As the war against the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq appears to come to a close, the greatest risk of regional conflict comes from Iran. The intervention of Iran’s forces and proxies in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have emerged as imminent threats to Israel and Saudi Arabia that could escalate into the next major war in the Middle East. Iran may not be deterred by unilateral interventions by Israel or Saudi Arabia, so the U.S. must play a role in averting a catastrophic conflict.
The U.S. need not engage in regime change or preemptive war to address the threat from Iran. As the primary means of the regime in Tehran is the use of proxies and the export of insurgency, the U.S. could adapt strategies for Al-Qaeda and ISIS to counter Iran’s war-making ability.
Iran and Hezbollah
Hezbollah has been the primary conduit and agent of Iran’s proliferation and proxy wars. The Lebanese political party-cum-militia, which expanded into Syria after the onset of the civil war, has become the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor as a result of Iranian support. Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles, which the group has used against Israel, have primarily come from Iran. After Iran’s intervention in Syria, there has been a considerable increase and improvement in Hezbollah’s arms stockpiles as well as greater experience in using them against civilian populations in urban areas.
Hezbollah will have to shift its strategy against Israel as a result. Hezbollah’s tactics against the Jewish state have historically centered on a classic staple of insurgency in protracting conflicts for as long as possible to exhaust and outlast a conventionally superior enemy. Periodic offensives against Israeli positions and attacks against Israeli civilians were aimed at crippling Israel over time. Given its entanglement in Syria and Israel’s Iron Dome, Hezbollah will face a changed strategic environment.
To go to war with Israel under these circumstances, Hezbollah may try to overcome the Iron Dome system while seeking to end the war in its favor at the earliest possible opportunity so as to avoid a protracted conflict. A psychological victory for Hezbollah, which could involve overwhelming Israeli air defenses and targeting Israel’s critical infrastructure and border villages, will require a rocket and missile buildup facilitated by Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah could be further reinforced by the Iranian forces that pose a direct threat to Israel.
Iran in Yemen
Iran has played a leading role in the escalation and protraction of the civil war in Yemen. Houthi militants backed by Iran launch attacks on military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia while Iran uses Yemen for the flow of weapons and fighters to the other parts of the Middle East. Iranian intervention has been followed by a controversial and inconclusive military response from Saudi Arabia, which sees the Houthis as Iran’s southern flank in a double-envelopment of the Kingdom.
The case of Yemen and the Houthis differs from Hezbollah in that the Houthis existed prior to Iranian support and direction. The proliferation of rockets and missiles in Yemen similarly came before Iranian involvement. What has changed, and what gives further credence to Iran’s role in prolonging the civil war, is the development of advanced and extensive rocket and missile stockpiles and systems for which there existed no indigenous capacity prior to Iran’s intervention.
The latest phase in rocket and missile proliferation in Yemen comes first and foremost from the regime in Tehran. Iran has provided the rocket launchers and ballistic missiles used for the attacks on Saudi Arabia that have wounded or displaced thousands of Saudi civilians. There are also significant financial costs imposed every time the Saudis respond to an incoming missile launch from the Houthis. A single missile launch costs the Houthis’ Iranian sponsors $1 million or less on average while each use of Saudi Arabia's missile defense system to destroy incoming projectiles costs around $2-3 million.
Iran in Iraq
Iraq has been described by Frederick Kagan as “Iran’s Poland” given Iraq’s role as the linchpin of Iran’s sphere of influence. Iraq serves as the northern flank of Iran’s double envelopment of Saudi Arabia, while Iran threatens Israel with weapons and fighters sent through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Iran has armed these militias with small arms, rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and materials for improvised explosive devices for targeting U.S. troops, while Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have provided training to Iraqi militants. Iran has escalated its proliferation in Iraq by arming these militias with ballistic missiles that can reach population centers in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Iran established a presence in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and played a central role in sponsoring and coordinating insurgent elements. These same insurgent elements were included in so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces” combating the emergence of ISIS. Iranian-backed militias have since proved unresponsive to civilian control while engaging in pogroms and other atrocities targeting Sunni Arabs, Assyrian Christians, and even Shiite Turkmen.
The extent of the impunity and influence of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq led to former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, a Shia Muslim, to describe Iraq as a “failed state...an Iranian colony,” while former Iraqi parliamentarian Mowaffak al-Rubaei, who is also Shia, claimed Iranian special forces commander Qassem Suleimani was “the most powerful man in Iraq without question.”
U.S. Strategy and Iran
Among the strategies developed for responding to asymmetric threats is what David Kilcullen proposed as disaggregation wherein the threat is recognized as emanating from a central ideological actor that builds a “web of dependency” that will “feed on local grievances, integrate them into broader ideologies, and link disparate conflicts through globalized communications, finances, and technology.” While Iran is not Al-Qaeda or ISIS, there are parallels between how they operate.
The vulnerable points in these networks are the links that are used to weave separate conflicts into a broader campaign. Whereas Israel and Saudi Arabia have focused on targeting the nodes of Iran’s networks, such as strikes against Iran’s proxies, disaggregation would focus on disrupting the financial, technological, and sectarian-ideological connections that Iran uses as the links. The endgame of a disaggregation strategy, according to Kilcullen, would then be “a series of disparate local conflicts that can be addressed at the regional or national level without [foreign] interference.”
The end of payments and the return of sanctions on the regime in Tehran should be only the starting point of diminishing its ability to finance its forces and proxies. The formal designation of Iranian forces or proxies as terrorist organizations, such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, would facilitate the enforcement of these sanctions. The next candidates should include the Houthi militias, which have already been designated as a terrorist entity by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the Iranian-backed militias that engage in political violence against civilians in Iraq.
The interception of arms proliferation by the regime in Tehran should be the next step. The U.S. should continue supporting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to interdict smuggling into Yemen by Iran and its proxies regardless of the surrounding political controversy. In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. could interdict Iranian transfers of weapons and fighters through Iraq to Syria with airstrikes and special forces while signaling to the Russians that the U.S. will intervene to defend Israel against retaliation.
The U.S. and its allies have a role to play in undermining sectarian narratives Iran exploits. Saudi Arabia’s opening to Iraq, including outreach to Shia clerics disillusioned with Iran, can be the first step in a diplomatic process that disrupts Iran’s sectarian-based coalition-building. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia could also play a role in undermining Iran’s self-appointed role as the champion of Shia Islam by promoting its historical center in Iraq. Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, the regime in Tehran and its proxies have presented a competing version of Shia Islam based on extremist interpretations that rival the more moderate form represented by Najaf in Iraq. The U.S. should encourage Saudi Arabia’s ongoing efforts to promote integration and discourage radicalization among its own Shia while encouraging the Kingdom to engage in a similar outreach towards Yemen’s Shia minority.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia face a political disadvantage in Yemen as the popular narrative among media commentators frames sectarianism as central to the origin and purpose of the Saudi intervention while neglecting its historical context and geopolitical implications. After the Kingdom supported a Shia theocracy against rebels backed by Egypt and the Soviet Union in 1962, Saudi interventions since have always been in support of established governments against foreign-backed insurgencies given long standing concerns that armed conflict or civil unrest could spill over border from Yemen. Sectarian tensions, which are undoubtedly leveraged by Saudi Arabia and Iran, nonetheless fail to fully and accurately describe the motives behind the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
U.S. policy options towards sectarianism in Syria are more challenging given the Assad regime’s nominal secularism, its dependence on a self-styled Islamic Republic, and the increasing role that jihadists and Islamists have played in the opposition to the Assad regime. The dissolution of the Assad regime might leave behind a remaining Iranian enclave and a patchwork of fiefdoms that could include jihadists and Islamists on Israel’s borders. The reunification of Syria under the Assad regime, on the other hand, would not mean the stabilization of Syria under a secular strongman but the consolidation of Iran’s presence. Syria thus brings to mind Henry Kissinger’s rumored quip regarding the Iran-Iraq War, “it’s a pity they can’t both lose.” U.S. interests regarding Syria could best be served by ensuring that no faction in the civil war, including the Assad regime, achieves a disproportionate advantage that would give it any territorial or operational edge against U.S. allies.
The U.S. should signal to Iran that it will respond to any countermoves made by Iranian forces and proxies against the U.S. forces or U.S. allies. A contingency plan and a show of force in the region should be the basis of a pattern to establish and expand deterrence towards the regime.
A strategy of disaggregation coupled with deterrence is best option for the U.S. It may not eliminate the threats from the regime in Tehran, but it can limit the scope and potential for escalation. The risks of miscalculation between the U.S. and Iran should be weighed against the risks of uncertainty about U.S. capabilities and resolve to defend its interests and its allies in the Middle East. The alternative to countering Iran’s adventures in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq is not peace but more war.
Wesley Jefferies is a research assistant with the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative between Arizona State University and the International Security Program at New America.
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Header Image: Iranian flag (Adam Jone/Flikr)