USA and Iran - The military options of the US

The United States has openly accused Iran of being behind the drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery. Now the question is what the United States will do in response

Iran, Hormus: Das „Tal der Statuen“ auf der Hormus Insel in Südiran
Iran, Hormus: Das „Tal der Statuen“ auf der Hormus Insel in Südiran / picture alliance


George Friedman ist einer der bekanntesten geopolitischen Analysten in den Vereinigten Staaten. Der 67 Jahre alte Politologe leitet die von ihm gegründete  Denkfabrik Geopolitical Futures und ist Autor zahlreicher Bücher. Zuletzt erschien „Flashpoints – Pulverfass Europa“ im Plassen-Verlag.

So erreichen Sie George Friedman:


Diese englischsprachige Kolumne erscheint regelmäßig auf Cicero Online in Kooperation mit der Denkfabrik Geopolitical Futures.

The United States has openly accused Iran of being behind the drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery. Now the question is what the United States will do in response.

The U.S. is in a difficult position. The attacks did not directly affect the U.S., save for the spike in oil prices, which actually helps the American oil industry. There is a temptation to let the attacks slip into history. But the United States has formed an anti-Iran alliance in which Saudi Arabia is a key (though weak) player. Saudi Arabia is under internal pressure from members of the royal family who oppose Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and low oil prices have undermined the kingdom’s political cohesion. Doing nothing would call the U.S.-sponsored coalition into question. Saudi Arabia is an important player in the Sunni Arab world – and that world is the main threat to Iranian expansion. Failing to respond to an Iranian attack on a vital Saudi facility could help Iran increase its power throughout the region. During Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States’ inclination has been to avoid initiating direct military action in favor of applying economic pressure instead. He has maneuvered to minimize and halt active military engagement. Military action against Iran, therefore, would both endanger the alliance structure and cut against U.S. strategy.

Problems with new sanctions

An alternative option would be to introduce new sanctions, but there are two problems with this move. First, sanctions do not have the psychological impact military action does. The psychological impact would be on both Iran and the Sunni world, and the logic of the situation requires it. Second, the U.S. has already imposed painful sanctions on Iran’s economy. Any further sanctions would have limited effect and insufficient heft.

There is one military option that would have a severe economic shock but would also limit U.S. exposure: imposing a blockade on Iranian ports, with a selective closure of the Strait of Hormuz. This strategy has three weaknesses. First, a large naval force of multiple carrier battle groups would have to be deployed for a potentially unlimited time. Second, the fleet could come under attack from Iranian missiles, and while we would assume that U.S. naval vessels have effective anti-missile capabilities, any mistake could cost the U.S. a major vessel. To counter this, anti-missile air attacks as well as defensive measures would be needed, creating a second potentially costly dimension to this operation. Finally, such a blockade is by definition without a terminal point. If Iran does not fold under the pressure, the blockade could continue indefinitely, since ending it without a successful outcome would be seen as a defeat.

Launching strikes to Iranian targes

Another possible response would be to launch strikes against Iranian targets. The most appropriate target would be the factories producing drones and cruise missiles, along with storage facilities and so on. Here, the problem is getting accurate intelligence. The U.S. has undoubtedly been cataloging such things, but acting on poor information could result in an Iranian strike on U.S. forces or another sensitive site under informal American protection. This would only compound the problem of the Iranian attacks on the Saudi refinery.

The difficult question the U.S. faces is whether it should take an action so painful that it will block any further actions from Iran. If a blockade doesn’t shatter Iran’s economy, then escalation to eliminate its offensive air capability is needed. As for an air campaign, history has shown that they tend to take much longer than expected and sometimes fail altogether, providing the adversary an opportunity to take offensive action on its own. A U.S. attempt to eliminate Iran’s strike capability can be costly, and hidden Iranian missiles can attack regional targets. As with a blockade, an air campaign can go on indefinitely. Small-scale retaliatory strikes open the door to Iranian countermoves and could escalate into an extended operation.

Occupation Warfare

As for sending in ground troops, not only does that not quickly solve the problem of Iranian air power, but it also returns the U.S. to a posture it has been in since 2001: occupation warfare. The U.S. military fully deployed can defeat the Iranian military and take terrain, but to hold it against a hostile militia would create interminable conflict with casualties that cannot be sustained. Iran is a big and rugged country, with a population of 82 million people, more than twice as large as Iraq or Afghanistan. And the idea that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators is mere fantasy.

Apart from an air attack on Iran designed not to achieve a significant goal but rather to give the Saudis confidence in the U.S., the options for a direct attack are not promising. But there is another way to think about this problem. The United States has been concerned about Iran’s expanding political influence. But this creates potential targets that are of high value to Iran – and hitting these targets would be less daunting than an attack on Iran itself. Iran has its own or proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It has invested a great deal of time, resources and risk in creating these forces that are now holding territory in these countries.

Hezbollah could be crippled

Consider Lebanon, a place where Iran has been highly active since the 1980s through its proxy Hezbollah. If Hezbollah could be crippled, the political structure of Lebanon would shift out of Iran’s control, and Iran’s anchor on the Mediterranean would be gone. Such an operation could not be left to the Israelis partly because their force is much smaller than what the U.S. could bring to bear, and also because collaboration between U.S. and Israeli forces would put the U.S.’ Sunni allies in a difficult position. Such a response would directly hurt Iran’s interests but could be carried out at lower risk and at higher cost than other options.

Indeed, the very threat of an attack on Hezbollah might cause the Iranians to change their strategy. Of course, an attack there might also unleash a torrent of missile strikes from Iran, and that is the downside of this and all the other strategies. But the advantage is that where other strategies would likely fail to achieve their goals, an attack on Hezbollah might well succeed. It would be something Iran would not want to see and would be carried out by secure U.S. forces. Alternatively, the U.S. could attack Iranian forces in Syria, but that would have a lower impact.

Open-ended exchange

This is a theoretical exercise; answering Iran’s attacks with an air campaign on a proxy power is unlikely. The Saudis would have trouble portraying it as U.S. commitment to Saudi security. Attacks in Syria, Iraq and Yemen would all suffer from a lack of clarity and from the fact that Iran itself would not be hit. There is the possibility that the Saudi air force could retaliate, but its ability to sustain losses and conduct an extended air campaign is doubtful. The Saudis could fire missiles at Iran, but that would begin an open-ended exchange, and the U.S. strategy has to be to hurt Iran in a mission with closure.

The Iranians know the dilemma they have posed the United States. They have bet that the risks are too high for the United States to respond. But the problem in Iran’s thinking is it can’t be sure the degree to which the U.S. sees Iranian expansion as a threat to U.S. long-term interests in the region. So the Iranians are asking the U.S.: Are you feeling lucky?

There would appear to be no good military options. Doing nothing could well destroy the anti-Iran bloc the U.S. has worked hard to create. The likely but not certain answer to this problem will be a symbolic retaliation. The problem with retaliations, however, is that they get out of hand.

Christoph Kuhlmann | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 12:47

America is exhausted by the wars in Irak and Afghanistan. Two Trillion dollars has been spend for too little progress for democracy there. At the moment it tries to avoid a Chinese dominance. Not just economically but military to. Growth in Asia is depending much more of the oil price than in the USA or Germany. So there might be a deal for the great deal maker to end economic war with China for a military alliance against Iran. This country is a threat for the oil market and the global growth. China`'s economic expansion can be answered with much more sublime means than customs duties. Democracy is under pressure and needs a clever leadership in global competition.

towards Iran? Even if one condemns Iran as a rogue state, Teherans behaviour is certainly not seedier than that of Saudi-Arabia, geopolitically and beyond. Just to remember: Trump concluded the "biggest arms deal in the history of the US" - so he boasted, with the Saudis, a fundamentalist regime that presumably supports militant Islamic movements all over the world - not to mention the recent murder of a known journalist, which most likely was commissioned by a prominent member of the Saudi nobility. Considering Donald Trumps narcissistic and highly neurotic character, the obvious reason seems his compulsion to prove to the world that the nuclear agreement with Iran was a failure - Trump apparently hates his predecessor and tries to annul everything Obama accomplished. One might be puzzled over Trump - yet his choices are limited: With presidential elections coming up, the people of the USA will not appreciate participation in another war, which, moreover, easily could be lost.

Gestatten Sie mir eine deutsche Antwort auf ihr statement in englischer Sprache.
Ich bin kein Deutschtümler, sondern finde das Thema zu wichtig, es nur den englischsprachigen Kommentatoren zu überlassen.-
Ihre Einschätzung der Gründe Trumps, den Iran bis zur höchsten Eskalationsstufe=Krieg zu reizen ergänze ich um die seit vielen Jahren von Netanjahu-Israel ausgehende Forderung an die USA, den Iran zu vernichten.
Dazu dienen vor allem die brutalen Sanktionen, die Trump jetzt nochmals verstärken will. Sie richten sich gegen das iranische Volk, nicht gegen irgendwelche Diktatoren oder Mullahs. Die Verlogenheit der US -middle east-Politik ist offensichtlich in Form der - wie Sie richtig dargestellt haben - allumfassenden Kooperation mit dem brutal-wahabitischen Saudi-Arabien.
Ob Trump durch Obama,-und europäisch ausgehandelte Iran-Abkommen trotz Einhaltung des Atomabkommens durch Iran krankheitsbedingt abschafft - und ob die US-Bevölkerung kriegsmüde ist - mag ich bezweifeln.-

I would fully agree. Whereby I still believe that Trump's aggression is based on the fact that any agreement with Iran is contrary to the interests of the US-oil industry. Moreover, for obvious narcissistic reasons - Trump doubtlessly has serious character defects - anything successfully accomplished by his so much hated predecessor Obama must be proven by him as failure.

He wants a new deal, with right. Not just the development of A-bombs is a threat but the development of rockets too. Karl Marx predicted that capitalism will sell the rope it will be hanged with. I think German governance would full fill his prophecy. Iran is the driving power of many conflicts in the Middle East and their militias are in progress. Trump wants a better deal and not a war. Iran wants power in many countries and has to be contained effectively. Saudi-Arabia violates human rights as well as Iran but it's not a threat for the West and the global economy. The USA is not the Big Satan and its allies the small ones for Saudi-Arabia but for Iran. Israel is threatened by Iran and not by Saudi-Arabia. Moral statements in international affairs are either naive or hypocrisy. Welcome in reality.

he wants Iran to capitulate. In part, his aggressive behaviour is certainly destined at the domestic population. Trump wants to prove himself to the American people as the successful fighter who eventually forced Iran to her knees. And, of course, that he did this - like everything else - much better than Obama. In his own thinking, he himself is the best president the US ever enjoyed. Such mindset proves a highly disturbed personality.
I haven't got the slightest doubt that Iran is the originator of permanent violence and turmoil in the Middle East. Yet Saudi-Arabia, though not direcly threatening Israel, is certainly no better. Attacking Iran the way Trump does will only help the hardliners in Iran. And, that should be kept in mind, Iran has the technology and knowledge to build nuclear weapons - which one day could attack Israel. So some kind of agreement will not only strenghten the moderate fractions in Iran, it will help to maintain - I agree - fragile peace.

Henning Magirius | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 14:28

finanziere ich mit meinem deutschsprachigen Cicero-Online- und Papierheftabo einen englischsprachigen Text, den ich nicht verstehe? Warum wird er nicht von der Redaktion übersetzt?

Online-Redaktion | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 15:34

In reply to by Gast

Lieber Herr Magirius,

Sie finanzieren nichts daran. Die Analysen von George Friedmans Beiträgen, die andernorts ohnehin erschienen, dürfen wir übernehmen und veröffentlichen. Ein Service für englische Leser. Niemand zwingt Sie, ihn zu lesen.

Beste Grüße


Gerhard Lenz | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 15:39

In reply to by Online-Redaktion

...many thanks for your articles in the English language. I would even appreciate such articles regularly, possibly on a weekly basis.

Gerhard Lenz | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 15:40

In reply to by Gast

...von Ihnen und anderen mittlerweile als Leib-und-Magenmedium der Neuen Rechten vermutet, hat natürlich ausschliesslich in Deutsch zu veröffentlichen.

Daran erkennt man den deutschen Kleingeist.

Wilfried Düring | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 16:20

In reply to by Gast

Nicht jeder ist in Westdeutschland zur Schule gegangen und hatte entsprechend lange Englisch-Unterricht. In der Ostzone plagten wir uns ab Klasse 5 mit Russisch. Ich hab es nach der 'Wende' nie geschafft den (sprachlichen) Rückstand aufzuholen - entsprechend mangelhaft ist mein rudimentäres Englisch.
Aber trotzdem danke, daß Sie Menschen wie mir, wieder ein 'Zeugnis' ausstellen. Soviel Respekt macht Mut.

Gerhard Lenz | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 16:34

In reply to by Gast

Mr. Düring. Aber es geht gar nicht darum, etwas nicht zu können (weil man nie die Chance hatte, es zu lernen).
Es geht darum, etwas zu tolerieren.

Josef Olbrich | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 16:50

In reply to by Gast

Herr Lenz, haben Sie sich schon mal Gedanken darüber gemacht, wie man etwas tolerieren kann, dessen Inhalt man sprachlich nicht versteht?

Gerhard Lenz | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 17:46

In reply to by Gast

wurde doch klar genannt. Haben Sie ein Problem damit, dass da ausnahmsweise mal ein Text in einer Sprache auftaucht, die Sie nicht verstehen? Fürchten Sie, etwas zu verpassen? Any further communication solely in English, please.

Sie können das Niveau heben und bieten vielen Lesern eine intellektuelle Herausforderung. Allerdings sehe ich keinen Grund Herrn Düring irgendetwas zu unterstellen. Ich hatte selbst das zweifelhafte Vergnügen in der Schule Latein statt Französisch zu lernen und bedaure das Heute noch.

Alexander Mazurek | Di, 24. September 2019 - 00:36

In reply to by Gast

... most of your -german- evil is of protestant Anglo-Saxon origin: Hume (is–ought problem), Malthus (beware of man), Hobbes (Leviathan), Darwin (Rassenkunde) and Galton (eugenics) are it's founding fathers.

Kurt Walther | Mi, 18. September 2019 - 19:23

George Friedman kommt also zu dem Schluss, dass es als Gegenreaktion auf die Zerstörung saudischer Ölanlagen keine geeignete militärische Optionen für Trump gibt.
Immerhin, die USA haben den Iran offen beschuldigt, hinter den Drohnen- und Marschflugkörperangriffen auf Saudi-Arabiens größte Ölraffinerie zu stehen. Jetzt nichts zu tun, würde vor allem den neu geschaffenen Anti-Iran-Block gefährden.
Ich sehe hier eine völlig neue Eskalation betreffs Technikeinsatz. Der Iran hat tatsächlich so einiges davon in seinen Arsenalen. Und an der Atombombe werden sie - so oder so - auch weiterwerkeln. Die Saudis sind in diesem Punkte und auch hinsichtlich militärischer Kampfstärke den Iranern unterlegen und setzen auf die USA. Trump will aber neue Kriege unbedingt vermeiden, nicht zuletzt wegen der anstehenden US-Präsidentenwahlen. Ich vermute, dass es zu Blockaden der iranischen Häfen kommen wird und zu einem schärferen Vorgehen gegen die Milizen des Irans im Ausland, z.B. im Libanon.

Gisela Fimiani | Do, 19. September 2019 - 11:37

As long as European political actors exhaust themselves in cheap Trump-Bashing and thus avoiding to take a clear and rational position, there won‘t be any chance in finding common „Western“ ground. Iran, as well as China, welcome Europe in choosing the US to be the adversary rather than the ally. They act accordingly. Europe may eventually find to have made a fatal choice. Appeasement and shortsighted interests may backlash in the longer run.

Horst Weber | Fr, 20. September 2019 - 17:34

Wie leicht wird doch jede von den USA herbeigeführte politische Krise in (bislang) relativ wehrlosen Ländern mit der Drohung des Krieges weltweit etabliert. Von Prof. Stürmers Frage vor dem Irak-Krieg: "...ja, wollen Sie denn kein Öl ?.. bis hin zu der Frage: wer griff die saudischen Ölfelder an (?) gibt es auf Seiten der USA und der verbal kombattierenden internationalen Medien überhaupt keine Frage nach Beweisen. Schon G.W. Bush wusste Minuten nach dem WTC-Crash den Urheber zu nennen.
Auch die strikte Einhaltung der Atomvereinbarungen durch Iran (bis zuletzt sogar nach Kündigung des Abkommens durch USA) hatte keinen Einfluss auf die sofort in Schussbereitschaft geschickte US-Flotte. Die Unterstützung von Widerstandsorganisationen in Palästina und Libanon durch Iran ist zumindest ideologisch (nicht quantitativ) vergleichbar mit der Unterstützung Israels durch sämtliche US-abhängigen Staaten.
Der brutale Krieg der Saudis gegen Jemen juckt auch niemanden im Westen. Krieg ist in !

Alexander Mazurek | Di, 24. September 2019 - 00:24

… make a living from perpetual wars far away from home. President Eisenhower's warning of the military-industrial complex came too late.