In light of the state of the Iran nuclear negotiations and the nascent regional war underway, it behooves us to explore the origins of one of the first major recognized works of science fiction: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Published in 1898 as a reversal fantasy for British imperialism—what if a species from another world treated us as we treat our own?—the novel represented a play on a popular genre of the time: invasion literature.
With the simmering tensions bubbling across Europe that would eventually cook up a thick soup of world war and mass death came a series of works which asked “what if” this or that nation went to war in the current climate. Inaugurated by The Battle of Dorking in 1871, fresh off from the real war between Prussia and France that launched the total unification of the German state, the popular genre touched a nerve among the reading public. These novels were influential in shaping public opinion in Britain in the lead up to 1914 and have inspired other works around the world, including the popular American film Red Dawn during the height of the Reaganite 1980s.
As of this writing, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a historic visit to the US Congress, addressing it as a surrogate Commander-in-Chief in order to sate the wish fulfillment fantasies of the Republican Party. Congressional freshmen Tom Cotton of [where? and link to the Intercept article] delivered an open letter that was, probably to his own great surprise, signed by 47 Republican Senators in an act of bravado that would make the House Republicans blush. The letter was sent to the Iranian government, essentially threatening to scuttle any deal signed by Obama in an attempt to raise the prospect of war.
What if they got their way? What if the negotiations broke down and Washington and Tehran were set off on a path to war? What would the consequences be? What would the worst case scenario entail? Who would prevail and how?
This is an attempt to explore these questions in a highly uneven and abstract way. I’ve followed events in the region both through relationships with actual scholars and with activists, and have my own background obsessing with alternative histories and questions of military strength. A series of popular right wing stories popularizing scenarios of war in the contemporary world fed my imagination in middle school and high school, so I’ve familiarized myself with the pacing of this silly genre. Below is such a scenario—albeit without the right wing blinders—of what a worst case scenario of war with Iran would entail.
It goes without saying that predictions are nonsense and this is entirely fictional (and hyperbolic). I believe that, were war to break out, it would come to a swift end due to political calculations on both sides that the cost would be too great. But let us dream a science fictional nightmare and see what we cook up.
The 2nd…or, 4th? 5th? Persian Gulf War:
an outlandish scenario
by Jase Short
Whenever one seeks to “Cry Havoc” and let loose the hounds of politics by other means, one ought to take stock of circumstances at the outset. Plagued by sanctions, high inflation, and critically low oil prices, the Iranian economy is stagnant and in chaos. It suffers something short of a depression, but greater than an ordinary recession. Everyday people are angry with the government, but confident that its negotiations with the United States and the other major world powers in the P5 + Germany group will produce results that will lift the pain of being denied, among other things, basic pharmaceuticals. The networks of black market drugs (scene: a side street, a gentlemen in sunglasses walks by whispering, “Prozac?” “Insulin?” instead of the familiar street drugs) has sprung up once more just as it did during the First Persian Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
When it is announced that the negotiations have been scuttled by the intransigence of Republicans in the US Congress, who have recently hosted the notorious Netanyahu—known for his belligerence towards Iran and mad desire to see the country burn—outrage spreads through the streets. The potential for war has been heightened, says the press, and young men clamor for a role in the new war. Liberal and moderate factions begin to discuss the meaning of their opposition in light of the impending imperial assault, particularly when “rehabilitated” dissidents from the “Green Revolution” days are trotted out on major media, announcing their support for the war.
Meanwhile, tens of millions of people in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq ask themselves what this means for their own war. Currently, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is fighting one of the most brutal civil wars in recent memory, with hundreds of thousands of dead to show. The country has been fragmented, with a corridor under the control of popular pro-government militias and the rest either under military control or that of various factions of the rebellion—including the dreaded Daesh, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Islamic State, or whatever is in vogue today.
Across the border checkpoints staffed by Daesh/ISIS/ISIL/IS/bad guys is “Iraq,” a country embroiled in its own war. ISIS (let’s go with that) and its allies control much of Anbar province, the Kurdish Regional Government controls Kurdish-dominated areas, and a coalition of Iraqi military units, Shi’ia militias, Iranian and US troops control the rest.
That’s right…Iranian troops alongside US soldiers. Well, not embedded in the same units, but they are engaged on the same side of the same war. Questions are arising, “What role will the Iranians have in the current environment with 3,000 US ‘advisors’ and their murderous aircraft buzzing overhead?” Panic strikes the Iraqi government. Surely it must side with the Iranians. What else can it do, given its geography and political ties? Certainly the US established its regime, but it was Iran that helped them consolidate it and Iran that will be there for the foreseeable future.
Finally, in Lebanon, where some of the Syrian Civil War has been fought, there are questions about Hezbollah. A vital ally of Assad and the Iranian government, it has been engaged in the Civil War and with advising the Iraqi government. It knows that war is inevitable, and it must choose once again to side with the regional conflict or to close its doors and focus solely on the internal affairs of Lebanon. But this is not a real choice…not after engaging itself in the Assad regime’s fight for survival. The die is cast.
As US troops begin to mass in Kuwait and in various countries of the Gulf Arab States, Iran moves to close the Straits of Hormuz. A massive portion of the world’s oil supply makes its way through these waters, and making it impassable would raise the cost of the war to a global economic meltdown.
No one is sure who fired the first shot—was it the Iranians in the Gulf, or the American stealth bombers hitting the nuclear facilities with bombs so massive they appeared to be atomic weapons to those looking on in the distance or from satellite photos? What is important is that the war has begun, and it has begun with a fury.
American planes begin a spectacular campaign to blast the nuclear facilities of Iran off the map, but they are met with fierce resistance from the Iranians and their sophisticated anti-aircraft network. At least a dozen US aircraft are shot down, and several pilots are captured and paraded on television. War fever begins to spike in the United States as the stock market gyrates under pressure.
Thousands of Iranian rockets are fired into the Gulf and at targets in the Gulf Arab States, the principal allies of the US in the war. US military facilities are compromised, killing more soldiers and sailors. Cruise missiles from the coast and aboard surface ships begin to take their toll on commercial shipping. Oil slicks begin to spread across the Gulf as oil tankers are smashed by Iranian defenses.
Finally, in the chaos, a single American warship is sunk by an Iranian diesel submarine. Several others are damaged, and the US Navy floods the Gulf with its submarine forces to try and stem the tide of losses. Mines are placed throughout the Gulf—particularly in the Straits of Hormuz, exacting a brutal toll on the flow of oil.
The war is barely two weeks old and things are not going well.
With its nose bloodied, the US begins a campaign of total air war on the Iranian state. Thousands are killed across the nation and the Iranian air force is effectively wiped out. Its air defenses continue to exact a toll on American aircraft—including a B-2 bomber, at a cost of $2 billion dollars in taxpayer money.
As the bombing becomes more spectacular and catastrophic, thousands flood into the ranks of the swelling Iranian armed forces. With a baseline of basij militia numbering in the millions, the army grows ever more massive, and the Revolutionary Guard leads the effort to carry out reprisals against the American military forces in the region.
In the United States war fever begins to spread across the populace. That Americans were involved in yet another Middle East war escaped the attention of most. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iran—err, wait! What has happened? US soldiers are dying and we seem to have been hit back?
Moral panic spreads. The government mouths niceties about Islam, but the FBI and security services continue to take the lead in surveillance, harassment, entrapment operations, and return to the policy of mass round-ups that occurred after 9/11. Anti-Muslim fanatics who have only grown in popularity since the 2010 anti-mosque protests now become popular guests on the Today Show and Good Morning America, reaching a vast audience of frightened ordinary white people looking for someone to blame.
Hate crimes spike alongside the arrests as special detention centers are quietly set up, not unlike those established for immigrants over the past few years. Protests set in opposition to these policies are hit hard by a combination of the media, internal divisions (particularly among liberals who profess extreme discomfort with what they perceive is “Islam’s opposition to women’s rights”) and high profile arrests by the FBI. Several leftist and Muslim dissidents are arrested after being indicted by Grand Juries and are subsequently held as material supporters of terrorism. The small number of arrests chills the efforts at resistance, and a number of fledging civil rights NGOs are hit with investigations and a precipitous collapse in funding.
Military recruitment skyrockets and the Joint Chiefs address Congress asking for a larger budget and an expanded military effort. Conservative radio adds mass mobilization to its demands for total Muslim and Arab internment (never mind that Iranians are not in fact Arabs). Plans for a military draft are established but not yet put in place. Nonetheless, the message is clear: this war is like no other in recent memory.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government plays its Hezbollah and Iraqi cards. It is in its interest to discredit the US role in Iraq, and the Iraqi government has already asked the “advisors” to leave and the US to ground its air force. As its soldiers ship out they face numerous attacks from irregular forces and a massive degree of embarrassment. A full 12 years after the invasion of Iraq and the US is now completely and utterly expelled from the country.
The Kurdish Regional Government declares its independence and alliance with the US, but the US is otherwise occupied. ISIS forces launch attacks on them with Turkish backing and US attempts to deliver heavy weapons are scuttled by supply problems and Turkish intransigence. Turkey announces that it is massing troops on the border and is set to invade northern Syria and possibly the newly declared Kurdistan as well. The war grows ever more complicated as the region disintegrates.
It is in the interest of Iran to pull Israel into the conflict in order to portray the US war effort as an extension of Israeli policy. Furthermore, Hezbollah is concerned about reports of Israeli support for anti-Assad forces in the Golan, and has its own reasons to engage in a military effort to discredit the war on Iran and to punish Israel for its actions. Thousands of rockets are fired into northern Israel, with the Iron Dome system barely knocking half of them out of the sky. The economy of the north collapses and Israel mobilizes into full war footing, targeting Lebanon and Hezbollah once again. Beirut is savaged by air strikes, and the tide of opinion shifts towards Hezbollah and its allies. Nonetheless, the opening salvos of a new Lebanese Civil War seem to have been fired as the country braces for instability.
Israel’s initial invasion of southern Lebanon goes much the way of the 2006 invasion: very badly. After receiving a bloody nose from the now battle-hardened, highly trained, extremely well-equipped and educated Hezbollah forces, the Israeli government waves the bloody shirt in the Knesset and demands a complete mobilization to destroy Hezbollah and oversee further efforts to dislodge Assad in Syria by way of support for rebels in the Golan. Meanwhile, anti-Palestinian riots in Jerusalem spark protests and violent responses, which are met with a crackdown across the West Bank and gathering war clouds in Gaza.
As confidence in the government’s strategy and competence wanes and cries for “population transfer” and a “gloves off” approach grow in the media, there are fears that the regional war might lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and a new massacre in Gaza. Arab Israelis—that is, citizens of Israel proper—are arrested in droves, parties are banned, and a chilling effect is placed on doveish liberal Zionists.
The prospect of a complete meltdown grows as the Persian Gulf War sets off the powder kegs of instability. Kurdish independence, Iraqi disintegration, war with Israel and Hezbollah, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Gaza, escalations of the already nightmarish Syrian Civil War, Turkish interventions…all consequences of adding a massive war to the already chaotic situation.
In this context, wealthy Gulf Arab donations to ISIS like groups multiply and the prospect of a sectarian holy war is realized. Finding common cause once again with the Israeli regime, Saudi and other Gulf intelligence agents begin to funnel money to the various Islamist oppositions in Syria and attempt to provoke a sectarian war in Lebanon to assist Israel in its war on Hezbollah. With Iranian support turned elsewhere, the tide of battle in Iraq shifts against the Iraqi government and ISIS consolidates its hold on the Anbar province and northern Syria. Turkish support for ISIS grows accordingly and the partitions of Syria and Iraq look inevitable.
After a few months it is clear that the world oil supply will be squeezed indefinitely. Damage to facilities in the Middle East is extensive, with Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf nations effectively taken off line. The price of oil skyrockets to over $250/barrel. Inflation grips multiple nations and currency crises abound.
In the US, discussion of a War Tax brings about a stock market crash. Gains are made back after it is made clear that the war will be paid for by debt and austerity—particularly via “entitlement reform” that will effectively privatize Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—which are all pushed through as necessary sacrifices for “the war effort.”
As the world economy begins to tank, the prospect of a global trade war arises. Russian belligerence in Eastern Europe grows as its importance as a stable producer of oil fragments the NATO alliance. China and Japan’s nationalist regimes nearly come to blows over more island disputes, and Japan formally revokes the pacifist elements of its constitution. Military spending seems to be a way for the Japanese and Chinese to weather an impending global depression, and so a new Pacific Cold War begins to take root.
Meanwhile, the price of goods skyrockets as more investors pull out of the Chinese market. The major victim of the war seems to be the US-China economic relationship, as China begins to dump T-bills in favor of alternative economic arrangements and Western investors pull out of a collapsing Chinese market. Stability in the global economy reaches a fever pitch, capital controls are introduced in multiple countries, and the high cost of production begins to bite once again now that the influence of cheap Chinese labor is pulled from the market, squeezed out by the trade war and China’s own need to improve domestic spending.
Six months in and no one knows what is next. The prospect the use of nuclear weapons and a full ground invasion of Iran has been raised as thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen lose their lives in battlefields surrounding the Gulf. A real threat of mass murder and expulsion of the Palestinians overshadows the Israeli-Hezbollah War. The Assad regime and its supporters, no longer fearing external intervention, engage in chemical attacks on their foes and ISIS consolidates its grip across the old Syrian-Iraqi borders. The potential for a Turkish-Kurdish War escalates by the day as Turkey demands the new Kurdish government return to the orbit of Baghdad.
The world economy is in tatters and entering a Second Great Depression as the flow of oil is blocked, currencies collapse, and trade wars abound. Anti-Muslim bigotry reaches new heights and the influx of funding to ISIS and similar groups in Syria and Lebanon raises the prospect of a new wave of 9/11 style terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States.
In short, the war on Iran turned out to be much more than anyone had imagined—because, you see, Iran is massive, it has a massive economy, a massive military, a massive population, and a central role in world affairs. Neo-colonial arrogance finally bit off more than it could chew.