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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
National Security Advisor John Bolton last Sunday issued a stern warning to Iraq: “In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States’ interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
Then Bolton added, “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
Bolton’s May 5 statement appears threatening. Yet as a practical matter, it was fairly routine. Until just a few years ago, the U.S. maintained a decades-long aircraft carrier presence in the Navy’s Fifth Fleet area of responsibility (AOR). Returning a carrier to the Fifth Fleet AOR demonstrates the ability of the U.S. to place a significant force on Iran’s doorstep, but it does not mean that a U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic is in the offing.
Background on the Current Situation with Iran
When the U.S. and its allies struck a diplomatic deal with Iran in 2015 over the latter’s nuclear ambitions, Tehran hoped that the deal would bring sanctions relief and economic growth. Unfortunately for Iran, oil prices – on which its economy heavily depends – have remained depressed.
At the same time, the amount of money Iran was spending to support military operations in Iraq and Syria was draining the nation’s coffers. To make matters worse, the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions, sending the Iranian economy into freefall. In addition, the U.S. recently decided not to extend waivers to nations that were still purchasing Iranian oil.
Iran cannot let this situation stand and is likely looking at punitive measures of its own. According to a Wall Street Journal report on the matter, U.S. intelligence sources believe that Iran may be planning to target U.S. forces in the Middle East, or launch attacks in strategic waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Bab al-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen.
The U.S. naval deployment might ostensibly be a message to Iran that we will respond to these potential threats. At this point, however, the deployment seems to be a practical matter of force protection.
Indeed, it was the U.S. Central Command that requested the additional support from the White House, not the other way around. That said, this deployment has not stopped speculation that the U.S. is looking for an opening to attack Iran.
Iran’s Geography Largely Protects against Invasion
Iran’s geography is a blessing from a security point of view because its territory is notoriously difficult to invade. But that same geography is a curse economically. Internally, because of their geographic security, the various ancient peoples eventually coalesced — peacefully and by force — into one of the world’s earliest empires.
The various Persian groups expanded into Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire became the dominate power. The constant westward expansions were a great help in alleviating the economic curse, but that did not mean that Persia was secure on all fronts.
Despite the security provided by the mountains to the west and north, the invasions of Iran that have occurred over the millennia were all land-based. Iran’s Zagros mountains to the west and Elburz mountains to the north stymie invasions from those directions, but a determined force can cross the deserts in the east.
Alexander the Great did manage to invade Persia through the Zagros, but only after he defeated the main Persian force in northern Iraq. The same can be said for the Islamic conquest of Persia. Muslim forces and Persian troops of the Sasanian Empire (224 to 651 AD) clashed in Mesopotamia, weakening the Sassanid hold on the area and draining manpower from Persia proper.
History of Invasions of Persia Has Implications for US
Mountains are great for defense if there is an army to defend them. Each invasion of Persia across the Zagros was the result of the Persians overextending themselves in Mesopotamia. This history has implications for a power such as the United States.
Any American force that would invade Iran, though this is unlikely, would have to invade by sea. Specifically, the invading force would need to use the few ports along Iran’s southern maritime border in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The Zagros mountains run the entire length of the Iranian coast along the Persian Gulf. Despite having over 1,300 nautical miles of coastline there, Iran has only two major ports because the coast is so mountainous. Both ports — Bandar Abbas and Bushehr — allow access to the central Iranian plain via mountain passes or canyons that wind through the mountain wall.
Iran’s southern border along the Gulf of Oman suffers from a similar problem. Chabahar is the only port in the south and is over 1,000 miles away from Tehran, where the bulk of the Iranian population lives.
A foreign military could possibly traverse that distance, but the long logistics line to support those forces as they move north would make them vulnerable to attack. The same goes for the other two ports locked inside the Strait of Hormuz. Those ports could make an invasion possible, but the mountain passes contain chokepoints that would hinder a necessary ground-based logistics chain.
Airstrikes over Invasion
Despite the challenges, it is unlikely that the U.S. would invade Iran because it is simply not in Washington’s interest to do so. The U.S. footprint in the greater Middle East has shrunk considerably over the past few years due to shifting U.S. interests in the region.
Additionally, the U.S. seems far more concerned with trade negotiations with China and the crisis in Venezuela. Adding another military adventure to the mix would make for poor strategy. With U.S. forces still in the Middle East, however, Washington will be keen to ensure their safety in pursuit of the overall mission.
With the addition of the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group and the deployment of several bombers, the United States can better support its forces in Syria and Iraq while keeping in check any provocative behavior by Iran or its proxies. The U.S. Navy also has the capability to substantially expand its footprint in the Fifth Fleet’s AOR if need be.
For example, the Department of Defense created a plan to target Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2007, but the plan also called for the near-destruction of Iran’s military over a three-day period. To maintain this tempo, the DOD would need at least three carrier strike groups in the AOR, multiple bomber wings and ground attack aircraft.
Until we see a force buildup nearing the 2007 plan, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. is planning any offensive action in the region generally or against Iran specifically.