The killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iranian covert operations and intelligence, has Washington and Tehran inching closer to fighting a war that can be one of the deadliest in history.
According to Vox, Iran has every incentive to retaliate against the US using its proxies to target US commercial interests in the Middle East, American allies, or even American troops and diplomats huddled inside regional bases and embassies.
The US-imposed crushing sanctions on Iran's economy over its support for terrorism and its growing missile program, among other things, after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal last year; Iran has fought back by violating parts of the nuclear agreement, bombing oil tankers, and downing an American military drone.
However, the seeds that will ultimately reap into conflict were not planted following Thursday's airstrikes alone. Washington and Tehran have remained locked in a months-long standoff that only continues to escalate.
The crisis has become more acute over the past week. An Iranian-backed militia killed an American contractor while wounding others in rocket attacks, leading the Trump administration to order retaliatory strikes on five targets in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 of the militia's fighters.
In retaliation, the militia Ketaib Hezbollah organized a rally outside the US embassy in Baghdad where some got inside the compound and set parts of it ablaze.
What the US-Iran war might look like
Even though it is hard to be very precise about a full-blown conflict thas is still in the works, it can still be assumed that the war could feature a series of moves and countermoves that will both be extremely messy and confusing.
But unlike with the path to war, it is less useful to offer a play-by-play of what could happen. With that in mind, it is better to look at what the US and Iranian war plans would likely be - to better understand the devastation each could exact.
How the US might try to win the war
The US strategy would almost certainly involve using overwhelming air and naval power to scare Iran into submission before greater devastation strikes.
The US military would bomb Iranian ships, parked warplanes, missile sites, nuclear facilities, and training grounds, as well as launch cyberattacks on much of the country's military infrastructure in efforts to degrade Iran's conventional forces within the first few weeks, if not days. This will make it even harder for Tehran to resist American strength.
These plans make sense as an opening salvo, experts say, but it will come nowhere close to winning the war.
Importantly, experts note that neither country wants a full-blown conflict, with US President Donald Trump saying he prefers "peace" when it comes to Iran. But the possibility of war breaking out anyway should not be discounted, especially now that Iran's leadership has sworn to avenge Soleimani as US-Iran relationship teeters on knife's edge.
"The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted on the morning of January 3.
How the US-Iran war may start
US-imposed sanctions have tanked Iran's economy, and Tehran desperately wants them lifted. But with few options to compel the Trump administration to change course, Iranian leaders may choose a more violent tactic to make their point, especially after Soleimani's death.
Either the Iranian forces could bomb an American oil tanker traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for the global energy trade aggressively patrolled by Tehran's forces. This could cause loss of life or a catastrophic oil spill. Or the country's skillful hackers could launch a major cyberattack on regional allies like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
On one hand, Israel could kill an Iranian nuclear scientist, leading Iran to strike back, drawing the US into the spat, especially if Tehran responds forcefully and on the other, Iranian-linked proxies could target and murder American troops and diplomats in Iraq.
But that last option is particularly likely, according to experts, since Iran bombed US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and killed more than 600 US troops during the Iraq War. At this point, it would be nearly impossible for the Trump administration not to respond.
The phrase 'the fog of war' refers to how hard it is for opposing sides to know what is going on in the heat of battle. It is particularly difficult when they are not in speaking terms with one another. In this case, it is the US and Iran.
This means that both the parties will rely mostly on guesswork before making their next move, with each having fifty-fifty chances of being either right or wrong.
Invasion and alternative entryways
The riskiest option by far would be to invade Iran. The logistics alone boggle the mind, and any attempt to try it would be seen from miles away. Iran has nearly three times the amount of people Iraq did in 2003, when the war began, and is about three and a half times as big.
Iran's geography is also treacherous. Small mountain ranges line some of Iran's borders and entering from the Afghanistan side in the east would mean traversing two deserts. Trying to get in from the west could also prove difficult even with Turkey, a NATO ally, as a bordering nation. After all, Ankara would not let the US use Turkey to invade Iraq, and its relations with Washington have only soured since.
The US could also try to enter Iran the way Saddam Hussein did during the Iran-Iraq war, near a water pass bordering Iran's southwest. But it's swampy — the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet there — and relatively easy to protect. Additionally, an invading force would run up against the Zagros Mountains after passing through, just like Saddam's forces did.
On top of that, there is the human cost. A US-Iran war would likely lead to thousands or hundreds of thousands of dead. Trying to forcibly remove the country's leadership, experts say, might drive that total into the millions.
That helps explain why nations in the region hope they will not see a fight.
Meanwhile, countries like Russia and China, both friendly to Iran, would try to curtail the fighting and exploit it at the same time as China depends heavily on its goods traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. Hence, China would probably call for calm and for Tehran not to close down the waterway. Russia would likely demand restraint as well, but use the opportunity to solidify its ties with the Islamic Republic.
And since both countries have veto power on the UN Security Council, they could ruin any political legitimacy for the war that the US may aim to gain through that body.
The hope for the Trump administration would, therefore, be that the conflict ends soon after the opening salvos begin. If it does not, and Iran resists, both countries will be left with a slew of bad options ready to make a horrid situation much worse.
How Iran might try to win the war
Tehran simply cannot match Washington's firepower. But it can spread chaos in the Middle East and around the world, hoping that a war-weary US public, an intervention-skeptical president, and an angered international community cause America to stand down.
Iran's vast network of proxies and elite units, like Soleimani's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, could be activated to kill American troops, diplomats, and citizens throughout the region. US troops in Syria are poorly defended and have little support, making them easy targets, experts say. America also has thousands of civilians, troops, and contractors in Iraq, many of whom work in areas near where Iranian militias operate within the country.
US allies would also be prime targets. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group in Lebanon, might attack Israel with rockets and start its own brutal fight.
Experts note that the Islamic Republic likely has sleeper cells in Europe and Latin America, and they could resurface in dramatic and violent ways. In 1994, for example, Iranian-linked terrorists bombed the hub of the Jewish community in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring roughly 300 more.
Cyber realm under seize
It is to be noted that in case a war ensues, the cyber realm of the US may come under seize by Iran's cyber forces. Since 2011, Iran attacked more than 40 American banks, rendering the banks dysfunctional.
In 2012, Iran released malware into the networks of Saudi Aramco, a major oil company, which erased documents, emails, and other files on around 75 percent of the company's computers — replacing them with an image of a burning American flag.
In the middle of a war, one could imagine Tehran's hackers wreaking even more havoc.