A Guide to Putting Iran on Notice


Editor’s Note: This article is based on key findings and recommendations from the new CSIS report, Deterring Iran After the Nuclear Deal.

With Iran’s presidential elections set to take place next month, and hardline rhetoric on Iran escalating in Washington, a shadow of uncertainty has been cast over the future of U.S.-Iranian relations. The Trump administration “officially put Iran on notice” in February, placing new sanctions on Iran following a test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has additionally called Iran, “the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East.” Congress is preparing more new sanctions targeting Iran’s missile development and the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Israel and the Arab Gulf countries have produced a steady drumbeat of calls to address Iran’s destabilizing activities, “regional expansionism,” and growing military capabilities. It seems likely this administration will take a harder-line policy toward Iran.

Indeed, Iran has been developing a range of military and paramilitary capabilities, using them to coerce and shape the Middle East in ways that undermine the interests of the United States and its partners. Even though Iran’s nuclear capability development is forestalled by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for the next 10 to 15 years, Iran continues to engage in destabilizing activities across the region. Iran’s incremental extension of power and threshold testing in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf is of particular concern to the United States.

Yet there are doubts about America’s ability to credibly deter Iran while avoiding inadvertent escalation or rashly risking the lives of U.S. military personnel. Additionally, the United States and Iran seem to have a convergence of interest in countering the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in places like Syria and Iraq, at least in the short-term. This convergence requires careful consideration of short- and long-term goals and the tradeoffs involved with each.

The United States should holistically account for the range of Iranian objectives and activities in the Middle East. It should deter and — as needed — respond to Iranian actions that threaten U.S. interests, testing for possible areas of constructive cooperation where possible.

Iran’s Strategic Approach

In our recently released CSIS report, Deterring Iran After the Nuclear Deal, we and our co-authors describe how Iran’s security posture is a type of “self-reliant deterrence” against adversaries bent on keeping it weak. Iran’s “expansionism” is a symptom of its interest in ensuring the domestic survival and primacy of the Islamic Republic. This strategy is meant to enhance Tehran’s power and influence in the Middle East and secure a place of political and economic importance on the global stage. Iranian actions fall below the threshold of conventional warfare and leverage a range of military and paramilitary capabilities. Whatever its intentions, however, Iran’s behavior often manifests in destabilizing ways, testing and prodding without stepping past the threshold for escalation.

It is worth running through the various capabilities Iran has it its disposal. Iran possesses the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East. Aside from enabling offensive operations against rivals, this arsenal would raise the costs for a direct attack against the Islamic Republic. With its rivals thereby deterred, Iran can project its power through other means. Moreover, should the JCPOA collapse, Iran’s ballistic missiles provide a hedge for future nuclear capability. In the maritime arena, Iran’s use of small, often swarming vessels allows it to target warships and disrupt commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 39 kilometers is length. Coupled with undersea mines and its arsenal of missiles, Iran has periodically put U.S. and commercial shipping “on notice.” In the last year, Iran has also increasingly sought to leverage the Bab al-Mandeb, the narrow waterway between the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as another strategic chokepoint for international shipping through its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran has long relied upon proxies to project power, but in the past several years these groups have become far more advanced. Presently, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps can count on over a quarter of a million personnel in regional proxy groups responding to its direction throughout the region. These proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and in the Gulf serve different purposes: deterrence, delivering retaliatory attacks, and generally advancing and protecting Iranian interests aligned with those of these groups. They have varying degrees of responsiveness to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ command, depending on the alignment of their political objectives and level of Iran’s direct involvement in daily operations on the ground. Additionally, Iran continues to improve its cyber capabilities. In 2012, Iranian hackers gained access to Saudi Aramco’s network and wiped clean three-quarters of its computers. In March 2016, Iranians established a presence in the network of a dam in Rye Brook, New York, although they limited their actions to conducting network reconnaissance. Iran advertises these various capabilities while also touting its achievements in Syria, its struggle with Saudi Arabia, and its enmity for the United States.

Iran’s strategy affords it both opportunities and challenges. It has established the Iranian image as one of a formidable opponent to the United States as well as its allies and partners in the Middle East — even when its actual capabilities do not merit such consideration. Iran has thus far pursued its goals without provoking outright war with the United States. Iran can leverage its position in ways that augment its already outsized status. This has the added benefit of demonstrating Iran’s power and aptitude to the domestic population, lending credibility to the regime and thus keeping the “revolution” alive.

However, Iran’s strategy has backfired in other ways. Iran’s actions have harmed its standing in the international community, negatively impacting both its economy and security. Despite the lifting of some sanctions after the JCPOA, Iran has not seen the flood of foreign business promised by its leaders. Coupled with the persistent low oil prices, Iran’s domestic economy continues to suffer due to the prioritization of its deterrence and power projection strategy. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other hardline factions benefit from the current economic model. These groups continue to receive funds to sustain and expand regional destabilizing activities, and military and paramilitary capability development, at the expense of Iran’s domestic growth. Iran’s neighbors have taken steps to enhance their military capabilities against Iranian coercive activities, inadvertently increasing the existential threat to Iran. Iran’s destabilizing behavior has led to the creation of unlikely bedfellows among traditional adversaries in the region. For examples, we can point to increased dialogue and even the beginnings of quiet cooperation between Israel on one side and the Saudis and Emiratis on the other, although these steps remain publicly sensitive and limited due to long-standing Arab-Israeli tensions.

Crafting a U.S. Security Strategy to Deter Iran

The United States has enduring interests in the Middle East, including counterterrorism, nonproliferation, trade, the free flow of energy resources, and upholding commitments to allies and partners. The Obama administration and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have exerted significant economic pressure on Iran through sanctions. While seeking to negotiate the JCPOA, the United States simultaneously bolstered its military posture and enhanced the capabilities of partners in the Middle East to serve as deterrents.

However, this approach failed to instill confidence among Israel and the Arab Gulf states. They were left unconvinced the United States is fully committed to pressing back against Iranian destabilizing behavior and capability development. Iran’s engagement in a range of military and paramilitary activities that threaten both U.S. and allied interests continued. On balance, the United States has largely been unable or unwilling to deter Iran’s incremental extension of regional power and threshold testing.

Any actions that the United States may take to deter Iran are complicated by domestic, regional, and global factors. On the domestic front, a comprehensive strategy toward Iran will require employing multiple tools of statecraft and resourcing. However, the Trump administration currently lacks political appointees below the cabinet level throughout much of the national security apparatus. These personnel are needed to plan and execute an effective strategy. Moreover, the administration is considering budget cuts to foreign assistance and development funding that would be crucial to building partner security, governance capacity and resilience to prevent Iran’s continued encroachment.

From a regional perspective, certain American rhetoric and actions aimed at containing Iran’s behavior might be counter-productive or lead to unintended effects. Iranian hardliners could be emboldened by aggressive pronouncements from Washington just as the influence of leaders willing to work with the United States is undermined. President Hassan Rouhani, for instance, is already under pressure in advance of Iran’s presidential election in May given public frustration over unrealized economic expectations from the JCPOA. Globally, U.S. attempts to foster multinational efforts to pressure Iran are complicated by declining U.S. capacity to leverage the cooperation of other countries. The United States will be hard-pressed to convince Russia and China, for instance, to cooperate when they have economic interests in Iran and competing regional ambitions to pursue.

Yet, in the absence of a U.S. strategy, Iran will continue its military and paramilitary capability development and threshold testing, with destabilizing consequences for America and its allies. Working with the U.S. Congress, the Trump administration should chart a new pathway forward vis-à-vis Iran that protects U.S. interests, strengthens deterrence, and sets the conditions for changing Iran’s behavior. This means the administration should uphold its commitment to the JCPOA while simultaneously addressing the ambiguities it leaves behind, such as Iran’s missile development.

The United States should also synchronize diplomatic, economic and military action with its allies and partners across a range of future Iran challenges. As a part of this strategy, the United States and its allies should seek to buttress regional security forces by building partner capacity and conducting exercises. This should be paired with efforts to press regional partners to improve the legitimacy of local governance, particularly where Arab Shia populations are concerned, although Sunni-led regional governments are likely to resist U.S. pressure for reform. Still, improving local governance would fill a gap in security and governance that Tehran regularly seeks to exploit.

Amplifying efforts to counter Iranian support for their proxy networks should also be a priority. Doing so will require the United States to increase direct and indirect operations against the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its support for proxies. The United States should carefully calibrate its operations against these groups so as not to risk retaliation against American or partner forces in the region while still sending a deterrent message to Iran.

Finally, the United States should maintain financial pressure on Iran for its human rights violations, proxy support, and development of ballistic missiles. It should extract lessons learned from previous sanctions to see where funds have been constricted within Iran, whether some Iranian institutions were inadvertently empowered (such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), and if the sanctions achieved the intended effect.

Any successful deterrence strategy must include a sequencing of both carrots and sticks to change behavior. A pressure campaign alone will only reinforce Iran’s security posture and resistance to change its regional behavior. As such, the Trump administration and Congress should commit to incentivizing areas of cooperation with Iran. If that is not politically possible, the United States should encourage European and Asian allies to offer incentives, coordinated as part of a multinational deterrence strategy. To achieve maximum effect and not reward bad behavior, these incentives should follow Iranian behavioral changes. This sequencing should be made known to Iran through diplomatic channels and should link with what Iran wants, requiring Iranian action first. The carrots offered could include commercial sales opportunities (learning from the Boeing and Airbus licensing examples) and engaging Iran in political negotiations on Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The United States could also encourage Indian Ocean maritime countries to engage Iran’s conventional navy in combined exercises to normalize professionalism at sea. The international community might also allow the resumption of conventional international arms sales to Iran when the JCPOA ban on trading conventional weapons expires in 2020. This could be a possible offset to diversify Iran’s military investments away from its unconventional capabilities while still maintaining Israeli and Gulf military superiority over Iran. Offering any one of these incentives will be risky, but those risks should be managed to lure Iran down a more constructive — or, perhaps — less destabilizing pathway.

Iran will remain a central player in the Middle East and its trajectory raises the stakes for the interests of the United States and its allies. A narrow U.S. policy focus on sanctioning Iran’s missile development and support for terrorist groups in the absence of a broader strategy ignores the full spectrum of Iran’s activities and capability development. It may also inadvertently elevate the influence of hardliners in Iran, setting the United States and Iran on a more likely confrontational pathway. Renewed commitment to a comprehensive deterrence strategy will require U.S. leadership, a thorough evaluation of risks and opportunities, and the synchronization of allied and partner action.


Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and the deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she served in the U.S. Department of Defense for 10 years in several policy and intelligence positions. Follow her on Twitter @natsecdalton.

Joe Federici is a research intern with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He holds an MS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.

Hijab Shah is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her research primarily focuses on South Asia and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @HijabShah.