According to the above article, even though Iran started its domestic missile program during the 80s, it achieved its long-range missiles around the 2000s. As of 2021, Iran has virtually become invincible. it has hundreds of hidden missile silos and hundreds of kilometers of underground missile facilities.

What strategic or political reasons could have made the US not attack Iran in the 90s? Has the US made any official statements about why they did not attack Iran in the 90s? Have any politicians, generals, or other major figures said why the US didn’t attack Iran in the 90s

  • The double negative in the title makes understanding the question being asked a bit difficult. Commented May 31, 2021 at 18:03
  • 3
    Rather, why would they? Commented May 31, 2021 at 21:45
  • 4
    We sent Iraq there to do this work in the time period of the question. Built Saddam's forces up into a fearsome army. Supported him while he deployed chemical weapons. Iran withstood it.
    – Pete W
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 22:55
  • "As of 2021, Iran has virtually become invincible." [Citation needed] Yes, Iran has many medium range missiles. Apparently, they are quite good quality. I don't see why that makes them "invincible" at all. Iran ability to command shiite militias all over the Middle East, from Lebannon to Iraq, are a far more credible deterrent than those missiles, at least while they don't have nuclear warheads to mount in them.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 8:46
  • @Rekesoft, 'invincible' means, neither USA nor other powers are able to Invade Iran any more.
    – user366312
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 10:03

4 Answers 4


Even if the impression is sometimes to the contrary, the US does not go around invading other countries on a whim.

The US has a lengthy history of trying to influence Iranian affairs. This spectacularly backfired in 1979 and contributed to the Islamic revolution. (It would be hubris to say it caused the revolution.)

So the US decided to provide limited support to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. This countered Iran but did not defeat it, in part because Iran was so much bigger and arguably also because the West never gave Iraq enough to win. Then Saddam Hussein decided to refill his treasury by conquering Kuwait and the West intervened forcefully. But the West did not want to occupy Iraq back then.

The more reasonable policy officials in the United States were well aware than the occupation of Iran would not have been easy, and also that it might have tarnished the US image in the world if there had not been sufficient provocation. So they settled on a policy of diplomatic hostility.


There are 2 aspects to the questions - why didn't the US invade Iran, and are those missiles a significant hindrance?

The missiles? Doubt it. They'd have to target fixed targets, like airfields. Yes, they could, but those would be defended. If the US has credible plans to take on Russia or China in a hot war, Iran's missiles would not be a tactical game changer. They might however be a good way to keep the cities of any countries friendly to the US hostage (except Israel with Iron Dome/Arrow) and they might thus hinder getting a mustering base to invade Iran from. Otherwise, they seem more a terror weapon that a really useful military resource.

(Tactical nukes, if Iran got those? That would be different, both more dissuasive after their deployment and provocative before.)

Next, why did the US not invade? Let's assume for a second they really would have wanted to do invade at some point, keeping in mind o.m. is right in their analysis. When would have that been?

  • pre 1979. Nope, friendly Shah.

  • 1980-1990. Well... let's call a cat a cat, the US had gotten its tail whupped in Vietnam and they were very leery, both in the military commands and, more importantly in the larger public, to send out soldiers to fight abroad. There was that little invasion of Grenada and Panama, but these were not credible opponents and the Grenada invasion had a whiff of not-quite-there-yet too. The USSR wasn't super friendly with Iran, but might or might not have objected to, or taken advantage of, the US attacking Iran. Certainly, the US military's primary job was containing the Soviets at that time.

  • 1991-2000. Yes, the US was back in the game after Gulf War 1, but it had been a nearly bloodless war, with more friendly fire casualties than anything. The US public still seemed averse to casualties, even if the US military had proved itself top notch. And the coalition had been broad, the US had not had to take on the whole affair by themselves.

  • 2001-2003. After 9/11, all bets were off, but even then the US invasion of Afghanistan was done "on the cheap", to minimize casualties, one factor that led Bin Laden to escape Tora Bora. Somewhere in that time period though, rather than going after Iraq, the US could have targeted Iran. Maybe. Much bigger country than Iraq, with a government that, while despotic, did manage to command loyalty during the Iran-Iraq war. Not a great bet. This, rather than the missiles, is the real risk, especially if it gets transformed into a guerrilla war.

  • 2005+? After the mess of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, the last thing anyone, be it the US military or the US public, really wanted to do was to run into another quagmire.

Iran is an irritant to the US, but its conventional forces are easy to contain and they are hardly worth engaging into a full-on war with. If for some reason things heat up some more, look to stricter US sanctions and perhaps cruise missiles. If a nuclear breakthrough is imminent? Who knows? But North Korea is still there (yes, China is the big difference there).


While the actual motives of the decisionmakers involved cannot be known with certainty, there are several factors that almost certainly contributed to the choices made regarding the U.S. stance towards Iran.

  1. Iran's military presents a credible threat to the lives of U.S. servicemembers.

Although staggering differences in capacity exist between the militaries of each nation, the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taught the U.S. that they are not invincible, and in particular they are very bad at keeping servicemembers safe in territories where they are not welcomed by the local populace. There is a severe political cost at home for military adventurism, and both of these wars have been important issues for voters during elections. The decision to invade is ultimately up to civilians in the United States: Congress to declare war, and the President to give the order, so regardless of the tactical or strategic situation - military officers don't get to make the call.

  1. Iran is part of the Middle East, a region with an extremely delicate international relations landscape.

The United States has a vested interest in the stability of the Middle East and is already a controversial presence there. A full-scale invasion of Iran would create political and diplomatic turmoil in other, neighboring nations, who would see it as a message of "step out of line, we step on you."

  1. An invasion is a commitment to conquer.

Invasions are commitments of the utmost gravity. You're not just committing materiel for the opening, kinetic phase of the war, but also a permanent force to occupy and govern. This was the key strategic error the United States made in the second Iraq war, they conquered Iraq easily but could not then govern or even effectively and swiftly prop up a new government. The costs for invading even a nation that offers no credible military threat to you are far in excess of what most observers understand.

Yes, a nuclear-armed Iran is a problem for U.S. interests, but as long as there are other possibilities to resolve the matter (diplomacy being the preferred), it's a very hard sell to say that an invasion would be less of a problem.

  • Yes, #3 is key. The US politicians and public didn't fully realize that in 2003, now they do. Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 0:15

Because Iran is very useful as it is.

Since the end of WWII US internal and foreign policy has been heavily dependent on the availability of a bogeyman. The soviet empire first and lesser bogeymen later helped justify huge military spending and invasions of small countries on the ground they might be taken by the bogeyman otherwise. An example of using Iran to justify foreign interventions is the bombing campaign in Iran. Thousand of articles stated that the Houthi rebels are supported and armed by Iran, always turning a blind eye on the fact that Yemen has been surrounded for years by a tight cordon of American allies that controlled everything that could enter the country by land and sea. If someone thinks that this example is not correct because the bombing is not carried out by the US military, they might consider that the entire operation is based in the intelligence gathered from the drones flying from the US base in Djibouti. Iran is also used to justify the repression of the opposition to the regime in Saudi Arabia and right wing policies in Israel.

  • This. Just look at how many arms the USA sold the Saudis already. Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 14:17

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