Who Would Win a US vs Iran War?

Perhaps a more fitting title would be “Will Iran survive a US vs Iran War?” Or maybe “Can the US even sustain a full-scale war against Iran?”


Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the prospect of a war between the United States and Iran has been a topic of substantial debate among analysts. Today, given the complexities of modern warfare along with a rapidly globalizing world, it’s hard to predict if a big war between the US and Iran can occur. We can, however, estimate the potential outcomes of such an event. 


As things stand in 2024, the Iranian government is continuing to expand its secretive nuclear program while sponsoring anti-Israeli activities. The United States, under the Biden administration, has maintained a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. It has imposed stringent sanctions on the nation and practiced targeted military operations against Iranian-backed forces in the Middle East. Recent developments, such as Iran’s increased uranium enrichment and the US’s deployment of advanced weaponry in the region, have heightened concerns about the potential for conflict. With all this, the likelihood of American involvement is growing by the day. Given that, it’s a good time to speculate how a potential US vs Iran war might play out.


Here, we compare the American and Iranian military might and predict potential war scenarios. NOTE: The information here is for educational purposes only and doesn’t reflect bias or wishful thinking.



Military Capabilities – US vs Iran


Category United States Iran
Military Budget $801.2 billion (2023 est.) $19.7 billion (2023 est.)
Active Personnel 1.4 million 545,000
Reserve Personnel 800,000 900,000 (est.)
Land
Tanks 6,393 2,531
Armored Fighting Vehicles 41,760 1,625
Artillery Pieces 3,269 4,096
Air
Combat Aircraft 13,234 479
Attack Helicopters 5,000+ 200 (est.)
Sea
Aircraft Carriers 11 0
Destroyers/Cruisers 69 3
Submarines 68 3



United States Military Strength


Credit: NPR

The United States possesses the most powerful and technologically advanced military force in the world. With a defense budget exceeding $900 billion annually, the US maintains a global military presence with advanced capabilities in air, sea, land, and cyber domains. The US also holds the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal.


  • Air Power: The US Air Force is unmatched, with advanced fighter jets like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, strategic bombers such as the B-2 Spirit, and a robust aerial refueling capability that extends operational range.
  • Naval Power: The US Navy operates 11 aircraft carriers, numerous destroyers, submarines, and amphibious assault ships, enabling power projection across the globe. The Navy’s carrier strike groups provide unparalleled strike and defensive capabilities.
  • Ground Forces: The US Army and Marine Corps are well-equipped with advanced tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery systems. Special operations forces are highly trained for unconventional warfare.
  • Cyber and Space: The US has significant capabilities in cyber warfare and space-based assets, providing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and the potential to disrupt adversary networks and communications.

Iranian Military Strength


Image Credit: AP

The Iranian military, while nowhere near as advanced or well-funded as the US, has developed asymmetric capabilities designed to counter superior conventional forces. Iran’s defense strategy focuses on deterrence, drones, and guerrilla warfare tactics.


  • Missile Arsenal: Iran possesses a large arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles capable of targeting regional adversaries and US bases in the Middle East. The domestically produced missiles include the Shahab and Sejjil series, which can reach significant ranges.
  • Naval Forces: Iran’s naval strategy relies on fast attack craft, submarines, and mine-laying capabilities to disrupt maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, a critical chokepoint for global oil supplies.
  • Ground Forces: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force are central to Iran’s military operations, particularly in unconventional and proxy warfare across the region. Iran also has a significant number of conventional forces and a well-organized militia network.
  • Drones: Iran has increasingly relied on drone technology to enhance its military capabilities, particularly in asymmetric warfare. One of the most notable drones in Iran’s arsenal is the Shahid series, which has gained significant attention for its effectiveness and versatility.

Strategic Objectives and War Scenarios


US Strategic Objectives


In a war against Iran, the US will likely have several strategic objectives. First and foremost would be the neutralization of Iran’s missile capabilities to safeguard US bases and regional allies from potential attacks. Ensuring the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz would also be a critical objective, given its importance as a vital maritime route for global trade. Depending on the broader political landscape, the US might aim for regime change or, at the very least, seek to prevent Iran’s influence within the region. Throughout any military engagement, the US will also prioritize minimizing casualties among US and allied forces.


Iranian Strategic Objectives


Iran’s strategic objectives in a conflict could be centered on several critical goals. Primarily, it would aim to ensure the survival of the regime and maintain domestic stability. To achieve this, Iran would likely employ asymmetric tactics to inflict significant costs on US forces, deterring further escalation in the process. It would also want to strengthen its influence over regional proxies and allies to create a strategic buffer against US aggression. Iran would also want to disrupt global oil supply and target critical infrastructure, applying economic pressure on the US and its allies to weaken their resolve.



Potential War Scenarios


Scenario 1: Limited Conflict


In a limited conflict scenario, the US might conduct targeted airstrikes and naval operations to neutralize specific threats posed by Iran, such as missile sites or nuclear facilities. This scenario would likely involve:


  • Airstrikes: Precision strikes by US aircraft and missiles on Iranian military infrastructure.
  • Naval Blockade: US naval forces might establish a blockade to prevent Iranian interference with shipping lanes.
  • Cyber Operations: Extensive use of cyber warfare to disrupt Iranian command and control networks.
  • Outcome: The US would likely achieve its immediate military objectives due to its superior firepower and technology. However, Iran would likely retaliate through asymmetric means, targeting US assets in the region and leveraging its proxy networks.

Scenario 2: Full-Scale War


A full-scale US vs Iran war would involve large-scale mobilization of US and Iranian forces, potentially drawing in regional and global actors. Key elements would extend to:


  • Ground Invasion: US forces might attempt a ground invasion, though this would be costly and complex due to Iran’s terrain and asymmetric defense tactics.
  • Regional Escalation: Iran would likely activate its regional proxies, leading to widespread conflict across the Middle East.
  • Economic Warfare: Both sides would engage in economic warfare, targeting critical infrastructure and trade routes.
  • Outcome: While the US would likely dominate in conventional military engagements, the prolonged nature of a full-scale war and the potential for widespread regional destabilization would make achieving a decisive victory challenging. The human, economic, and political costs could be enormous.

Geopolitical Implications


Credit: TOI

A US-Iran war would profoundly impact regional stability, with several key factors playing critical roles. Iran’s network of proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq and Syria, would likely intensify conflicts across the region, escalating proxy wars. Additionally, the Shia-Sunni divide could be exacerbated, leading to increased sectarian violence and further destabilizing the region. A large-scale conflict would almost certainly result in significant civilian casualties and displacement, creating a severe humanitarian crisis with long-term repercussions.


The Strait of Hormuz, a critical chokepoint for global oil supply, would be a focal point in the  conflict, with any disruption likely to have severe economic consequences. Disruption in the Strait could lead to skyrocketing oil prices, profoundly impacting global markets and economies. If the conflict and economic instability were prolonged, the risk of a global recession would increase significantly, further amplifying the economic fallout.


A US-Iran war would put international alliances and geopolitical alignments to the test. NATO allies and regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel would likely support the US, though the extent and nature of their involvement could vary. On the other hand, Iran would seek backing from Russia and China, both of whom have strategic interests in countering US influence and could provide critical support to Iran in various forms.



Will Iran Survive?


Make no mistake, the US military’s brute force would swiftly overpower Iran’s conventional defenses, but Tehran’s cunning asymmetric tactics and regional vassals would ensure a protracted and bloody conflict. The fallout would be dire: regional chaos, global economic collapse, and a seismic shift in international power dynamics.


Sadly, diplomatic efforts have been lukewarm at best, with the US and Iran engaging in a game of nuclear chicken. The world cannot afford to stand idly by as these two nuclear-armed nations hurtle towards a devastating war. The consequences of failure are simply too dire to contemplate.

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