'Very Stupid and Costly' U.S.-Iran War Would End in Disaster for Both Sides, Experts Predict

As tensions rose between the U.S. and Iran this week, it was reported that the White House had considered a revised military plan to deploy 120,000 American troops to the Middle East in the event of an Iranian attack or acceleration of the country's nuclear program.

President Donald Trump is reportedly still hoping for a diplomatic solution to the face-off, though some of his most senior advisers are apparently not of the same mind. An aircraft carrier strike group has been sent to the Arabian Sea, with B-52 bombers and a Patriot missile system also deployed to the region.

Both Iranian and American officials have said they do not seek war. But as tensions rise and in the absence of effective dialogue, the risk of a confrontation—whether intentional or accidental—increases.

On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard suggested Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton are "on the brink of launching us into a very stupid and costly war with Iran." She urged supporters "to join her in sending a strong message to President Trump: The US must NOT go to war with Iran."

Chas Freeman—a former senior U.S. diplomat and now a senior fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs—told Newsweek any war "will not arise by accident or be deliberately initiated by Iran."

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump is becoming frustrated with aides like Bolton, whose hawkish approach to the current face-off risks accelerating military preparation at the cost of diplomacy.

A conflict "is unlikely to be launched by President Trump, despite his habit of posturing as a tough guy," Freeman added. "It will come about because people in president Trump's entourage responsive to Israeli arguments and wishing to ingratiate themselves with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates manage to contrive a casus belli and produce the war they have been looking for."

The government's deployment of new forces, releasing of intelligence suggesting an Iranian threat and reported review of war plans "signals the imminent possibility of a war," Freeman said. This is being encouraged, he suggested, by Israeli and Saudi officials keen to see Iran's regional power degraded and theocratic regime toppled. Regardless, he stressed that "there is no specific justification for war with Iran."

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An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 10, 2019 in the Red Sea. The aircraft carrier has been deployed to the Middle East to deter Iranian aggression. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dan Snow/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Iran has been preparing for such a situation for decades. Iran has around 550,000 active military personnel. Including reserves, this number pushes 1 million. Though the American military as a whole is much larger, it is spread all over the world.

Based on Department of Defense data published at the end of March, the U.S. currently has around 30,000 troops stationed in various countries in the Middle East and South Asia. The majority are accounted for in Afghanistan (around 14,000), Iraq (some 5,000), Turkey (1,600)—all of which border Iran—and Syria (roughly 2,000). Apart from Turkey, all these troops are already engaged in in-country missions.

Elsewhere, the major U.S. naval base in Bahrain is home to around 4,000 American personnel, while bases in Kuwait account for 2,000. There are 541 troops deployed at facilities in Qatar and another 297 in Saudi Arabia. All these locations are close to Iran, the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, where key clashes would take place in the event of any war between the U.S., its allies and Iran.

The remainder of U.S. personnel in the region are based further afield in regions like Egypt and the British Indian Ocean Territory, as well as a handful in nations bordering Iran like Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

The Iranian military is not as sophisticated as the U.S., and the country would have little chance of success in a conventional war. As such, its forces would likely engage in unconventional operations to strike back. "It has the ability to strike at U.S. bases and installations in the region with either missiles or unconventional forces, or both," Freeman explained.

Indeed, Iran has form for such operations. It funded, armed and trained Iraqi insurgents fighting the U.S. occupation of the country after the 2003 invasion. The U.S. military claims Iran was directly to blame for the deaths of 608 military personnel in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Iran still holds significant influence with many of these well-trained, well-funded and motivated militias—influence that worries the U.S. enough that the State Department has ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency staff from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. consulate in Erbil.

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A soldier of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is pictured in a military parade on June 21, 2014 in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq. The militia has long had links to Iran, and formerly fought against U.S. occupying troops. Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said this shows Iran can hit U.S. and allied targets not only regionally, but also further afield. "[Iran] uses international terrorism, and the U.S. has a global presence," he explained.

A network of Iranian allies and sympathizers spans much of the northern part of the region, Freeman added, "as well as Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and Bahrain—where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered," giving Iran the means to pick targets across the Middle East. "It very likely also has put in place means by which to mount unconventional—or 'terrorist'—counter-strikes on the U.S. homeland," he noted.

Having been victim to the devastating U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet cyber attack in 2010, the country has also invested heavily in its ability to launch such attacks against the U.S. and its regional allies.

The country would likely use its fleet of more than 200 armed speed boats to target or harass U.S. naval vessels or commercial shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide transits. Tehran has regularly threatened to close off the Strait with naval mines, anti-ship missiles and its own navy in the event of a conflict.

But, Byman noted, such a move is akin to "high stakes poker" and could backfire. Not only would Iran be undermining its own ability to export oil, but the knock-on effects on the global economy could drive the international community to drop their skepticism and rally around the U.S. Thus far, Tehran has been able to portray itself as the reasonable party, Byman explained. " Close the straits and that changes."

The most likely U.S. approach—if indeed war was to break out—would be a limited campaign of airstrikes, potentially alongside special operations raids and cyber attacks, Byman suggested. "I think the Trump administration is, in general, reluctant to expand the US presence on the ground in the Middle East, and do things that might include US casualties," he explained.

Even small victories for Iran could represent a victory. "Iran might achieve local victories," Byman noted, such as inflicting casualties on U.S. forces or even sinking a ship, "but the overall outcome of this conflict is pretty well-known."

"It's a potential disaster for the Iranians militarily, but they might be able to achieve propaganda victories, which really matter," Byman added. "Victory is a political achievement," he suggested, but warned that the U.S. Navy will be ready, having prepared for this war for 30 years.

Human, financial, political—a conflict would come with many costs. Freeman noted a war would likely lack the support of the U.S. public and Congress. "If asked to authorize such a war, Congress would almost certainly refuse. So, in addition to being a foreign policy crisis, the current tensions with Iran are also part of the constitutional crisis in the United States, where executive authority now vastly exceeds its constitutional mandate."

While both sides have vowed they are not seeking conflict, Byman warned that "both sides may take steps that make the situation more dangerous." New military deployments, force preparations and harsh words may all be designed to warn opponents, but could be taken as direct threats. "The message they're trying to send is, 'Don't mess with us,'" Byman explained. "But the message could be interpreted as, 'We're coming after you.'"

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Iranian speedboats are pictured during a ceremony to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the U.S. Navy at the port of Bandar Abbas, Iran, on July 2, 2012. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images