Paper #5. The Power of Last Resort: An Iran Strategy

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Middle East & North Africa, Strategy
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How should the US compete under the restraint of using armed force as a last resort against Iran, a pseudo-democratic theocracy that wages complex warfare in ways the US eschews?

We answer this question from a perspective of complex competition and complex warfare (see Paper #1), but restrained by a widely accepted definition of armed conflict: states using armed forces against one other; or states and non-states using violence against one another.   

Notably this pre-cyber age definition (Geneva Conventions of 1949) assumes that armed forces will use violence against each other. International humanitarian law informed by the Geneva Conventions makes further distinctions about armed conflict such as having a minimum intensity and requiring the occupation of territory (see opinion papers of the International Committee of the Red Cross).

Unfortunately these presumptions apply to a smaller proportion of what’s going on in the contemporary security environment today. Great power competition indeed includes big kinetic wars, but it also involves complex effects that determine relative victory and defeat, and for how long.

Democratic Restraint is Not Total

Democracies tend to declare war under political restraints that value armed force as a last resort for defending national security.  Interventions and conflicts short of declared war, however, have not been so restrained. We still argue about, vote on, and ultimately hold leaders accountable for what constitutes a last resort to the use of armed force. Critics of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq maintain that the intervention began a war of convenience, since no weapons of mass destruction were found. Others recall the uncertainties of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and subsequent discovery of non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction. 

Similar divisiveness exists over Iran’s dissembling about its nuclear intent and capability. There are persistent questions regarding: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to military sites involved in nuclear weapons development; Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; why the US withdrew from that agreement; and Iran’s subsequent threat to restart weapons-grade nuclear enrichment.

Laws of Armed Conflict

Let’s consider Geneva Conventions-derived international laws of armed conflict designed to regulate behavior. There are four fundamental principles that inform all US targeting decisions: military necessity; unnecessary suffering; proportionality; and distinction. In contrast, Iran’s targeting ignores these standards both directly through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and indirectly via proxy forces in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere. 

In order to design an effective strategy, we should have an understanding of Iran’s domestic structure that denies its state aggression or cloaks it as legitimate defense. Iran’s projection of violence is embedded in a dual system that preserves the dominance of a revolutionary theocracy over what otherwise might constitute democratic institutions. 

Iran’s Domestic Structure

Iran’s domestic institutions and personalities are complex. Governance in Iran basically consists of: a Supreme Leader selected by a Guardian Council; a Guardian Council of 12 jurists (6 chosen by the Supreme Leader and 6 selected by the Majlis, or Parliament); an elected President accountable to the Supreme Leader; a Council of Ministers appointed by the President; an elected Majlis; an Assembly of Experts that selects the Supreme Leader; and local consultative councils. The Supreme Leader approves of presidential candidates and appoints other important postings such as the National Security Council.

The internal balancing among factions is an interesting continuation of Persia’s ruler versus ministers historical pattern. For today’s Supreme Leaders, an illusory democracy is also useful in revealing potential opposition leaders. 

As expected in a system whose ultimate power resides in a divine sovereign, secular principles are by comparison, small matters. Laws of armed conflict are filtered by traditional deceptions that serve the Islamic Republic. Concepts include concealing intentions (taqiyya), embedding connotations of words (taarof), causing misjudgments (khodeh), and dissimulating (kitman). 

Therefore the principle of military necessity, which denotes justifiable military purposes for the use of armed force, may be righteously applied to anything that advances Iran’s revolutionary agenda. From a divinely invoked perspective, violent religious extremists are justifiably designated as martyrs. Actions taken by the IRGC (whose core mission is to protect the so-called revolution) and its proxies also ignore the principles of unnecessary suffering (or superfluous injury) and distinction (discriminating between combatants and non-combatants). When violence is justified through sacred interpretation, it’s easier to ignore the proportionality of military force with respect to profane (worldly) security objectives.

Deriving a US Combined Effects Strategy

US strategy can wield power within the restraint of last resort through combined effects competition, and when necessary, combined effects warfare. 

In each of the following non-military components of DIMES (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, social), I make an assumption about what Iran’s theocrats fear most, and develop it as a vulnerability. Then I derive a US desired strategic effect, considering how each interacts with the previously discussed desired effects. Military force will be treated last, as a last resort, in combination with previously discussed effects.


Iran’s theocrats fear the truth. Transparency empowers people to think for themselves and vote control away from theocrats. All power is based on information, from persuasive narratives to precision guided munitions. The digitization of  information and its profusion have generated more uncertainty in terms of anticipating what can and will happen. Quantum mechanics even models our physical world based on such uncertainty. In the expansive space of contested truths, individual liberties confront applications of technology to shape behavior, whether it’s selling a product or selling an ideology. 

Desired effect: informational Persuasion (i P).
Disseminating the truth is a powerful if broad tool of persuasion. Nurturing contacts to promote fuller comprehension of the past can resist distortions by ideological influencers. One of the main benefits of a future without nuclear weapons and regional aggression is that of a Persian culture deemed to be tolerant. The potential for an efflorescence of influence that benefits the region depends upon perceptions of how transparent and benign that expansion would be. Therefore any attempt to isolate threats from the Iran regime should include thick information connectivity. 


Iran’s theocrats fear individual freedom. Social media’s virality is a powerful threat to ultra-conservatives demanding compliance with their unique interpretation of Islamic governance. Authoritarian states are relatively vulnerable to virtually-ignited, self-sustaining mass outrage. Note China’s imperious ban on discussing Hong Kong as that single-Party regime hosts the upcoming G20 Summit. Such social vulnerabilities incentivize the privileged to establish technological and ideological controls over populations. Freedom of information survives in Iran due to the savvy connectedness of many citizens, but is institutionally suppressed by the beneficiaries of perpetual revolution-mongering. 

Desired effect: social Persuasion (s P).
Expanding social media communication to express values such as human, individual, and property rights can proliferate contacts and the previously discussed desired effect of informational Persuasion. Within Iran’s domestic context, empowering civil societies that value international norms and minority rights is a fitting priority.  


Iran’s theocrats fear losing claims of divine sovereignty over domestic politics, and over external populations that identify as oppressed Shia. Iran’s current religious extremism replaced secular military authoritarianism under the Shah with a revolutionary mandate to proliferate its version of Islam. The IRGC drives this political message as its leaders become more wealthy and influential, more so than the national armed forces. Arabian Gulf autocracies have reacted to preserve their privileges while modernizing economically, but without undermining their own family-based political power structures. Additionally, if the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can resolve its un-strategic spat with Qatar, a united GCC might serve its original purpose of balancing against Iranian influence. By themselves, each Gulf state has severe geo-demographic deficiencies and leadership rigidities that limit this potential.

Desired effect: diplomatic Inducement and Deterrence (d ID).
Professional diplomacy that builds support from allies and partners can strengthen inducements to expand relations, and broaden deterrence to reduce external aggression. US partnerships are crucial as Iran leverages relations with Russia, China, India and Qatar, and foments unrest among receptive elements of Shia populations in Bahrain, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia. Through security bargains with states that reliably counter Iranian aggression (Saudi Arabia and Israel), a high caliber US diplomatic presence can deter Iran’s reordering of Persian Gulf relations. Diplomatic engagement is crucial to leveraging reforms among regional partners and competitors alike.  


Iran’s theocrats fear losing economic privilege, the non-religious basis of their power. Domestic tolerance of wealthy imams and clerics is undergirded by the previously mentioned concept of divine sovereignty. The IRGC itself owns one-third of Iranian banks and business. This condition can be an unstable propellant of upheavals during times of economic hardship. 

Desired effect: economic Compellence and Inducement (e Cp I). 
Economic sanctions can be tools to compel and induce a reduction in Iran’s ongoing aggression. Compellence and inducement can be a synergistic combined effect rather than a sequential on-off switch as is our bureaucratic tendency. Professional diplomacy, superior information technology, and open communication are key to sustaining relative success. 

Now let’s add the military aspect. 


Deterrence theory asserts that the combination of intent and capability can deter actors from taking specified or sometimes unspecified actions. Clarity is not always necessary; strategic ambiguity may be preferred to deter multiple actors.

With the previously mentioned laws of armed conflict in mind, President Trump’s re-decision to forgo air and missile strikes in response to the IRGC shoot-down of an RQ-4 unmanned and unarmed aircraft operating in international airspace shows credible intent and capability to deter. By showing humanitarian restraint based on proportionality, the President shaped the environment for more effective responses.

Desired effect: military Defense and Deterrence (mD).
The employment of non-violent cyber operations to reduce Iran’s capability to conduct aggression, and the announcement of more individually targeted economic sanctions, reinforced deterrence. The US military presence hosted by Gulf Arab states and operating in international air and maritime space defends against lethal threats.

As the combined effects analysis suggests, allied and partner support is vital to enabling broader, DIMES-wide effects. Social media and diplomacy, for instance, should emphasize the certainty of increased sanctions if Iran’s behavior does not change. Without non-US support, the overall effect is reduced. 

Overall Combined Effect

The overall recommendation is: informational and social persuasion, diplomatic inducement and deterrence, economic compellence and inducement, and military deterrence. This combined effect is coded:  i P , ID,  e Cp I, m D 

The combined effect is a strategy of persuasion, inducement, deterrence, compellence, and defense. Its activities include: developing better information technology; disseminating the truth about Iran’s domestic and global activities; diplomacy that cultivates democratic values-based and common interests-based relationships among allies and partners; economic sanctions that specify international standards to meet for the removal of sanctions and promise benefits for rejoining the international community; and a military presence and projection that protects lives and assets, and shapes future behavior. 

Military Planning for Last Resort

Some military capabilities and effects can help persuade, deter, induce and compel the will and capability of targeted actors, groups and movements. Non-lethal military operations can be integrated into the strategy for execution at any time, not just as a last resort. Such as non-lethal cyber operations against the network that committed the RQ-4 shoot-down. That’s not visceral or blind retaliation; that’s enhancing the P I D Cp effect. 

Lethal military operations have to meet the standard of defensive warfare to be considered a last resort. What is defensive warfare as distinct from non-defensive or offensive warfare? This language leads to a discussion of what constitutes an armed attack and what defends against, and retaliates to deter, future attacks. In this regard Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law do not speak to the reality of retaliation that deters.

Going further, the use of armed force to deter and compel, defend and coerce, dissuade and persuade, and secure and induce — provides a way to frame military effects for combinative purposes. An important implication of planning for whole of government-plus effects is that we need to speak the same language. This task should be done syntactically and semantically, and in context.

Complex warfare is already being waged by authoritarian states in inexhaustible combinations such as coercing negotiations while inducing perceived threats, deterring freedom of choice, compelling oil prices, and dissuading citizens.

We must muster combined effects competition and warfare to be a strategy superpower, or even a strategy peer.

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

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