Responding to Iran's asymmetric threat

Responding to Iran's asymmetric threat
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As the United States turns up the heat on Iran through sanctions, it’s clear we are entering an extended phase of tensions in the Persian Gulf. While the Iranian military would stand little chance against the U.S. military in a protracted conflict, the Iranian government possesses a range of asymmetric capabilities that could threaten U.S. interests worldwide. This should force senior U.S. national security officials to carefully consider the fine line between deterrence and escalation.

Iran has already taken asymmetrical measures, including attacks on oil tankers, shooting down unmanned U.S. aircraft and increased proxy operations in the Middle East, which make it difficult for the U.S. to respond proportionately. And Tehran has many more tools at its disposal. The U.S. needs to decide whether it will respond with covert steps, which would by their very nature be less effective in the very public signaling needed to dissuade Iran from further attacks, or overt measures like the proposed missile attacks against Iranian military sites, which could be escalatory. The closed and opaque nature of Iran’s security apparatus make Iran’s tripwires difficult to forecast. And when combined with President Trump’s unpredictable decision-making, it is a recipe for miscalculation. Here are some of the tactics Iran could use against the United States., and the challenges the White House faces in responding to them.

The United States has blamed Iran for conducting cyber operations against U.S. banks between 2011 and 2013 and the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 2014. These attacks demonstrated Iran’s emerging capability to penetrate the U.S. financial system and, in the case of the Sands Hotel attack, damage a company’s information technology infrastructure. Recent cyberattacks employing ransomware against local government networks in the United States, including Baltimore and Atlanta, show that U.S. cities are vulnerable to such operations as well. It is likely that Iran is preparing for a new round of deniable cyber operations against the United State. And given the lack of established international norms of how to reciprocate proportionally to cyberattacks, policymakers will be challenged to develop an appropriate response.

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Much has been reported over the past decade about the IRGC’s unconventional wing known as the Quds Force, and its support for proxy groups in the Middle East. Iran-backed proxies were responsible for the death of several hundred U.S. service personnel during the 2003-2011 Iraq War, and have provided critical support to both the Assad regime’s brutal reign in Syria and Houthi forces in Yemen’s devastating civil war.

As Iran looks to develop options to counter the overwhelming military strength of the United States, these proxies and militias may play a key role through attacks against the U.S. directly, or against its allies. Indeed, we have already seen an increase in Houthi attacks against civilian infrastructure, including airports, in Saudi Arabia. But there is clear sentiment in Congress and among many Americans against further support for Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen given the significant number of civilian casualties.

Lastly, Iran’s direct involvement in terrorist attacks stretches back to the 1980s, when agents from its security services were involved in a lethal operations program against regime opponents abroad in the Middle East and Europe. Notably, in 2011 a dual U.S.-Iranian national was arrested for plotting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. That plot shook counterterrorism experts’ analysis that Iran would not dare to conduct direct attacks inside the U.S. unless the regime faced an existential crisis. While this is clearly the most provocative of Iran’s asymmetric tools, it is one for which law enforcement needs to prepare. At the same time, it is the scenario in which the United States would have the clearest justification to take significant military action against Iran.

The White House should ensure that the steps it takes in response to Iran’s actions are a reflection of discussions with key foreign partners and allies and careful consultation with long-time U.S. government Iran experts. An unsuccessful attempt at proportional deterrence could result in Iran using these capabilities and trigger a dangerous spiral of escalation. Given the range of tools Iran could utilize against the United States, now is the time for policymakers to work through these scenarios to ensure that attempts at deterrence do not lead to escalation.

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He served as a senior director for counterterrorism on the Trump administration’s national security council from 2017 to 2018. 

Josh Kirshner previously served as special assistant for political-military affairs to the under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, and a professional staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.