After the Second World War, the U.S. fought in two wars too big for a volunteer army, Korea and Vietnam. Korea was a conventional war, like World War II, fought against Soviet tanks, planes, and artillery. Vietnam was a guerrilla war, like Iraq or Afghanistan, with enemy soldiers seamlessly blending into the terrain and the civilian population.
My grandpa was drafted during the Korean war but was lucky enough to be stationed in Alaska as a sharpshooting instructor, far from the fighting. My dad went to community college during Vietnam to avoid the draft. I fear that I might be unlucky enough to be alive during another draft, for an Iranian war.
A war with Iran would be a Frankenstein’s monster, combining the worst aspects of every major war the U.S. has been in since World War II. Strong conventional army? Check. Highly mountainous terrain for guerrillas? Check. A highly motivated nationalist population for those guerrillas to recruit from? Check. The possibility of religion entering the fray? Check. If America invades Iran, it will find all of that and more.
Within hours of the first shots being fired in anger, the Straits of Hormuz would be shut down, the flaming hulks of oil tankers marking the start of the conflict. The straits are the narrowest part of the Persian Gulf, bordering Iran, and where 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through; oil prices could skyrocket up to 50 percent as a result of the immediate disruption. Even months after an American invasion of Iran secured the straits, any oil shipment going through would be vulnerable to a simple fishing boat, piloted by guerillas armed with RPGs or naval mines.
The situation would get even worse with the inevitable invasion of mainland Iran. This would mean the hardest fighting that America has seen since Normandy in 1944, orders of magnitude deadlier than Iraq and Afghanistan. Those countries both had weak conventional forces that collapsed within weeks of the initial invasion because of a lack of morale (Iraq) or equipment (Afghanistan). Iran has an active army of about 400,000 but draws from a population of 80 million, more than double Iraq’s. It has modern equipment, including Russian surface-to-air missiles, as well as 1,600 tanks and 500 aircraft of varying quality.
Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, Iran has a direct resupply route to Russia through the Caspian Sea, allowing it to further drag out any war with state-of-the-art Russian weapons. And it would be a dragged-out war: The Iranian army would have even better equipment and technology than Iraq’s but with Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. This terrain would both slow the invasion by making defense easier and making resupply difficult. To get to Tehran, trucks carrying food, water, and ammunition would need to cross through hundreds of miles of narrow, winding mountain roads, perfect targets for ambushes or IEDs.
The Iranian army would eventually crumble, as any conventional force would when faced with the American war machine. The battle deaths from this initial phase of the war, though, would be measured in the thousands instead of the 172 that we suffered in Iraq. Much like in Iraq or Afghanistan, the bulk of the casualties would come from the insurgency following the invasion. This guerilla war, though, would be the worst America could possibly fight in. Iraq and Afghanistan are effectively imaginary nations with a weak national identity, created only because Britain drew borders around them before its empire collapsed. Iran is the opposite: a nation with a proud history dating back millennia to the days of the Old Testament and the ancient Greeks. In much the same way, when the U.S. invaded Vietnam, it fought a people who had been fighting off foreign invasions — mostly Chinese — for thousands of years. The Iranian people, like the Vietnamese, wouldn’t take kindly to being ruled by a foreign power and would fiercely fight an American occupying force to restore their national sovereignty.
Unlike in Vietnam, though, we would also face a religiously motivated enemy. Iran is like Iraq in that it’s one of the few Shiite majority Muslim countries; after we invaded, some of the biggest insurgent groups were Iranian-backed Shiite militias. This would morph into a full-on religious war if we invaded Iran, the global capital of Shiite Islam. The Ayatollah would declare that the American infidels had not invaded Iran to stop a theocracy from getting nukes but as a new crusade. Soon enough we would be fighting suicide bombers, fanatical soldiers looking forward to the afterlife, and all that a holy war entails on top of a people that don’t want us in their country in the first place.
Those factors would combine to make Iran the worst country we could possibly try to occupy. Any new government would be seen as an American puppet, just like the Shah that we propped up until 1979. Elections would be boycotted, if not actively disrupted by attacks from terrorists. Recruitment for a new domestic security force to stabilize the country would be nil because joining it would be like treason and would endanger the family of anyone who did so.
In Iraq, it took 10 years and nearly 5,000 American deaths to defeat the insurgency; the army that we built to replace our soldiers promptly crumbled to ISIS. In Afghanistan, the U.S. and the armies we recruited could never defeat the Taliban because it hid in the mountains whenever we got the upper hand. In Iran we wouldn’t even have the luxury of recruiting an army: All the security in a country the size of Iraq and Afghanistan together would have to be provided indefinitely by American soldiers. Well, at least indefinitely until we left. Like in Vietnam, resistance to our occupation would never stop. If we ever pushed the guerrillas too far, they could just retreat into the mountains to recuperate, only to strike again. And like in Vietnam, we would need a draft to sustain a force large enough to keep some semblance of control.