Change US Escalation Calculus with Iran

The United States can discourage Iran’s lethal and nonlethal aggression by demonstrating a willingness to escalate through covert, cyber, information and kinetic operations. Establishing credible escalation options that can address nonlethal violence is vital to protecting America’s interests in the Middle East.

No one wants a war with Iran. Yet innovative escalation responses can satisfy the American public’s desire to avoid a conventional war while signaling to Iran that its behavior needs to change. At the low end, this could include nonlethal or cyber response attacks against Iranian proxies that engage in rocket attacks. Cyber operations to compromise Iranian weapons facilities and communication with its proxies, targeted information operations against Islamic Revolutionary Guard leaders, and deniable gray zone operations that cripple munitions and bases are useful responses for any level of hostility. Each avoids reaching the level of conventional warfare.

Faced with responses to its low level aggression, Iran would have to choose to decrease the frequency and potency of its provocations, continue regardless of the US response, or escalate with more dangerous attacks. Iran has not shown a willingness to halt its aggression against US interests in the past, but it has not yet faced clear and persistent pushback to each of its nonlethal operations.

For example, a recent rocket attack in Iraq killed two American and one British Soldiers. For the second time after an American death, the US launched retaliatory strikes against an Iranian proxy, Kataib Hezbollah. However, these occasional responses to Iranian aggression remain the exception and not the rule.

Killing an American has so far been the specific red line trigger that elicits a strong US response to Iranian belligerence. The United States retaliated against Kataib Hezbollah weapons stores in response to the most recent attack in Iraq. The same Iranian proxy’s killing of an American prompted the strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani barely three months ago. Killing Soleimani underscored the administration’s seriousness about maintaining this redline. But Soleimani’s death has not discouraged Iran nor its proxies from continuing dangerous attacks that have caused casualties. Failing to act will lead to more American deaths.

The US has avoided escalation to several key events including a response to Iran’s nuclear development program; attacks on oil tankers, a U.S. drone and crucial Saudi oil infrastructure; and Iranian proxies launching rockets at American personnel in Iraq. The United States met each hostility with the same non-escalatory tools: a combination of sanctions, troop deployments, and cyber operations. However, each avoided matching Iran’s escalation.

After Iran retaliated to Soleimani’s killing by launching missile strikes at Al Asad Air Base bases and causing more than one hundred American injuries — but no fatalities—the US responded with additional sanctions. While continued sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy, Iranian and proxy attacks – most of them inside Iraq – continue. We must question the long-term utility of these sanctions. Likewise, deploying additional forces to the Middle East has done little to curb Iran’s behavior and has simply created more targets for reprisal attacks. The US launched cyber-attacks on at least two occasions to degrade Iran’s ability to harass oil tankers and to respond to the Saudi oil facility attack. Even after the cyber-attacks however, Iran continued to harass tankers until an international coalition formed to guard them. Iran’s proxies in Yemen went on to  strike Saudi oil facilities yet again, only weeks after the Soleimani strike.

The US must not tolerate this violence. By demonstrating a strong US resolve, escalation can coerce an adversary to change behavior. When used correctly, escalation can credibly signal to an adversary that its best option is to yield because higher levels of violence will lead to undesired consequences.

The absence of escalation tied to defending US interests has several consequences for America. Predictability allows the Iranian regime to plan operations more efficiently. Iranian planners can design operations that avoid undesired responses, such as the death of Americans.