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What a War With Iran Would Look Like

Neither Side Wants a Fight, but That Doesn’t Eliminate the Danger

Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard at a parade in Tehran, September 2011 REUTERS

Tensions between Iran and the United States are at their highest point in years. The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is teetering. The Trump administration is using sanctions to strangle the Iranian economy and in May deployed an aircraft carrier, a missile defense battery, and four bombers to the Middle East. Washington has evacuated nonessential personnel from its embassy in Baghdad, citing intelligence suggesting that Iran is increasingly willing to hit U.S. targets through its military proxies abroad.

The United States also stated that Iran almost certainly perpetrated the recent damage to oil tankers flagged by Saudi Arabia, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and claimed that Iran had temporarily loaded missiles onto small boats in the Persian Gulf. In early May, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton publicly threatened a response to any Iranian attacks, “whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards [sic] Corps or regular Iranian forces.”

The good news is that the situation is not as bad as it appears. None of the players—with the possible exception of Bolton—seem to really want a war. Iran’s military strategy is to keep tensions at a low boil and avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. Washington struck a tough public posture with its recent troop deployment, but the move was neither consequential nor terribly unusual. If the United States were truly preparing for a war, the flow of military assets into the region would be much more dramatic.

The flight deck of the U.S aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, May 2019

The flight deck of the U.S aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, May 2019

Garrett LaBarge /U.S. Navy / REUTERS

The bad news is that a war could still happen. Even if neither side wants to fight, miscalculation, missed signals, and the logic of escalation could conspire to turn even a minor clash into a regional conflagration—with devastating effects for Iran, the United States, and the Middle East.

A conflict would most likely start with a small, deniable attack by Iran on a

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