US intelligence officials have recently warned that Iran may attempt to conduct attacks on the US mainland in retaliation for what is presumed to be ongoing US and Israeli covert efforts to thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions. Computer viruses have infected Iran’s nuclear laboratories, aerial drones have violated its airspace, and several of its nuclear scientists have been assassinated. Given the evidence that international economic sanctions against Tehran are beginning to have a significant impact on the Iranian economy, and given Iran’s increasing isolation, some analysts believe that Iran may think it has little to lose by attacking the US homeland.
We believe that an Iranian attack on the US is unlikely, but the Iranian government may believe such an attack is in its best interest, if: It conducted an attack in such a way as to make full-scale retaliation unlikely. A war between Iran and the US would ultimately prove a Pyrrhic victory. Facing growing discontent, it became desperate and felt it must take action in order preserve itself.
Iran could sponsor an attack if it believed the consequences for such an action would be small and bearable. If Iran utilized a proxy, for example, its involvement may be difficult to prove with certainty, and Tehran could maintain plausible deniability for an attack. It could sponsor a strike that was either too insignificant to justify a full-scale US response, or too nebulous to clearly identify Iran as the perpetrator. Iran knows that the US government does not desire another conflict in the Persian Gulf, given the state of the American economy and ongoing resource constraints in its military.
In the event of a minor attack, the US would probably launch some type of retaliatory strike, but far smaller than a full-scale retaliation. The psychological impact of any such attack – piercing the ‘invulnerability’ of US homeland security – could prove valuable to Iran and America’s other enemies.
Even though Iran would be devastated by a military conflict with the United States, it could hope to gain some type of Pyrrhic victory. Some of Tehran’s leaders believe that a conflict with the US may occur regardless, and that the best course of action may be to conduct a preemptive attack and fight a war on their own terms before economic sanctions choke the life out of the Iranian economy. Iran knows it cannot match the American military in the field, but it does possess some reasonably advanced weapons systems, which if used well, could inflict serious damage on US military assets in the region. Its mines, submarines, and anti-ship missiles are certainly capable of hitting US ships at sea.
Iran could also potentially create havoc for US land forces in Afghanistan and other bases in the region with surface-to-surface missiles. Given their proximity to the Iranian border, a foray against US troops in Kuwait is also not out of the question. Tehran may believe that a conflict with the US may ultimately strengthen the country by prompting Iranians of many political persuasions to back the regime out of a sense of nationalism. Even though the Iranian government knows that a full-scale war will leave it militarily devastated, it also understands that it will survive the conflict – perhaps stronger than it is today. The US has neither the money, manpower, nor inclination to use ground troops to attempt to topple Iran’s leaders or occupy the country.
The leaders in Tehran are veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, and are not unaccustomed to carnage. They could prove surprising willing to put their country through yet another bloodbath, in the name of national pride. In their minds, a war with the US may potentially strengthen their position, weaken US influence in the Persian Gulf, and bring a sense of unity to what is otherwise a fractious country. It would also presumably seize the opportunity to crack down on a multitude of opposition figures in the process.
Given these above scenarios, the likelihood of Iranian sponsored attack on the US homeland seems unlikely, for Iran holds a significant logistical and geographical advantage on its own turf. Any closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran would undoubtedly prove short-lived, but would in all likelihood result in a major spike in oil prices that would be slow to fall back to pre-conflict levels. This has more of a chance of inflicting longer-term economic pain on the US (and the rest of the world), which is why Iran is likelier to attempt to close the Strait than attack the US homeland.