John Bolton, then assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, played a central role in justifying the invasion of Iraq back in 2003 by falsely claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Sixteen years later, Bolton, as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, is again at the center of escalating tensions in the Middle East, but this time he’s staring down a far more formidable adversary: Iran.
Last week, responding to a “credible threat” from Iran, Bolton announced the deployment of warships and warplanes to the Persian Gulf. Then on Wednesday, following “sabotage” attacks on Saudi oil tankers and a UAE ship over the weekend, the U.S. ordered the departure of non-essential employees from Iraq, in the latest sign that both sides are edging closer to conflict.
Bolton’s starring role in the standoff between Washington and Tehran has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. But comparing the two situations wouldn’t do justice to the new threat: A conflict with Iran would be far harder to contain, would immediately ensnare the entire region, and would almost certainly be much, much worse.
“This is a far larger country, a far more powerful country, a far more strategic country, with far more allies,” said Hady Amr, former U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under President Obama. “And we’re in a far weaker position as a nation, because of our own credibility, because we’ve abandoned our allies.”
Across the board, experts who spoke with VICE News said that a major conflict between Washington and Tehran would bring immense pain to the region, their respective allies, and the global economy.
“Any conflict with Iran could escalate quickly and in a really uncontrolled way,” said Robert Deitz, who was general counsel at the National Security Agency from 1998 to 2006.
Big army, close quarters
In the most basic terms, Iran is a much larger country than Iraq. With a population of 82 million people, it dwarfs Iraq circa 2003, which had a population of about 25 million.
The same can be said about Iran’s geography: It’s more than three times the size of Iraq, and it’s smack in the middle of the action. It has key access to major bodies of water like the Persian Gulf and crucial trade routes like the Strait of Hormuz, which connects regional oil producers with the rest of the world. And it shares borders with numerous countries where the U.S. is already mired in drawn-out military engagements, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, making U.S. personnel stationed there vulnerable to attacks.
Iran also has a larger and more capable armed forces than Iraq did under Saddam.
The most recent estimates put Tehran’s forces at over half a million active military personnel spread across the army, navy, air force and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — a group the White House recently blacklisted as a terror group. It has another 350,000 reserve personnel to call on, according to the Global Firepower Index, an online military ranking website.
And despite a four-decade-long U.S. arms embargo, Iran is believed to have built up a sizable arsenal of short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which are capable of hitting Israel, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, U.S. military bases in the region, and even some European countries.
The U.S. military, for its part, appears to understand this and isn’t likely to pursue an actual invasion of Iran. If it were to pursue such ends, analysts said, it would need a whole lot more than the reported 120,000 troops, the White House is reportedly considering sending to the region.
“Iran can cause enormous pain”
But brute force isn’t the primary concern. What makes Iran a uniquely dangerous adversary is its unconventional approach to warfare and its deep roots throughout the region.
Unlike Saddam’s Iraq, Iran isn’t likely to delude itself into thinking it could match the U.S.’ military might in a conventional conflict. Instead, it would try “to find ways to undermine the U.S.' superior capabilities,” said Henry Rome, an expert on Iran at the Eurasia Group.
“The Iranians would make sure to spread the war throughout the entire Middle East.”
And it would do so by pursuing a strategy of asymmetric attacks. In other words, Iran would immediately seek to make this a regional conflict, attacking the U.S. and its allies, through proxies and other destabilizing means, said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council.
“This wouldn’t be a conventional war; Iran would make sure to spread this throughout the region for maximum risk and exposure,” Parsi said. “Instead of the war taking place in Iran, the Iranians would make sure to spread the war throughout the entire Middle East.”
Iran has powerful proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria, for example, and would likely deploy them in a variety of ways to inflict pain on U.S. personnel and its allies like Israel, experts said.
“Allies of the U.S. in the Middle East are preparing themselves for increased attention and potential military confrontation with Iran's military proxies in the region and Iran's own allies in the region, like Hezbollah,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at UK think tank Chatham House.
But Iran would most likely direct its initial attention toward its chief enemies nearby: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s very dangerous to assume that a conflict anywhere in the Middle East can be kept local.”
“We’re talking about disruption of the Straits of Hormuz, sabotage attacks on Saudi’s Eastern Province, on energy resources there. We’re talking about embassies and military forces, we’re talking about population centers,” said William Wechsler, former deputy assistant secretary for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism during the Obama administration.
“Iran can cause enormous pain to Saudi Arabia, UAE and the global economy,” said Amr. “They don’t have the ability to win, but they have the ability to cause so much pain.”
Deitz said the best metaphor for a major escalation with Iran may be World War I: The conflict starts out localized but quickly spirals into a global affair. “It’s very dangerous to assume that a conflict anywhere in the Middle East can be kept local,” he said.
“We’re in a very weak position”
When U.S. troops touched down in Iraq in 2003, they were accompanied by tens of thousands of troops from traditional allies like the U.K. and Australia.
Should a military conflict break out this time, the U.S. would likely be going it alone except for regional allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
That is thanks, in no small part, to the growing schism between the U.S. and its traditional European allies when it comes to Iran and the nuclear deal Trump abandoned. In fact, this divide was on stark display Tuesday, when the U.K.’s Major General Chris Ghika, deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, contradicted U.S. claims, telling reporters he’d seen “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
Ghika’s comments prompted a rare rebuke from U.S. Central Command hours later, which said the U.K. general’s views ran “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.” Britain, for its part, has stood behind Ghika.
The spat among traditionally stalwart allies revealed the rocky road Trump’s White House will face in winning support from Europe.
“Unfortunately for the U.S., we’re in a very weak position,” said Amr. “And this is a situation that is of our own making.”
Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement with Iran last year, despite Europe urging him not to, and his recent erratic behavior toward Kurdish allies in Syria, have significantly damaged America’s ability to rally international support in matters of conflict.
For now, analysts suggested that the sabre-rattling could result in a lower-grade conflict, defined by the sort of tit-for-tat indirect tactics Iran is most accustomed to. “I think the likelier scenario is that we are going to see a confrontation between the allies of the U.S. in the Middle East and Iranian proxies in the region,” said Khatib.
“We’re living in an environment where there’s huge potential for false and manufactured events to trigger a conflict.”
Such a dynamic, however, dramatically ratchets up the chances of one stupid mistake or miscalculation pushing both sides into a larger head-on conflict neither of them wanted nor expected.
“We’re living in an environment where there’s huge potential for false and manufactured events to trigger a conflict,” said Amr.
Deitz echoed such concerns, warning that as hostilities increase, “it’s never clear which is the step that’s going to cause all hell to break loose.”
But he offered another tongue-in-cheek interpretation of Trump’s unpredictability: “We saw the president go through this with North Korea, then he and Kim became best buds — BFFs, as my kids put it. So with Trump, you’re never really sure.”
Cover: This combination of two pictures shows U.S. President Donald Trump, left, on July 22, 2018, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Feb. 6, 2018. (AP Photo)