With the recent US military action against General Qasem Soleimani, people have been going mad suggesting this could escalate into a third world war. Even though this could in theory happen it would depend on so many factors it’s extremely unlikely, even impossible.
Even though Iran is widely supported by China and Russia a strike against Iran does not bring them into open conflict with the west. Since the beginning of the Cold War, we have seen most conflict being played out between proxies without the direct involvement of the superpowers. Examples can be seen in the many minor wars in the Middle East that involved Israel. During these conflicts, Israel was armed by the US and France and took on the Soviet equipped and funded militaries of Syria and Egypt.
Whilst Iran was previously armed by the US and Britain during the era of the Shah, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution Russia and later China began to sell arms to the extremist regime as a way of exerting influence over the region and to make the import of oil from Iran easier. As can so often be seen in the Middle East it’s about access to natural resources.
Iran, as of 2014 had over 37 billion tonnes of proven extractable minerals, with another 57 billion tonnes in potential reserves that are as yet unproven. This, alongside the fact that Iran has around 10% of the world’s reserves of oil and 17% of the worlds natural gas makes Iran a very popular choice to align ourselves with, even if they have a questionable regime.
Iran is even attempting to hold on to these natural resources for the time being. Iran is the only nation aiming to maintain it’s reserves to allow them to continue exporting into the future.
Although these reasons, alongside the fact that Iran and the US don’t get along, mean that China and Russia will back Iran doesn’t mean they will openly escalate any conflict.
Russia is extremely worried about the situation in Eastern Europe as NATO has expanded since the Cold War. If the US were to enter into open conflict with Iran, Russia would most likely be looking at consolidating its recent gains in Ukraine, possibly even going so far as to incorporate the eastern regions into the Russian state. Even though the Baltic states have become increasingly worried about Russian aggression in Eastern Europe it is extremely unlikely that Russia would move against them.
If Russia did indeed decided to attempt a takeover of the Baltics, they would find themselves on the receiving end of NATO strikes, crippling the Russian ability to make war. This, coupled with the fact that NATO has been increasing its forces forward-deployed in Eastern Europe during recent years means that Russia wouldn’t be able to take the Baltics without receiving unacceptable losses.
The US has made much noise recently about the lack of defence spending by its European NATO partners. Although only six of the US’s European partners defence spending is over 2% of GDP NATO target, the forces in Europe are not to be sniffed at. In key areas such as naval and aerial warfare, the European NATO nations hold an extreme advantage over Russia.
The entire British plan to combat Russia is based around securing the Scandinavian countries and the Greenland Iceland UK Gap, commonly referred to as GIUK. The British military is still very adept at doing such tasks, with the Royal Navy likely being capable of preventing the breakout of the Russian Navy into the North Atlantic without major US support and the Royal Marines more than capable at the artic warfare that would be required in supporting Norway or Sweden. This, coupled with Norway possessing strong army and coastal forces means that Russia would be extremely exposed on its northern flank.
A land war in Central Europe, however, maybe another story. Much has been made over recent years about Germany’s refusal to spend more on defence. Indeed, it came out in 2018 that only 4 of the Luftwaffe’s 128 Eurofighter Typhoons were combat-capable. The Bundeswehr (German Army) isn’t in a much better state, with less than half their Leopard 2 tanks and only a fifth of the battlefield helicopters being in a fit state to see battle. It would be up to Britain, France and, the US to bypass Germany and reinforce Eastern Europe themselves. NATO is gambling on the fact that their technical superiority would be enough to see them through any conflict with Russia.
Russia, while having large numbers of conventional forces, is an unknown when it comes to the quality of said forces. The Russian Navy is in such a state that it almost becomes irrelevant in any conventional war and the Russian Air Force isn’t in a much better state, with only a fraction of their aircraft considered as being on par with the highly capable and combat-proven aircraft fielded by NATO members.
Of course, Russia knows all this and as said above the best they could hope for is consolidate their recent gains in Ukraine, this is nothing that would trigger World War 3.
China, on the other hand, would be looking to do something very similar. With their recent island-building in the South China Sea, we could expect China to consolidate and move forces onto these artificial islands.
The big question mark is whether China would look at the US, by this point busy in Iran, and feel that they could get away with attempting to seize Taiwan, a nation that China sees as rightfully theirs (of course Taiwan sees China as theirs). When China has previously looked at seizing Taiwan, twice in the ’50s and once in the ’90s. During the first Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1954, the Joint Chiefs of Staff even went as far as to advise the use of nuclear weapons against mainland China in an effort to secure Taiwan.
During the Second and Third Taiwan Strait Crises, the US again moved forces to the region to show that they would indeed defend Taiwan. This, not Iran is the flashpoint for war between the US and China. China will not move forces into Iran, doing so is too much of an escalation without meaningful benefit for China.
Chinese forces are indeed beginning to catch up in terms of technology with the US, however, this I still an ongoing process and China can’t hope to match the US in the air or at sea. China may be able to prevent US Navy carrier battle groups from operating in the seas immediately around China however the US would still be in control of the blue waters of the Pacific. China would also have to strike against the US territory of Guam to prevent its use as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and US bases in Japan would also need to be eliminated to prevent them being used as a springboard against China.
Whilst possible, China isn’t stupid enough to risk nuclear war with the US. Any conventional conflict, whilst resulting in huge losses for both sides, would see a US victory due to their high-tech defence industry being better suited to cope with a long, drawn-out conflict.
Again, as with Russia, China knows all this and isn’t stupid enough to risk a Third World War without there being the chance of any meaningful gains.
Back to Iran
Back to looking at Iran, it is clear that they can’t ever hope to win a high-intensity shooting war with the US. They are faced with US bases on both their southern and eastern borders, alongside major US allies in the wider region. Saudi Arabia, a long-time US ally and Iranian adversary (due to being differing Islamic sects) have the most capable military forces in the region. In part, this is due to buying some of the most capable weaponry that the US, Britain and France have to offer. A conventional shooting war without allies (while impossible) would result in a Saudi victory. Couple this with American and European support and it becomes abundantly clear Iran can’t hope to win a straight-up shooting war.
Iran’s best hope is a long drawn out conflict, targeting the likes of Israel and Saudi Arabia with hybrid warfare. By using their proxies Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel and funding terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia, Iran would hope to make any long, drawn-out conflict in the region too costly for their adversaries. Indeed, they’d be hoping that these loses would bring other nations to the negotiating table before they’d be able to meaningfully strike back against Iran.
Hezbollah and Hamas have been key to Iran’s strategy of hybrid warfare. By using unconventional forces such as the above and local militia for attacking, Iran doesn’t have to enter into open conflict with potential adversaries to get the results it desires. Indeed, Hamas and Hezbollah, whilst incapable of winning a conflict against Israel, can make it a long, bloody affair and therefore make any strike back of questionable value. This has even been shown in the increasingly defensively postured Israeli forces, with extremely capable defensive weapons such as Arrow and Iron Dome being developed to increase Israeli security without having to go on the offensive.
With US and allies controlling the sea and air, Iran would be on the receiving end of hundreds or even thousands of air and cruise missile strikes. With the loses that these will generate, as can be seen from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, the ability for Iran to make war would be significantly reduced. Indeed any hopes that may be harbored regarding nuclear weapons development would be quickly dashed as the US rapidly destroyed all Iranian nuclear capacity.
As can be seen, Iran doesn’t want an open conflict with the West and therefore it will continue a strategy that has been working for them for many years. By allowing others to do the fighting for them Iran can continue to build its military and strength and the question is whether the US and her allies are ready for yet another long, bloody, drawn-out war in the Middle East?