No, Iran-US Conflict Will Not Start 3rd World War — Here’s Why

  • WWIII is a hackneyed trope, designed to pander to the strain of public thought that views history as something that repeats itself ever so often
  • Alignments in West Asia are far more fluid than the case in Europe during WWI, and often based on near-term self-interest
  • Every power in West Asia⁠ enjoys immense flexibility in terms of how it responds to a hostile action from an adversary
  • The United States possesses the capability to dominate any adversary it might potentially face in the Persian Gulf

Is World War Three about to break out in West Asia? Does the United States’ targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani⁠—commander of Iran’s Quds Force and one of Iran’s most powerful figures⁠—resemble the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip? Will it be the spark that plunges the region into an open war?

A gaggle of opinion maker⁠s—from analysts to journalists to social media stars⁠—would certainly like you to believe so. Especially after the visuals of Iran’s Supreme Leader breaking down at the funeral ceremony of Soleimani. The US President Trump is also upping the ante by his boastfulness about targeting 52 Iranian cultural and religious sites.

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets the family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani.

But this is a hackneyed trope, designed to pander to the strain of public thought that views history as something that repeats itself ever so often. The similarities between the two incidents are as attractive as they are superficial. Both were targeted killings of key political figures. West Asia in the 2010s is beset with conflict just like Europe was in the late ninetieth and early twentieth centuries. And confrontation between “great powers” with interests in the region is only intensifying.

Why World War III Is Not a Plausible Outcome of Current Events

That is, however, where the similarities end. Instead, there are three major elements that distinguish pre-1914 Europe from West Asia today.

One, the Archduke’s assassination may have been the spark that set off the European tinderbox, but that tinderbox has no equivalent in present-day West Asia. In 1914, a tangled web of formal alliances committed European powers to conflict, and compelled them to enter into wars on behalf of their allies regardless of whether their own incentives dictated it.

Alignments in West Asia are far more fluid, and often based on near-term self-interest.

For instance, the Gulf monarchies are currently in a loose alliance with Israel; Qatar and the UAE were co-belligerents in Yemen even as they took opposing sides in Libya; and Turkey, a NATO signatory, is collaborating with Russia in Syria. Even Iran and the United States, which have been locked in confrontation since 1979, worked together to strike at the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Syria/Iraq.

File image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Such alignments naturally incentivize caution and act as dampeners to a wider conflict. At the same time, the constant low-intensity conflict acts as a safety valve which prevents the pressure cooker from exploding and causing widespread damage.

Availability of a Variety of Options for Retaliation

Two, pre-war European powers were constrained in terms of how they could respond to a provocation. The organisation of their militaries left them with just two choices: either mobilize for a full-scale war or stand down. They could seldom retaliate in kind or incrementally escalate a confrontation.

Once mobilization was underway, it was nearly impossible to halt. And when mobilization was complete, the window to seize the military advantage and win the war was very small: on the order of a few days atmost.

This ensured that relatively minor acts of belligerence would impel every major power to start mobilizing for a confrontation; and attack as soon as their forces were ready.

In contrast, every power in West Asia⁠—be it Iran, Israel, the US, or Russia⁠—enjoys immense flexibility in terms of how it responds to a hostile action from an adversary. Not a single one is committed to rigid timetables for mobilization. And they all posses the capability to precisely calibrate retaliatory moves through conventional or sub-conventional means.

Special forces raids, drone strikes, cyber attacks, and other such means span the entire spectrum of effects delivered. They can be also be tailored to deliver the desired public message. The upshot is that we have seen several episodes that could have potentially set off World War III in West Asia; all of which were followed either by a minor shift in the status quo, or an eventual de-escalation.

US Can Dominate Any Adversary in the Persian Gulf

Three, when it comes to a total war scenario, there is no real balance of power in West Asia. In pre-war Europe, the Allied powers and the Central powers were roughly evenly matched, so much so that the outcome of World War I hung in the balance even as late as 1918.

But in the present-day Persian Gulf and elsewhere, the United States possesses the capability to dominate any adversary it might potentially face, whether it is Russia or Iran. The US military has at its disposal an entire naval fleet in the theater, a string of airbases straddling the region, and a logistical pipeline that has already sustained two high-intensity wars over the last thirty years. If US allies such as Israel were to bring their own military might to bear, the equation would become all the more lopsided.

US President Donald Trump (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right).

Any “balance” is only limited to a setting in which belligerents wage covert, low-intensity warfare while being nominally at peace. This is a fact not lost on anyone in the region, leave alone the political leadership of Iran and its allies. It is therefore hard to imagine a scenario in which Iran enters an open conflict with the US.

And yet, the assassination of such a key figure in Iran’s security apparatus does carry risks of escalation. For instance, Iran could up the ante by having its proxies sink an American ship in the Persian Gulf, carry out targeted strikes against President Donald Trump’s business interests in the region, or even execute a cyber-attack on US soil that jeopardises American lives/property.

Mourners carry the coffins of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias, at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, Saturday, 4 January, 2020.

If the fallout is not contained, it could lead to further destabilisation in West Asia with the effects being felt around the world. Iran has, after all, sped up the process of getting itself the N-bomb.

(Mihir Shah is a mechanical engineer who tracks military and aerospace issues closely. He tweets @elmihiro.This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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