US- Iran Stand Off: Implications of Geography
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 18 Jun , 2019

Escalating Tensions

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 .

In Conclusion

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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col RN Ghosh Dastidar

is a keen follower of Geo Strategic events around the globe and is today a Freelance Journalist.

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11 thoughts on “US- Iran Stand Off: Implications of Geography

  1. This article has explained the situation very correctly. The defensive role of all the neighbouring countries of Iran is a must to keep US at bay.
    The dominance of US through imposing sanctions and building pressure on other counties is it’s old tactic. These smaller counties should unite and safeguard each other to deal with the powerful US.

  2. An impressive article by the author who by virtue of having a vast knowledge on the subject has effectively brought out the geo-political dynamics between the US and Iran. It’s an established fact that the US interferes into any other nation’s political domain whenever there is a clash of interest. Historically, the relations between the two countries have been strained and presently at it’s lowest under the Trump regime. Though the possibility of any aggression by the former is not quite likely in near future. However, imposition of further sanctions & offensive posturing by deploying it’s military assets can be the only steps that the US at present may continue with. On the other hand, Iran would be garnering support from all it’s ally to counter any perceived threat from the US. India must keep a close watch on the recent developments as it would have serious implications on it’s both political and economic interests.

  3. Dusty, thanks for sending your article. I must say you have done study of the subject and given right picture of the situation. I really don’t know if the US will be fool enough to launch attack on Iran. I am sure they will analyse all pros and cons before they do anything like that. US has already burnt their finger once by attacking Iraq under Bush. So they will be careful this time. However, US is not in the least likely to let Iran get away with cheating. The 2015 agreement allows Iran to produce uranium for medical purpose and also sell the surplus . But the are playing dirty by re- possessing the surplus uranium which can be made into weapon grade. Which is why the IS has pulled out of the deal and tightened the sanction. Other parties to the agreement viz the P5+1 less the US are also aware of it. So Iran will have to play fair and stick to her commitment if she want the 2015 agreement to succeed.

  4. A well researched article written in a very simple language: thus easy to assimilate. No doubt Iran problem is US creation and all the countries in the region have realized it by now. India with deep economic and strategic interests will have to deal with it very cautiously.

  5. I think US is playing coercive tactics. USA doesn’t have appetite for war.

    If you see the oil rich horse shoe is under US influence or is disturbed starting from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    The worst thing geography will throw for war with Iran is that Pakistan again becomes frontline state and base for ops.

    Turkey, Iraq and Azerbaijan may not permit offensive.

    A amphibious offensive througgh Persian gulf is unlikely.

    Air war may not give dividends. Next US elections are in 2020. Political wisdom may not permit a full scale war.

    Hope what Iraq served for Bush, Iran will serve for Trump. Causing nothing but turmoil.

  6. A compendious article that brings out the root cause and the way ahead. The author is clearheaded with correct standing in the middle of this big game. A good read for international relations.

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