Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is calling for unity and says that his country is facing ‘unprecedented’ pressure as the U.S. continues to ratchet up sanctions. Tehran said last week it will no longer comply with portions of the nuclear agreement, an agreement which the U.S. left last year, while several European countries still remain committed to the deal. Iran’s threat to no longer comply is widely seen as an ultimatum meant to pressure European countries to convince Washington to back off any further increase of sanctions demands as President Trump suggested would occur. European countries have indicated they will reject any ultimatums.
The nature of U.S.-Iran hostilities has changed, so what happens next? In the wake of Major General Qasem Soleimani’s killing, Iran will likely attempt to double down on the doctrine most closely associated with him that has served it so well⏤continuing its asymmetric warfare.
Iran’s missile attack on U.S. targets in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of General Soleimani may be the end of at least this round of hostilities.
Behind the visible tit-for-tat, Iranian rhetoric and doctrine suggest that this exchange marks for Iran a new phase of hostilities with the U.S. Regardless of who drew the knife first, the nature of the fight has now changed.
The Trump Administration is likely to continue with its attempts to isolate and pressure Tehran through non-military means first, but with a clear readiness to use lethal force if necessary. But the question that remains is what will Iran do next?
Consider as I noted, Iran’s asymmetric use of effective force. Tehran’s performance in other theaters in the region is relevant. Over the past four decades, Iran has developed a doctrinal method of fighting. It relies on a combination of third parties⏤its Shiite militias, i.e. Hezbollah, etc., along with strategic calibrated escalation, and minimal exposure to casualties for Iranians. First, while Iran has been heavily outmatched by its principal adversaries in terms of conventional arsenals, this capability, highly adapted to complex regional conflicts and so far without any successful counter measure, has tipped the balance of effective force in Iran’s favor. Further, it will not be straightforward to use this against the U.S. directly, not least to avoid catastrophic escalation, but it has become Iran’s weapon of choice.
It is important to realize that General Soleimani took this capability to a new level and while his death will perhaps temporarily impair Iran’s strategic efforts, if not operational, performance. But the machine Soleimani built is bigger than him. It was determined as much by the hard facts of Iran’s cultural and strategic position, its experiences of the war with Iraq, and the ongoing low-level confrontation with Israel, as by any central design. Both because it has been successful in multiple theaters and because it is a function of Soleimani’s and the Quds Forces doctrine and nature of the Islamic Republic, Iran is unlikely to abandon it. Despite the shock of Soleimani’s killing and the clear message it has sent about U.S. tolerances, Iran is more likely to double down on the asymmetric doctrine most closely associated with him.
Secondly, consider Iran’s confederated effort across the region. Again, Iran relies on an outer cordon of partnerships to defend its interests and project its power regionally and to some extent internationally. In Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq it has armed partners ⏤it’s proxy forces, aka Shiite militias with whom it shares a range of interests⏤from the immediate to the profoundly cultural, and who are used to operating with the support and in some cases direction of Iranian IRGC officials. This strategic and operational compatibility makes ‘Iran’ now more of a confederation, than a single state. Not all of its partners will respond unquestioningly to commands from Tehran, but few will refuse to take the fight to the U.S. both over the assassination of Soleimani, their patron and military leader, but also for their own strong, local reasons. Public demonstrations of grief and defiance have already taken place in Sana’a, Yemen. An assortment of militia flags already flanks Iranian officials when facing the media.
To better understand Iran’s asymmetric approach, Iran prefers political-military campaigns to operations. Although Iran will certainly mount high-impact operations when necessary, its preference and aptitude is for campaigns run over time during which it can steadily accumulate strategic influence through ‘persistent presence and strategic messaging.’ It does not expect rapid, decisive outcomes from operations. Instead it sequences operations within its campaigns for long-term strategic benefit. As an example, Hezbollah’s low-level operational campaign against Israel for the past 40-years.
We can certainly expect that it is more than likely that Iran will embark on a new campaign focused on achieving a long-avowed objective to remove the U.S. military presence from the Middle East. In practice, the scope of such a campaign would likely cover Iraq and the Levant, but perhaps could⏤should opportunities arise, extend to the Gulf. What will be new, and warrant watching is the deployment of IRGC resources against this objective over a long period of time. Of course, President Trump’s relentless economic sanctions against Iran has had a paralyzing impact on the regimes ability to provide external asymmetric support to its proxies. Given U.S. historic resolve not to be dislodged, Iran may aim and settle for less, such as a campaign of low-level operations, including demonstrations and threats that raise the ambient alert level to the point where the U.S. presence is limited to fixed locations and its non-official presence disappears.
As noted, one of Iran’s key ability to project its strategic messaging. Iran is highly adept at exploiting its victimhood, Tehran will seek to use its narrative as a call to arms within its Shia communities and across the Islamic world more widely, where existing anti-U.S. sentiment provides a fertile recruiting ground. Iran will also seek to draw support away from the U.S., many of whose strategic partners will be at least ambivalent about the killing of Soleimani, to include the U.S. Democrat Party, its new found partner.
Neither the Europeans nor the Gulf states will want to see, let alone be party to a hot war with Iran. Tehran also knows, it will be supported by Russia in building international opposition, if not condemnation, of the U.S.
For the U.S.⏤creating a coalition for escalation against Iran may be difficult. That may not concern Washington in the short term, but in the long term it may deepen its own isolation rather than that of Iran: a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ that includes targeted killings may just be too much. However, the Trump administration has proven to be equally adept in its ability to convince its allies that it is serious and means business when dealing with the world’s terrorists. Particularly with Iran as a nation being the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism.
For Iran, on the topic of campaign driven operations, a key feature of its campaigns led by the IRGC Quds Force is “popular mobilization” beyond the borders of Iran, using its Popular Mobilization Forces (MPFs) has continued to use the concept, adapting it to local situation and circumstances within Iran and beyond, as seen in both Syria and Iraq in recent months.
The significance and reason to monitor is this has operational value in increasing Iran’s available manpower and geographic reach, as well as propaganda and strategic influence value in making its agenda appear to be a shared one with other regional actors. Understand the value of strategic inference operations boosts appeals over the heads of governments to the wider Iran-affiliated communities across the Islamic world which could, as Iran will intend, result in operational and asymmetric initiatives, i.e.; attacks against U.S. targets that are not directed directly by Iran and would certainly provide, technically at least, a degree of plausible deniability for Tehran. This could reach as far as and include low-level attacks in Europe and Asia against U.S. persons and or assets.
Iran and its Quds Forces and other surrogates always measures and assesses risks and calibrates its operations to fall below the threshold that would trigger retaliation and endanger the survival of the regime, or its most valued assets, such as Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. That has been most evident in its long skirmishing with Israel. This restraint will be complicated by the strength of emotion over General Soleimani’s killing and by the difficulty Tehran may have in controlling responses amongst its partners, a role ironically that Soleimani played, particularly his popularity and frequent visibility in both countries. But Iran will, despite the fiery rhetoric, draw edges around its campaign. It will fight, but it will aim, above all, to survive.
The recent events in the Gulf region and the killing of General Soleimani have had an impact, but Iran is still a formidable, asymmetric adversary. Iran has demonstrated a number of hard war-fighting capabilities in the past five years.
The IRGC and its Quds Forces have operated in multiple theaters simultaneously through a range of partners, from Russia to the para-state of Hezbollah, to small local MPF militias in Iraq. Its role in successful military operations, as well as its ability to mobilize indigenous groups, such as the Houthis in Yemen, and other groups in the Horn of Africa, has left Iran with a reserve of military power of far less technical potency than that of the U.S., but of more practical use in fighting asymmetrically. Certainly, Iraq is critical right now. I will be addressing that in my next article later this week.
That said, whatever Iran’s next move, the need to find the elusive combination of techniques, capabilities, and diplomacy to counter its formidable powers has suddenly become more pressing and fluid for the U.S. and its regional policy. Stay tuned.