Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019, and is being republished in the wake of the the strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
As US-Iranian tensions rose over the past week, reports surfaced that the United States — having already deployed F-35s, a Patriot missile battery, and B-52 bombers to the region — has contingency plans to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East. Although the sources who provided that information insisted those troops in themselves would not constitute an invasion force, it has naturally led to speculation about that prospect.
Ever since I read of the alleged deployment, one question has kept going through my mind: Where would 120,000 troops actually go? And moving beyond that initial deployment, isn’t it incumbent to ask which — if any — countries in the region would volunteer to host an American land invasion of Iran? After all, what is the coercive or signaling value of deploying 120,000 US troops (or possibly more), if they don’t have a direct path to attacking Iran itself and the political support of the host government to do so? Is such an operation even feasible anymore, given developments in the Middle East since (and because of) the 2003 invasion of Iraq?
First, let’s start with the obvious. The region has had to contend with the effects of two major countries—Iraq and Syria—being catastrophically broken. Is there genuinely an appetite among current US partners for a third—particularly one that might have the side effect of interrupting the flow of oil and gas out of the Persian Gulf?
Second, the Sunni-Shia split has only intensified and become more weaponized since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Maintaining relative peace along that cleavage is a priority for a number of key partners—including Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered, and Iraq, whose territory would seem to be essential to any land invasion of Iran. Supporting a major US attack on Iran could produce an intense domestic backlash against the government in either Manama or Baghdad. Would either truly risk it?
Third, the Kurdish situation continues to evolve in the wake of the Syrian civil war and is a central concern for Iraq and especially Turkey. Writing in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Henri Barkey noted that the wars in Iraq and Syria have broken down the traditional barriers among Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and accelerated cooperation and integration among these communities. The missing piece, so far, has been the Iranian Kurds, who remain isolated from their cousins in the region. Destabilizing Iran would open the door for a truly unified Kurdish movement, one that could strengthen calls for an independent Kurdish state.
On the surface, those fears in and of themselves would seem to undermine support for an Iranian invasion in three countries essential for US logistics: Bahrain, Iraq, and Turkey. Indeed, I’m at a loss to see how, from a geographic standpoint, Iran could be invaded without the cooperation of at least one of the latter two countries.
In the Iraqi case, there is the added burden of recent history. Is Iraq really going to accept the return to its territory of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers? Would it then permit them to attack its neighbor, in a move that undoubtedly would raise the specter of the brutal and bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s? It’s hard to imagine an Iraqi government—especially one dominated by Shiite parties—agreeing to this.
For Turkey—in addition to concerns over the Kurdish question—there is the core issue of the decline in relations between Ankara and Washington stemming from the Syrian civil war and exacerbated by Ankara’s S-400 purchase from Russia. Prima facie, there also would seem to be serious doubts about the willingness of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to support the overthrow of another regional authoritarian government, especially one he has reached out to as part of an Islamist-oriented foreign policy. Erdogan has publicly pledged to defy America on economic sanctions stemming from the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA; it seems unlikely he would countenance military action to enforce it.
If we remove Iraq and Turkey from the table, who’s left? Iran has five other contiguous neighbors: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. As with Iraq, domestic reasons would seem to preclude either Afghanistan or Pakistan from accepting an infusion of hundreds of thousands of American troops. Additionally, they would simply be on a much less convenient side of Iran if the main objective were the leadership in Tehran or key nuclear facilities, most of which are located in the western half of the country. Another question: Would Pakistan honestly support a US invasion to relieve another Islamic state of its nuclear capability?
That leaves Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. The latter is officially neutral, but has quietly permitted the use of Ashgabat airport for the transit of some nonlethal aid into Afghanistan. At one point, there were rumors that the former Soviet airbase at Mary would serve as a replacement for Kharsi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan (following US withdrawal from that facility in 2005), but these proved to be unfounded. While Turkmenistan has had ongoing disputes with Iran over payments for Turkmen natural gas, this hardly seems sufficient cause for Turkmenistan to turn so completely on Iran, particularly with the potential backlash (from both Iran and Russia) of extending an invitation to US forces. Like Afghanistan and Pakistan, an attack from Turkmenistan would also come from seemingly the wrong side of Iran. Furthermore, due to it being landlocked, a Turkmen base would require US forces and supplies to transit Afghanistan and Pakistan, affording both states an effective veto on US freedom of action. While not an impossibility, the odds of Turkmenistan functioning as a base for a US invasion of Iran seem extremely high.
Armenia can further be ruled out for a number of reasons: it’s also landlocked, has only a very short, twenty-seven-mile border with Iran, and has not traditionally had a strong relationship with the United States. Following a visit last November from National Security Advisor John Bolton, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian also made it clear his country was not going to follow the US lead on Iran. Though historically close ties between Armenia and Russia have recently cooled, Armenia still hosts Russian troops on its territory and relies on Moscow’s support in its decades-long conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. None of this suggests it’s going to suddenly become a willing home to thousands of American servicemembers (assuming it could even accommodate such a force).
Azerbaijan is, admittedly, a more tempting option, but still a deeply imperfect one. Over twenty years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski was already speculating about the potential for the former Soviet republic to undermine the Iranian regime by leveraging the large Sunni Azeri minority in northwestern Iran. And the United States does have a military relationship with Azerbaijan via the latter’s participation in NATO peacekeeping missions in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. As well, Azerbaijan was an important transshipment point for nonlethal supplies to US forces in Afghanistan.
Still, Azerbaijan—while technically feasible—seems like a long shot. Moving from cooperation in Afghanistan to hosting perhaps a hundred-thousand US troops is a major leap. As in the case of Turkmenistan, providing transit for nonlethal military supplies is very different than hosting an extremely lethal attack force whose objective is to topple or coerce a neighboring government. Azerbaijan’s geographic orientation would also seem to confine American forces to a very narrow avenue of approach into Iran itself.
Finally, there is perhaps the biggest constraint on Azerbaijan’s utility: it has no direct ocean access. The bulk of US supplies and forces would need to transit either Georgia (from the Black Sea) or Turkey (from the Mediterranean) and travel over land to Azerbaijan. It’s not impossible, but would be a painstaking means of raising a force capable of fighting its way into Iran. Moreover, relying on Azerbaijan would still furnish Turkey with at least a partial veto over US action should it decline to participate in the logistical operation or deny access to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus.
Admittedly, there might be countries in the Middle East who would readily accept a US invasion force. The obvious candidate is the United Arab Emirates. It has the most skin in the game due to its longstanding dispute with Iran over three islands in the Persian Gulf: Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. “Little Sparta’s” close relationship with the US military is well-known and al-Dhafra Airbase has quietly hosted US aircraft for almost twenty-five years, including the aforementioned F-35s. That said, it has never hosted a US ground force anywhere near the magnitude required to invade Iran.
Saudi Arabia would clearly welcome a change of regime in Iran, its undisputed regional rival. Whether the Saudis would be willing to host a hundred thousand or more U.S. troops on its territory to achieve that is a more serious question. The American military has maintained only a token presence in the kingdom since the bulk of US forces were withdrawn by the Bush administration, beginning in April 2003.
The most desirable candidate—in terms of existing logistics—is, of course, Kuwait. The United States used the tiny emirate as the springboard for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Kuwait still hosts the single largest deployment of US forces in the Middle East, an estimated sixteen thousand personnel based at eight facilities in the country, including the recently completed logistical hub, Cargo City. But Kuwaiti intentions toward Iran are unclear. Interestingly, it has taken a much more muted position on the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA than fellow Gulf Cooperation Council states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, all of whom enthusiastically endorsed the move. Kuwait still maintains diplomatic ties with Iran and has continued to call for cooperative approaches to resolving the nuclear issue.
More importantly, even if Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE were amenable to hosting such a large US force, it doesn’t change geography. None has a contiguous border with Iran. To represent a credible and coercive signal, American forces would still need to be able to transit Iraqi territory to get into Iran and would have to do so in the predominantly Shiite south of the country. Again, it’s hard to imagine an Iraqi government agreeing to that. Undertaking the operation without Iraq’s consent would be an extraordinarily brazen step and one that almost certainly would subject US forces to renewed fighting in Iraq even before they got to the Iranian border. That it might also risk destabilizing Iraq itself goes without saying.
Is an American land invasion of Iran thus an impossibility? It can never be ruled out completely. Any country willing to risk the internal and external backlash of hosting the US force could demand an exorbitant price in return. That in itself keeps it a viable possibility. But on the surface, at least, there would seem to be prohibitive questions of geography—to say nothing of alliance relationships—that seriously compromise prospects for a major land assault into Iran. Ironically, the consequences of sixteen years of regional war stemming, in part, from the invasion of Iraq may have inadvertently inoculated Iran from the same fate.
None of this speaks to optimism about current US-Iranian tensions. America could still wage an intense air war against Iran without committing land forces and there are ample means for Iran to hit back against US forces and US allies in the region—either through missile strikes or proxy attacks. The potential for violence and regional disruptions is still very high, even without a direct clash between ground units. Nevertheless, as discussions in US policy and political circles further intensify, the limitations on the US ability to physically invade Iran need to be recognized.
Mike Sweeney is a disillusioned former think tanker. He wrote an essay, “Could America Lose a War Well?” He’s still not sure how he feels about it.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Michael Camacho, US Army