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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

We Aren't Going to War With Iran

do the math...

Settle down, we aren’t going to war because we took a swat at Iran for one simple reason: We, the voters, so obviously don’t want to. For that matter, neither does America's energy sector. It’s the one thing we all agree on and in the run up of what looks to be a razor-thin election, that matters.

What Trump is thinking is God’s own private mystery – there doesn’t appear to be any coherent strategy other than getting the world to say, “He’s just crazy enough to do it!” But saying – or tweeting – whatever comes to mind is not the same thing as doing whatever you want. If it were, he’d be hanging around strippers and not the square “God Squad” kids glad-handing votes. What he really wants is to be re-elected in a country that won’t tolerate another open-ended war. Save one glaring caveat.

Fortunately for the United States, the geographic and technical reality is simply that we can’t be sucked into any conflict that we don’t want to be sucked into. We like to claim we have no choice, but that’s just PR. We always have options, Iran, not so much. It’s large and competent army is geared for tamping down domestic dissent and the vaunted Quds Force is great at marauding around the region stirring up minority grievances and chaos – the most viral weapon of the asymmetrical warfare arsenal. What they can’t do, simply, is get to us en mass.

What Iran can do is kidnap and kill Americans abroad in the Middle East: diplomats, government contractors, and that weirdly slippery tribe, humanitarian aid workers. These attacks have been increasing for six months, with some 11 attacks in last two. In short, whatever it is that they can do to us, they’re already doing it. And our restrained warnings haven’t done much to stop or even slow it down.

About that caveat – the only way Iran can goad us into a war is to successfully launch a 9/11 style attack on American soil. They’d probably love to. The question isn’t can they pull it off (they can), but why would they? The clerics running Iran know that a face to face fight with the United States would end (quickly) in a violent regime change. They might be men of the cloth but they don’t want to lose their plum jobs – certainly not for American prisons or fiery death from above. In the more abstract, their Islamic Theocracy would be erased with a train-wreck of a secular republic like Iraq.

As angry as the Iranians are over the death of Qassim Suleimani, the Supreme Council is using it to forge some much-needed political cohesion at home where ethnic Persians count only about 50% of the population, with the rest being patchwork of minorities with various levels of grievance toward Tehran. On December 30, hours before the attack on the embassy in Baghdad, Special Envoy to Iran Brian Hook said, “Iran is in a state panicked aggression. They’re not used to being told no.”

Well, maybe, but that rocket attack on US troops that killed an American contractor looked pretty calculated. Not only did it rile up local chaos but also to get the US to show its cards. Now they know our real, not stated, red line: an attack on Saudi Arabia will get a limited response, but we will protect our own in the Middle East.

And with that tidbit of information in hand, Mohammed Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, announced that his country was scrapping adherence to the nuclear deal we walked away from. Or that they would, quietly leaving open the back door by quietly saying that were the US to come back into the deal, so would they.

The diplomatic calculus with Saudi Arabia is, on the other hand, a bit tricky - bear with me: Saudi Arabia is the primary US ally in the region as well as the primary reason that ISIS is regrouping in the desert. ISIS for its part, is the primary foe of the United States, not Iran, whose primary foe isn’t the United States, but Saudi Arabia and its loyal (if unofficial) theocratic experiment, ISIS. Make sense?

Iran’s million-man army could very well could win a war with Saudi Arabia if we stayed out of it. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s plausible. What Iran is calling a navy but looks a lot like second rate coast guard, ruling out a cross gulf maritime attack. Any invasion of the Arabian Peninsula requires driving through Basra, an Iraqi city of about 1.7 million. Yes, they are Shia, but Iran/Iraq War of 1980/88 proved that as fellow Shi’a their sympathetic with the Iranians is religious, not political. Those protests that have rocked the Iraqi government in Baghdad were against Tehran’s meddling. The chant was “Out, out Iran.” (Then we shot up Suleimani and it switched to “Death to America.”)

After that, there is Kuwait where a majority of the recently deployed US troops are headed. The Kuwaiti’s are not going to ask them to leave. To be clear, without American intervention, neither Basra nor Kuwait will be roadblocks – mere speedbumps. Then Iran’s army faces crossing some 350 miles of flat desert to hit the major oil producing centers of Abqaiq and Ras Tanura compound.

Between, there is simply nothing there and that can cut both ways, just ask TE Lawrence or Erwin Rommel. Assuming the invading army refuels and provisions in Kuwait, that’s still a lot of clear open desert where all food water and fuel must be carried in train to support an invasion, and there is literally no cover from sorties by Saudi Arabia’s vividly mediocre air force. It’s got the latest equipment - they got it from us – whereas the Iranians are mostly flying Ford and Carter era F-14s. To get up to speed, the Saudi air force is currently on live, on-going training missions and doing a fair job of blowing the crap out of Yemen. So, progress.

In short, this is not going to be a fun drive. Still, if the Iranian army can make the run to the refining and launching compounds of Abqaiq and Ras Tanura (which happen to be in the countries grieved Shi’a zone) without getting obliterated from above, Saudi Arabia just might be screwed.

Whatever happens it’s going to play hell with global oil prices and you’d be forgiven for thinking that a spike in oil prices will drag us into the war. But American energy prices will merely tick up, not skyrocket. The price of Persian Gulf oil is currently about $62 per barrel – the present hootenanny spiking prices up from a steadier $40. A full out conflict will at least quadruple the price, even a short war that reopens the Strait of Hormuz quickly. America, however, doesn’t import much Persian Gulf oil. According to Harold Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources, the US Shale industry needs only a price of $50 to be sustainable. Once that happens, the America is supplying our own energy needs and fairly insulated.

If we needed another reason to stay out of it, the energy crisis any war would trigger will absolutely pole-axe China’s economy.


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