Now that President Donald Trump has demonstrated his willingness to get tough with a regional bad actor by using a cruise missile attack to punish the Assad regime and try to deter it from any future uses of chemical weapons, similar deterrent actions against challenging Iranian behavior seem more likely.
Despite what the Trump Administration might think, however, Iran has been more or less “on notice” since—well, basically since shortly after the Islamic Republic’s creation in 1979. In the subsequent 38 years, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have wrestled with the issue of deterring Iranian behavior, such as its ongoing military activities in Iraq and Syria and the recent spate of incidents involving Iranian speedboats operating dangerously around U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.
Deterring the Islamic Republic has always been a challenge. Since the mid-1980s, I have participated in numerous Department of Defense and think tank war games involving various types of potential U.S.-Iran crises along with responses to hypothetical Iranian provocations. These simulations almost always pose some version of the question of how best to communicate a deterrent “on notice” message to Iran. As important, U.S. officials and military leaders in these war games usually want to communicate this message while minimizing risks and keeping matters from getting worse. Or as one senior U.S. military officer once put it to me: “How can I punch Iran in the nose to get it to stop [doing things Washington doesn’t like] while also letting the Iranians know that the fight ends there if they don’t respond?”
I first confronted this question early in my career as a CIA military analyst when a senior intelligence official in 1987 asked me what it would take to get Tehran to stop attacking merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. As a former U.S. Army armor officer, I jokingly replied, “tanks in downtown Tehran.” This drew a sharp rebuke and the official’s declaration that there had to be some U.S. action short of invasion that could deter Iran’s attacks. Perhaps there was, but as I tried to explain after my failed attempt at humor, Iran’s leaders saw themselves engaged in an existential conflict. For Tehran, the stakes were incredibly high. The Iranians also had demonstrated since the war’s start a willingness to endure major losses of men and material. Deterring Iranian ship attacks, a key element of Iran’s wartime strategy, would take a substantial demonstration of U.S. strength and willpower.
Over the next year and a half, the United States would capture and sink an Iranian minelayer, attack oil platforms used to direct merchant ship attacks, and sink an Iranian warship and several speedboats in one of the U.S. Navy’s largest surface actions since World War II. Yet, while Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval forces became more cautious, they persisted in conducting ship attacks. The Iranian and U.S. resolve in this contest of wills ultimately led to tragedy in July 1988 when a U.S. Navy missile cruiser, while responding to reports of IRGC speedboats attacking a merchant ship, accidently shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 passengers and crew. The Islamic Republic leadership’s perception of the seeming ruthlessness of this U.S. action, along with a month-long Iraqi missile barrage of Tehran and a series of major battlefield defeats inflicted by Iraqi tanks and mechanized forces, finally caused the Iranians to accept a cease-fire in the war. This ended the attacks on shipping in the Gulf, so maybe my flip response had not been too far off the mark after all.
In the years since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, my answer to the “punch in the nose” question has continued to be generally unsatisfactory for policymakers and warfighters. In short, it depends.
I am very confident that Iran is not going to like the idea of letting Washington get in a punch and then allowing it to walk away scot-free. Nonetheless, I believe there are situations where Tehran will tolerate this outcome. But, Tehran’s ultimate response depends on the situation. And, in particular, it depends on how Iranian leaders view the stakes of the matter at hand along with the costs of retaliating as well as of not responding. Plus, the Islamic Republic’s leaders are no less interested than U.S. officials in projecting an image of strength, both at home and to Iran’s regional neighbors.
On the positive side, Tehran has not had and still seems to lack any desire to get involved in a direct—and almost certainly losing—conflict with the United States. Iran may act provocatively and take chances as opportunities allow. The Iranians, however, historically have grown cautious when confronted, especially when the odds do not appear to favor them. So, a punch in the nose in the form of a U.S. warship blowing an IRGC speedboat out of the water for ignoring warnings and getting too close could put an end to such Iranian behavior, at least for a little while.
Another factor that might keep a situation from escalating out of hand is that Iranian responses historically have been indirect. Plus, the Iranians can be patient in exacting their revenge. The first feature allows Washington to potentially treat any subsequent response as unconnected and thus not escalatory. The latter, meanwhile, provides time for diplomacy to come into play to reduce tension, if such a desire exists. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a strong U.S. action or subsequent attempts to diplomatically reduce tension would be the end of Iran’s malign behavior or to Iranian attempts to retaliate.
For example, Iran saw the large U.S. military presence in Iraq following the 2003 invasion as a serious potential threat to the Iranian homeland. Keeping U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq and away from Iran by supporting attacks by Iraqi Shia militants became Tehran’s primary strategy to counter the perceived U.S. threat. Needless to say, Washington viewed this as particularly egregious and malign Iranian conduct, and at the start of 2007, President George W. Bush publicly put Tehran on notice by vowing to disrupt the flow of support from Iran for insurgent attacks on U.S. troops.
On 11 January 2007, the U.S. military followed through on the warning by capturing and detaining five IRGC officers serving in a claimed Iranian diplomatic mission in Irbil, Iraq. Iran demanded the release of the captured men, which Washington refused. Nine days later, Iranian-supported insurgents infiltrated a joint U.S.-Iraqi security station in Karbala, Iraq, and attacked the U.S. soldiers there. After killing one American at the base, the insurgents captured four others, placed them into vehicles, and left the compound with their prisoners. To escape pursuit, the Iraqi militants later shot and killed their U.S. captives.
The Irbil raid probably was seen in Tehran as a significant effort to undermine its standing with the insurgent groups critical to Iran’s security strategy. In this case, the leadership appears to have seen the stakes for Iran as high and sought to retaliate for the Irbil raid—and probably to gain prisoners for a swap—to deter a repeat of such U.S. actions.
An important secondary question then—and the one that in the past has usually dampened the U.S. inclination to punch Iran in the nose—is simply this: Is it worth it? Any U.S. administration needs to have thought through what the likely direct, as well as the second- and third-order consequences, of a U.S. show of force to deter or compel Iranian actions might be.
Although there are fewer U.S. forces in the region for Iran to target than in 2007, the Islamic Republic’s current options for retaliation are fairly significant. A U.S. attack on an IRGC speedboat might entail retaliation against a U.S. or allied naval or merchant vessel in either the Persian Gulf or perhaps off the coast of Yemen. A shoot down of an Iranian missile test might be met with a missile or armed drone attack on U.S. bases in the Gulf or against Gulf Arab facilities. Punitive strikes on Iranian interests for any of its activities in the region might lead to more indirect retaliation, such as Iran’s past practice of enlisting militants to target U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is no question of the appropriateness and necessity of U.S. actions to protect our troops in the region. Defending tangible U.S. and allied infrastructure, shipping, and trade routes from direct threats also is the right thing to do. But, these are examples of U.S. responses to identifiably aggressive Iranian actions that are only likely to occur after Tehran has already determined that its circumstances warrant open confrontation. In such situations, the stakes also would be high for Washington, making it easier to justify the risks of strong and potentially sustained U.S. military actions along with any subsequent Iranian responses.
Small actions that amount to political posturing to show one U.S. administration is tougher or more credible than its predecessor, however, are not going to deter Iran’s leaders. They have seen it all before. A strong U.S. response to Iranian challenges, such as the destruction of unsafe but mostly annoying IRGC speedboat activities, could cause the Iranians to back off and show more caution. Tehran might even write off the loss of a boat as the cost of determining the limits of U.S. tolerance of threatening behavior. But, given the current tension in the region, it is as likely that Tehran will view such actions as a U.S. threat that needs to be discouraged with a strong Iranian reaction.
Caution also is needed in the somewhat gray area of deterring, constraining, or even coercing Iranian actions in the warzones of Syria and Yemen, especially as the U.S. appears ready to become more involved in both regions. Although not as existential for Tehran as the Iran-Iraq war or the fight over post-Saddam Iraq, the Syria battle is critically important for keeping Iran’s sole Arab ally in power and for maintaining supply lines to its Hezbollah partners in Lebanon. These are key elements of Iran’s national security strategy of confronting its enemies away from the Iranian homeland. From Tehran’s perspective, the stakes in Syria are relatively high, and in any event, much higher than Washington’s demonstrated interest. In such a case, the Islamic Republic’s leaders are likely to view a strong retaliatory response to any U.S. action as a reasonable risk.
Tehran has less at stake in Yemen and may be more willing to shake off a U.S. show of force in that theater, viewing it as an acceptable consequence of a larger effort to keep the Saudis bogged down in the civil war there. Tehran appears unlikely to end its support to the Houthi rebel forces despite U.S. threats, sanctions, and coalition naval interdiction operations against ships trying to move arms to the Houthis. There is no guarantee, however, that Iran would forego retaliation for a punitive U.S. action in Yemen. Saudi and U.S. naval forces off the coast of Yemen already have been subject to rebel attacks in which Iran’s hand is suspected, if not publicly proven.
The stakes for Iranian security in the region appear to be rising. The apparent anxiousness of Tehran’s regional rivals to draw the United States into closer alignment with more confrontational policies probably increases the costs for Iran of not retaliating for a U.S. punch in the nose. While Iran’s leaders might harbor concerns about the reliability of Russia as a partner, they may view the current relationship as providing Iran with more diplomatic cover for standing up to perceived U.S. bullying than has been available in many years. Plus, with a presidential election coming this spring, hardline conservatives in Tehran and in the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard may see political advantage in standing up to U.S. pressure as they try to unseat President Hassan Rouhani and overturn his efforts to normalize relations with the West. Such variables heighten the uncertainty about Tehran’s reactions and require additional caution by a U.S. administration seemingly eager to confront Iran.