Donald Trump has stopped the potential attack on Iran, because the White House leader believes there is no reason to venture into a new conflict in the Middle East that this time could have devastating effects on the whole region (and certainly also globally). However, it was not only Trump who called off the hounds in his administration. Another fundamental part of the American state – the Pentagon – has asked to avoid open warfare and has been holding back from armed intervention for some time.
American generals do not want a war with Tehran. Or at least they are perfectly aware that, despite the clear technological superiority of the United States, it would not be able to cover all the risks of a full-scale war against what could be considered the greatest military power in the Middle East, together with Israel. Underestimating the strength of the Islamic Republic is a mistake that the Pentagon knows full well that it cannot make. Tehran has already shown that it has the ability to react to attacks, but, above all, it has demonstrated a far greater strategic ability than the other countries of the Middle East to go up against the United States in recent years. Furthermore, a direct war with Iran would not be without consequences for the US military and their allies.
The first problem primarily concerns Iranian military strength, which is undoubtedly significant, and which the Global Firepower Index places 14th in its world rankings. As recently mentioned by The Washington Post – which reports on the studies of the Congressional Research Service – Tehran can currently count on an army of about 700,000 men. Of these, 350,000 are regular forces, while the Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, comprise 125,000 men, plus 20,000 for their navy alone, and an unknown number for their air force. There are also the security forces (about 60,000) and the Basij, the Iranian paramilitary force that receives orders directly from the Pasdaran. Their numbers are unknown, and they are generally to be considered usable only in the case of full-scale conflict on Iranian territory. In any case, as a minimum there would be at least 300,000 reservists.
From a numerical point of view, therefore, Iran already represents a significant opponent to the intervention of any army, and is evidently the strongest power in the entire Persian Gulf and in the Middle East. However, quantity is certainly not synonymous with quality – this is demonstrated by the fact that Tehran cannot compete with Washington from an air force and navy point of view, or in terms of missiles, at least at present. Iran has around 300 military aircraft, but these are mostly Mig-29, Su-24, or old F-4, F-5 and F-14 fighter jets purchased before Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. Additionally they have 89 transport aircraft and 104 training aircraft.
The same can be said about their navy. Iran, according to the latest data, possesses about a hundred warships, including surface vehicles and submarines. Although it is not comparable to the US Navy, already present in the Persian Gulf with the Fifth Fleet, it is quite clear that it should still be considered an instrument of war capable of decisive strikes against neighbouring countries and any merchant or military craft crossing the Persian Gulf. This is an area largely controlled not so much by the Iranian navy as by the Revolutionary Guards. If you also consider the system of underwater mines that the Persian authorities have installed in various areas of the sea that divides Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, in particular in the Strait of Hormuz, and the fleet of assault motorboats possessed by the Pasdaran, it is understandable that there is a fear that the Gulf could turn into hell on earth.
This fear is also provoked by Iran’s missile arsenal. From a defensive point of view, Iran has around 150 I-HAWK systems, plus a supply of Russian S-300 systems. Deliveries had been frozen for about ten years before this block was removed by Russia in 2016 with the delivery of the first S-300. Tehran has requested to begin negotiations with Moscow for the purchase of S-400s. However, for now there is silence from the Kremlin, who are aware that excessively arming Iran does not benefit their Middle Eastern strategy. As well as these systems, Iran has an offensive missile capacity, the cutting edge of which comprises the Shahab-3, a medium-range ballistic missile, which has a range of almost 1300km and has a variant that can even reach 2000km. With these missiles alone, Iran can reach any Middle Eastern capital as well as US targets and allies in the region.
It is for this latter reason why the Pentagon and the President of the United States do not want to arrive at a military conflict, since war with Iran would involve a clash with an enemy that could destabilise the whole region. Tehran could hit all the US allies in the Gulf and in the Middle East, but above all it would put at risk both the sea through which a large part of the world’s oil is transported, and also all the areas of conflict in which Iran is involved. The Islamic Republic forces could not only affect US allies, but also cause conflicts in any area where proxies for Tehran are present; they could escalate tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border with Hezbollah, in Syria, Iraq and Yemen (with the Houthi militias), and with all the global militias linked to Tehran and the Quds forces. This could also jeopardise naval traffic in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The United States cannot afford this level of risk: Iran in recent years has built a network of alliances that may be perfectly capable of putting the entire region in danger.
Precisely for this reason, the approach of the White House and the Pentagon was much less severe than that of some advisers in the American administration. A conflict? Better not, or at least not with bombers and warships. It is therefore not a coincidence that Washington has opted for a wave of cyber attacks against Iranian military infrastructure, and in particular the Pasdaran. They wanted to damage Iran digitally with a precise raid, but without triggering a conventional military retaliation. However, cyber warfare and American technological leadership should not be taken for granted. Iran has a technological strength that far exceeds the expectations of many detractors. Furthermore, this US attack also served to test the capabilities of Persian defence against cyber warfare.