Donald Trump predicted back in 2013 that the US would eventually go to war with Iran. At the time, Trump was merely a rich guy and right-wing gadlfy criticizing Secretary of State John Kerry on FOX News, but later, as a presidential candidate then a president, his rhetoric and policies have been strikingly antagonistic.
Trump promised to renegotiate Barack Obama's signature deal with Iran on nuclear weapons during the 2016 campaign, and though he hasn't done that, he has staffed his White House with people hostile toward Iran. That includes Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has implied that Iran and ISIS are on friendly terms.
Shortly after Trump took office, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked a Saudi ship, killing two people—and in pretty a wild leap leap of logic, the White House described it as an Iranian attack. In April, Trump said Iran wasn't "living up to the spirit" of the nuclear deal. During a May trip to the Middle East, Trump appeared to side more aggressively with Saudi Arabia against Iran than past presidents, then continued that anti-Iran rhetoric in Israel.
Over the weekend, a report claiming that the Saudi coastguard had killed an Iranian fisherman, an announcement by Iran that it had fired multiple ballistic missiles into eastern Syria to target ISIS in retaliation for an attack in Tehran, and the shooting down of a Syrian plane by a US-led coalition only heightened tensions in the region.
This state of affairs has some people very worried. In the Independent, businessman and human rights activist Andrew McCleod warned that Trump is on track to nuke Iran inside of two years. That's probably an exaggeration, but how much of an exaggeration?
Ahmad Majidyar is director of the Middle East Institute's IranObserved Project. In a recent paper, he described the US and Iran as being on a "collision course" in Iraq and Syria. The idea is that once ISIS is defeated, Iran-backed militias and the US military will no longer have a common enemy. The risk, Majidyar told me, is "some sort of possible—not very likely—confrontation by the IRGC-led forces, and US-led forces in Mosul."
But even without the conflict in Syria/Iraq, tensions remain between Iran and the US, tensions that have only been exacerbated by the Trump administration's foreign policy. So the question remains: If the US were to actually bomb Iran itself—as has been advocated by plenty of mainstream Republicans like Arizona senator John McCain—how and why would that happen? And how exactly would that conflict play out?
I posed these hypotheticals to Majidyar as well as international relations scholar Stephen Zunes and Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at the military intelligence firm Stratfor. Here's a map of the locations we discussed, for reference:
Step 1: Tensions in Syria boil over
While Iran does provoke the US a bit by opposing Saudi Arabia—a close American ally—in Yemen, Syria is the likeliest potential flashpoint to any serious US-Iran conflict. According to Lamrani, Iran's dream is to have a steady flow of commercial traffic clear to the west coast of Lebanon, which it plans to achieve by creating a supply route that goes from Tehran to Baghdad to Syria to Lebanon. In Iran's view, the US is blocking this effort.
With this tension in the air, Trump could jeopardize the nuclear agreement by sanctioning Iran in a way Iran thinks is unfair. "The agreement is on tenuous ground, and if it does collapse, and the Iranians [could] go forward with more ballistic missile testing," Lamrani said, adding that fallout from that testing could potentially trigger a war.
(It's important to note here that no one I spoke to felt that an actual war was in any way likely, barring some black swan event to trigger it.)
Step 2: A terror attack
The main scenario Zunes thinks could result in war is a terror attack perceived as having been sponsored by Iran and carried out against a target such as a US embassy in Europe.
"Iran has cells across the world," Lamrani told me, citing Iran's well-known connections to the terrorist group Hezbollah. He added that Iran would most likely only activate its Hezbollah cells if it were attacked first.
But according to Zunes, a terror attack wouldn't have to be carried out by Iran or one of its proxies. Instead, the whole conflict might be triggered by "an attack by some unknown Salafi group—an al Qaeda, ISIS type," he told me. Frustrated by Iran's belligerent behavior, he says, "Trump could blame [the act of terror] on an Iranian-backed group, and use that as an excuse to attack Iran." This isn't unheard of. There was speculation just after 9/11 that a 1996 attack in Saudi Arabia, pinned on Iran, was actually the work of al Qaeda. (The US still officially blames Iran.)
Watch: These Young Radicals Are Fighting the Alt-Right in America's Streets
Step 3: The US starts bombing Iran's nuclear facilities
"The idea was that we just bomb, and bomb, and bomb, and try to destroy as many strategic assets as possible," Zunes told me.
This was a plan proposed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton in 2015. Rather than an invasion, he said on a radio show, "It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox," a series of strikes on Iraqi military targets.
During this phase of our hypothetical conflict, Lamrani told me, US intelligence will have information at hand designed to make sure the attacks constitute "a very very comprehensive plan," relying on air power, not just cruise missiles fired from the sea. "B-2s with those massive ordnance penetrators" would be involved, Lamrani said, referring to the MOAB—the largest non-nuclear bomb ever dropped.
Step 4: Iran mobilizes its navy
Iran is very adept as using its navy to taunt American vessels. In 2016, speedboats buzzed around the Persian Gulf, forcing a US ship to change course. A couple days later, Trump the presidential candidate said he would blow up any Iranian boats that tried that against his navy. Then they tried it again in March, and Trump's navy didn't blow them up.
But the US Navy is very good a blowing things up, and doing so in extremely dramatic fashion—something Trump obviously knows. "The Iranians are vulnerable when they're all bunched up in their ports, and not at sea," Lamrani told me. "For them to have any chance at all, they have to be very, very fast."
Before the US could even nail down the specifics of its strategy, he said, the Iranians would "disperse their units, so their minelayers are already at sea, dropping mines, and their forces are already attacking before the US brings in all its forces to completely annihilate the Iranians."
Step 5: The oil trade pretty much stops
If Iran can't knock out a US cruiser with its navy, what can its navy do?
It can interrupt international business. If you think of the Persian Gulf as the hallway that takes you to the vital ports belonging to Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, then the door to that hallway is the 21-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, where part of the Arabian Peninsula juts off and almost pokes into Iran. Imagine Iran closing that door.
"That's a massive shock to the global economy," Lamrani said. He doesn't think Iran would try anything so drastic given that it would cut off not just the oil trade, but food to countries like Qatar and Bahrain, bringing down the wrath of the entire Arab world.
But if you're a container ship captain, Lamrani said, a war in the area is enough to keep you out of there unless you know it's safe. So one way or another, until the US shows up with ships to clear the strait, "Technically, the threat, and the position of their anti-ship missiles, is going to be a de facto block," he told me.
Step 6: The rest of the Middle East gets roped in
The United States operates a lot of bases in the region. Iran can't do much to stop the units stationed at these bases from launching assaults, but it could at least hurt them back with its medium-range non-nuclear missiles. Iran could use one of the missiles that really freaked out Israel last year with its 2,000-kilometer range. That range means major US bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Iraq are vulnerable.
But of course, attacking the US by attacking those countries would have consequences. "If the Iranians are suddenly launching missiles, obviously that brings those countries into conflict as well," Lamrani told me.
According to Zunes, Israel would want to stay out of this nasty little war, but it wouldn't be able to. Hezbollah would take the opportunity, he thinks, to attack Israel from its strongholds just past Israel's border in Lebanon. "Whether or not Israel is involved," Zunes told me, "Hezbollah would unleash a huge range of missiles on Israel." Some analysts think Israel could even get invaded by Hezbollah ground troops next time a conflict gets sparked.
Step 7: Yet another US invasion, and a lot of dead civilians
Tom Cotton can insist all he wants that this conflict wouldn't escalate into a ground invasion, but the experts I spoke to think at least a few boots would probably touch Iranian soil. The Iranian nuclear program, Lamrani said, is "so big and dispersed" that "it's hard to imagine a full US strike that does not lead to significant conflict between Iran and the United States."
Zunes also imagines "a few commando type operations to blow up a few strategic facilities," as well as to target nuclear scientists. "They'd try to kill as many nuclear scientists as they could," he told me. "The civilian death toll would be pretty high, because a lot of these things are in urban areas."
One factor to consider is that Trump appears to have de-prioritized rules of engagement that would spare civilians in Syria in Iraq, leading to a drastic spike in civilian deaths, according to human rights groups.
But let's not forget that Iran has its terror-sponsoring fingers in a whole lot of geopolitical pies. Iran's moderate president, Hasan Rouhani, might advocate for diplomacy, but if the Supreme Ayatollah disagrees, Rouhani doesn't get any say in the matter. Nor does Rouhani control Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps—and they're the ones tied to Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. Lamrani points out they're also tied to "Iraqi and Syrian militias, plus cells in Afghanistan, and even beyond the region."
"It can become very messy very very quickly, and spread the conflict across the world," Lamrani told me.