It is conceivable that Iran will be unable to distinguish an Israeli attack from an American one, or simply disinclined to make the distinction. The result might be attacks against U.S. installations in neighboring countries, or against the assets or populations of these countries themselves. The range of targets is wide, and falls into two groups: Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, on the one hand; Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other. They present different kinds of challenges. If Iran organizes attacks against the first group of countries, Washington will probably judge that an armed response is necessary and that, in turn, would require the permission of these countries to use their bases for attacks against Iran. This scenario, a nightmare for most of these countries whose infrasturcture is vulnerable and who are seeking to expand investment outside of the energy sector, would leave rulers little choice by to accede to U.S. requests. This would lead ineluctably to an intensified U.S. military presence, as Washington deployed more ships and aircraft to defend countries providing base access, while carrying out offensive operations against Iran's military and ultimately its leadership. This could be an open-ended proposition, whereby tit-for-tat attacks mount in frequency and intensity, as each side moves to dominate the escalatory ladder. Given the size and sophistication of U.S. naval forces, the extensive infrastructure available to them along the Arab side of the Gulf, the head start the United States and its partners have exploited to improve missle defenses, and the steps that some basing countries, like the UAE, are taking to manage the consequenses of Iranian retaliatory attacks, it seems likely that Washington and its regional allies will be the side that enjoys escalation dominance.
Iraq and Afghanistan are two neighboring battlefields where Iran could try to retaliate by creating problems for the United States. But here the risk of direct U.S.-Iranian fighting could be somewhat lower than in the GCC scenario, since these attacks would be deniable events in the context of ongoing wars. Iranian IEDs killed American Soldiers during the height of the Iraqi civil war, but the United States refrained from retaliation even though the origin of the bombs was well established. Opportunities for Iranian action in Iraq will decline as U.S. forces are drawn down, but diplomats and other Americans will still be exposed to violence. U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be vulnerable for several years at least especially since the areas under coalition control closest to Iran are in Spanish and Italian hands and would present ample opportunities for inflitration.
The conflict also could widen to encompass Lebanon, even before an Israeli attack on Iran, should Israel seize on a Hezbollah cross-border action as an Iranian casus belli or simply to keep Hezbollah too busy to retaliate for an an Israeli attack on Iran. This would not entail a surgical strike. If it happened, an invasion would involve division-sized formations advancing on a broad front, in concert with air and maritime assault, to disarm Hezbellah and push its fighters back far enough to immunize northen Israel against missile attacks.
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