There is a growing threat of Iran launching ‘total war’ on the US in case of US resorting to attacking Iran, targeting its cultural locations. While such an act will in itself amount to war crimes, this will most certainly produce necessary conditions for Iran to start a war on the US in the region. Soleimani’s funeral and the emotions that have engulfed Iran show that the Iranians are looking to implement Khamenei’s vow of “severe revenge.” The questions, in this context, are: what will Iran’s execution of ‘severe revenge’ look like, what options Iran have in the region and how this will happen? What appears most likely—and given the nature of asymmetry between the US and Iran – Iran’s preferred option would most likely be a calculated activation of the “Axis of resistance” against the US in Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon. This might also include targeting US military establishments in the region—Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar etc.
America’s scattered military options, whilst it gives the US a military advantage, also give Iran plenty of options for sidestepping US military advantage by striking at the weak points of its various infrastructures in the region. While such an act may also pit these regional states against Iran, these states, as of now, are more interested in preventing hostilities for obvious reason: an Iranian total war will consume the tiny Arab states.
In other words, by following this strategy, Iran will make sure that the war that Trump sees as a quick punitive strike spreads in the region, reaching well within the borders of US allies. What this means is that Iran’s position in the region is qualitatively different from that of Iraq. Iran’s political and military landscape is also altogether different from Iraq and even Syria, making it too complex a country for a punitive strike to cut to size.
On the other hand, by spreading the war in the region and by attacking US infrastructure, even though this will invite strong US reaction, Iran will be able to inflict enough damage on the US to turn the public opinion against Trump who is already facing impeachment in the final year of his first term as US president.
At the same time, however, the threat of Iran resorting to a ‘war in the region’ scenario has already led many Arab officials to coordinate with the US to prevent such a scenario. Whereas the Saudis have hurried to Washington, meeting US foreign and defence secretaries, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani (who belongs to the royal family) were in Tehran and were received by President Hassan Rouhani. The Gulf states are obviously seeking their own assurances from both Iran and the US to avoid a war that engulfs them in its wake. Imagining a straight Iran-US war is, however, difficult, given that the US military establishments are in these very states, and these states have no capacity on their own to defend against an Iranian onslaught.
Targeting US bases in the region also shows that Iran’s objective, at the most, will be to drive the US out of the region. As Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in his recent speech, a fair response to Soleimani’s assassination will be “ending the American military presence in our region.” The message, in other words, is that all US military personnel in the region….in tiny Arab states…. will be on their toes, watching their backs, full time.
As of now, the US has 5,000 troops in the UAE; 7,000 in Bahrain; above 13,000 in Kuwait; 3,00o in Jordan; 3,000 in Saudi Arabia; 10,000 in Qatar; 5,000 in Iraq; around 1,000 in Syria—all of course well within the range of Iranian missiles, making them an extremely attractive targets for the Iranian forces.
Only in Iraq, about 5,000 US troops could very well be sitting ducks if the Popular Mobilisation Forces were to launch a war of attrition. If history is any guide to future, it might be unrealistic to completely rule out a replay of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings — the attack on a Marine compound in Beirut on the night of October 23 in which 241 US personnel were killed, forcing Reagan to order the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.
This strategy would work to Iran’s advantage. Notwithstanding the scale of damage that the US can inflict on Iran by targeting its naval and other military installations, Iran would make sure to spread chaos in the Middle East in ways that make the regional states, apart from the war-weary US public, impress upon the US to deescalate. What might add to this chaos will be a simple blockade of the Strait of Hormuz.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.