IRAN AND THE SMELL OF VIETNAM
President Trump has inexorably saddled his presidency with another Vietnam in the Middle East. The assassination of the Iran general Qassem Soleimani has unleashed an open state of belligerency with Iran that will be both asymmetrical and prolonged. While it will not develop into a full fledged war fought by armies in the field, it will produce an enduring bloodshed all around the Middle East but especially in Iraq where the American military will have to face warfare on many fronts. One of the consequences of the assassination is to free the Shite militias from the operational control of the Iranian Qud Force‘s command that for some time will be headless and consequently uncontrolled. One forecast amply shared by military experts is that for all intents and purposes Iraq is lost to permanent American occupation, no matter whether the Iraqi parliament decides or not to ask American forces to leave.
Worse still, Iraq may become a killing field for Americans. In fact, the first ones to leave are the members of the personnel working in the oil fields. The rest will follow. American bombing of Shite militia positions has already started and will undoubtedly intensify. It will not endear Americans to the local population and to its tottering leadership. The main question today is whether Americans are ready to see their nation dragged into open hostility in the Middle East dramatically resembling the Vietnam conflict, at the very least in terms of human losses. Invading Iran is clearly unattainable. Iran has a dual mode military, with the regular army (Artesh), conceived as a classic defensive force, and the Revolutionary Guards, 150,000 strong, well trained in permanent asymmetric warfare, with the ability to operate in foreign theaters such as Syria, where they have fought alongside the Assad’s regime forces; Lebanon, where they have armed the Hitzbullah; and Iraq, where they supported the Shia militias. The Quods are trained to conduct operations of harassment against superior forces and to pose a permanent threat to sensitive targets in the Persian Gulf, including oil tankers, desalinization plants and military bases. Last but not least, Iran is not Iraq, given that a foreign invasion would bring about a patriotic mobilization. There is no question that the bold strike by President Trump is having the paramount effect of strengthening the anti American cohesiveness in Iran and the hold of its leadership on the population. Iran has 83 million people and the median age is only 31 years. Many of its missiles – including at least 300 Shahab – have a range that could threaten U.S. regional bases in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. While it would be foolish to exaggerate Iran’s military capability – its armored division is formed by Patton and Chieftain tanks dating from the Korean and Vietnam wars – the Revolutionary Guards are a driving force in innovation in the field of missile technology, inherited from the North Koreans.
In realistic terms, President Trump has placed himself between a rock and a hard place. The extreme strategy would avoid a war in Afghanistan but commit the United States to a Vietnam type process of warfare that would cause losses that American public opinion is not willing to accept. The opposite strategy would be withdrawing ground forces and let the bombs fall all over Iran and its outposts, with the result of leaving behind a vacuum in the region that will be quickly filled by Iran. Among the consequences that can be expected, the prospect of new nuclear negotiations with Iran is dead. Trump will not be able to boast any ability to make a deal with Iran. For its part, Iran will wait before striking against the American presence in the Middle East or, just as likely, against U.S. regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. President Trump will have to deal with the effects of this type of warfare for the rest of his presidency. His problem is that while the U.S. waits for Iran’s reaction, there will be no strategy from the Trump Administration. Like in the later stages of the Vietnam war, a majority of the American voters will take notice.