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How to Limit Iranian Freedom of Action

Iran’s threat toward U.S. assets and allies in the Middle East, such as Israel or Saudi Arabia, has greatly increased due to its successful development of precision-guided munitions, or PGM. Tehran’s capability to accurately strike targets many miles outside its territory was demonstrated through recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities and U.S. military bases in Iraq. The proliferation of PGMs in the hands of Iran’s proxies, mainly Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas in Gaza, could severely limit U.S. freedom of action in the region. Ironically, this is due to Iran’s own freedom of action, which enables its PGM capabilities and their spread.

Iran’s PGM project has a simple aim: to strike distant, high-value targets with high precision. This involves several stages, some of them carried out in the Iranian defense industries: research and development, manufacturing, experimentation, deployment, and operational employment. It also includes the conversion of imprecise rockets to precision-guided munitions. Its strategic rationale has to do with deterrence, but, in the case of an escalation, it could revolutionize how Iran and its proxies operate. It has the potential of gradually changing Iranian concepts of operations and those of Iran’s allies, as well.

Iran is not just keeping this capability for itself. It distributes PGMs to its proxies, both the missiles themselves and the technology to produce them. Hezbollah already has a missile manufacturing site in Lebanon. Since Syria and the Houthis in Yemen use or have helped develop Iranian technology, they might have also acquired indigenous PGM production capabilities.

It is unclear how many PGMs Hezbollah already has; former IDF Chief of Staff and retired Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has claimed the numbers are very low. This might be because Israel has succeeded in thwarting many of Iran’s proliferation efforts. But Iran has not abandoned its vision. Since the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it has only become more relevant.

If successful, Iran’s project of spreading PGMs across the Middle East would allow it to deter U.S. action and limit U.S. force projection, even in peacetime.

PGMs in Yemen could limit Western freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz and near Bab Al Mandab. PGMs might be used against American facilities in Iraq and also in neighboring Gulf countries. Coastal PGMs and cruise missiles in Lebanon might be used against Western maritime deployment in the eastern Mediterranean. PGMs in Syria might be used against facilities with a Western military presence in Jordan.

The implications are not just military but political, too. If Hezbollah can manufacture PGMs, the U.S. policy toward Lebanon might also change. The deployment of precision-guided munitions in Syria might increase Russian leverage over Israel to avoid taking actions against this project.

True, U.S. freedom of action results only from American decisions. The attack on Iranian-directed militias in Iraq and Syria, and especially the killing of Soleimani, demonstrates this. But still, Iran’s PGM project might influence American calculus, and Israel’s, too.

The necessary condition for Iran’s PGM effort is its freedom of action in Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon, as recently described by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Without open lines of communication, the Iranians would not be able to proliferate arms, technology, money, and professional personnel that relate to the precision-guided project. Without Hezbollah and the Iranians being able to move freely between Syria and Lebanon, a border supposedly controlled, from the Lebanese side, by the U.S.-backed Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah would not have developed its precision strike capabilities. Without using the Lebanese banking system, Hezbollah and the Iranians would not be able to fund their project. Without freedom of movement inside Lebanon, Hezbollah would not be able practically to build a military industrial facility in the Beqaa Valley.

The project’s core enabler, however, is also its critical vulnerability. Effective and open logistical routes, over air, land, and sea, from Iran to the rest of the region, are susceptible to U.S. military capabilities, when it chooses to exercise them. The recently foiled Iranian attempt to transfer arms to Yemen by sea, for example, demonstrates how the United States can limit the freedom of action Iran enjoys.

In a volatile and unstable Middle East, maintaining freedom of action is imperative. In order for the U.S. to preserve its force projection capacities, it should counter Iran’s PGM project by limiting its freedom of action. This might be a good time to engage in such a strategic competition with Iran, short of war, based on Israeli-American coordination.

IDF Col. (ret.) Itai Shapira is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and former Deputy Head of the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israel Defense Forces.

Originally published in Washington Examiner