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Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran's Asymmetric Way of War

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Presentation by Michael Eisenstadt, Kahn Fellow & Director of The Washington Institute's Military & Security Studies Program.

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Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran's Asymmetric Way of War

  1. 1. Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran’s Asymmetric Way of War Presentation by Michael Eisenstadt Director, Military and Security Studies Program, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy meisenstadt@washingtoninstitute.org 23 June 2020
  2. 2. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Why the US Needs a Gray Zone Strategy for Iran A US gray zone strategy the best way to counter Iran’s gray zone strategy… it could pose the kind of dilemmas for Iran that Iran has posed for Washington • …without many of the drawbacks of the current US policy It would enable the US to better manage risk, escalation, and avert a broader conflict A US gray zone strategy would be more sustainable than the current US approach—as it would be more compatible with the: • US goal of a new deal with Iran—less disruptive to diplomatic efforts? • US domestic mood (i.e., polarization, desire to avoid another Middle East “forever war”) • Regional operational environment (e.g., Iraqi sensitivities, US partner concerns) • Prerequisites for success in protracted conflicts (won on points, not knock-out blows) • US National Defense Strategy—and the need to shift focus/forces to Indo-Pacific region • The gray future: need to develop competence in this form of conflict/competition © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  3. 3. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Gray Zone, Asymmetric, and Hybrid Operational Approaches Gray Zone activities: enable Iran to advance its interests while managing risk, preventing escalation, and avoiding war Will test and probe to see what it can get away with Uses ambiguity, incrementalism, activities “below the threshold of war” - e.g. proxies, covert/unacknowledged activities, cyber operations—to avoid becoming decisively engaged Creates uncertainty among enemies about how to respond Rooted in universal human psychology and country-specific factors - So simple, even my kid brother mastered it (give examples…)!!! Gray zone activities work due to: - U.S. binary approach to war and peace - Legacy of past traumas (Beirut bombings, hostage crises, Iraq) - Fears of miscalculation, escalation (USS Stark, IranAir 655, UIA 752) © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  4. 4. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Gray Zone, Asymmetric, and Hybrid Operational Approaches Asymmetry: everyone does it so what’s the big deal? • Exploit enemy vulnerabilities, build on own strengths • Turn the enemy’s strengths into vulnerabilities • Actions that yield disproportionate effects • Most important asymmetries that Tehran leverages: • Conceptual: gray zone approach inherently asymmetric—exploits binary US approach to war/peace • Operational: proxies—offload risks/burdens, avoid decisive engagement, ensure ambiguity/deniability • Motivational: Tehran pursuing vital interests 24/7, US is not… and has global commitments • Temporal: Tehran can be patient and play the long game in ways the US cannot… Hybrid Warfare: a hybrid concept—refers to both organizational design features and modes of operation • Hybrid organizational designs facilitate hybrid operations • Expands capabilities, creates options, permits synergies © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  5. 5. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Iran’s Approach to Asymmetric Gray Zone Operations Avoiding/deterring conventional war is Iran’s overriding concern • Legacy of Iran-Iraq War trauma, watching US troubles in Iraq/A’stan Iran leverages conceptual, operational, motivational, temporal, quantitative, and geographic asymmetries and to achieve disproportionate effects • Iran’s gray zone strategy undergirds its asymmetric approach—this is a conceptual asymmetry that exploits the US binary approach to “war” and “peace” Elements of Iran’s “way of war” (derived from its strategic culture): • Avoid/deter conventional wars/conduct “forward defense” • Strategic constancy, tactical flexibility • Indirection, ambiguity, strategic patience • Reciprocity, proportionality, calibrated use of force • Protract, rather than escalate conflicts • Manage tempo/scope of operations • Offload risks and burdens on proxies/partners • Diversify/expand options to avoid escalation • Drive wedges in hostile coalitions, encircle enemies Italicized elements help manage risk/potential for escalation © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  6. 6. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Iran’s Gray Zone Strategy Ways Means Ends - Gray zone activities to manage risk/escalation - Asymmetry to achieve disproportionate effects - Hybrid operations to achieve synergies Theory of Success Causal logic that links ways, means, and ends - Hybrid forces to expand capabilities/options - Culture of jihad, martyrdom, resistance - Impose costs via proxy or direct action - Undermine enemy morale, staying power - Protract conflicts to exploit motivational asymmetries - Seek incremental, cumulative gains - Deter/avoid conv’l wars - Thwart enemy’s designs - Expand influence/reach - Become dominant power - End US influence in region - Eliminate Israel Test, Observe, Learn, Adjust © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  7. 7. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Iran’s Gray Zone Toolkit Iran seeks options other than vertical escalation/conventional war • Kidnapping • Harassment/attacks on diplomats • Embassy invasion/takeover • Terrorism (proxy and unilateral) • Ballistic and cruise missile tests/unacknowledged operational launches by Iran or its proxies • Unacknowledged/proxy attacks on civilian maritime traffic • Harassment of US/allied naval vessels • Unacknowledged/proxy attacks on US/allied naval vessels • Diversion/detention of civilian vessels • Attempts to shoot down US drones • Cyber activities (net reconnaissance, spying, DDOS, destructive attacks) • Information operations • Rocket/IED attacks on US personnel (Iraq) • Nuclear activities © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  8. 8. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Current US-Iran Tensions There is a potential for escalation and a broader conflict—but an “all-out war” is highly unlikely—unless US opts for this outcome. Risks include: • Iran’s propensity for intermittent high-risk activities (1983, 1996, 2011, 2019) • US propensity for “flipping” (1990, 2001, 2014)… might a war averse Trump also “flip”? • Excessive US restraint (projecting lack of resolve) or unnecessarily escalatory steps - Impact of killing of Qassem Soleimani? • One or both sides decide to change the rules of the game? • Convergence of separate conflict tracks in Levant/Iraq and Gulf? The US has struggled to counter Iran’s gray zone strategy: maximum pressure requires maximum deterrence—but the US has come up short • Current policy relies mainly on overt action, blunt force, and emphatic messaging—and comes at a price politically at home and abroad • A better way would entail unacknowledged activities, indirection, subtlety, and discreet messaging—could more effectively deter, while reducing risk of escalation • Also need to use military threats/action to create political dilemmas for Tehran to bolster deterrence (give it some of its own medicine) A US gray zone strategy can help contain Iranian influence, deter the most damaging Iranian actions, and limit the potential for escalation © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  9. 9. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy A Proposed Asymmetric Gray Zone Strategy Toward Iran Bolster deterrence by restoring credibility, projecting willingness to incur risk • However, deterrence is a wasting asset with a short shelf life, so… • …respond firmly and consistently to tests and challenges, lest restraint emboldens Tehran Deter by threats of punishment as well as denial • Deterrence only by denial enables Tehran to better calibrate risk Covert/deniable/unacknowledged action if possible, overt action if necessary/desirable • Two can play this game—to keep Tehran off balance and guessing A balanced approach: avoid excessive restraint as well as unnecessarily escalatory steps Exploit Tehran’s desire to manage risk, prevent escalation, avoid war • Increase uncertainty by acting unpredictably (not tit-for-tat) to prevent Tehran from calculating risk • Alter its incentives framework: impose costs by striking assets it truly values, not expendable things • Don’t cross its red lines unless vital US interests require it, and don’t back it into a corner—it will lash out Go long, not big: seek advantage by incremental, cumulative gains, not through quick, decisive actions or the pursuit of knock-out blows Arrange and pace activities in space and time to avoid decisive engagement and… • Avoid creating unnecessary time pressures on Iranian decision makers Expand gray zone options to include non-lethal/less-lethal, EW, and cyber activities Apply pressure in multiple dimensions from multiple directions Pierce Tehran’s veil of ambiguity: reveal evidence of its role in “deniable” activities Backstop deterrence with threats of destabilization/political warfare © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  10. 10. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy A Proposed Asymmetric Gray Zone Strategy Toward Iran (Cont’d) Deterrence in the gray zone is often not either/or—but is “gray”: success = deterring Tehran’s most damaging activities, while influencing it to employ less effective means when it does act • Because Tehran is highly motivated, focused, persistent: once it commits to a strategic direction, deflecting it from its course is difficult • Tehran will often back down when faced with a firm response—but will then seek alternative ways forward What can we learn from how Iran deters/constrains the US? • While Iran operates in the gray zone to avoid war, it incessantly warns of “all-out war” to deter the US. These threats: - Play to Washington’s fears of war and deepen political polarization in the country - Catalyze latent divisions in the administration - Cause allies to distance themselves from the US • By targeting the US in Iraq, Iran prompts the US to respond in Iraq—complicating the US presence there • Tehran’s reliance on deniable/proxy activities often ties the US in knots re: attribution, legal authorities • Thus, Tehran constrains/deters the US by threats/activities that create political dilemmas for Washington Implications: The US should adopt a more holistic approach to deterring Iran that focuses not just on imposing economic and military costs on Iran, but on creating political dilemmas that will constrain/deter it • By exploiting fissures w/in the regime, between the regime/its people, and between Iran/its neighbors © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  11. 11. © 2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Michael Eisenstadt, Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran’s Asymmetric Way of War, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus 162, January 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/operating-in-the- gray-zone-countering-irans-asymmetric-way-of-war. Sources Michael Eisenstadt, The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Religion, Expediency, and Soft Power in an Era of Disruptive Change, Marine Corps University Middle East Studies Monograph No. 7, November 2015, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/MESM_7 _Eisenstadt.pdf. © 2020 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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