Since President Trump’s assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, widespread alarm has centered on whether he is again dragging us into another war like Iraq, to detract from his impeachment. The bad news is that the situation is even more potentially disastrous.
As a political-cultural geographer who has long studied the history of U.S. military interventions, I’m alarmed that his action could set into motion a regional conflagration, the violent break-up of Iran into ethnic enclaves, and a death toll that would make the Iraq War look like a warm-up exercise. The good news is that Americans can and have stood in the way of such a war, and we can do so again.
Most Americans concur with the country singer Alan Jackson, who sang in 2002, “I’m not a real political man… I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.” But Iran has always been more geographically pivotal than Iraq, in land area, population, and economics. It was one of the few countries that retained independence through the colonial era, and one of the only Third World societies to successfully reject Western corporate domination.
Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and seizure of hostages in the U.S. Embassy, Washington has sought to topple the Shi’a revolutionary government in Tehran. That moment was when the demonization of Muslims replaced anti-Communism as the main selling point for military interventions. U.S., Israeli, and Saudi threats have also encouraged a siege mentality among Iranian leaders, who repeatedly used them as a rationale for limiting internal dissent.
The U.S. has already been at war with Iran, during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1987-88, the U.S. Navy actively sided with Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, by escorting tankers carrying Iraqi oil, attacking Iranian boats and oil rigs, and “accidentally” shooting down an Iranian civilian jetliner. A war with Iran is not a hypothetical possibility, but a continuation of a long-simmering conflict.
Trump’s actions may lead to a full-blown World War I-style regional war in the Middle East, between two blocs that have emerged in the past decade. On one side are the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, most Gulf states (UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman), Syrian Sunni insurgents, and southern Yemen. On the other side are Russia, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen.
Every major war has been preceded by early rumblings, such as in Morocco before World War I, or in Spain, Ethiopia, and China before World War II. The horrific civil wars in Syria and Yemen—as well as conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain—have partly served as proxy wars (with local origins) between these two emerging blocs. We may now be living in August 1914, when similar alliances propelled Europe to World War I, also sparked by an assassination.
The nightmare scenario of a regional war has been played out in Central Command strategic planning since the 1980s. The regional blocs have been oversimplified in the western media as merely a Shi’a vs. Sunni rivalry, but Iran has also supported Sunni forces, such as Hamas in Palestine. What is at stake in the Middle East is usually about oil and state power, not simply about religion.
Iraq, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, and other countries could play both sides, but Trump’s overreach makes it more difficult for them to back the Pentagon. Just at a time that Iraqis have protested Iranian influence, the assassination has undermined their protest movement and forced their government to choose sides, just as Trump’s action and his threats against Iran’s ancient cultural treasures has undercut Iranians rising up for human rights. The evacuation of Americans from Baghdad, and the Iraqi expulsion of U.S. troops, may have the same shattering effect on U.S. foreign policy as the tumultuous 1975 exit from Saigon.
A war against Iran, with the U.S. and Russian nuclear powers on opposite sides, could even lead to World War III. This may be what Stephen Bannon had in mind as the apocalyptic “Fourth Turning” point in U.S. history (after the Revolution, Civil War, and World War II). Although Trump may yet fall, he may bring down the world with him.
The Houthi-claimed attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, direct exchange of missiles between Iranian forces in Syria and Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights, the U.S. bombing of Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, and a short siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad have all taken place since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, but their origins are far more complex and local than the Washington-Tehran rivalry.
This conflict could quickly mushroom out of control, such as in confrontations over islands contested by Iran and the Gulf states, as well as U.S. military brinkmanship with Iranian vessels in the Straits of Hormuz, and with Russian and Iranian forces in Syria. Juan Cole has pointed out that even in the Iran-Iraq War, neither side attacked oil refineries because they knew they were vulnerable to a counterattack, but the assassination of an Iranian general is also unprecedented.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammad Bin Salman have been itching for the U.S. to launch strikes against Iran for some time, ostensibly over the nuclear program, but actually to roll back the Tehran-led regional alliance. Trump’s tilt toward Russia has been welcomed by Israel and Saudi Arabia, as he tries to “decouple” Moscow from Tehran, in order to make Iran more vulnerable.
It’s possible that Trump is building up war fever as a set-up, in order that he can later reverse it and portray himself as a peace candidate. But if he does spark a war, he will use it to the hilt to question the loyalty of anyone who opposes it, and many congressional Democrats would probably rally around the flag.
Even if Iran reacts militarily to the assassination, Mayor DeBlasio’s hysterical warning of terrorist retaliation in New York is utter B.S. In four decades of conflict, Iran has never sponsored an attack within the U.S., even as the U.S. has attacked its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and directly attacked its own forces in the Gulf. Only Sunni terrorists (also opposed by Iran) have attacked targets inside the U.S.
Ground War or Air War?
Unlike Iraq, the U.S. has limited options to invade Iran. One of the most important differences between Iran and Iraq is in their physical geography. Iraq has largely flat terrain, and so has been repeatedly invaded by foreign armies. Iran has natural defensive barriers in the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges, and a political advantage in having complex neighbors that may not be willing to host invading forces.
Part of the neocon agenda for occupying Iraq was to have a staging area for regime change in Iran, but that is clearly no longer possible. Ground forces invading Iran from Kuwait would have to pass through a slice of Iraqi territory. An invasion from Afghanistan or Pakistan would be untenable because of on-going Islamist insurgencies (even though Iran has tended to back the U.S. against the Taliban and ISIS). The U.S. has not built bases to the north in Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan, but Trump’s recent tilt toward Turkey may be partly to put more pressure on Iran’s northwestern border.
Trump also is aware that U.S. civilians and even the military will be wary of another Middle East war. Like President Obama in 2013, Trump pulled the Pentagon back from strikes against Iran and Syria earlier in 2019, understanding (at least before his impeachment) that voters would not want another war. In a recent Pew Center poll, 62 percent of civilians and 64 percent of veterans say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. A recent Military Times poll shows that half of active-duty military personnel are unhappy with Trump, and Bernie Sanders actually leads in donations from them.
These limited options means that a U.S. ground invasion of Iran is very unlikely, so there would not be a repeat of the 2003 Iraq invasion, followed by an occupation of the entire country. At least in its initial stages, a war on Iran would be largely an air war of bombs, missiles, and drones, launched by the Navy and Air Force, with minimal “boots on the ground.”
That’s why it may be dangerous for the antiwar movement to warn that an Iran War would be a repeat of the Iraq War, with massive U.S. casualties and a legacy of combat injuries and PTSD. During the Vietnam War, facing huge protests because of bodybags coming home, President Nixon switched from a ground war to an air war, reducing U.S. troop casualties, but vastly increasing civilian casualties.
President Bush employed a similar strategy in the 1991 Gulf War, sanitizing air strikes on Iraq as a detached video game. Clinton’s 1999 air war on Serbia and Obama’s 2011 air war on Libya were the first time in human history that a one side in a major war had zero deaths by enemy fire. Trump has inherited these technological tactics of imperial impunity. If the antiwar movement mainly emphasizes the possibilities of U.S. military casualties, it only plays into the Pentagon’s hands and reinforces high-tech warfare that claims even more civilian lives.
Playing the Ethnic Card
But there is one scenario that I fear could lead to a ground invasion of Iran. Watch for the U.S. stoking ethnic divisions in the diverse country, where ethnic minorities form about 40 percent of the population. The most dangerous sign would be encouraging a rebellion in the Arab province of Khuzestan, called “Ahwaz” by its Arab inhabitants.
Back in 2005 I wrote about the possibility that the U.S. would use such an uprising as an excuse to occupy Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province (next to southern Iraq), with the “humanitarian” rationale of protecting its ethnic Arab population from “ethnic cleansing.” Like back then, Tehran’s repression of Ahwazi Arab protests and insurgent attacks have recently been increasing, and the possibility again exists of the U.S. exploiting their legitimate grievances for its own interests.
My color map makes it clear that the ethnic Ahwazi Arab province of Khuzestan, which Saddam Hussein invaded at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, contains Iran’s largest oil reserves (actually about 85% of Iran’s oil). In a 2008 New Yorker article, journalist Seymour Hersh exposed CIA assistance to Ahwazi Arab and other ethnic insurgents, later advocated by John Bolton, and a CIA analysis declassified in 2013 referred to Khuzestan as “Iran’s Achilles Tendon.”
The U.S. and Saudis may feel that in this “Khuzestan Gambit,” they could land Marines and paratroopers on western Khuzestan’s flat terrain, and hold its massive oil fields hostage for concessions from Tehran, without having to push through mountainous barriers and occupy the rest of Iran.
Like Saddam in 1980, they may be deluded that that Ahwazi Arabs will welcome them in Khuzestan, much as they thought that Iraqi Shi’as would welcome foreign occupiers in 2003. Backing an Arab secessionist movement could easily set into motion the violent “Balkanization” of Iran, which would make Yugoslavia pale in comparison, and even tear apart neighboring countries.
Even if ethnic grievances are legitimate, the timing of western interest in their grievances coincides too neatly with the larger desire to pressure and isolate Iran. Washington has a long history of championing the rights of ethnic minorities against its enemies (such as in Vietnam, Laos, Nicaragua, and Syria), then abandoning or selling out the minority when it is no longer strategically useful. We love ‘em, we use ‘em, and then we dump ‘em.
Fighting the Last War
Whether Trump carries out an air war or a ground war, attacking Iran would be far more disastrous than attacking Iraq. It would destroy any chance of political reforms in Iran or Iraq, and rally even Iranian and Iraqi reformers around their governments. Iranian military forces and Revolutionary Guards could counterattack, block oil lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, or melt into an insurgency far deeper and longer than in Iraq. Trump’s War would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it could stimulate the terrorism and nuclear weapons programs it claims to oppose.
The American public has developed a healthy “Iraq Syndrome” that abhors endless wars, much as the “Vietnam Syndrome” temporarily scaled back U.S. military interventions. Even though Iran is very different from Iraq, that strong public sentiment previously prevented both Obama and Trump from attacking Iran. If that sentiment can again be mobilized into an organized antiwar movement in the coming weeks, it can be even more effective.
But to be effective, the movement has to focus on the horrendous effects of such a war on Iranian civilians, not only on U.S. troops. And it should understand that this war may unfold in unpredictable ways that differ from previous invasions. Just as “generals always fight the last war,” antiwar movements will lose if they merely fight against the last war.