Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in May of 2019.
The news from the Middle East is grim. Last week, national-security adviser John Bolton announced that the United States was sending a carrier group and a bomber force to the Persian Gulf region in response to a “number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran. Over the weekend, four tankers were sabotaged in an Emirati port. U.S. officials blamed Iran or Iranian allies. Yesterday, the State Department ordered all “non-emergency” personnel from Iraq, and today we received word that the British government had raised the threat level for its forces in Iraq.
While American forces should defend themselves from any attack, to answer a question about whether America should initiate military action against Iran requires understanding the risks of war. And I fear that America’s post–9/11 experience has distorted America’s memory and perceptions of military conflict. Simply put, we have not fought an intact regional power since Desert Storm, and we have not fought a foe with Iran’s long-range strike capability arguably since World War II.
None of this means we wouldn’t prevail in a conflict. Of course we would. Our military power dwarfs Iran’s. But Senator Tom Cotton’s bravado on Firing Line Tuesday was unproductive. Asked by Margaret Hoover if the United States could win a war with Iran, Cotton replied confidently, “Two strikes — the first strike and the last strike.”
Now, it might be the case that the United States could engage in a brief but decisive engagement with Iran, bloody its nose, and leave the country chastened. Indeed, there’s precedent for just such an engagement — a forgotten 1988 battle in the Persian Gulf called Operation Praying Mantis. The fight occurred towards the tail end of the Iran–Iraq War and was an adjunct to the larger American effort to preserve freedom of transit through the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States struck Iranian oil platforms after an Iranian mine nearly sank the USS Samuel B. Roberts. The Iranian navy responded, and the fight escalated into America’s largest naval battle since World War II. It featured the Navy’s first exchange of anti-ship missiles. By the end of the day, the Navy had sunk an Iranian frigate, an Iranian gunboat, and multiple speedboats, for the loss of a single helicopter. Both sides then deescalated, and the fighting was contained — at least until the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 Iranians, including 66 children.
Praying Mantis happened a long time ago, and since then the Iranian capacity to hurt not just American interests but also the world economy has significantly increased. Iran has the “largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East,” rendering it capable of directly attacking U.S. installations throughout the region. It has well-armed proxy forces in both Iraq and Syria and there are Iranian boots on the ground in both places. Americans know from bitter experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom that Iran-allied Shiite militias can be formidable insurgent foes.
Put simply, Iran has at least some ability to recreate the threat environment faced by American troops during the Iraq War and to directly strike American troops and ships with a missile force far superior to any wartime adversary the United States has faced in modern times. Moreover, Iranian forces can threaten and even sink American surface vessels. In a notorious 2002 war game, a hostile force simulating Iran (commanded by Marine lieutenant general Paul Van Riper) overwhelmed the Navy and sank multiple ships — an outcome that would represent a monumental disaster for the United States.
Moreover, Iran is the most sophisticated terrorist state in the world. It has proven — for decades — that its proxies can inflict serious harm on U.S. forces. The Marine-barracks bombing in 1983 killed 241 American military personnel, more men than died in any month in either the Iraq or Afghan wars. The 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia killed 19 American servicemen. These casualties don’t include the hundreds of Americans who died at the hands of Iranian militias, militias that often wielded Iranian weapons, during the Iraq War.
Finally, it’s worth pondering the economic effect of a raging conflict in the Persian Gulf. According to Navy analysis, 34 percent of global crude-oil exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz, along with 33 percent of the global liquid-natural-gas market. Disruption of the oil-and-gas trade alone would cause global (and American) economic shocks.
None of this means that America should be afraid of Iran. But no American should be under any illusion that a real fight with Iran would be like anything we’ve seen since 9/11. It would be virtually nothing like the conflict in Libya or the current fight against ISIS — where the prime risk of casualties has been borne by local allies. While there is some best-case chance of a limited conflict conducted not unlike Operation Praying Mantis, it is entirely possible that conflict could lead to the sight of burning American ships in the Persian Gulf, missile strikes against American bases, a significant terror strike outside the Middle East, and an economic shock that disrupts the American recovery.
Of course we would deal greater damage to Iran than they would to us. Of course we’d (over time) get the best of any military exchange. But it’s easy to imagine a shocked American public looking at the loss of life, the loss of material, and the economic disruption and wondering, “When did we agree to this?”
And unless the administration goes to Congress and the American public, lays out its case for conflict, and receives congressional authorization, the answer would be simple and potentially politically catastrophic: They did not agree. America should not stumble into war. Aside from the demands of immediate self-defense, there should be no conflict with Iran absent congressional approval. Congress, for its part, should not approve such a conflict absent the most serious, urgent, and compelling need.
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