Despite his tough talk, President Trump has typically leaned towards isolationism, making him less likely to pursue large scale military intervention. At the same time, the Iranian leadership will be very cautious about escalating conflict in the Gulf. So, the bar for significant conflict in the region is high. Even so, Iran may see domestic or regional political benefits from further small-scale attacks or disruptions. The implicit threat of escalation, therefore, is here to stay.
The U.S.-Iranian standoff in and around the Persian Gulf appears to have cooled a bit with statements by President Trump that he does not want a war with Iran. However, these statements are accompanied by ongoing statements that anything can happen, and that the United States would strike back if Iran initiates hostilities. In the meanwhile, the U.S. continue heightened deployments of military capabilities in the region, including the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group. Iran continues to operate its Revolutionary Guard forces in close proximity to U.S. forces in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea. Finally, hostilities continue between U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE andranianbacked Houthis in Yemen. Should a conflict erupt, Iran possesses a range of capabilities that can inflict significant damage on U.S. forces, regional states, and oil and gas production and export infrastructure in the region.
It is unlikely that Iran would initiate a conflict with the U.S. directly unless it believed that Washington and its allies were about to strike, but war could erupt through misperception, accident, or miscalculation. The small-scale attacks attributed to Iran and its proxies last month – one-way drone attacks on pumping stations in Saudi Arabia and limpet mine attacks on a handful of tankers moored off of Fujairah – were likely calculated to show capability without inviting retaliation or escalation. However, Iran and its proxies could scale up attacks of this type if a war were to break out.
Iran possesses a large inventory of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones as well as the ability to target fixed petroleum infrastructure targets throughout the Gulf region. This could be supplemented by cyber attacks on oil infrastructure of the sort attributed to Iran as far back as 2012. Iran possesses a large inventory of floating mines, small boats equipped with missiles, and coastal defense cruise missiles, all of which could target both military and merchant vessels transiting the narrow Strait of Hormuz. It could similarly provide these capabilities to Houthi allies in Yemen in order to threaten traffic through the Bab al Mandeb. The U.S., along with regional and other allies, would respond to Iranian largescale attacks on oil production and export facilities with an equally devastating response against Iran’s military and Revolutionary Guard Corps. Over time, Iran’s forces would be whittled away, but not before significant damage had been done to infrastructure. De-mining the Strait of Hormuz would take weeks if not months after the cessation of hostilities. Using these same capabilities, Iran could target U.S. Navy vessels as well as U.S. bases in Bahrain and Qatar. While the U.S. and its regional partners possess missile and cyber defenses, the sheer volume of offensive capabilities mean that many of the attacks would get through in any large-scale conflict. The volume would only decrease as the U.S. undertook offensive operations against Iranian territory, targeting command and control assets as well as the forces themselves
A conflict of this scale would likely only occur if Iran believed that it was under mortal threat by a series of attacks by the United States targeting its leadership, nascent nuclear capabilities, and military capabilities. Iran could move pre-emptively to begin attacks if it believed that it was about to be struck, but it is unlikely to initiate a large-scale conflict absent such a belief. Similarly, despite Washington’s rhetoric and the military build-up, there are other governments and some within the U.S. administration who see war as dangerous and renewed negotiations as the way to move ahead. The risk remains high, however, that miscalculation or misperception could lead to a clash that could escalate easily.