Deterring Iran: A US strategic path forward
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On April 19, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified that Iran is sticking to the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal but noted that the administration is conducting a review of sanctions on Iran and its broader regional activities. Upholding the JCPOA should be a priority. However, the United States should amplify its focus on Iran’s destabilizing activities and capability development in a holistic strategy.

Currently, in Syria, members of the powerful paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s conventional army, the Artesh, are fighting to preserve President Bashar al Assad and his regime.  Moreover, it is estimated that Iran has between 106,000 – 108,000 proxy soldiers mobilized in Syria, including members of Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian National Defense Force. While the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has asserted that the Trump administration wants to “get the Iranian influence out” of Syria, concrete steps have yet to be taken to address more extensively Iranian destabilizing activities in Syria.


In addition to its involvement in Syria, Iran continues to incrementally extend its power in the Middle East. During the Obama administration, U.S. regional partners were not convinced that the United States was committed to challenging or punishing Iran’s bad behavior, perceiving an exclusive U.S. focus on the multinational effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program through the JCPOA.


Meanwhile, Iranian proxy activity in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen increased, prompting concerns among Israel and Arab Gulf countries. Regional cyber infrastructure remains vulnerable to Iranian penetration, challenging economic, energy, and security operations of key regional partners. While the U.S. military presence in the Gulf deters large-scale Iranian incursions at sea, it has failed to stem provocations carried out by the IRGC Navy.

Given Iran’s influence in Syria and its increasingly hostile relations with the Middle East as a whole, how should the Trump administration proceed?

In Syria, focusing solely on counterterrorism against the Islamic State and al-Qaida will have limits. Instead, the United States should adopt a holistic strategy that includes diplomacy, economic pressure, as well as military tools to address the drivers of the conflict.

For Iran, Syria is an existential problem, and it is arguably prepared to fight there through proxies and its own forces longer than the United States is. Through Syria, Iran is able to resupply Lebanese Hezbollah, its strategic deterrent against Israel. Iran will seek to maintain this link. To mitigate Iran having a greater role in Syria’s future, the United States should take several steps.

First, through diplomatic channels, it should make clear that IRGC-backed groups in Syria must return to their home countries; their long-term presence in Syria once the fighting stops could serve as a beachhead for attacks against Israel and other U.S regional partners. Second, it should use economic sanctions in combination with European allies to increase pressure on IRGC affiliates. Finally, it should interdict the arms flow to IRGC-backed groups operating in Syria.

The United States must carefully calibrate military operations that target IRGC groups in Syria and Iraq, where U.S. forces are present, or it may put our forces at risk. During U.S. military operations in Iraq in 2005-2011, Iran was reportedly responsible for the deaths of 196 U.S. forces. Given this threat, direct action against IRGC groups may be better suited for Yemen and other areas of the region.

Regionally, the Trump administration should minimize the space that the IRGC can exploit in the Middle East by building regional partner security force capacity and encouraging Arab partner  countries vulnerable to Iranian penetration to improve their governance for Shia populations. Moreover, the United States should expose Iranian-backed groups, front companies, and global financial activities to delegitimize and discourage Iranian coercive interference. Working with regional partners, the United States should amplify information operations exploiting popular sentiment in the region that bristles at Iranian interference. This could help reduce local support for Iran, potentially debunking exaggerated Iranian claims and deterring further destabilizing action.

But pressure alone will not yield changes in Iran’s behavior. The United States must simultaneously consider incentives to convince Iran. Diplomacy, multilateral engagement, and Track II efforts will be crucial in determining potential incentives. The most effective incentives will be those that align with Iranian objectives. These may include Iranian membership in multinational organizations, economic opportunities in Asia and Europe, and even revisiting the ban on conventional weapons trading with Iran when sanctions expire in 2020. Incentives should be linked to changes that Iran makes first.

By leveraging all elements of U.S. power, the Trump administration can pursue a more constructive path forward vis-à-vis Iran. By simultaneously pressuring and incentivizing Iran, the United States can more effectively secure its interests and those of its allies and partners in Syria and the broader Middle East.

Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and the deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she served in the U.S. Department of Defense for 10 years in several policy and intelligence positions. Follow her on Twitter @natsecdalton.

Hijab Shah is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her research primarily focuses on South Asia and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @HijabShah.

Joe Federici is a research intern with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He holds an MS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.