One of the talking points against war with Iran is that Iran’s military capability is fairly impressive, and a ground war with them could drag on for years.
On paper, that seems reasonable. Let’s look at our most recent Defense Intelligence Agency estimate, paired with a link to globalsecurity.org so that people can get more information on some of the details should they so desire.
Iran has an active military of 610,000 with a reserve force of another 400,000 (page 11). They have missiles, and they have an air force, and bases all over the country. Their troops are very well trained. This of course, has some people concerned. Their concern rings hollow, however, because of Iraq.
Prior to the Iraq war, mass casualties among coalition troops were being predicted. The Brookings Institute, a think tank highly respected among left-leaning political figures, released a report estimating 400 to 4000 Americans killed prior to Saddam’s overthrow (page 37) with tens of thousands more as “casualties”. The term “casualties” in this report is specified repeatedly to mean both injuries and killed. The obvious fact is that neither fatalities nor injuries approached those numbers during the initial stage of conflict. While pro-Republican voices would often intentionally misinterpret the higher number to indicate deaths, therefore making the predictions to be more wildly inaccurate than they were, the estimate was grossly wrong even with the correct meaning of the words provided.
Iraq’s forces were large – one of the largest standing military forces in the world, we were often reminded – and they were experienced. They had been known to use WMDs. (It is worth noting that the Brookings estimate referenced was reached assuming that WMDs would not be deployed; they speculated greater damage if such weapons were used.) On the surface, they sound like a rough equivalent to Iran… even moreso, when it is considered that Iran and Iraq were in a state of near-constant conflict with each other, with both force strengths approximately equal.
Because of this history, warnings about Iran’s capabilities will undoubtedly seem overstated to those of us who lived through the Iraq fearmongering. They shouldn’t.
At the time of the Iraq War, the American military forces had been woefully depleted by Bill Clinton, who had retired large swaths of the US military in response to the “peace dividend” provided by the Reagan/Bush success at ending the Cold War. He had not, however, ended all weaponry development. The weapons systems initiated under Reagan and continued under Bush and Clinton were available for George W. Bush’s administration to use, and they used those weapons well. UK military leaders, reporting to Parliament at the time, warned that the US was close to a full generation ahead of the world in its weaponry.
A generation in weaponry is where development of new tech renders old tech obsolete. What the UK generals were saying to their lawmakers is that the US had weapons which could make war comparatively blood-free for them while raining devastation upon their enemies.
This no longer appears to be the case. While the budget for research and development remains high, there is little indication that countermeasures by our enemies are completely inadequate to deal with them. We absolutely maintain military superiority, but we no longer seem to be almost a full generation ahead.
This may not matter much in Iran, which has a history of overstating its capabilities (many will remember the photoshopped missile launch image of 2008, as shown in Wired). The question becomes how much of their arsenal is real and how much is exaggeration. There, my default is to trust our experts, and that original Defense Intelligence Agency analysis says that their arsenal of missiles is very real indeed.
While they say that the sanctions against Iran have diminished its development, the growth since 2008 has nonetheless been great… and that it is supplemented by a capable air force and modern anti-aircraft weaponry provided by Russia. Iraq’s air force, on the other hand, had been devastated by coalition forces during the Gulf War and had not been significantly rebuilt prior to 2003; the American air superiority was a major contributing factor to the speed of that conflict’s resolution.
American forces remain superior to those of Iran, in size, training and weaponry. In a direct conflict, the U.S. will win… the question then becomes the cost.
Iran is playing a diplomatic game right now, and they are winning. They appear to be the country which respects international law, honors agreements and values diplomacy more than the U.S., despite being a repressive regime.
At the moment, they’re getting what they want. The U.S. is no longer welcome in Iraq; that hands a win to Iran, and it’s a success they’ve wanted for decades: direct control over their neighbor. By killing Soleimini in the fashion chosen, Trump risked handing our win in the Iraq War directly to Iran, and that looks to be the probable outcome.
It also effectively pushes the United States out of the Mideast. After our betrayal of the Kurds, we have little area left where we are welcome, less still where we can maintain bases. If this were a chess game, the Soleimini attack would have been the equivalent of placing an unprotected queen directly in front and to the right of a pawn; a blunder of catastrophic proportions.
This leads us to the final concern: Trump. The President who made such an obvious gaffe is the one who would be in charge during an Iranian conflict, and there is little indication he has any willingness to take the advice of military experts. There is less indication that he has any personal level of tactical awareness (particularly in light of the recent Soleimini decision.)
Iran may be satisfied with our overwhelming tactical loss. If not, if they strike back in any way that provides direct fingerprints to their government, war may yet come. If that war does come, it will not be as simple as the Iraq war was.