Note #20. Iraq & Iran: Agile Strategies or More Missteps?

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Middle East & North Africa, Security, Strategy
  • No Comments

As in Note #19, this thought-piece refers to agile strategies as those that can adjust ends, ways and means. Missteps are changes without strategic advantage.
How will the Biden administration perform with respect to Iraq and Iran?

Here’s a recap of strategies and missteps.


In Iraq, the 1991 campaign achieved its limited goals because of operational-to-strategic alignment, whereas the 2003 invasion achieved spectacular initial success but lacked the agility to align operations with expansive strategic goals.

Operations Desert Shield (1990-1991) and Desert Storm (1991) balanced UN-backed ends with effects-based ways and means to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. 

Operations Iraqi Freedom (2003-2010), New Dawn (2010-2011), and Inherent Resolve (2014-) invaded, occupied and democratized Iraq; trained-advised-assisted Iraq; and partnered with Iraq against the Islamic State. US goals were to overthrow the regime, destroy weapons of mass destruction, democratize Iraq, eliminate terrorism, and promote human rights. The campaigns were neither scaled nor scoped to achieve these goals. Instead, a half-strength invasion and mistake-ridden occupation incited Iraqi sectarianism and invited Iranian influence. 

Four missteps explain how. 

First, the US led a coalition with minimal ground forces that replaced a minority Sunni dictatorship (2003) with a majority Shia democracy (2006) bent on revenge not national reconciliation. By then US goals had swollen to: “Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.” 

Second, although effective changes in coalition ground strategy and among Sunni and Shia militias (2007) defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, the victory was vacated by the Iraqi Parliament-approved withdrawal of US combat troops (2011).

Third, the related failure of the Iraqi government to develop an Iraqi Army prepared for the Islamic State in Iraq (2014) increased Iran’s influence as Shia Iraqi militias engaged the threat. 

Fourth, US support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015) to limit Iran’s nuclear program, then US rejection of that Plan (2018) provoked further nuclear weapons development.


The shift in US strategy with regard to Iran reflected divisiveness over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear threats and regional security interests. The misstep could have been an agile rearrangement of ends, ways and means if it were sustainable. Part 2 of it is.

There were two “maximum pressure” changes made to achieve a new goal—Iran‘s acceptance of permanent nuclear weapons restrictions. 

Part 1 was to increase US sanctions on Iran, deploy more military capability to the region, and gain allied support. What happened? Sanctions were rebuffed in the UN Security Council, Arab states hosting US forces expressed alarm, and there was nearly no allied support. 

Part 2 was the Abraham Accords peace agreement among Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and later Sudan and Morocco. The Trump administration hoped this would constrain Iranian terrorism and nuclear weapons development. Other actors’ motives varied but included shared expectations for expanded trade, finance and research in energy, agriculture, and infrastructure. 

Where does this lead?

A Restart and New Start

Here’s a prediction.

The Biden administration changes the US goal back to the temporary nuclear weapons restrictions of the JCPOA, adjusts sanctions to match those of NATO allies, and keeps the Abraham Accords.

Here are some ideas to generate discussion.

This restart-and-new start combination can avoid strategic missteps by maintaining balance among the ends, ways and means of strategy. Iraq and Iran require an integrated solution. Reverting to the JCPOA in coordination with allies to gain Iranian compliance is where the administration looks like it’s heading. Without allied support, the US ability to constrain Iranian-sponsored terrorism is limited to military means, which is necessary but not sufficient.

The apparent beginning of the end to the vengeful feud in the Gulf Cooperation Council will help. The capacity of sheikh systems to perpetuate entitlement and personal offense frustrates solutions, but socio-economic changes are underway. The Abraham Accords merit expansion, particularly if there is any possibility of Iraqi interest. The success of the Iraqi special operations forces notwithstanding, US support for Iraq should be contingent on the development of a national Iraqi Army. The ability to develop a nationally representative Army is crucial to developing a broad nationalism to mitigate Iranian exploitation of divisiveness.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

Leave a Reply