Iranian armed forces members march during the annual military parade in Tehran, Iran September 22, 2018.
(photo credit: TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
The US has many options to confront the Iranian regime and its proxies in the Middle East, according to former US Army intelligence officer Michael Pregent.
A senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Pregent published a map on Monday showing how the US can strike at Iran without needing to put any “boots on the ground” in the Islamic republic itself.
“I made this to counter the narratives of ‘war with Iran,’” he says. In recent days, amid the rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, Western media have argued that US President Donald Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton are rushing into a conflict with Iran. Rumors have swirled of plans to send 120,000 US forces to the Middle East.
The US administration has downplayed these stories and said it is not seeking war.
“I wanted to show where and how Iran could hit the US and [its] allies, and what a measured response would be,” Pregent says.
In the last week, four oil tankers were sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman; Iranian-backed Houthis used drones to attack Saudi oil facilities; and a rocket was fired near the US Embassy in Baghdad. Washington has warned that any attack by Iran or its proxies would result in retaliation.
How might that retaliation look?
Pregent’s map shows a variety of pressure points where Tehran, its allies and proxies are present. Iran is spread out over a huge arc that begins in the Bab el-Mandeb straits area all the way to Syria and Lebanon. Starting in Yemen, US allies – particularly the Saudis and Emiratis – could strike at the Houthis. In addition, America or its allies could strike at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps there.
If Americans are targeted in Iraq, the US could hit back at any of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias there. This includes Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is led by Qais Khazali, a one-time US detainee. Also Kata’ib Hezbollah – which is led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who the US views as a terrorist – could be targeted. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba could also be targeted.
The Iraqi political leader Muqtada al-Sadr already opposes these groups, and many voices in Iraq want the Shi’ite militias to be reduced in their influence. Since the rocket attack near the US Embassy, these groups have sought to distance themselves from anti-American statements because they fear conflict.
If Tehran seeks to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz near the UAE, Washington might respond by striking Iranian naval assets linked to the IRGC. The US has already designated the IRGC a terrorist organization, so it could conceivably target any IRGC elements at “terrorists.”
THE US has many other options on the table. For instance, it can try to disrupt Iran’s “land bridge,” which includes Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria that link Iran to its Hezbollah ally. That might mean the US and Israel working together against Iran’s bases in Syria, according to Pregent’s map.
In another scenario, Iran might seek to construct a nuclear weapon using the uranium that it seeks to enrich. In this case, Pregent says that the US could hit undeclared nuclear sites that are outside the 2015 “Iran Deal.” A 72-hour air campaign would set back Iran’s nuclear program by a decade, he writes.
Pregent notes that the current US campaign of pressure is working. Iran is having trouble funding operations in Syria and funding Hezbollah. Iran’s allies in Iraq are losing support and, by wasting money abroad, Iran’s regime is also losing support at home. For instance, Pregent notes that Iran’s supreme leader is briefed on the price of eggs and chickens each morning, a sign that Iran fears shortages and price raises for basic goods. It also cannot act with impunity in the region for fear of provoking both a European response and other Middle Eastern countries.
Israel is well positioned to handle the Hamas and Hezbollah threat, Pregent says. “The US is well positioned to respond to an effective attack in multiple areas. I would argue that any response should have a proxy target and an IRGC one as well, hit both simultaneously.”
For instance, that means if the US decided an Iraqi Shi’ite militia was responsible for the May 19 rocket attack near the embassy, it could strike a militia target and an IRGC adviser or command “node” somewhere else. It could even mean bracketing the attack, with one strike in Iraq and one in Syria. “Any response would be the first in 40 years and would mean something to the regime.”
Iran is watching US rhetoric and behavior carefully. Its proxies have sought to downplay their involvement in recent incidents, and Tehran is attempting to telegraph that neither it nor Trump want war. But at the same time, Iranian media continues to brag about some of its allies. For instance, Fars News says that the Houthis in Yemen humiliated the “great arsenal” of the Saudis.
Trump warned on May 19 that if Tehran wants a fight, it would result in the “official end of Iran” but he left open a call for negotiations. “In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse, very sad for the Iranian people,” he tweeted.