It is 2026 and the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has failed.
Authors’ Note: This second part of the "2026: Operation Iranian Freedom" fiction series takes place simultaneously with the first installment but from a different perspective.
It was predictable. The moment U.S. policymakers signed a nuclear deal with Iran, it made future military action inevitable. What was Iraq in 1991 if not a foreshadowing of this more deadly situation? United Nations Resolution 687 called for Iraq’s leadership to destroy, remove, or render harmless its chemical and biological weapons as well as all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers. That resolution, at least in part, set the stage for the series of events leading to Operation Iraqi Freedom. This newer deal created its eastern brother, Operation Iranian Freedom.
While there was some hope the nuclear deal would succeed when Iran handed over their enriched uranium to Russia in 2015, it was short lived. The Russians, who played a critical role in the 2015 nuclear deal, were furious when Sweden joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2022. One year later, the Russian economy, already weakened by increased natural gas and oil exports from U.S. shale, began a precipitous downward spiral when the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy sold technology to European countries that enabled them to essentially end their dependence on Russian-supplied natural gas. In response, Russia returned the enriched uranium to Iran. The regime in Tehran, also reeling from the economic shocks of cheap oil and chafing against an increasingly belligerent U.S. government under the new administration elected in 2024, used this opportunity to reinstate their highly-controversial nuclear program.
As has been shown throughout modern history, international agreements and strict United Nations resolutions are worthless. This one is no different. Like those before, the Iranians violated the nuclear deal and U.S. policymakers will end up choosing between military force and looking feckless; what politician chooses to appear impotent? And at the end of the day, who is going to get the job done if not the U.S. military? No one else has the resources or capacity.
As someone who ends up implementing policy when diplomacy fails, I’d prefer our policymakers to focus on slow, steady, multi-decade campaigns that revolve around non-military solutions, but long-term thinking is not the strength of most diplomatic efforts. Plus, most nations, particularly in the Middle East, only really understand the threat or use of force. While difficult, particularly in the politically contentious times we find ourselves in, politicians could use a few pages out of the books I read at the U.S. Army War College to weave together both military and non-military means. Admiral J.C. Wylie's cumulative strategy and George Kennan and Paul Nitze’s efforts against communism come to mind as successful frameworks. But what do I know? I’m just a lowly Marine colonel slaving away in the operations shop of Joint Task Force–Iranian Freedom (JTF-IF). At least the international hotels in Doha serve alcohol.
Preparation for this campaign has been hard, especially for those of us trying to fuse national policy and the brief snatches of guidance from the Pentagon to operational realities on the ground. The last decade’s drawdown of U.S. forces following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with austere budget cuts, ensured all lobbying efforts to increase military capabilities fell on deaf ears. In contrast, Iranian defensive capabilities, particularly along the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, have vastly improved. As always, we will be forced to make do with what we have.
The only good to come of the debate regarding military action against Iran is that our military leaders have actually implemented most of the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than pursuing regime change, which required not only breaking a nation but rebuilding it as well, our strategy is now centered upon the concept of a “substantive punitive raid” or “SPR”, pronounced “spear” for short. The SPR doctrine combines Colin Powell’s concept of overwhelming force (or, more precisely, Clausewitz’s principle of mass at critical points), with the short-duration strike operational concept from U.S. special operations forces. Without the burden of a large occupation force on the ground, there will be no forward operating bases to sustain, fewer convoys to attack, and our military will be employed like a military—not like a police or training force.
I’ve never agreed with missions that require our young troops to learn about a foreign culture and train partner forces. Maybe it’s a Marine thing, but I don't care about 18-year olds understanding culture. I need our 18-year olds prepared to destroy culture. “Train them for high order violence and you can always hold them back by the belt” was the Marine Corps of my early days. Thanks to this ability to eschew “stability operations,” we are truly expeditionary, just as the Corps has largely been since its founding. It’s about time the rest of the U.S. military followed our lead.
So far, we’ve gathered a formidable team for the raid—no thanks to the bean counters in the Pentagon or the micromanagement of the politicos on the National Security Council staff. Fifth Fleet naval forces are going to secure the sea-lanes, provide for air superiority, and will play a large role in amphibious operations. U.S. Air Forces Central, with some GCC support, will begin the operation with strategic strikes, secure air superiority, and provide close air support to our troops on the ground.
On the ground, we have heavy forces ready to cross the National State of Iraq from their jump off point to the east of Baqubah. Due to the strengthened relationship with Israel and Jordan in the decade-long fight against the Islamic State (and our substantive infrastructure agreement to overcome Iranian interference in the Arabian Gulf and political issues in Kuwait), our supply lines from Aqaba and Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba all the way to Baqubah are secure. Meanwhile, airborne and amphibious forces stand ready across the Arabian Gulf to seize their objectives. I try not to dwell too much on the fact that my former regiment, 8th Marines, is leading the way in the Gulf. This will be the Corps’ first contested amphibious landing since the Second World War. I know many faces in that regiment, many of whom won’t return home. I hear my old driver, Smitty, is a squad leader now; I hope he’s telling some of our old stories to his men to lighten their mood before the assault.
More than anything, I wish I could lead Marines in this campaign. Instead, having given up regimental command six months ago, Army General Brad Silvia requested the Corps allow me to serve here on JTF-IF as his chief of operations. It’s better than working at Headquarters, Marine Corps, I suppose. At least it allows me to work under Major General Bill Friese, an old battalion commander of mine, who is now the JTF-IF J-3. Both Friese and I recognize that sometimes what units on the ground actually need is less interference from us. National Security Council (NSC) requirements may cause us friction, but we’ll do our best to avoid passing it onto the units executing the operation.
Damn. Another call from Washington. I’ve given up on fighting back against the NSC going around the chain of command and pestering our staff over tactical minutia. There’s a reason Friese sends the staffers my way; he doesn’t want to deal with them. I don’t blame him. I almost relish the frustration of constant operational working group meetings; at least they give me time to think without being asked for another nit-noid detail to feed yet another NSC information request.
“Evening, Arash. What’s up?”
This story segment was written by Phil Walter, Diane Maye, and Nathan Finney. Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. He blogs at www.philwalter1058.com. Dr. Diane Maye is a Visiting Professor at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. She tweets at @DianeLeighMaye. Nathan Finney is an officer in the United States Army. He tweets @nkfinney. This article does not contain information of an official nature, nor do the views expressed in this article reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
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