In May this year US terminated its waiver for all nations importing Iranian oil. This has dwindled Iranian oil exports from 2.5 billion barrel per day (bpd) in 2018 May to 400,000 bpd per day this May. In early May this year, citing confirmed intelligence reports of Iran’s threat to its interests in Middle East, US sailed Abraham Lincoln Strike Group to counter the threat and also has deployed B-52 strategic bombers in this region.
This was followed by accusing Iran for sabotaging four oil tankers in Gulf of Hormuz. US then withdrew non essential personnel of US from Iraq and recently US has decided to send additional 1500 troops in Middle East. On 06 June now, a major fire has broken out in Oil container port city of Shahid Rajaee, which handles 39 percent of Iran’s Oil imports.
Escalating tension has resulted in Iran to walk out of the Nuclear deal and threaten to resume stockpiling of enriched Uranium. Looming war has also prompted Iran to issue a call to all its proxy armies in Middle East to prepare for US aggression.
Genesis of US – Iran Stand Off
Iran and US has the genesis of this conflict in a series of events starting from the CIA backed coup in 1953 which saw the elected Government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh replaced by the Shah, Mohd Reza Pahlavi. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution overthrew the Shah . In the same year Iranian’s seized the US embassy demanding return of the Shah to stand trials. This seize lasted for 444 days. In 1980, US broke diplomatic ties with Iran and announced crippling sanctions.
In September 1980, Iraq, backed by US, declared war on Iran, a war which lasted till August 1988 and caused nearly one million deaths in Iran. In 1988, US Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian civil airliner, killing all 290 on board. In between, in 1984, US had declared Iran as state sponsor of terrorism. This was upgraded in 2002 to Iran as an “Axis of Evil” alongwith Iraq and North Korea . 1,648,195 sq kms
US endeavor to prevent Iran’s efforts to develop Nuclear arms technology met with success in 2012 when Iran agreed to enter into talks jointly with US, UK, Germany. France , Russia and China . This resulted in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA) in July 2015. In January 2016, US lifted sanctions on Iran. However in May 2018 , US walked out of this treaty, though all other signatories and Iran have been till date been adhering to the Treaty. With recent increase in escalation of Iran – US tension, Iran announced that it is terminating the treaty but other signatories are trying to influence it not to.
US has strong allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE in this present conflict but its traditional European allies , Australia and Canada are unlikely to provide support , in case there is a war.
Implications of Geography
Iran is a country with an area of 1,648,195 sq kms and has a population of 81,672,300. In comparison, Iraq is one third of Iran in size and less than half in population. Iran is surrounded in the East by Pakistan and Afghanistan, Turkmenistan in the North East, Caspian Sea , Azerbaijan and Armenia make up its Northern borders and Turkey lies to the North West . Iraq occupies most of the Western borders alongwith Persian Gulf. Straits of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman makes up its Southern borders.
Each of these nations has long historic ties with Iran and today deeply enmeshed with Iran. It will be worthwhile to analyse the stance of each of these countries in the eventuality of a US – Iran War.
Iraq and Iran are predominantly Shia nations with a history of peaceful co existence, less 1980-88. Both are very wary of the growing coalition of US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s Parliament has repeatedly called for an end to foreign occupation of their country. They, in unison have stated that they don’t want another devastating war in their region and that Iraq will not allow its soil to used as launching pad by a foreign nation. .It has also demanded war reparations from US for invading on the false pretext of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The two main factions of the Iraq Parliament — the Sairoon bloc, led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fatah alliance, headed by Hadi al-Ameri have both unequivocally asked for a timeline for early exit of US troops. Both too have proxy armies supported by Iran.
Iraq has recently signed a big deal with Iran to buy Natural gas. Both the economies are deeply enmeshed. Iran manages to bypass US sanctions on its oil trade by using Iraq as a conduit. Iraq and Iran are both leaning towards Russia and China, in whom they find an all weather friend. Iraq recently evaluated the S 400 Area Denial Air Defence weapon system in Russia. China, despite US sanctions hasn’t curtailed its oil imports from Iran.
Iraq has its eastern land borders with Iran. To launch a ground offensive against Iran, US need Iraq. But as the situation stands today, it will find no support from Iraq. In case US do uses Iraq, it will have its lines of communication severely threatened by the proxy armies.
Turkey, though a NATO nation, has since the US sponsored civil unrest led by Gulenist on 15 July 2017 slowly inched its way into the Russain sphere of influence. Turkey, despite US displeasure, has continued to buy Iranian oil and has also contracted for purchase of S 400 Area Denial Air Defence system from Russia. Recently it declared that it is likely to buy Su 57 fighters from Russia instead of F-35 s from US. S 500 systems are also in its shopping list from Russia. This effectively precludes Turkey’s support to US against Iran.
Armenia has in 2018 seen its pro US President being overthrown and arrested after a massive civil unrest .US has very little to look forward from this country.
Azerbaijan, an oil rich state is deeply enmeshed with Russian economy and its oil trade. Russia’s cash for oil is a strong incentive for Azerbaijan to stay in Russian camp.
Turkmenistan, like Azerbaijan is an oil rich state with Russia as its major trading partner. Economics rule the politics of both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and Russia looms large in their national interests . US won’t find an ally here for its action against Iran.
Afghanistan is an US occupied nation. US can launch air attacks against Iran from its air bases here. However it is Taliban which rules the roost in over 60 percent of the rural Afghanistan. Iran, though initially anti Taliban has now become its supporter. US have accused Iran of arming Taliban. This situation denies US a Firm Base to launch ground offensive against Iran from Afghanistan.
Pakistan under Imran Khan is pro US only in facilitating its talks with Taliban, a role which it undertook reluctantly, seeking an IMF bailout in return. After US announced total sanctions on Iran‘s oil export in early May, Imran Khan visited Iran to express Pakistan’s solidarity with Iran. Amongst other things discussed was methodology for continuing oil imports from Iran and the Chinese proposal to link Chabahar port to its 76 nautical miles distant Gwadar port in the East, with pipeline. Balochistan of Pakistan borders Iran. Balochistan is an insurgency ridden province and therefore isn’t a safe launch pad for a US ground offensive. Tehreek E Taliban, much mauled by US, is still a force to reckon with in Pakistan and will be on the offensive if US uses Pakistan as a launch pad for attack on Iran.
India doesn’t have a physical border with Iran but has deep historical ties. . Before May 2018, Iran was its 4th largest oil supplier. But now due to US pressure Indian imports from Iran have dwindled. India still retains the initiative to activate the Rupee –Rial agreement of 2012 to import Iranian oil.
India has expressed its solidarity with Iran strongly in recently hosting the Iranian Foreign Minister. India too is co developing Chabahar port as an alternate route to Afghanistan, obviating the land route through Pakistan. With Iran and Russia it wants to develop overland routes to Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe using Chabahar port . It therefore is strongly against US military action against Iran.
In addition to this , and Iran’s support to the Houthis in Yemen War, Iran’s support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, its military presence in Syria and the strong support from Syrian Government it enjoys and lastly its support to Hamas in Israel , makes the neighborhood of Iran an unfriendly place for US to launch a ground offensive . It can however launch air and missile strikes.
The implications of geography as discussed above throws a defensive ring around Iran. It’s an area which is steadily coming under the influence of Russia and China. A geo political defensive parameter engulfs Iran but in this Iraq is the key.
A ground invasion needs a common and a safe border and without Iraq, it poses a strategic problem for US. In case Iraq doesn’t waiver , it is virtually impossible for US to launch a ground war .The opportunity for an Air war exists but it will be limited due to denial of airspace to overfly , by countries possessing advanced Area Denial Air Defence systems like S 400 .
A war in this region will not only lay Iran to waste , damage oil shipment infrastructure around Persian Gulf but it will also temporarily close the Straits of Hormuz with severe consequences on the world economy.
And even after all this , US may not be able to bring about a regime change in Iran, primarily because even if it hypothetically does defeat Iran, it never will have adequate troops to hold Iran for a reasonable duration , to effect a regime change.