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.
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.