"It might be argued that there could be proxy operations. We can say America, Mr. Trump, has taken action directly against us -- so we take direct action against America."
"Our reaction will be wise, well considered and in time, with decisive deterrent effect."
"It was America that has started the war. Therefore, they should accept appropriate reactions to their actions..."
"The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow they have inflicted. Afterward they should not seek a new cycle."
"If he says 52 we say 300 -- and they are accessible to us..."
"The response will definitely be a military response"
Those are the words of Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, the previous Defence Minister of Iran and current Senior Military Advisor to the Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, in an interview with CNN. It now looks almost certain that Iran has chosen to take direct military action - or "Option 2", as I described it on Saturday - to retaliate against the US for assassinating Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani. Given the Trump administration's promises to respond in kind, we look to be heading towards a conflict.
What will the conflict look like?Dehghan reiterated the fact that Iran's leadership "officially announced that we have never been seeking war and we will not be seeking war." Meanwhile, Donald Trump has repeatedly said he doesn't want war. This is not a surprise, as one of Donald Trump's main campaign promises was to stop "endless wars". Therefore, both sides will seek to limit and control escalation, in order to prevent what might be a very short exchange turning into a full-scale conflict. Iran and the US have both expressed desire to avoid an all-out war.
DYNAMICS: Iran will have military initiative, focusing on punitive action. United States will be on the military defensive.
IRANIAN OBJECTIVES: (1) Deter US from repeating actions, (2) attain political victory by satisfying national need for "revenge", (3) avoid undue escalation.
AMERICAN OBJECTIVES: (1) Prevent Iran from achieving military victory, (2) avoid political defeat, (3) avoid undue escalation.
Despite Iran's objectives [(1) and (2) specifically], Iran will still have a higher tolerance for casualties than the US. This may be necessary to ensure the conflict does not escalate. After all, Iran's objectives are political not military in nature. It also means that the US is unlikely to inflict political defeat on Iran.
Conversely, the US' relatively low tolerance for casualties and losses means that Iran does not need to conduct particularly expansive strikes to attain objective (1) and (2), thus helping it to also attain objective (3) with lower risk.
While Iraq and Syria may be the initial focuses of Iran's punitive strikes, expansion into other countries is unlikely. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both urged restraint and avoided displeasing Iran in the wake of (posthumously promoted) Lieutenant General Soleimani's assassination, stressing that they had no prior knowledge of the strike. Qatar, which has become an almost pseudo-"friend" of Iran, even had its Foreign Minster in Iran after the assassination to express his condolences. Even Israel has reportedly distanced itself from partaking in any ensuing confrontation. The noncommittal overtures by the Persian Gulf Arab states are useful for Iran, as they host massive US military bases that could have been used in the upcoming conflict. They are therefore likely to request the bases in their territory are not used against Iran, for fear of Iranian retaliation. Preventing the spread of the confrontation will also help contain escalation.
Therefore, it's highly likely that after Iraq, the most significant theatre of engagement could be in and over international waters in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The US may still be able to strike Iran with LACMs and standoff missiles, but it will avoid flying aircraft directly over or close to Iran due to Iran's extensive air defences.
SCALE and SCOPE
Iran will likely make punitive strikes with political significance, but in an effort to limit escalation, will avoid trying to inflict serious military defeats in the initial strike. Serious military defeats would be described as the sinking or maiming of surface ships, or destroying significant numbers of aircraft on the ground. Therefore, Iran may target a US infantry base or HQ, with the aim of inflicting casualties rather than significant loss of equipment. This would also satisfy objective (2) for Iran.
The US is likely to escalate to some degree (even if limited), probably by striking a wide and geographically diverse range of targets in Iran. These could include air defence and surface-to-surface missile sites, local military headquarters, and maybe some limited infrastructure damage at targets such as offshore oil rigs or parts of refineries (similar to the Aramco attack). Beyond that, it is unlikely that the US would escalate further. In response to such an action Iran may attack whatever additional targets are in reach - specifically US airbases or ships (especially) that participated in the attack. Sinking of warships is not specifically required - ships sustaining visible, heavy damage could be enough of a response if Iran is satiated by its initial punitive strike.
It is at the immediately following juncture that significant risk of escalation is present - if, following the 3rd round of engagement (Iran taking its "turn" after the US strikes Iran) the US decides to try and sink Iranian warships, Iran may have to respond in kind.
Iran Turn 1 (IT1): Punitive Strikes
US Turn 1 (UST1): Response to IT1
Iran Turn 2 (IT2): Retaliation to UST1
Immediately following IT2, it is at the US' discretion if they want to continue engaging Iranian warships or the mainland. At this point, mediators have to be coming into play to try and convince each side to de-escalate and broker a ceasefire. If a possible UST2 must be played, they may be able to to convince the US to blunt its blow such that Iran does not feel obliged to take an additional turn. It is in the interests of both sides for the crisis not to continue because the longer it goes on, the higher the risk of escalation. "Getting the last word in" must be discouraged.
As it is only a limited conflict with deterrent-based political objectives for both sides, there will be no time or scope for US war exhaustion to set in, nor for the US to force Iran into a military defeat. It is not possible for either side to lose in the classic sense. Therefore, for the conflict scenario to end quickly, both sides must be able to claim victory. For Iran, victory would come in the form of properly avenging Shahid Qassem Soleimani, and sufficiently answering the US retaliation as it has promised to do. For the US, it could claim victory if it is able to limit military losses in the conflict phase, while retaliating enough against Iran to be able to claim an "on paper" military victory.
The upcoming conflict is likely to be short and intense, and highly limited to the seas and skies. Neither side is likely to deploy "troops on the ground", even for special operations. The dynamic of Iran having the initiative is an unusual one from a conventional military standpoint. Moreover, the desire by both sides to limit escalation could play into Iran's hands; while the US has by far the stronger military, it cannot use all of the firepower available to it. This is also hampered by the limited SCALE, SCOPE, and THEATRES of the conflict. Iran also has the advantage of having a higher tolerance for casualties, meaning it could still claim political victory despite taking greater casualties. By claiming such a political victory, it will have also have achieved objective (1) of deterring the US.
One could also argue that in a conflict dictated not by military force, but by the ability of leaders to control escalation and make calculated decisions, Iran possesses something the US lacks.