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Iranians walk past a poster of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, on January 11, 2020.
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9 questions about the US-Iran crisis you were too embarrassed to ask

Why did the US kill Qassem Soleimani? Why do the US and Iran hate each other?

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If you’re worried about a war between the US and Iran, you’re not the only one.

The two nations have fought a shadow war for decades, and lately that shadow war has been getting a lot more dangerous — threatening to break out into full-scale war.

But wait — how did we even get here? Why are the US and Iran dueling in the first place? Why did this escalation happen so suddenly? And what would a war with Iran actually look like if it did happen?

What follows are answers to some of the most pressing questions about this latest US-Iran standoff, and why you can breathe just a little easier, at least for now.

1) Why do the US and Iran hate each other?

You can’t understand the current US-Iran conflict by just looking at recent events. That’s because the move toward open war between the two nations is the result of roughly 70 years of history.

In 1951, a left-wing nationalist named Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister of Iran through a democratic election. Mossadegh strongly opposed foreign involvement in Iran, particularly in its oil industry (which had been built in significant part by British interests). Just days after Mossadegh became prime minister, Iran’s parliament approved a bill he’d championed nationalizing the massive British-owned oil company in Iran.

The British were furious — at the time, the company was what author Stephen Kinzer described as “the most lucrative British enterprise anywhere on the planet” — and they wanted it back. To do so, they asked the Americans to help them overthrow Mossadegh. They agreed, and the CIA’s Operation Ajax was born. Together, the two Western nations backed a coup that would topple Mossadegh in 1953, replacing his government with an absolute monarchy ruled by the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran addressing demonstrators in 1951. Mossadegh told the crowd, “The British are our friends, may Allah guide them,” as the crowd yelled, “Death to the British.”
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, President John F. Kennedy, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Washington, DC, 1962.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

For the next 26 years, the US supported and armed the shah’s regime — a brutal dictatorship that tortured dissenters but was seen in Washington as a staunch ally against Soviet communism.

So in 1979, when Iranians rose up against the shah’s regime, the United States was widely (and correctly) seen as complicit in his crimes; the now-familiar Iranian chant of “death to America” originated during revolutionary rallies. The theocratic Islamic Republic that supplanted the shah made anti-Americanism a central part of its ideology; its leader Ruhollah Khomeini famously described the United States as the “Great Satan” in his official rhetoric.

In November 1979, a hardline group of Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. The resulting standoff — which lasted 444 days and included a disastrous failed helicopter rescue effort ordered by President Jimmy Carter — indelibly defined American perceptions of the young Islamic Republic as a hostile nation. Its legacy is felt even today; President Trump recently threatened to attack 52 Iranian locations to mirror the 52 Americans taken hostage at the embassy.

Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, after a group of Islamist students and militants took over the US Embassy in support of the Iranian revolution.
Mohsen Shandiz/Sygma via Getty Images

These two events, US meddling in Iranian politics and the hostage crisis, set the rhetorical tone for relations between the two governments for the next several decades. But it was the clashing policy aims of the new Iranian government and the United States that truly locked in their antagonism.

The young Islamic Republic was a revolutionary regime that aimed to export its brand of theocracy by fomenting revolution across the Middle East. This led to its cultivation of proxy militant forces in other countries, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, and conflict with Gulf Arab monarchies like Saudi Arabia that feared uprisings among their minority Shia populations.

These authoritarian states were, alongside Israel, some of America’s chief allies in the Middle East — meaning that Iran’s attempt to challenge the political status quo in the region brought it into direct conflict with the United States. As early as March 1980, CIA intelligence assessments described Iran as “a threat to key US interests,” and made countering Iran’s efforts to expand its influence an important foreign policy objective.

The result was frequent conflict. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the US gave Iraq several billion dollars’ worth of aid and even backed Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops (though the Reagan administration also mistrusted Saddam and so played both sides of this one, secretly funneling weapons to Iran as part of the Iran-Contra scheme).

Throughout the 1980s, Iran, through its various proxy forces, carried out an extended campaign of terrorist bombings of Western embassies and other targets. One of the most dramatic and deadly attacks came in 1983, when Hezbollah operatives bombed a US Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 US service members, and a nearby French barracks, killing 58 French military personnel and three civilians.

In 1987 and 1988, the US and Iran took a series of hostile actions in the Persian Gulf as part of what came to be known as the Tanker War. In the midst of that, a US warship mistakenly identified an Iranian civilian airliner as an attacking fighter jet and shot it down, killing all 290 passengers.

Pro-Khomeini Shia Iraqis flee Iraq for refuge in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, in 1980.
Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty Images

This conflict cooled off somewhat as time went on. Iran, devastated by a decade of brutal war with Iraq, tamped down its revolutionary ambitions and began focusing more on pragmatic security concerns; meanwhile, the US became more focused on Saddam’s Iraq as a result of the first Gulf War.

But things changed dramatically after 9/11, when the George W. Bush administration launched its own brand of revolutionary foreign policy in the Middle East.

President Bush — informed by the long and vicious history of US-Iran conflict, Iran’s support for proxy terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and its on-again, off-again flirtation with the idea of developing a nuclear weapon — branded the Islamic Republic as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea in 2002.

The next year, the US invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam and attempt to install a pro-American democracy, prompting Iran’s leadership to fear it might be next on America’s hit list. In the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, Iran built up a network of Shia militant groups in Iraq and let them loose on American troops. This was an effort to both expand Iran’s influence in Iraq and bog down the US in Iraq to prevent any kind of follow-up attack on Iran.

These efforts, spearheaded by Qassem Soleimani, helped create some of the most vicious and effective organizations in the anti-American insurgency, directly contributing to the deaths of hundreds of American troops.

Since then, the US and Iran have been locked in a deadly strategic competition in the region.

But as the US began to tire of seemingly never-ending military intervention around the world, successive administrations began trying (often unsuccessfully) to reduce the US military presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Iran capitalized on that, steadily expanding its regional influence nearly across the board, from Iraq to Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan and beyond.

And then came the Iran nuclear deal.

—Zack Beauchamp

2) What is the Iran nuclear deal, and why does it matter?

This latest flare-up between the US and Iran cannot be fully separated from another point of tension between the two countries: President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran has had a nuclear program for decades, in large part due to America: The country’s nuclear program was started under the shah in the late 1950s with US assistance. Under the (in retrospect, deeply ironically named) Atoms for Peace program, the US gave Iran nuclear research reactors, highly enriched uranium, and technical assistance and training to set up a peaceful civilian nuclear program.

But the program turned into an international crisis in 2002 when an anti-regime militant group revealed that Iran had clandestine nuclear facilities that could be used in a push for a bomb.

The Iranian regime has never actually said it seeks to develop a nuclear weapon, in fact maintaining that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But the program has been far more ambitious than would be strictly necessary for energy reasons. Many analysts believe Tehran has been gradually working toward achieving the level of technological development that would allow Iran to build a bomb in very short order if it chose to.

The US — along with Israel and a good chunk of the international community — does not want Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, fearing it would give Iran the ability to engage in even more aggressive regional mischief without fear of punishment, and could potentially set off a regional nuclear arms race. But at the same time, no US administration really wants to go to war with Iran over it, as the results would almost certainly be catastrophic for everyone involved.

The Bush administration’s primary means of avoiding the war-or-nuclear-Iran choice was a punishing regime of economic sanctions, which damaged Iran’s economy but did not appreciably slow the advancement of its nuclear program.

The Obama administration extended and deepened the sanctions regime, but also engaged in a full-court diplomatic outreach campaign aimed at trading sanctions relief for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. These efforts culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — or, as it’s more commonly known, the Iran nuclear deal. And it was a game changer.

President Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, addresses the country in response to the Iran nuclear deal on July 14, 2015.
Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images

The agreement gave Iran relief from the Bush-Obama sanctions, including relaxing the restrictions on its vital oil sector. In exchange, Iran agreed to an extremely tight set of limits on its nuclear activities. They included:

  • Reducing Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 97 percent, and barring them from possessing any uranium potent enough that it could be used to fuel a bomb
  • Capping its number of nuclear centrifuges, devices used to enrich uranium, at roughly 5,000 — and only permitting it to use old, outdated, and slow centrifuges
  • Stopping Iran from operating its Arak facility, used to make plutonium that could fuel a bomb
  • Permitting wide-ranging and intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections designed to verify that Iran isn’t cheating on any portion of the deal

This agreement was narrow in scope: It only covered the nuclear program, and it put no restrictions on Iran’s other dangerous activities, like its support for terrorist groups and development of ballistic missiles.

The Obama administration basically decided that curbing Iran’s nuclear program was the most important concern, that getting a deal that would put significant restrictions on it was worthwhile even if it meant leaving out those other important issues. Those other things, the administration argued, could be dealt with down the line, once some trust had been built up on both sides as a result of the nuclear deal.

Critics of the deal, however, saw it as the US and the international community essentially handing Iran a pile of cash (via sanctions relief) that it could use to fund even more destabilizing activities throughout the region, in exchange for nuclear restrictions that would gradually be lifted over the next several decades thanks to the deal’s various “sunset clauses.”

The United Nations Security Council gathers to discuss the implementation of the resolution that endorsed the Iran nuclear deal on June 26, 2019.
Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But on its own terms, the deal seemed to be doing what it was supposed to do. The IAEA repeatedly confirmed that Iran was complying with all of its obligations, meaning there was no serious risk for the time being of Iran moving toward a bomb. And the US and the international community began lifting some of their sanctions on Iran and — very slowly — looking to do business with Iran once again.

But just one year after the deal was struck, the 2016 election happened. And the winner had pledged to tear up the deal if elected.


3) How has Trump dealt with Iran as president?

Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear deal was heated. He called it “terrible” and “the worst deal,” promising to take a tougher approach to Iran overall than President Obama had.

And sure enough, he followed through.

In October 2017, Trump gave a major speech outlining his administration’s new policy toward the Islamic Republic. “Today, I am announcing our strategy, along with several major steps we are taking to confront the Iranian regime’s hostile actions and to ensure that Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon,” the president said.

President Trump speaks to reporters regarding US policy toward Iran, on October 13, 2017.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Citing a list of Tehran’s transgressions over four decades — including holding American hostages for 444 days and sponsoring terrorist attacks on US embassies — he offered four ways the US would confront Iran:

First, we will work with our allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.

Second, we will place additional sanctions on the regime to block their financing of terror.

Third, we will address the regime’s proliferation of missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbors, global trade, and freedom of navigation.

And finally, we will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.

This would become known as the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, in which Trump’s team uses aggressive economic and, if necessary, military tools to compel Tehran to change in the way America wants.

And in May 2018, Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal.

“We cannot prevent an Iranian bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” Trump said in a White House address announcing his decision. “Therefore, I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.”

Previously lifted sanctions on Iran’s oil sector were reimposed, and more would soon come.

President Trump reinstates sanctions against Iran after announcing the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, on May 8, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, and his team now begin each day by looking at a dashboard of Iran’s economic fundamentals — such as the value of Iran’s currency or oil exports — to see what effect US sanctions have had.

The impact seems to be significant: A year and a half ago, Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels of oil a day. That number is now down to half a million.

That’s a huge hit to Iran’s economy, as oil is central to its economic viability. The US-led pressure campaign has starved the country of an estimated $25 billion in oil revenue, per the State Department’s estimates, and Hook’s team believes Iran’s economy contracted by around 14 percent in 2019.

But so far there are no signs that Iran will cave to American pressure. Instead, it has responded with its own pressure campaign to force Trump to lift the sanctions, including bombing oil tankers in international waters and oil fields in Saudi Arabia, downing a US military drone, and attacking two US military sites in Iraq after the Soleimani killing.

Which means that since Trump became president, his policies designed to back Iran into a corner have led to a massive backlash. And while Washington and Tehran have been at odds for decades, there’s no question that Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal contributed to this latest cycle of violence.

Alex Ward

4) Why did the US kill Qassem Soleimani?

Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, who led the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force and is responsible for hundreds of American deaths in the region, was the culmination of a week of violence.

It began on December 27, when an Iranian-backed militia group in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, attacked a military base north of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, killing an American contractor and wounding several other US citizens and Iraqis. (The militia denies having any involvement in the rocket attack.)

It was a significant escalation in the US-Iran standoff, which so far had seen damage done to ships, oil fields, and military equipment, but not people. The American’s death crossed the Trump administration’s red line that any attacks on Americans would lead to a forceful US response — and Trump followed through.

Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (center) attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s meeting with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran, Iran, on September 18, 2016.
Pool/Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Given a list of response options by the Pentagon, which included killing Soleimani, Trump chose to attack five sites controlled by Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria on December 28, killing 25 militia members and wounding more than 50 others.

Two days later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned that “we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.”

Kata’ib Hezbollah and its backers in Tehran, including Soleimani, didn’t listen. The group incited thousands — some throwing rocks and chanting, “Death to America!” — to swarm the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, while others attempted to enter the compound itself. They managed to break through the main entrance and set fire to a reception area but didn’t make it any farther into the sprawling 104-acre, heavily fortified compound.

Trump, watching from his Florida resort during his vacation, didn’t like the scenes he was seeing on television and tweeted his displeasure.

By January 2, Trump had decided it was time to send a message and chose the option to kill Soleimani to send a strong signal to Iran. Striking the Iranian general dead was something the president considered doing as early as 2017, and he actually authorized an operation on him in June 2018 should Tehran ever be responsible for killing an American.

According to Bloomberg News, the US military watched the general get on a plane in Beirut, Lebanon, and monitored his flight to Baghdad with drones — including one outfitted with air-to-surface missiles.

Once Soleimani landed, the Reaper drone watched him for about 10 minutes before firing its weapons on the two-car convoy leaving Baghdad International Airport. The Quds Force commander, along with the head of Kata’ib Hezbollah, died in the strike. (Trump also authorized an attack on a top Iranian military official in Yemen but failed to kill him.)

On January 3, Trump gave brief remarks announcing Soleimani’s killing while reiterating his red line.

“Under my leadership, America’s policy is unambiguous: To terrorists who harm or intend to harm any American, we will find you; we will eliminate you. We will always protect our diplomats, service members, all Americans, and our allies,” the president said. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”

The question for many, though, wasn’t whether the Iranian military leader responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians, and others deserved his fate. The question was whether killing Soleimani now was a good idea.

The answer depends on who you ask.


5) Was killing Soleimani a good idea?

Experts differ wildly on the wisdom of killing the powerful Iranian leader, and each side has genuine merit. Vox conducted two interviews with experts, asking one to lay out the strongest case against killing Soleimani and one to lay out the strongest case for killing him.

Here’s a brief summary of each argument:

The case against killing Soleimani

Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert at the Century Foundation, told Vox that the strike “unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems for Americans in the region” and that the Iranians would “have to retaliate at some point.”

Esfandiary said that while the US does need to work to contain Iranian aggression in the Middle East, killing high-level officials isn’t the way to do it. Instead, the US should find ways to compromise with Iran, since it has already shown it is willing to make deals to improve its situation when faced with a souring economy.

She also argued that killing Soleimani might not have as much of an impact on Iran’s capabilities as the Trump administration thinks. “Iran’s paramilitary force is not a one-man show,” she said.

And now that the US has directly targeted a senior Iranian military official, “you have this entire organization that will basically be given free rein to go out and target American troops in the region, which they may very well do.”

Images of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani hang at a roadside vigil in Tehran, Iran, on January 5, 2020.
Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The case for killing Soleimani

Bilal Saab, a Middle East security expert at the Middle East Institute and former Pentagon official in the Trump administration, disagrees with that reasoning.

First, he said the US and Iran have been locked in a cycle of violence for decades, and especially since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. So there was no guarantee Iran would refrain from an escalation even if the president chose not to kill Soleimani.

Second, Saab noted that the US didn’t choose to take the most extreme option against Iran. The Pentagon gave Trump the option to strike Iranian missile sites and ships, which would have meant bombing inside Iran or sinking vessels in the Iranian navy.

Leaders in Tehran could see that as an even more direct attack on the Iranian military than simply targeting one general, and perhaps would be compelled to respond in a much more aggressive fashion.

Third, Saab argued there was never anything the US could do to stop Iran from smaller-scale attacks on Americans. Soleimani or no Soleimani, US citizens within Tehran’s reach were always going to be in danger. However, killing the military leader could make the regime think twice about taking larger-scale actions, such as closing the vital Strait of Hormuz or launching a rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

“There had to be some kind of a shocking operation against Iran that would make the regime recalculate and reconsider this campaign of violence that they’ve waged against us and our partners,” Saab said. “The fact that they took out someone who represents the face of Iran’s dangerous campaign in the region wasn’t only appropriate, it was well within the rules of the game.”

The key lesson from both interviews, though, is that the true consequences of Trump’s decision won’t really be felt until further down the line.

—Alex Ward and Sean Illing

6) What happened with that Ukrainian plane crash?

Iran may not have killed US troops in its retaliatory strikes in Iraq on Tuesday night, but it did say it accidentally killed civilians: the 176 passengers of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.

Just a few hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two US military targets in Iraq Tuesday night, Flight 752, which was flying from Tehran to Kyiv, crashed minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport, killing all 176 people on board — half of whom were Iranian.

Iranians gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash in Tehran, Iran, on January 11, 2020.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

On January 11, after initially claiming the plane crashed due to mechanical problems, the Iranian government finally admitted it shot down the airliner. A junior officer made the error, said Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh. “One of our forces has made the mistake and because it’s under our command, the responsibility is on us.” The admission sparked widespread protests throughout Iran over the regime’s lie and general governance — demonstrations that are now cheered on by the Trump administration.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking during a Thursday afternoon press conference in Ottawa, said his nation — which had at least 63 citizens on board the flight — had intelligence pointing to Iran as the culprit.

Moments after Trudeau finished speaking, the New York Times published a video purportedly showing a surface-to-air missile hitting the jetliner in midair. While the video is grainy and the camera is far from the scene, it shows an explosion at the point of impact.

The plane, according to the Times, didn’t immediately come down; ablaze, it flew back toward the airport in Tehran before exploding and dropping quickly.

The mounting evidence likely compelled Tehran to admit culpability. It now means the death toll in the current US-Iran conflict has risen significantly, and horrifically.


7) Are we at war with Iran?

This is a much more complicated question to answer than it might appear.

While the US Congress never formally declared war on Iran, the killing of Soleimani was by any reasonable definition an act of war — direct and open hostilities between the armed forces of the two nations. It was a clear escalation from the shadow war of December to direct conflict.

“This doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war,” Andrew Exum, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, wrote in the Atlantic on the night of Soleimani’s killing.

And Iran’s response — firing missiles at US troops in Iraq — was also the kind of action you’d expect in a war.

But that attack didn’t kill any American troops. And although Trump has said his administration will “continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression,” he’s also signaled that he doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran. Likewise, Tehran has signaled that its retaliation has “concluded,” at least for the moment.

As of right now, this looks like the end of the latest round of hostilities. However, the risk that a larger war could break out remains.

Hundreds of antiwar demonstrators gather in Times Square in New York City on January 4, 2020.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Several experts told Vox that Iran will almost certainly attack the US and its allies again at some point. “There’s enough anger and emotion that Iran will want to do something, or at least it’ll try,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the Defense Department’s Iran team chief from 2009 to 2012.

The logic behind Trump’s killing of Soleimani — that America needs to respond forcefully to Iranian provocations to deter it from future attacks — would dictate a harsh response to any such provocations. In fact, it would commit the US to hitting Iran repeatedly if (or, more likely, when) it engages in anti-American military activities.

So long as both sides are committed to using force in this fashion, the conditions that led to this latest flare-up in violence are still there. While the immediate cause for panic may have passed, the situation remains unstable.

“Right now, a lot of people are confident that this conflict won’t escalate out of control, while others seem certain that it will. Both groups are overconfident,” says Bear Braumoeller, a professor at Ohio State University. “The truth is, escalation is unpredictable and can be very dramatic.”


8) What would a full-scale war with Iran look like?

The simple answer is that it would be hell on earth.

The more complete answer is more complicated, and it’s hard to predict what exactly each country would do in a large-scale fight. But here are experts’ best guesses.

How the US might try to win the war

The US strategy would almost certainly involve using overwhelming air and naval power to beat Iran into submission early on. “You don’t poke the beehive, you take the whole thing down,” Goldenberg told Vox.

The US military would bomb Iranian ships, parked warplanes, missile sites, nuclear facilities, and training grounds, as well as launch cyberattacks on much of the country’s military infrastructure. The goal would be to degrade Iran’s conventional forces within the first few days and weeks, making it even harder for Tehran to resist American strength.

That plan makes sense as an opening salvo, experts say, but it would come nowhere close to winning the war. And the options facing the president at that point would be extremely problematic, experts say.

The riskiest one — by far — would be to invade Iran. The logistics alone boggle the mind, and any attempt to try it would be seen from miles away. “There’s no surprise invasion of Iran,” Eric Brewer, a former Trump National Security Council official on Iran, told Vox.

Iran has nearly three times the number of people Iraq did in 2003, when the war began, and is about three and a half times as big. It’s the world’s 17th-largest country, with territory greater than France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal combined.

If Trump chose to launch an incursion, he’d likely need around 1.6 million troops to take control of the capital and country, a force so big it would overwhelm America’s ability to host them in regional bases. By contrast, America never had more than 180,000 service members in Iraq.

The country’s geography is also treacherous. Iran has small mountain ranges along some of its borders. Entering from the Afghanistan side in the east would mean traversing two deserts. Trying to get in from the west could also prove difficult even with Turkey — a NATO ally — as a bordering nation. After all, Ankara wouldn’t let the US use Turkey to invade Iraq, and its relations with Washington have only soured since.

Trump has repeatedly signaled he doesn’t want to send ground troops into Iran or even spend a long time fighting the country. But the hawkish aides at his side, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, could try to convince him not to look weak and to go all-in and grasp victory.

A US invasion of Iran would likely lead to thousands or hundreds of thousands of dead. Trying to forcibly remove the country’s leadership, experts say, might drive that total into the millions.

How Iran might try to win the war

Tehran can’t match Washington’s firepower. But it could spread chaos in the Middle East and around the world, hoping that a war-weary US public, an intervention-skeptical president, and an angered international community would cause America to stand down.

That may seem like a huge task — and it is — but experts believe the Islamic Republic has the capability, knowhow, and will to pull off such an ambitious campaign. “The Iranians can escalate the situation in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places,” Michael Hanna, an Iran expert at the Century Foundation, told Vox. “They have the capacity to do a lot of damage.”

Iran’s vast network of proxies and elite units — like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Soleimani once led — could be activated to kill American troops, diplomats, and citizens throughout the region. US allies would also be prime targets. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group in Lebanon, might attack Israel with rockets and start its own brutal fight.

Iran could also encourage terrorist organizations or other proxies to strike inside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations. Last year, it planned and executed drone strikes on two major Saudi oil facilities deep inside the kingdom, convulsing world markets.

Experts note that the Islamic Republic likely has sleeper cells in Europe and Latin America, and they could resurface in dramatic and violent ways. In 2018, Argentina arrested two men suspected of having ties to Hezbollah.

The chaos would also extend into the cyber realm. Iran is a major threat to the US in cyberspace. Starting in 2011, Iran attacked more than 40 American banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. The attack made it so the banks had trouble serving their customers and customers had trouble using the banks’ services.

In 2012, Iran released malware into the networks of Saudi Aramco, a major oil company, which erased documents, emails, and other files on around 75 percent of the company’s computers — replacing them with an image of a burning American flag. In the middle of a war, one could imagine Tehran’s hackers wreaking even more havoc.

All of this — proxies striking around the world, cyberattacks on enterprise — would happen as Iran continued to resist conventional American forces.

In the Strait of Hormuz, for instance, Iranian sailors could use speedboats to put bombs on oil tankers or place mines in the water to destroy US warships. Iranian submarines would also play a huge part in trying to sink an American vessel. And the nation’s anti-ship missiles and drones could prove constant and deadly nuisances.

Should US troops try to enter Iranian territory on land, Iranian ground forces would also push back on them fiercely using insurgent-like tactics while the US painfully marched toward Tehran.

Put together, Brewer noted succinctly, a US-Iran war would be “a nasty, brutal fight.”


9) So what happens next?

It’s hard to predict the future, but the safe bet is that the next few weeks could continue to be rocky.

Iraq’s parliament — which is heavily influenced by Iran — passed a nonbinding resolution last week calling for America’s roughly 5,000 troops to leave Iraq as a result of the Soleimani strike. Trump brushed off an immediate exit and went as far as to say he would impose harsh sanctions on the country if it forced out US troops.

Iranian lawmakers chant anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans to protest against the US killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, on January 5, 2020.
Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Tasnim News Agency via AP

But then confusion reigned. On January 6, a letter from US Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely to Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir became public, and it detailed plans for “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” the letter continued.

But Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, both denied there was a change in US policy and claimed the letter was sent to the Iraqi government by “mistake.” However, it does appear that US forces will be relocating to safer areas in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Trump has long wanted US troops out of Iraq, saying that America has already spent enough money and lost enough lives since the 2003 invasion. But a precipitous force withdrawal could hurt the US strategically in the Middle East.

“The near-term second- and third-order effects of [killing Soleimani] were not well thought out, nor were they appropriately planned for,” Becca Wasser, an Iran expert at the Rand Corporation, told me. “The long-term implications of how this could play out — for example, the revocation of US military access in Iraq could end the counter-ISIS mission, which could result in the group’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria, which in turn could lead to insecurity there and greater terrorism worldwide — are worse.”

What’s more, US officials in the Middle East don’t feel too confident that the government has their back. One diplomat serving in the region who recently asked to relocate told me the American response “feels unplanned and made up,” adding that if Iran decides to attack US outposts in earnest and with rockets, “we are probably fucked.”

A US Marine with Second Battalion, Seventh Marines helps reinforce the US Embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, on January 4, 2020.
US Marine Corps Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot via AP

Dwindling US diplomatic and military presence could correlate with declining US influence in Iraq, which would be a boon for Iran. Experts say Iran has long had aims of turning its neighbor into a pseudo-client.

That’s partly why Iran won’t take kindly to the US sending 3,000 more troops to the Middle East as a show of force toward Iran. They may not land in Iraq, but it’s another sign to the Islamic Republic that its aims in Baghdad and elsewhere might be met with stiff resistance.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country’s top goal now is to force US troops out of the Middle East, though it’s unclear how Iran plans to do that.

So current US-Iran tensions — and particularly Soleimani’s killing — could lead to all complications for the Trump administration short of war. Killing Soleimani “is likely to be a strategic failure even if it was tactically and operationally sound,” Wasser said.


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