The US army absolutely dwarfs the Iranian army in terms of military might.

Realistically, Iran cannot attack mainland US, whereas the US could nuke Iran into oblivion at a moment's notice. They seem to be David and Goliath except Goliath has the sling. Does Iran actually have any ability to attack mainland US?

  • 50
    Do you see a parallel to US x Vietnam? Just asking. Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 23:43
  • 8
    Since OP tagged military, does it include terrorism threat and particularly Nuclear terrorism threat? Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 3:09
  • 8
    The title question and the question body do not match. Are you asking about Iranian threats to the U.S. mainland or Iranian threats to the U.S. in general? Iran has been regularly harassing U.S. naval vessels and shipping belonging to both the U.S. and its European allies in the very important Arabian Gulf and Straights of Hormuz shipping lanes for some time now, for example. There's a lot more of the world that's important to the U.S. than just the U.S. mainland.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 17:10
  • 3
    The question in the title, and the question in the body are very different questions. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 17:17
  • 8
    I think you need to be more specific, there can be threats to US interests, threats to US soldiers and civilians station overseas, and threats to the US mainland. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 1:22

9 Answers 9


They don't need to be able to strike the US mainland directly. All they need to do is go to war with allies of the US in the region, and they have ample allies to hide behind

Iran says it is not behind Saturday's attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia, denying accusations from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Tehran was responsible for "an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply."

Or they could tie oil lanes up in the Strait of Hormuz

Tehran has promised to retaliate, and one place is particularly vulnerable: the Strait of Hormuz, off Iran's southern coast. The channel, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, is the only way to move oil from the Persian Gulf to the world's oceans. Last year, attacks on two ships — one carrying oil and the other transporting a cargo of chemicals — in the nearby Gulf of Oman caused a temporary surge in oil prices.

Remember, also, that the US has troops in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan. The Iranian Quds force has been effective in killing troops (via things like EFP IEDs) in such locations before. Terrorism could be how they hit the US back.

  • 4
    @Ivana That's what military allies are for. US has a valuable asset to "sell" all over the world - the peace. You become an US ally, you pay some price (social, diplomatic, etc), you get peace. No peace, no allies.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:41
  • 4
    @Ivana The US does not operate in isolation. It's arguable if the US needs a military presence worldwide, but it's also how the US has operated since WWII (see NATO). As such, we have strategic allies we rely on in the region . As such Iran directly targets those allies
    – Machavity
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:42
  • 13
    "The US does not operate in isolation" - but its president increasingly states a wish to do so, and treats allies in a such a manner that they might soon agree it to be a good idea (at least until another president comes along). "It's arguable if the US needs a military presence worldwide, but it's also how the US has operated since WWII (see NATO)" - which the US president constantly berates, belittles and threats to leave. Also, threatening war crimes does not endear allies to one's cause.
    – Mawg
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 7:34
  • 16
    Attacks on US troops after the US has committed an act of war against Iran would not be terrorism, but legitimate military action.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 10:17
  • 4
    Indeed, in this case it was the US that resorted to terror operations in violation of international law, so IMO the use of this sentence "Terrorism could be how they hit the US back." is not welcome in this context.
    – Arshia001
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 11:27

Iran doesn't pose any threat to the US or its allies. The US, Israel and some of the Gulf countries see Iran as a threat because Iran is supporting certain militant groups that can pose a threat in case of an armed conflict. That Iran would (and currently does) pose a threat to the US when there are military tensions is a completely normal situation that would exist between the US and any other country.

For example, Iran funds Hezbollah, and Israel sees Hezbollah as a threat. Israel has fought wars in Lebanon and had to face Hezbollah there. But Hezbollah does not pose a direct threat to Israel under normal circumstances, despite charged rhetoric from both sides. Hezbollah does have a significant number of missiles, but it lacks the conventional military force to be able to invade Northern Israel. An unprovoked attack by Hezbollah doesn't make any military sense and would be swiftly defeated by Israel. Hezbollah's missile force only gives it a deterrence against an Israeli attack. So, it's this deterrence that Israel really objects against.

Just like Israel, the US and the Gulf countries also interpret obstacles to deployment of their military as a threat. The US blames Iran for the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq, not the decision to invade Iraq. Here we have to note that the Iranian decision to support Shia militants in their attacks on US forces was prompted by threats made by the US against the Iranian regime.

Iraq was invaded based on false WMD claims, and Iran was at the time falsely accused by the US of working on nuclear weapons (while the international community had raised verification issues with Iran's nuclear program, all of the original US accusations against the Iranian nuclear program have later been debunked). John Bolton made explicit threats that Iran's regime was the next on the US' target list, which made Iran support the Shia resistance to the US occupation of Iraq.

Saudi Arabia blames Iran for supporting the Houtis in Yemen, it doesn't consider its own decision to support one side in the civil war. Similarly the US and the Gulf countries blame Iran for having caused the defeat of the insurgents by Assad in Syria.

One may argue that Iran by supporting a particular side in a conflict acted outside international norms. However, almost all conflicts have significant third-party involvement - e.g. the US support for the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s, the US support for UNITA in the Angolan civil war. The criticism against Iran is thus mostly about Iran being a player in world affairs fighting for interests that don't always align with those of the US and Israel. The threat posed by Iran is against the doctrine of some countries have that they should be able to conduct military operations with little resistance.

  • 3
    @jgn Iran is resisting the illegal US sanctions. The US sanctions are aimed at undermining the JCPOA, but the JCPO is part of intentional law, therefore undermining it is an illegal act. For its survival Iran needs to be able to sell oil, military actions needed to secure that are therefore justified. This is thus a clear case where the threat is provoked by abnormal external circumstances. The threat does not exist under normal conditions where the US would behave in a normal way. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 3:54
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    @jgn I made it clear in my answer that I'm consider a state of normal relations. So, the US is imposing massive pressure on Iran, which is an abnormal situation under which any other country would behave in a similar way as Iran. So, the threat the US claims Iran poses is simply a consequence of its own pressure on Iran. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 8:19
  • 4
    @CountIblis You listed a whole bunch of ways that Iran is threatening. For example, Iran is fighting a proxy war with Israel through Hezbollah. You call that a threat, I call that a threat, everyone else calls that a threat. That means Iran must be a threat. You can't say "in my fantasy world XYZ", you should address reality too.
    – user29682
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 8:24
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    @jgn: You're completely blinded by US propaganda. Ever noticed how the "peace process" only ever stands for what's in the US interests and things like that? (If not, consider trying harder.) Count Iblis is basically spelling out the same thing. From the viewpoint of the US or some of its allies who want to bully other nations around, Iran is indeed a threat. But from the viewpoint of Iran and quite a few other countries, the actual threat is the US. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 10:43
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    The assertion that "Hezbollah does not pose a direct threat to Israel" is ridiculous. Threat is not measured by the ability to overrun the land or overthrow the ruling government. Threat is measured by the ability to kill citizens and disrupt a peaceful way of life. By any measure, Hezbollah has that capacity.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 18:18

No direct threat.

Iran's military is much like the Soviet military pre WW2. The capable leaders either left or were executed, and it is now run by people selected more with an eye towards compliance with the theocracy than military capability. The few 'advanced capability' weapons Iran touts have turned out to be mockups or clumsy photoshop jobs.

This is the same military that couldn't defeat Iraq, a country 1/3 the size and population of Iran, in 8 years of war. The same Iraq military that the coalition dismantled in 72 hours.

Lately, the Israeli Air Force had no problem attacking Iranian units in Syria.

Iran did pull off a cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia recently, but now that the region is alerted to Iran's willingness to employ this weapon without warning, countermeasures have been put in place. Another attempt at a cruise missile attack will not only be shot down, but deliver the location of the launches and a valid reason to counterattack.

Iran can use terrorist methods to lash out, and probably see an initial surprise or two. But, once all nations are alerted to a sovereign state employing terrorist methods, Iran will see little success.

Iran can also seek to close the Strait of Hormuz by attacking oil tankers, to disrupt the global economy. If it attempts this, it will be opposed by every major power that depends on those oil shipments for economic stability, and see its financial situation collapse as not only the US but the EU shut down its financial transactions.

So, yes, Iran can cause trouble for quite a few nations, but not for long.

We must also keep in mind that Iran has been wracked with internal protests for quite some time - the latest uprisings are just a continuation of protests that date back over 15 years. The Iranian people have demonstrated that not only do a large number of them disapprove of their government, they are willing to face harsh measures to voice that disapproval. Any further degradation of their lives could increase the volume and intensity of the protests, bringing the current theocracy down.

That possibility will limit what the current Iranian government is willing to undertake, and expect to survive.

  • 6
    "This is the same military that couldn't defeat Iraq, a country 1/3 the size and population of Iran, in 8 years of war. " Based on this logic and statement, does it mean the US military is also not as strong as advertised since they failed in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq? Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 11:40
  • 5
    Iran's military is much like the Soviet military pre WW2. So, much like the force that wiped out EU v0.01alpha in the end? That doesn't sound very reassuring. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 16:52
  • 2
    Pre invasion Soviet army was a shambles... Germany ripped through it, took a few million prisoners. Within a year, it had become an effective fighting force, with some help from General Winter. In two years, it was unstoppable. An amazing feat.
    – tj1000
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 8:25
  • @tj1000 Also some help from Germany's lack of resources, vastly over-extended supply lines, complete lack of preparation for winter in Russia, being massively outnumbered by the Soviets, and inability to keep up with the combined war materiel production capacity of the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and United States. And Germany's certifiably insane leader who liked to meddle in military affairs.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 5:50
  • Re Soviet army pre-WWII: I believe it was mostly the Winter and Continuation Wars with Finland that alerted the Soviets that a reform of the army and command structures was necessary.
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 8:46

An entity does not have to attack a country's mainland directly to pose a threat to that country. Nor does it have to use an army to carry out attacks.

As an example of the first, consider various wars against pirates throughout history*, such as the Barbary Wars or the British Navy's practice of impressment as a casus belli for the War of 1812, and as a contributing factor to the American Revolution.

For the second, we would certainly seem to have plenty of examples of attacks on US and other western targets, carried out with the encouragement, and arguably often with the direct or indirect support, of Iran.

Iran and its proxies have been attacking the US for over 40 years now, from the seizure and hostage taking in the US embassy** in Tehran to the recent attack on the Iraqi embassy. The Iranian government, from its public statements and overt & cover actions, obviously considers itself to be at war with the US, and indeed, with the West in general.

*Also wars against Carribean pirates and by the British in East Asia.

**An embassy's grounds are considered to be territory of the embassy's country, thus for instance Julian Assange was able to seek asylum in the Equadorian Embassy in London.

  • 5
    "An embassy's grounds are considered to be territory of the embassy's country" -- no they are not. Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 20:35
  • 5
    Jurisdiction and territory are not the same thing, though they almost always align.
    – Nij
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 23:35
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    The Iranian government, (...) obviously considers itself to be at war (...) with the West in general. : I would disagree. Iran signed treaties with European countries (the nuclear deal of 2015 Trump dumped in 2018 being the most famous), does all its might to restore commercial links with Europe, and even Khamenei's rants threaten the US and Israel military, but no other Western country.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 10:25
  • 3
    @Evargalo: Yet Iran directly and indirectly supports groups that carry out attacks against European targets (and non-Islamic ones elsewhere in the world).
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 17:05
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    @Evargalo Iran and its proxy forces have attacked a Panamanian-flagged ship operated by the Japanese, a Marshall Islands-flagged ship operated by a Norwegian company, a British oil tanker, and probably at least 4 other ships belonging to various other countries that aren't the U.S. or Israel just in the last year. There was also at least one other failed attempt to attack a British tanker (thwarted by a British escort frigate.)
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 17:33

The threat to the USA is minimally military: it's cultural, economic and partisan.

It's like giving feuding children some knives and guns in lieu of borough reforms and trade agreements... then accusing one child as "a bad one/a threat". The query of "Iran's threat" requires geopolitical/social context. Let's not forget that Chevron, Exxon and Emerson made bids for Iraq's oil fields and that the US spent 3 trillion on a war on Iran's neighbor and stoked global Wahhabi regimes.

Iran is the ace of spades in the republican "foreign threat" news system, whereas Russia is favored by the Democrats.

If there is peace with Iran, the Republicans lose their media story of "foreign threat", whereas the Democrats see a peaceful Iran as the key to stability in the Orient. The US needs to attack Iran for its own internal political media.

Iran has armed Kurds and Yemenis (poor minorities), and fomented Hesbollah. The US has spent 3 trillion dollars on war, asymmetrically armed all of the Orient, encouraged global wahhabism via Saudis, encouraged Israel. The USA has ignored the development of the region's middle class, culture and education.

Saudi Arabia poses more of a threat to America, as demonstrated by Wahhabi actions of 9/11, Isis and Afghanistan, whereas Iran has moved to pacify ISIS and has no choice but to combat the threat posed by the USA and Saudi Arabia.

With 3 Trillion dollars of military action and institutional debasement that have stoked 15 million refugees onto Iran and Europe, I'd use irony to parallel your question: "What threat does a child pose to their sodomist?", with the United states being an abusive presence in the backwards and treacherous family of nations of the Orient. ISIS versus Hesbollah is an illustration of the analogy.

The USA represents a good ally for Muslims as a potential relief from division and violence. The US can pacify the Orient by obliging trade agreements in between Iran and SA and modernizing Iran to help it achieve a middle class and a peaceful transition.

The USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia's escalations of violence are a regional threat in the middle east and to all of Europe, while Iran has pacified ISIS and created a more favorable climate for Exxon, Chevron and Emerson to operate in Iraq.

By destabilizing Iraq and Libya and strengthening Saudi Arabia, the USA debases a house of cards which causes millions of refugees to flee to Europe. The USA is a threat to itself more than Iran, and to the EU.

The multi-trillion sponsorship of radical ideologies like Saudi Arabia fanaticism and Israeli ownership of Golan causes tangible violent results when paired with a 3 trillion war against Saddam, compared to Iran's ideologies which have more in common Turkish nationalism than global wahhabism.

  • After Iran bombed the oil refinery last year, the price of oil went up nearly 15%. Iran's actions have disrupted global oil trade a tremendous amount, billions of dollars. They are threatening 1/6th of the Earth's entire supply of oil
    – user29682
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 2:59
  • 1
    If you were an oil company lobby, middle east tensions inflate the sales prices. It's Iran's economic threat to the opec distribution conventions. Isreal also acts outside of international law and expands militarily, which kills EU citizens and provokes local enmities in large numbers. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 5:42
  • "Iran has pacified ISIS" - Source?
    – smcs
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 16:29
  • 1
    American commentators stated that Qasem Soleimani was "leading Iraq's military strategy against ISIL"... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qasem_Soleimani#War_against_ISIS_in_Iraq ... theintercept.com/2019/11/18/iran-isis-iraq-kurds ... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 21:53
  • @paulj Oil shortage causes vast damage across the world. You can think that holding the world's oil supply hostage is bad while also condemning bombing of Sanaa etc.
    – user29682
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 0:44

Iran could launch a cyberattack and has a history of reputably doing so.

Quoting a recent Washington Post article (https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/01/03/cyber-attack-should-be-expected-us-strike-iranian-leader-sparks-fears-major-digital-disruption/):

Iran’s cyber troops long have been among the world’s most capable and aggressive — disrupting banking, hacking oil companies, even trying to take control of a dam from afar — while typically stopping short of the most crippling possible actions, say experts on the country’s capabilities.

But Friday’s American airstrike that killed one of Iran’s top generals, Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, now threatens to unleash a fully unshackled Iranian response, analysts and former U.S. officials warned. They said a variety of potential cyberattacks, possibly in conjunction with more traditional forms of lethal action, would be well within the digital arsenal of a nation that has vowed “severe revenge.”

“At this point, a cyberattack should be expected,” said Jon Bateman, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on Iran’s cyber capabilities and now a cybersecurity fellow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The range of possible tactics is long: The Iranians can overwhelm computerized systems to snarl business operations, as they did to U.S. banks from 2011 to 2013. They can also use malicious software to wipe out data, as government officials said they did in 2014 to the Las Vegas Sands casino, whose staunchly pro-Israel owner Sheldon Adelson had suggested the United States drop nuclear bombs on Iran.

Update: [Texas] Gov. Greg Abbott reports rise in cyber-attacks from Iran


While the other answers are great, especially Count Iblis's which is spot on, there are two important avenues that Iran could pursue:

  1. Collecting Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi oil/gas to export in non USD denomination with a view to expansion of an economic alliance in the region.

  2. Embracing a military alliance with Russia.

Both may be pursued together.

The entire purpose of US presence in the Middle East is to ensure oil revenues are tied to OPEC commitments to trade energy exclusively in USD. The Sunni (Saudi etc) commitment to trade all oil for US paper means Sunni powers swap that paper for hundreds of billions of dollars worth of US military hardware, keeping the US domestic industry afloat, while also ensuring that central banks around the world maintain USD reserves in sufficient quantities to power nation state energy needs. Any economic attack on this dollar hegemony has thus far been met with overt and covert offensive (Venezuela, Russia, Iraq, libya etc).

The Sunni/US alliance seeks to ensure that Sunnis gain control of middle East energy by promising the USD its oil prop and in return getting US military hardware and direct backing. This is the geopolitical purpose of destroying Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran.

Russia halted this process by deploying its military in Syria, destroying ISIS, and evicting foreign military.

By threatening Iran or attempting to destabilise Iran in a similar way to Syria, the US/Sunni alliance risks a Russian intervention in Iran.

If this were to happen you would see a Russian alliance form in the region that would be unstoppable if it decided to trade energy in EUR rouble or yuan.

This indirect attack vector of subsuming Iranian Syrian and Iraqi energy exports into a nascent Russian/local energy block would be enough to hurt the US badly.

  • 3
    This claim has often been made, rarely been proven. And in fact Iran's largest oil customer is China, not exactly a friend of the US either. As for trading oil in EUR; that doesn't really matter. Oil/USD is set by the free market, as is USD/EUR and therefore Oil/EUR. The Yuan is not free-floating; that's another matter altogether.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 15:11
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    @MSalters No this is not correct. Oil/USD price as of today was set primarily by the assassination of an Iranian general. The free market had nothing to do with it. The Oil/USD OPEC link is without any question of a doubt an essential underpinning to the USD value. Losing the Middle East to the EUR Rouble or Yuan is not something the US is about to let happen.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 15:48
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    @Frank: That is a rather strange objection. The "free market" is a market where supply and demand drive prices; the assassination drives fears that unrest in the Middle East will negatively affect the oil supply. That drives prices up. Also note that the price of Oil in EUR went up today as well - of course, since it's the oil that's affected.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 16:12
  • 2
    @MSalters What Frank means is this fear is being created to drive the "free-market" as cattle. while there's a market demand an "oiligarchy" controls supply.
    – jean
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 16:15
  • 3
    @MSalters OPEC is an internationally recognized and accepted cartel. The remainder of the supply side belong to nation states who also regulate the supply according to their own interests. The demand side for oil, given that a handful of corporates produce nearly everything and companies like Tesla are considered maverick , and that central banks/nation states need to own USD to pay for energy, is obviously about as free as a Saudi housewife on a hot day.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 16:21

Nukes are largely discounted for now, since bombing a city would kill far more civilians than military targets—it's a huge war crime and would be absolutely condemned by the UN/the world.

In terms of resources, USA has more, but (like the Vietnam war) it could be a huge cost to attack Iran. Also note that Iran has the same population (and more land) as Germany, which seemed a big enough threat 80 years ago.

I don't think Iran could invade/conquer USA, but I definitely see trillions of dollars (which USA doesn't have) and countless lives wasted with no gain.

Another perspective is terror attacks like 9/11. Do you consider that a "threat"? Statistically, losing a few hundred lives compared to 300 million is nothing. But that event shook the world. Waging war with Iran might incite similar attacks.

  • 2
    I think you touch on some good points here, but you very briefly touch on them before stepping to the next. It's certainly a complicated situation but many of the points are nuanced (the knives are sharp, but they're double-edged). Also try to add references, I think a lot of comparisons can be supported by referring to the Iran-Iraq war which saw over a trillion dollar in economic losses and hundreds of thousands dead.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 10:27

Iran does not pose a conventional military threat to the USA directly, but they certainly have the means to pose an unconventional threat.

Put a large chemical or dirty nuclear bomb in a shipping container and sail it into a US port using a false flagged cargo ship and you strike a major blow right there.

Or, somewhat more advanced and potentially survivable for the crew, mount a couple of ballistic missile launch trucks on the deck of a cargo ship, hidden inside fake shipping containers for camouflage, and launch them at US cities from outside US territorial waters. Accuracy would be poor, but the effect on the cities so struck would be like what happened during German V2 attacks on London in WW2. It'd be more a propaganda coup than a military victory, but just see what the Doolittle raid did for morale in the US after Pearl Harbour (and this missile attack may well do more damage than Doolittle ever did).

Iran also has some reasonably advanced submarines and can use them to attack shipping in the Gulf of Aden, including US warships and cargo/tanker ships. Won't do much to harm the US as a percentage of their total economy, but again it's something.

And Iran as a sponsor and perpetrator of international terrorism is no stranger to aircraft hijacking, car bombs, etc. etc. and given the porous nature of the US border it's not that hard to infiltrate cells into the country and strike pretty much at will.

  • 2
    We looking for answers but I'm sorry to say you provided a hypothetical scenario more suitable for a Die-hard movie
    – jean
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 20:12
  • @jean hypothetical scenarios based on theoretical capabilities (and the things I mention have all been tested by various nations in the past) are all you will ever get unless and until someone actually tries to execute them for real.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 4:37
  • 1
    Make my wording don't carry the right tune. Take it as constructive criticism. I thank you to take your time to try to improve the discussion but keep in mind we are trying to make a mature discussion and based on facts. The fact is even you or me can learn how to make a bomb and succeed to make an attack but we are not a threat to the government nor big actor in geopolitics.
    – jean
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 16:06

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