"A potential conflict with Iran could escalate quickly and in a truly uncontrolled way."

John Bolton, the Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, played a central role in justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Sixteen years later, Bolton, as Donald Trump's national security adviser, is again at the center of escalating tensions in the Middle East, but this time he is staring at a far more formidable opponent: Iran. Last week, in response to a "credible threat" from Iran, Bolton announced the deployment of warships and fighter jets to the Persian Gulf.

Then on Wednesday, after "sabotage" attacks on Saudi oil tankers and a United Arab Emirates ship over the weekend, the US ordered the removal of non-core workers from Iraq in the latest sign that the two sides are getting closer to the conflict.

But comparing the two situations would do no justice to the new threat: A conflict with Iran would be much harder to contain, would immediately enslave the entire region, and would almost certainly be much, much worse.

"This is a much bigger country, a much stronger country, a much more strategic one, with a lot more allies," said Hady Amr, the former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the president. Obama. "And we are in a much weaker position as a nation because of our credibility because we have abandoned our allies."

Across the board, experts speaking to VICE News said a major conflict between Washington and Tehran would bring tremendous pain to the region, their respective allies and the global economy.

"A conflict with Iran can escalate quickly and in a really uncontrolled way," said Robert Deitz, who was general counsel at the National Security Agency from 1998 to 2006.

In the most basic terms, Iran is a country far bigger than Iraq. With a population of 82 million people. It has key access to Persian Gulf waters and important trade routes such as the Strait of Hormuz, which links regional oil producers to the rest of the world.

And it shares borders with many countries where the US. is already involved in military engagements, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, making US personnel stationed there vulnerable to attacks.

Iran also has a larger and more capable armed force than Iraq under Saddam. The latest estimates put Tehran's forces at over half a million active military personnel spread throughout the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - a group that the White House recently listed as a terrorist group.

Iran has another 350,000 reserve personnel to call, according to the Global Firepower Index, a military ranking website. And, despite a four-decade US arms embargo, Iran is believed to have created a substantial arsenal of short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel, Saudi Arabia, other states. Gulf, U.S. military bases in the region, and even some European countries.

The US military, for its part, seems to understand this and is unlikely to pursue an actual invasion of Iran. If it were to pursue such goals, analysts said, it would require much more than the 120,000 troops reported, which the White House is reportedly considering sending to the region.

"Iran can cause great pain"

But brute force is not the main concern. What makes Iran a particularly dangerous adversary is its unconventional approach to the war and its deep roots throughout the region.

Unlike Saddam's Iraq, Iran is unlikely to deceive itself into thinking it can match US military power in a conventional conflict. Rather, it would try to "find ways to undermine US superior capabilities," said Henry Rome, an expert at the Eurasia Group.

And it would do so by following an asymmetric attack strategy. In other words, Iran would immediately seek to make this a regional conflict by attacking the US and its allies, through attacks and other destabilizing means, said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the American National Council in Iran.

“This would not be a conventional war; Iran will make sure to spread this throughout the region for maximum risk and exposure, ”Parsi said. "Instead of the war going on in Iran, the Iranians would make sure to spread the war across the Middle East."

Iran has strong representative forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, for example, and is likely to deploy them in various ways to inflict pain on American personnel and its allies such as Israel, experts said.

But Iran is most likely to direct its initial attention to its main enemies nearby: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. "Iran can cause great pain for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the global economy," Parsi said.

"They don't have the ability to win, but they have the ability to cause so much pain." "We are in a very weak position" When US troops withdrew to Iraq in 2003, they were accompanied by tens of thousands of troops from traditional allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia.

If a military conflict breaks out this time around, the US is likely to go it alone, except for regional allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran last year, despite Europe urging him not to, and his recent erratic treatment of Kurdish allies in Syria have significantly undermined America's ability to garnering international support on conflict issues.

However, such a dynamic dramatically flattens the chances of a 'stupid' mistake or miscalculation, pushing both sides into a big head-to-head conflict, neither of which would want it.