Tensions between the US and Iran have reached historic heights in recent weeks, prompting fears of a military confrontation that could escalate into all-out war.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on, how we got here, and what the stakes are.
What’s going on with Iran?
On May 5, National Security Adviser John Bolton issued a statement announcing the US was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East to counter unspecified threats from Iran.
Bolton said the US was not seeking war with Iran, but that the deployment was meant to send “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack” on the US or its allies “will be met with unrelenting force.”
The US has since repositioned or sent other military assets to the region.
The exact nature of the threats the US is responding to remains unclear, but officials have said there’s been indications of a “possible attack” against US forces in the region by Iran or its proxies.
Some reports have also suggested the Trump administration has discussed sending an additional 120,000 troops to the Middle East amid the tensions with Iran. The president on May 14 denied this, but said he’d be willing to send “a hell of a lot more” troops than 120,000 if necessary.
Iranian leaders have signaled they don’t want war with the US but are prepared to respond if attacked, while issuing veiled threats about their ability to quickly enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have raised alarm bells about the White House wanting war with Iran, and they’ve made it clear they would oppose any military action without congressional approval.
At the same time, Republicans in Congress are placing the blame on Iran for the confrontation and urging Trump to “stand firm.”
How did we get here?
The US and Iran have a complicated history and have been adversaries for decades, encapsulated by the oft-repeated “Death to America” chants from Iranian leaders.
In many ways, the modern US-Iran relationship began via a CIA-orchestrated coup in the 1950s that placed a pro-American monarch — Mohammad Reza Shah — in charge of the Middle Eastern country. The Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, an uprising that shaked the foundations of the Muslim world and led to the infamous hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran that continues to be a touchy subject in Washington.
After years of animosity, former President Barack Obama sought to improve relations with Iran via diplomacy. Obama’s administration orchestrated the landmark pact known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was finalized in July 2015 and aimed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.
Critics of the deal contended it didn’t go far enough to bar Iran from building nuclear weapons and said Tehran could not be trusted. Along these lines, Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018 despite no evidence Iran was violating its terms. This move put Washington at odds with key allies and the already contentious US-Iran relationship took a turn for the worse.
The situation was hardly improved after Trump in April designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terror organization. This prompted Iranian leaders to warn that any action taken against the country would lead to “a reciprocal action.”
The US and Iran have also been working against one another in the ongoing war in Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi-led coalition is fight against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. And in the ongoing Syria conflict, Iran and its proxies have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces Trump has launched military strikes against.
Many Democratic lawmakers and some experts feel Trump’s Iran policy is being driven by Bolton, who has long been hawkish toward Tehran. Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq War, has expressed support for a military strike against Iran a number of times in the past.
What are the stakes?
A war with Iran would potentially be more calamitous than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, bogged the US down in a costly and lengthy war, and helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic state group (ISIS).
Iran has a population of roughly 82 million people and its military is ranked as the 14th most powerful in the world. According to recent estimates, Iran has 523,000 active military personnel in addition to 250,000 reserve personnel.
Comparatively, Iraq had a population of roughly 25 million and the Iraqi military had fewer than 450,000 personnel when the US invaded over a decade ago.
Iran is also much bigger than Iraq geographically — 591,000 square miles of land versus 168,000 square miles, and its influence has grown as the power of its rival, Iraq, collapsed in the wake of the US war there.
If the US launched an attack against Iran, it would also reverberate across the Middle East. Iran has proxies throughout the region and is allied with militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon. A revised Pentagon estimate released in April found Iranian proxy forces killed at least 608 US troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
Moreover, Iran shares a border with a number of countries the US considers allies and has a military presence in — including Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan. None of these countries are especially stable at the moment, as they all continue to deal with ongoing conflicts and their consequences (including millions of displaced people).
In terms of other geopolitical blowback, Iran is allied with Russia and China and it’s unclear how these major powers might react if conflict breaks out. Key US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are adversaries of Iran and just a stone’s throw away from it, would also likely get sucked into a US-Iran war.
A war with Iran could also be extraordinarily disruptive economically given it borders the Straight of Hormuz, a narrow route that roughly a third of the world’s oil tanker traffic travels through. Experts have predicted that if the route were blocked it would quickly lead to a 30% drop in daily global oil exports and prices would rapidly go up, the Washington Post reported.
Iran’s forces would likely be defeated by the US, but could exact a heavy toll with cruise missiles, naval mines, and fighter jets. Any troops that survive could blend into the population and lead a brutal insurgency against the US occupation force. That was the scenario that unfolded for the US in Iraq, a country a third the size of Iran, and proved to be an insurmountable challenge.
In short, though the US has a military that is consistently ranked the most powerful in the world, evidence suggests a war with Iran would be devastating in myriad ways.