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SALT LAKE CITY — As news rolled in about the United States’ attack that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and others, social media erupted in a panic over a possible third world war. In fact, “World War III” trended worldwide on Twitter shortly after the attack was first reported Thursday evening.
That fervor also led to a concern that the U.S. would end up reinstating a military draft — something that hasn’t been used since 1972. Enough people flooded the federal financial aid website to review selective service rules that the website crashed Thursday night, U.S. Selective Service System officials tweeted.
With those two fears in mind, KSL.com and KSL NewsRadio reached out to three experts regarding the conflict with the Iranian government and what may happen in the future.
Are we going to war with Iran?
“The answer is no,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told KSL NewsRadio’s “Dave & Dujanovic” Monday morning. He added that has been the top question he’s received since last week’s attack was carried out.
“The last thing in the world that Tehran wants is to have an actual war with the United States. They know how that would end for them, and the regime wants one thing, and that’s to remain in power, and that (war with the U.S.) would imperil that for them,” Stewart said. “And the last thing President Trump wants is another war in the Middle East.”
This killing hasn’t all of sudden poked a sleeping bear. This bear is wide awake and has been growling and fussing and attacking all along.
–Utah Rep. John Curtis
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, a member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also joined the radio program, where he asserted that the U.S. attack was only in response to several attacks within the Middle Eastern region carried out by Iran, which led to American deaths.
“To look at this isolated incident and say ‘we’re now closer to war’ is misleading because these series of provocations by Iran was only escalating, and that alone should be concerning in and of itself,” Curtis said. “This killing hasn’t all of sudden poked a sleeping bear. This bear is wide awake and has been growling and fussing and attacking all along. So, yes, this certainly brings it to a head, but this beast was unleashed before this killing.”
Iran's leaders quickly vowed revenge for the attack, the Associated Press reported. However, it’s unclear what that would look like. In a series of tweets Saturday, President Donald Trump warned Iran that the U.S. had selected 52 cultural sites in Iran that it might target should Iranian forces retaliate. That’s a comment Stewart backed away from Monday.
“As a military officer, the last thing you want to do is target a cultural site. It has no military value. You want to go after military targets,” he said, noting that he believed high-ranking U.S. military members also aren’t focused on cultural sites. “I think, probably, the president said it in a bit of an off-handed kind of way, and that’s one of these things I wish he wouldn’t have done because it deflects from the primary goals that we’re trying to achieve here, and it deflects from the message we want to share with the American people.”
However, a war starting with Iran truly depends on how it responds to Soleimani’s death, said Sean Lawson, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. His research has focused on Middle Eastern studies, including recent wars and conflict in the region.
Since Iran still hasn't formally responded to the attack, it’s unclear what the future will be between the two sides.
“It will certainly have an effect on what happens next,” Lawson said. “There is definitely a risk of escalation of violence between the two countries that could potentially get out of control.”
How might the Iranian government respond?
Lawson sees a couple of most-likely scenarios. Iran leaders may back out of the nuclear deal they made with the U.S. and other countries in 2015, which is something that has reportedly already happened. On Sunday, Iranian state TV reported that the country was no longer abiding by any limits of the deal, according to the Associated Press.
Vox explained in 2015 that Iran agreed to surrender 97% of its enriched uranium under the deal and limit the amount its remaining uranium could be enriched, among other things. That lessened the chance of Iran possessing nuclear weapons.
“Even though we sort of pulled out of it awhile back, Iranians have still said they were going to honor the deal. And over time, they’ve slowly started to back from it and are pushing the edge … as a way of sort of exerting pressure to get us to come back to the deal,” Lawson said. “They could just forget about the deal entirely in response to this.”
Otherwise, the country may target military zones within the Middle East or even conduct a cyberattack, Lawson added.
“Those (cyberattacks) may be targeted against the government or military targets. I think it’s probably more likely they’d be against private-sector targets like industry, business or something like that,” he said. “Of course, the big fear with cyberattacks is attacks on infrastructure systems like the electric grid. Iran has shown a little bit of capability in that area, for sure, but it hasn’t been their main modus operandi when it comes to cyberattacks and cyber capabilities.
“They have been more focused on propaganda and disinformation. When they have launched attacks that are more on the destructive side, probably the biggest case we know about is one called Shamoon and this was in 2012 against Saudi Aramco, the big oil company in Saudi Arabia,” Lawson continued. “They used what’s called Wiper malware, which basically spread on all the company computers and destroyed nearly all the computers.”
Stewart said he doesn’t believe there will be a physical attack on the U.S. He also doesn’t think Iranian leaders have decided what their response will be, either.
“It’s not something that Americans, laying in their beds at night, should worry about — that there’s going to be an attack on our homefront. I just don’t believe that and I don’t think that’s where Tehran is going to focus,” he said. “It’s going to be an attack in the region. We know that. That’s why — over the last four or five months — we’ve significantly increased our defense posture there.”
What could spark World War III?
We’re far from anything like another world war, Lawson said. In addition, he said that also might be dependent on how “world war” is defined.
“If you mean a conflict between the U.S. and Iran that ends up pulling in other great powers like Russia, the Europeans or China, maybe; or a conflict between the U.S. and Iran that ends up, maybe, giving a signal to Kim Jong-un where he says ‘The U.S. is preoccupied, I’m going to try something'; I don’t see that as particularly likely in the near future,” Lawson said. “I think the possibility of physical conflict between the U.S. and Iran through a series of retaliatory acts is very likely. I think the real question is whether or not that spirals into sustained physical conflict between the U.S. and Iran and whether that conflict ends up spilling over and/or pulling in other actors within the Middle East.”
Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite groups in Iraq have ties to Iran. American allies in the region include Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Lawson pointed out. He added while Russia also has ties with Iran, he’s not sure they’d have much to gain from “a shooting war” with the U.S. in another country.
“I think the other thing that would be a signal of world war would be a violent conflict between countries — U.S. and Russia, Russia and the Europeans or North Korea getting involved somehow as an opportunistic sort of situation, where the violence is outside the Middle East region itself,” Lawson continued. “If violent conflict gets sparked between U.S. and Iran and ends up resulting in a related violent conflict between nation-states somewhere outside the region, then, yeah, that would probably count as some sort of world war.”
Am I going to be drafted because I filled out FAFSA?
The short answer is "no," but the long and more detailed answer is "it’s complicated."
This fear that played out on social media is based on the law that all men ages 18-25 must sign up for military selective service should there be a draft, which may be tied to Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
FAFSA itself is irrelevant to this discussion. According to the U.S. Selective Service System, it’s federal law for all men aged 18-25 to register in its system. The agency’s website says it’s a felony to not register and it comes with a lifetime ban on several federal benefits, which includes FAFSA.
The last draft was held during the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and there are no signs that another one would happen anytime soon. The agency’s website notes Congress and the president have to authorize a draft before anything else happens. It adds that a crisis might happen where there are more troops needed than what a volunteer military can supply.
In 2017, The New York Times reported that there were 1.3 million active-duty troops and another 865,000 reserve members. Meanwhile, the AP reported that, as of Friday, there were about 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq, which were mostly training Iraqi fighters. The U.S. also deployed about 3,000 troops to Kuwait on Friday, the outlet reported.
That means there are many volunteers currently in the military before a draft might come into play.
Contributing: Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic, KSL NewsRadio