Iran’s Next Surprise

By Steven Ward

Steven R. Ward is a retired intelligence officer and former member of CIA’s senior analytic service who specializes in Iran and the surrounding region. A retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and graduate of the United State Military Academy at West Point, he currently is a contract historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint History Office. Between 2010 and 2012, he was a CIA Visiting Professor to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. From 2005 to 2006 he served as the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East on the National Intelligence Council, and he was a Director for Intelligence Programs on the National Security Council from 1998 to 1999.

When he became Secretary of Defense in early 2001, Donald Rumsfeld publicly expressed his concern about the inevitability of surprise. He often reminded other officials that “The only surprising thing is that we continue to be surprised when a surprise occurs.” Secretary Rumsfeld was fond of sharing the celebrated strategist Thomas Schelling’s foreword to Roberta Wohlstetter’s seminal study of the 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, giving copies to President Bush, members of Congress, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was right to be worried, of course, as the 9/11 terrorist attacks soon proved. The question now is, following the recent Iranian shoot down of a vulnerable—and very expensive—U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle, is anyone in the Trump Administration giving thought to the next possible surprise by Iran?

Drawing on Wohlstetter’s work, Schelling noted that Pearl Harbor was a dramatic failure of a remarkably well-informed government to anticipate the enemy’s next move in the pre-war crisis. With intercepts of Japanese naval communications in hand, Washington was not caught napping. But, it was so concerned about “obvious” Japanese moves that it neglected to hedge against the actual Japanese courses of action. The poverty of expectations and obsession with familiar dangers blinded officials to actions that, because of Japan’s worsening situation in the face of increased U.S. oil and metals embargoes, were not unreasonable. Given the Japanese decision to go to war, an attack on Pearl Harbor, while risky, made sense. In fact, while the Pacific Fleet was intended to be a deterrent to Japanese aggression, it also made a superb target of opportunity. Missing the warning signs of the attack, according to Schelling, was the result of a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.

If Iran is, as it claims, ready for war and is still seeking to relieve the pressure of America’s economic warfare and threats to escalate military responses, what contingencies might now be, from Tehran’s perspective, more reasonable and more acceptable despite the risks? Its willingness to target an unmanned U.S. aircraft suggests that Iran’s leaders are no longer giving precedence to avoiding all actions that might give the United States cause to initiate a full-blown conflict. In responding to U.S. “maximum pressure” Iran probably will continue to rely on proxies and clandestine operations to conduct deniable attacks on allied interests with a particular emphasis on Saudi targets. But, Iran’s leaders have now shown that they are prepared to risk overt attacks on U.S. interests. Moreover, recognizing its weakness relative to the United States, Tehran almost certainly views surprise as a critical equalizer and has given significant thought to gaining this advantage.

Among possible unfamiliar options might simply be novel uses of known capabilities. For example, Iran has conducted computer network attacks on Saudi Arabia before, and Iran’s cyber warriors possibly could unveil capabilities that cause physical destruction to critical infrastructure. Given that the U.S. responded to Iran’s destruction of the Global Hawk drone with cyberattacks, an Iranian surprise in this area would fit with its “like for like” policy of retaliatory actions.

Another example might be an escalation in the use of drones by Iran’s Houthi partners to strike Saudi infrastructure. Since mid-June, the Houthis have repeatedly used drones to attack two airports in southwest Saudi Arabia. What if the Houthis are able to conduct a swarm attack with a dozen or more unmanned aircraft to defeat Saudi defenses and multiply the damage of past operations, successfully interrupting oil pipelines, power lines, or desalinated water supplies?

Tehran has used ballistic missiles in the past to retaliate for militant attacks and assassinations inside Iran, so a salvo of missiles should not be a surprise. An Iran bent on changing the game might go after unexpected and undefended targets, perhaps even cities, arguing that its actions are proportional to Saudi actions in Yemen. Alternately, Iran might use drones or saboteurs to go after U.S. and allied land-based missile defense systems to increase its neighbors’ sense of vulnerability.

Limpet mines can damage but not sink an oil tanker, making the recent attacks more of a limited warning. A desperate Iran, however, might escalate its attacks, using other anti-ship weapon systems against commercial shipping and port facilities to fulfill its longstanding threat that if it could not export oil, it would stop other regional states from doing so. Again, there should be no surprise if Iran pursues this course of action given its warnings. In the past, Washington has reassured itself that Tehran would never close the Strait of Hormuz because it would hurt Iran as well. Under current sanctions, however, the Strait is virtually closed to the Iranians, which seriously weakens this constraint.

Finally, although Iran has regularly been assessed to be abiding by its arms control commitments under the Chemical Weapons and Biological Weapons Conventions, it also is judged capable of quickly developing chemical and biological capabilities. Iranian leaders have disavowed the use of weapons of mass destruction. But, desperate for a stronger deterrent and perhaps convinced that war was imminent, the shock of an unexpected chemical or biological weapons attack might appeal to Tehran as a way to undermine the allied basing and overflight support U.S. forces would need to conduct operations against Iran. The Islamic Republic could even use the mere threat of WMD use, playing on uncertainty over its actual capabilities, to undermine regional support for U.S. actions and increase international pressure to avoid hostilities or stop a crisis from escalating.

Other scholars of surprise attacks, such as Richard Betts, have pointed out that it is impossible and usually imprudent to try to hedge against all contingencies. But, as Schelling suggested, it is important to allow for a wider range of contingencies rather than focusing on a few vivid and oversimplified dangers. The list above probably does not come close to being expansive enough. And, in considering potential dangers, Washington officials would do well to take a few moments to reflect on the likely attitudes of the men in Tehran seeking to preserve their power and national honor.

Iran’s leaders are not novices to confrontations with the United States. During periods of open conflict and heightened tensions going back to 1979, Iran’s current leaders have been key decision makers. During the 1987-88 Tanker War with the United States, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was Iran’s president and President Hassan Rouhani was the primary lieutenant of speaker of the Iranian legislature and acting commander-in-chief of the military Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ali Shamkhani, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s current counterpart, was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces confronting the U.S. Navy. A few years later, when he was president and Iran had not yet developed its ballistic missile capabilities, Rafsanjani publicly expressed the sentiment that chemical and biological weapons were “the poor man’s atomic bomb” and might be a suitable deterrent to a superpower adversary. When Tehran began supporting Iraqi Shia militant groups to bog down U.S. forces in Iraq to prevent them from threatening Iran, Shamkhani was Iran’s minister of defense, Rouhani was serving in the national security advisor role (formally, the Secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security) and Khamenei had been Supreme Leader for over a decade. All of this experience, however, probably has not prepared these men for the uncertainty surrounding the current U.S. strategy toward Iran.

Today’s crisis atmosphere puts a premium on the United States and its military forces being more thoughtful and flexible to respond to unexpected actions. At the national, level this will require more consideration of the improbable as well as greater focus on the warning signals amid the noise. Having a permanent and Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense would be a great help in this regard. As Schelling pointed out:

Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost… It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion—which is usually too late.

Flexibility, meanwhile, probably will require more forces—as General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, has requested for the region—rather than the piecemeal deployments made to date. That this goes against the overall American defense strategy is just another reflection of the failure of U.S. policy toward Iran to go beyond the desires of Mr. Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to make Tehran cry “uncle.”

To anticipate more effectively, Washington would benefit from increased efforts to obtain more precise tactical-level intelligence on Iranian activities and deception, which some of the previously announced troop deployments were intended to address. And, given the current situation, this is not an area where the United States should scrimp. Even with such actions, U.S. decision makers should expect information gaps and, in turn, be aggressive in challenging the assumptions used to fill in the unknowns. Again, relying too much on the familiar can lead to dramatic failure. Finally, as it pursues its flawed coercive approach to reviving negotiations with Iran, Washington probably should pray very hard that it manages to avoid the bad luck that often comes into play in these situations.

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Read more from Iran experts Steven Ward and Norm Roule in The Cipher Brief.

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