How Iran Would Go to War against America
While all sides here in Washington battle to shape public opinion over the Iran nuclear deal, we should not kid ourselves—this is not Obama’s “Nixon goes to China” moment, nor should we expect Air Force one to touch down in Tehran anytime soon.
The facts are simple: Washington and Tehran are locked into a long-term geopolitical contest throughout the Middle East that will span decades—a similar contest in many ways to Washington and Beijing’s battle for influence in the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific regions. While President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be toasting one another from afar, the geopolitical showdown between these two countries is certainly not over—no nuclear framework will change that.
Over the long term, the U.S.-Iranian struggle throughout the Middle East could very well be a mini-Thucydides trap, to steal the phrase from my beloved Harvard’s resident geostrategic guru, Graham Allison—the classic tale of how when a rising power meets an established power, war is oftentimes the most common result (eleven out of fifteen times, per Allison). Taking such a long view of U.S.-Iranian relations only reveals stormy seas ahead. No serious foreign-policy or national-security mind can see a long-term partnership beyond maybe short-term alignments in Iraq and decreased tensions from Iran putting its nuclear program on ice for ten years (Remember, folks: In ten years, Iran can slowly expand its nuclear program, and in fifteen years, it has no restrictions on the amount of uranium it wishes to produce...then what?).
So the real question seems quite simple: Will America and Iran come to blows over Tehran’s regional aspirations? I, for one, certainly hope not. I think the best possible solution to these countries’ conflicting goals would be for both sides to take a very pragmatic approach—to align their interests in areas of shared goals, while agreeing to disagree, and even competing in many areas across the wider Middle East—“frenemies,” if you will.
However, as history has shown us time and time again, the end result we want does not always come to pass. This piece will explore the various ways Iran could strike U.S. forces if conflict ever occurred. Looking specifically at Tehran’s military capabilities, one quickly realizes Iran’s military, while not nearly as advanced as the United States’, is certainly tough enough to constrain Washington’s strategic objectives through large parts of the Middle East, especially as one approaches Iran’s borders.
So what would an Iranian A2/AD campaign against U.S. forces look like? Well, let us assume Iran decided, for whatever reason, to strike first and strike decisively—the best way to utilize any A2/AD force. The best research to guide us in such a discussion is a 2011 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) that looks at Iranian A2/AD capabilities and possible U.S. responses, titled: “Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial Threats.”
The real highlight of this report is that it sketches out an Iranian A2/AD campaign against U.S. forces in the timeframe between 2020 and 2025 with what CSBA assumes Iran would have developed in terms of military capabilities by that time. The scenario also assumes a U.S. force posture at roughly 2011-levels. While these qualifiers do detract slightly from the accuracy of the scenario, CSBA does show the reader quite effectively what Iran could do.
"Iran will likely exploit the element of surprise to subject U.S. forces in the Gulf to a concentrated, combined-arms attack. Using coastal radars, UAVs, and civilian vessels for initial targeting information, Iranian surface vessels could swarm U.S. surface combatants in narrow waters, firing a huge volume of rockets and missiles in an attempt to overwhelm the Navy’s AEGIS combat system and kinetic defenses like the Close-In Weapons System and Rolling Airframe Missile, and possibly drive U.S. vessels toward prelaid minefields. Shore-based ASCMs and Klub-K missiles launched from “civilian” vessels may augment these strikes. Iran’s offensive maritime exclusion platforms could exploit commercial maritime traffic and shore clutter to mask their movement and impede U.S. counter-targeting. While these attacks are underway, Iran could use its SRBMs and proxy forces to strike U.S. airfields, bases, and ports. Iran will likely seek to overwhelm U.S. and partner missile defenses with salvos of less accurate missiles before using more accurate SRBMs armed with submunitions to destroy unsheltered aircraft and other military systems. Proxy groups could attack forward bases using presighted guided mortars and rockets, and radiation-seeking munitions to destroy radars and C4 nodes."
Iran could deploy its land-based ASCMs from camouflaged and hardened sites to firing positions along its coastline and on Iranian-occupied islands in the Strait of Hormuz while placing decoys at false firing positions to complicate U.S. counterstrikes. Hundreds of ASCMs may cover the Strait, awaiting target cueing data from coastal radars, UAVs, surface vessels, and submarines. Salvo and multiple axis attacks could enable these ASCMs to saturate U.S. defenses. Similar to the way in which Iran structured its ballistic missile attacks, salvos of less capable ASCMs might be used to exhaust U.S. defenses, paving the way for attacks by more advanced missiles."