21 June 2019
Tensions have been escalating between the two countries
A US naval reconnaissance drone was downed by Iranian missiles. President Donald Trump says he ordered – and then aborted – a retaliatory attack, changing his mind 10 minutes before the planned strikes. The sequence of events provided a glimpse of how a conflict might start.
Just suppose the president had not changed his mind. What might have happened? The first US strikes would have been limited in scope, targeting Iranian missile sites or radars, either associated with or similar to the ones that shot down the US drone. They would have been accompanied by a clear diplomatic warning to Iran (as appears to have been delivered over-night on Thursday) that this was indeed a limited attack, solely in retaliation for the loss of the US aircraft.
Mr Trump also reportedly offered an olive branch; according to reports the message to Tehran – which was relayed through Oman – included a further request for talks.
Say the strikes had gone ahead. What would happen then? The next move would be Iran’s. According to one report, it responded last night that it was not interested in talks, and gave a warning of its own: “Any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences,” one un-named official told the Reuters news agency.
So where might such a conflict go and what would it look like? There are many variables to consider, and it is easier to say what will not happen. The Trump administration may be an implacable foe of the Iranian regime but there is not going to be a full-scale ground invasion of Iran to topple the regime. This is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran is an altogether more complex challenge both militarily and politically. Some in the White House clearly want regime change. They are likely to be disappointed. So rule out a major land war.
Any follow-up Iranian attack on US ships or aircraft would almost certainly be met by an escalation from the Americans. Iranian naval installations, air bases and so on would be hit by aircraft and cruise missiles with the focus, in part, on the Revolutionary Guard Corps whose naval arm appears to have played a prominent role in recent events.