Can America Win an Unconventional War Against Iran?

If open conflict breaks out between the U.S. and Iran, precipitated by the Qassem Soleimani killing and retaliation, or the long ramping up of tensions between the two countries, the array of techniques, manpower and equipment available to each side differs wildly. No less significant will be the tactics each side would prefer would dominate the fight. 

America has the big guns: but Iran is a master of unconventional warfare. In this asymmetrical contest, who would be best placed to gain the upper hand?

The U.S. would clearly want to depend on its overwhelming conventional military advantage; in President Donald Trump's words: 

"The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!"

But its modern history – and contemporary geopolitics – offers Iran only one clear lesson: Tehran can't win a conventional war.

A woman walks past an anti U.S. mural on the former U.S. Embassy’s wall in Tehran, Iran January 7, 2020 WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

The Iran-Iraq War was one of the formative experiences for the newborn Islamic Republic of Iran. Largely fought using conventional tactics reminiscent of WWI, it was the 20th century’s longest conflict – and by the ceasefire of 1988, it was inconclusive. Neither side had made any real strategic progress in eight years of bitter fighting. 

Iraqi forces didn't conquer Khuzestan (the oil-rich, ethnically Arab southern Iranian province of Iran that Baghdad had invaded in 1980, triggering the war), and didn't decisively rout Iran, despite support from much of the international community. Iraq had also effectively been bankrupted, leading to its ill-informed decision to invade Kuwait (and its oilfields) in 1990. Nevertheless, at no point during the conflict had Iraq’s regime survival been in question.