Recent developments surrounding Iran’s downing of an American RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone in international airspace, alleged bombing of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, and seizure of British oil tankers in the same passage have ratcheted up tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic. So much so, in fact, that a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed outright the possibility of entering talks with the United States under any circumstances. These developments occurred in the wake of major policy announcements from President Donald Trump’s administration over the last year, such as the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iranian “nuclear deal”) and the branding of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Considering the timing of these events in relation to the campaign season in the United States, the topic of US policy toward Iran is shaping up to become one of the most heated foreign policy questions of the election cycle. Defining the contours of the most appropriate US policy toward Iran is certainly a challenge. But it should be a relatively straightforward task to determine, based on the available evidence, the nature and the magnitude of the threat posed by Iran.
John Limbert, a former senior US State Department official who was held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981, is an authority on Iranian affairs. His assessments should be taken seriously. In 2016, he opened a New York Times editorial with these words: “We hear much about the so-called Iranian threat. Exactly what is that threat? And whom does Iran threaten?” He proceeded to argue that Iran is no threat to the United States despite its quarrelsome tendencies. While I certainly do not claim to have a comprehensive solution to all aspects of the troubled US-Iran relationship—I would be skeptical of anyone who suggests they do—it seems a prudent step to begin by trying to answer Limbert’s increasingly important questions about the nature and the magnitude of the Iranian threat. The aim of what follows is not to advocate for any particular US policy toward Iran—policy makers will have that difficult task—but rather to undertake an evidence-based assessment of a complex issue that will likely play a significant role in United States foreign policy and military strategy in the near future.
Despite the fact that Iran remains a leading national security threat identified in both the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, many onlookers are still not convinced. This community of skeptics includes more than just journalists and policy wonks. During one of the June 2019 Democratic presidential candidate debates, the ten participants were asked to identify the most pressing national security threats. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the only candidate to mention Iran. There are certainly political undertones at play, but the disagreement about the scope—or even existence—of an Iran threat is worth examining from a threat-analysis perspective.
That perspective should take into consideration past American performance in assessing menaces to the United States. Senior leaders glossed over the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11, with the attacks at least partly characterized by intelligence failures and preceded by a general focus on the Asia-Pacific region in 2000 and early 2001. Moreover, the thought of Russia as a major geopolitical threat was considered laughable by many as recently as 2012—a view held not just by politicians but also by many across the national defense enterprise. This is not to say that because we underestimated these threats in the past, the same pattern is necessarily manifesting today with respect to Iran. But it would not be too bold to assume that similar conditions and biases exist in 2019.
When arguing against aggressive US action toward Iran across multiple administrations, observers often cite the sophistication of the US military coupled with its substantial defense spending as evidence that Iran is not a threat to be taken seriously. One wonders why such analysis was not applied to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Viet Cong, or any other numerically, financially, and technologically inferior adversary that plagued the United States defense apparatus for years. Each of these case studies demonstrates the propensity for a strong nation to place an undue amount of faith in the assessed military capability of an adversary as opposed to his will to attack and inflict damage over an extended period. History is quite clear that the “spending and sophistication” narrative can be a misleading and dangerous metric for assessing threats. This observation takes on greater significance when considering the fact that Iran can reach well beyond its borders with its proxies and affiliated terrorist networks.
The spending and sophistication argument is founded upon outdated thinking in which uniformed armies meet on a battlefield and the side with a clear technological advantage emerges victorious. But this mode of thought ignores some of the most decisive factors in war, such as terrain, sustainment, political will, the complexity of megacities, insurgencies, and perhaps most important, emerging disruptive technologies that are quickly closing the capability gap between threats posed by developed and developing states, or even states and nonstate actors. But if sophistication of arms and defense spending do not necessarily define the scope and nature of a threat, what does?
Precedent and Political Will
Iranian proxies each have their own, locally focused goals. But they have also shown their willingness to strike American targets at Iran’s behest. Readers might recall the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 220 US Marines, eighteen sailors, and three soldiers. Investigators traced the attack to Hezbollah militants. More than thirty years later, the Pentagon concluded that Iranian-manufactured weapons and proxy forces were responsible for the deaths of 603 US servicemembers in Iraq, according to the most recent report on the matter. Despite the many changes in political alliances and military strategies between 1979 and 2019, this timeline indicates that, when afforded the opportunity to undermine US interests and take American lives, the Iranian regime is willing to do so. It is therefore a reliable assumption that any future conflict in which Iran perceives itself to have an interest and an opportunity will involve Iranian aggression in the form of proxy terrorism and political subterfuge.
In 2011 an Iranian-American man recruited by a senior Iranian Quds Force official conspired to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States while he dined at a Georgetown eatery in Washington, DC. The would-be assassin received a twenty-five-year federal sentence from a Manhattan court in 2013. Some have referred to the attempted assassination condescendingly as “clumsy”—and to a certain extent, it was. But while it lacked sophistication, it also says much about Iranian will that such a brazen attack on US soil was even contemplated. And it’s worth remembering that officials dismissed al-Qaeda as a bunch of amateurish cave dwellers before the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and the USS Cole bombing in the Gulf of Aden two years later. Many carried that complacency into 2001.
Iran expert Afshon Ostovar explains in Vanguard of the Imam how the IRGC began training Shiite militias from Iraq and elsewhere to fight US-backed forces in Syria as early as 2012. Facebook pages of Iraqi Shiite militant groups celebrated the “martyrs,” and Iran paid each of their families a modest fee for their sacrifice (five thousand dollars, to be exact). These pages made clear that Iranian-backed forces were at war with Israel and the United States as much as they were with anti-Assad Sunni fighters.
In 2015, allegedly Iran-linked terrorists reportedly stockpiled more than three metric tons of ammonium nitrate in northwest London—the same material used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This story was only made public in 2019. British intelligence sources speaking with the Daily Telegraph as well as reports from the Times of Israel confirmed that Hezbollah operatives stored these materials in ice packs in what was apparently a pre-positioned stock site for future operations. The Telegraph broke this story after a three-month investigation involving the acquisition of numerous court documents and interviews with various officials from the United Kingdom and the United States. Although UK security officials have yet to comment publicly on the report, the fact that this story flew almost entirely under the radar of the international news cycle at a time when US-Iranian relations are filling headlines is troubling.
Just last year, in March 2018, federal prosecutors indicted nine IRGC members on charges of hatching a vast, coordinated hacking conspiracy that targeted roughly fifty thousand academic email accounts within the United States. According to a Yahoo! News report, the IRGC successfully penetrated nearly 3,700 accounts and stole approximately $3.4 billion in intellectual property from various American universities and academics. The IRGC’s close relationship with Iran’s supreme leader allows for the nesting of intent between that organization and Iran’s national leadership, which makes link analysis connecting the IRGC’s actions to national policy much more credible than the activities of, say, a group such as Hezbollah. In sum, Iran’s leaders have demonstrated the political will and the military and intelligence capability to attack US interests across a broad spectrum of both time and space with little regard for the consequences. What, then, are the potential second- and third-order effects of an escalation of hostilities with Iran?
An Imminent Threat?
Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Frank McKenzie stated recently that the Iranian threat is “imminent,” adding that Iran could wage an attack on US interests in the CENTCOM area of responsibility at any time. In June 2019 Iran unveiled its new Khordad-15 air defense system, which it claims is capable of tracking and engaging up to six targets simultaneously, including manned and unmanned aircraft at altitudes up to twenty-seven kilometers. This system supports Iran’s existing Russian-made SA-20c long-range surface-to-air missile, which, according to Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, provides Iran with a “generational improvement in capabilities over its other legacy air defense systems.” But Iran doesn’t need to deploy ballistic missiles to achieve significant effects in the region.
Nearly a third of the world’s ocean-faring oil travels through the Strait of Hormuz just off the coast of Iran. Iran’s recent activities in that body of water are no doubt aimed to remind the world of this fact, and to demonstrate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s willingness to take aggressive action in his nation’s interest. In light of this reality, senior US military planners are taking a closer look at what a conflict between the two nations might look like. A June 2019 Military Times report involving interviews with several experts painted a grim picture. Widespread terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad, the Strait of Hormuz saturated with sea mines, restricted airspace, miniature submarine warfare, and cruise missiles targeting US bases throughout CENTCOM’s area of responsibility would all potentially play a part. Iran boasts the most sophisticated ballistic missile suite in the Middle East, capable of ranging US targets as far away as Italy, which it would use. The report concluded that, although weakened, Iran’s regime would likely remain in place at the end of a war with the United States.
The final and perhaps most concerning factor of the threat posed by Iran relates to the unknown. Although the US intelligence community has a rather confident grip on Iran’s capabilities and critical infrastructure locations, there are also many ambiguities—some of which concern the nature, purpose, and extent of Iran’s underground facilities and networks. As of June 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran is increasing its production of enriched uranium at a rapid pace. Considering Iran’s at times duplicitous behavior surrounding nuclear enrichment, and Iranian President Rouhani’s recent comments that he will enrich uranium to any degree his nation deems necessary, these unknowns translate into additional risks.
One need not witness firsthand the incessant chants of “death to America” within Tehran’s halls of governance to draw conclusions on where its current leaders stand vis- à-vis the United States. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force—no stranger to public belligerence toward the United States—just received the prestigious Order of the Zulfiqar from Ayatollah Khamenei. He is the first Iranian general to receive his nation’s highest military honor since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The complex origins and turbulent history of US-Iranian relations are worth discussing, as are the mistakes made by the United States throughout that history, but neither of these endeavors will alter the present reality of tension between the two nations. The decision matrix covering US foreign policy toward Iran cannot and should not be limited to either war or appeasement, but this seems to be the framework through which the American public is forced to view the relationship. Neither is advisable. A conflict would pull the United States into war with not only Iran, but also its regional allies. This could appear in the form of an Iran-sponsored attack on Israel, an assault on a US embassy by an Iranian proxy, or perhaps even an action that US policy makers haven’t yet considered. Blind commitment to conciliation affords Iran’s leaders unlimited decision space, political legitimacy, and the option of taking non-attributable actions through proxies.
Ultimately, US leaders—along with those of our allies—must determine the best policy toward Iran. Few of the options available are attractive—most notably, the prospect of war—and disagreement over which option is best is inevitable. But disagreement over the nature of the threat, or at a minimum its very existence, need not be.
Capt. Michael P. Ferguson, US Army, is a prior enlisted officer with experience throughout Europe and the Middle East. He fought in Ramadi, Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009 before serving as a Ranger Instructor and later a staff member within NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Headquarters in the Netherlands. Michael has published more than a dozen professional articles, most recently with Joint Force Quarterly, The Strategy Bridge, and Prism. He holds an MS in Homeland Security.
Image credit: Mohammad Akhlaghi, Tasnim News Agency