In the first week of the new decade, we face another potential war in the Middle East. With last Friday’s early morning strike killing General Qassem Soleimani, the ruthlessly charismatic chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, we have entered uncharted waters.
While on first blush I supported the strike, since then I have felt considerable unease, wondering if we are ready to bear the brunt of inevitable “laws of unintended consequences.” It is as if we’ve taken a big stick and overwhelmingly batted down a hornet’s nest. The question now is how and where the many hornets will sting. That Iran and its proxies will retaliate is the only predictable aspect of this emergent challenge. The questions are how, where and when?
I just pulled down Lt. Col. (ret) Ralph Peters’s fittingly-titled novel, “The War in 2020” from my bookcase. I gave it a quick scan to refresh my memory. Written in 1990 before the fall of the USSR, Peters described a dystopian world 30 years in the future that found an ill-prepared U.S. military fighting an ugly war supporting Moscow in still-Soviet Central Asia and the Caspian region versus an array of foes that included an Iranian-led Islamic coalition and Japan. The conflict also raged in Africa and South America. While a futuristic tale that thankfully did not play out, for me its paramount lesson was the ever-changing nature of war. In the pre-cyber world, Peters wrote presciently of critical computer-driven capabilities and hideous new asymmetric weapons systems. Also used were chemical weapons and biological vectors. While impossible to precisely predict the future, the story expanded minds and challenged possibilities. We need to be brainstorming this way today.
As we marshal our thinking and resources to face likely Iranian retaliation there is much to consider.
First, we must get our own internal political house in order. It is crucial that we somehow find a unified bipartisan approach to this emergent crisis, one that transcends American political infighting and electoral posturing. A likely unintended consequence of this strike, one that shadowed earlier discussions about preemptively hitting Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure, is that — at least temporally — the proud Iranians are again unified in support of their nation and regime. In turn, we are divided internally and are not in lock-step with our allies. Notably, NATO just suspended its training mission in riven Iraq.
A Washington-Tehran diplomatic track should engage in a search for a viable “off-ramp” away from this menacing brink of war.
Other nations — especially North Korea, China and Russia — must be reminded that it would be folly if they engaged in opportunistic regional adventurism during this fraught period where nerves are sensitive and tempers hot.
There is a significant Russian dimension to all this. While not friends, Moscow and Tehran share considerable interests in the Middle East, especially with their combined proxies in Syria and shared hostility to the U.S. and its allies. Moscow should be urged to press Tehran to exercise restraint in the Persian Gulf region and rein in its proxy partners in Syria and Lebanon. If they don’t, the Israelis will likely intervene even more aggressively against Iranian proxies in Syria, putting Russian entities into a potentially dangerous crossfire. The Middle East in freefall is also dangerous for Russia.
The Iranians are proven masters at calibrating and masking their malign regional and global actions to a threshold just below a massive U.S. or Israeli retaliation. It is a dangerous game — especially now — because if they miscalculate, they invite terrible retribution. For this reason, it is likely that their responses will be measured, often lethal but mostly cloaked in deniability and non-attribution. Their recent attacks on Persian Gulf shipping and drone strikes on oil infrastructure likely only hint at their real capabilities.
By this calculus, much is vulnerable within the U.S. and allied infrastructure beyond more hardened military and governmental targets. The Iranian and non-state actor cyber threat is real and proven. False-flag actions, meaning nations and entities pretending to be another state are also possible. Nothing — including business interests, stock markets, civilian infrastructure including nuclear and power facilities — would be out of bounds. Plans for chemical or biological incidents should be dusted off and updated.
Remembering the 1970s’ spate of terrorist attacks and hijackings — despite much improved security — we must realize that civilians worldwide, including tourists in public places and traveling onaircraft, buses and ships, remain vulnerable to both state and local terror. While Iranian-backed attacks against these “targets” could prove suicidal for Tehran, they should be considered as a distinct possibility if relations further deteriorate.
Finally, our eyes must not be taken off ISIS and Al Qaeda. Enemies of both Washington and Tehran (and Moscow, Baghdad, Damascus and Tel Aviv) they would gain respite and strength from any distracting U.S.-Iranian crisis and further sectarian erosion of the increasingly fragile Iraqi state.
To close, we are in a dangerous, nuanced period that could rapidly escalate — or simmer deceptively. We should have confidence in our extraordinary military and its ability to prevail in any direct conflict. The full capability and knowledge of our interagency and intelligence community, if properly focused on this and other threats, is also formidable and should be fully leveraged by a bipartisan Capitol Hill to support decision-making. National-level policy messaging must be better coordinated, while discouraging ill-disciplined public bombast that alienates friends and energizes foes.
We must work to rebuild trust with our allies and search within the international community for a credible crisis off-ramp with Tehran.
Along with our core warfighting skills, we must, however — as a clarion call for action — be ready for a nasty, no-holds-barred action, especially in the murky and asymmetric spectrum of conflict.
Retired Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack served as a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Korea and U.S. Army Europe. He also was the senior U.S. defense attache to Russia (2012-2014) and operations officer for Army Cyber Command. He is currently a Wilson Center Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute.