Victory in war means accomplishing one's political objectives, and some Iranian leaders seem to believe they could advance four of their main goals through armed conflict with the United States: namely, resisting "global arrogance," creating disorder in the oil markets, justifying nuclear breakout, and rallying the nation. If Iran were to make significant progress toward these objectives via hostilities against American forces, some in Tehran might conclude that they had won. More likely, however, the optimistic expectations of these overly confident, risktaking Iranian hardliners would not be realized, and war could turn out badly for the regime. Washington can do much to shape the perceptions of both Iranian leaders and world opinion regarding the risks Iran would face from such a conflict.
Resisting Global Arrogance
The Iranian doctrine of resistance assigns primary importance to psychological effects. In assuming that victory is achieved by demoralizing the enemy, it emphasizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of war over the physical and technological. From this viewpoint, how an action appears is the key test of its success. This fits well with a twenty-four-hour-news world in which image often matters more than reality.
The United States presents itself as, and is seen to be, a great military power. Standing up to U.S. forces could therefore be a great propaganda coup for Tehran. Consider that the Iranian navy still regards its 1988 confrontation with the United States -- sparked by the mining of a U.S. warship -- as a great victory that it studies closely, despite the sinking of several Iranian vessels. A new confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz and nearby Persian Gulf waters might play to Iran's greatest naval strength and the U.S. Navy's greatest weakness -- though of course even at its strongest, Iran's navy is still much weaker than the U.S. Navy at its weakest.
Iran has invested heavily to create a multilayered system for sinking ships: mines, missiles from fast craft, missiles from bunkers hidden in the hills along the strait, and submarines. In the most realistic U.S. Navy simulation of what war with Iran might be like -- the $250 million Millennium Challenge exercise conducted in 2002 -- a similar array of forces sank sixteen American ships and might have done even more damage had the Navy not stopped the game to change the rules. If Iran got lucky and sank a U.S. warship during an actual conflict, television viewers around the world might conclude that the Navy had lost the war no matter what happened next, since the destruction of a U.S. ship could define the conflict's public image. The Navy has not lost a ship since 1968, and its leaders rarely if ever mention the possibility that it might lose one in any war, much less one with Iran. Washington would therefore be prudent to shape expectations, frequently pointing out that while Iran might get in a few blows during a conflict, the more relevant measure of success would be whose forces are left standing at the end of the day, which would most assuredly be the U.S. military.
Iranian leaders might also decide that the U.S. and European strategy of escalating pressure leaves them with few options, in which case resistance may offer the best prospects. After all, when the United States got its nose bloodied by the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the 1993 Somali "Black Hawk down" incident, Washington withdrew its forces from both countries. Iran may hope for the same result via confrontation in the Gulf. Demonstrated U.S. commitment to continuing America's seventy-year military presence in the Gulf is the best way to disabuse Tehran of this notion.
The threat of fierce U.S. retaliation to any Iranian attack may not matter to some Iranian hardliners as much as one might think. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran's most powerful political force, does not necessarily care so much about the regular navy's large ships. The IRGC navy's swarming approach relies instead on hundreds of small boats that could mix in with the thousands of civilian dhows and other small craft in the Gulf. The U.S. Navy could face something akin to guerrilla warfare at sea, not the conflict-at-a-distance it prefers. Defeating such an opponent would take time, during which U.S. forces might appear tied down and not necessarily winning. The best way to forestall this line of Iranian propaganda is shaping expectations with statements -- such as those recently made by U.S. military leaders -- pointing out that fully halting Iranian attacks on shipping could take many weeks.
The United States should also carefully consider its escalation options, because each approach to broadening the fight could pose problems that must be prepared for in advance. For instance, attacks on Iran's oil infrastructure might drive prices up and invite Iranian retaliation against critical infrastructure in frightened Gulf monarchies -- a scenario that lends heightened importance to those countries' recent efforts to step up infrastructure protection. And ground operations, even by Special Forces, could prove controversial among Americans, most of whom would presumably not welcome perceptions of another land war. Any such actions should therefore be preceded by careful explanation of the underlying U.S. strategy.
Creating Disorder in Oil Markets
Iranian leaders may hope that attacks in the Gulf, especially if sustained for weeks, might create disorder in world oil markets. That would have two important benefits for Tehran. First, shortages could allow Iran to sell its oil at high prices despite U.S. and European pressure. The 1979 revolution, for example, cut Iran's oil exports in half but doubled world prices. Yet that outcome seems less likely today if plans are put in place to release strategic reserves and expand use of pipelines that bypass the Strait of Hormuz during the weeks-long process of halting Iran's attacks.