, I retreat back to a position of principle that says let it be).

Let us just state something right away. The US is not going to invade Iran. I am aware of no plan in existence to invade Iran. I am aware of plans that involve conflict, even ground conflict with Iran in various places and in certain scenarios, but if a plan to actually invade Iran exists, it is theoretical and perhaps more of an exercise of the mind rather than something any professional takes seriously.

Iran is large, much larger than Iraq. It is more capable militarily than Iraq. To be certain its military is nothing close to a peer competitor but they are not incompetent. Iran benefits for the lessons of the US’s previous attempts at regime change. They would not simply dig in their 523,000 man military, (583,000 if you count the paramilitary MOI), and await shock and awe. Geographically, Iran occupies strategic high ground in the Straits of Hormuz. They have intra-theater assets that can cripple the oil supply of Saudia Arabia and punish Isreal. They are much more capable of bringing the mother of battles to the middle east than Saddam ever was, and all thinking people know this. Threatening to hit 52 critical sites in Iran may give them pause, maybe. Then again, maybe not, if the US hit four times as many sites it would not eliminate Iran. I suspect the immediate Iranian response will be subterfuge and something more subtle, activities focused on making the US take more overt action. They have all the advantages through that strategy. Events like the September attacks on Saudi oil fields, which Iran conducted with plausible deniability and impunity are likely future response.

Iran is the honey-badger in this fight, and they just don’t care. This is a tough nut to crack, perhaps too tough.