Stick & Rudder #1. A Basic US Strategy Toward Iran: Deterrence, Defense, Persuasion & Coercion

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Middle East & North Africa, Strategy
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In August 2019 (Note #11), while waiting to see if Iran’s shootdown of a US drone would prompt a counterstrike, I noted the apparently contradictory US policies.

Namely, extending US support of foreign companies to assist Iran in developing civilian nuclear power and announcing sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister for refusing to dialogue. I argued that these two actions are not contradictory if US strategy is more than a “maximum pressure” of coercion. What if the basic strategy is to combine different effects?

Combined Effects

As a combination of cooperation and confrontation, the above actions would seek to persuade and coerce Iran to cease its missile intimidation, proxy terrorism, and nuclear threats. An essential ingredient of such a strategy is the presence (or projection) of credible deterrent and defensive force in the Arabian Gulf. The combination of effects is persuasion, coercion, deterrence and defense.

Confrontational Persuasion

The overall combined effect may be characterized as confrontational persuasion. Each contributing effect influences actors in Iran in nuanced ways, the understanding of which requires persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and analysis (ISRA). The strategy combines cooperation with confrontation because we have seen that cooperation alone fuels expansive Iranian aggression, while pure confrontation feeds the regime’s domestic oppression.

Confrontational persuasion may be partly generated by targeted economic assistance and sanctions, and military defense with the capability to deter further Iranian attacks. Success takes time. So, what has happened since August?

Military Deterrence and Defense

Iranian proxies in Iraq continued to attack Iraqi civilians, Iraqi forces, US forces, and the US embassy. The US struck back at Iran-supported militias in Iraq. On January 3d, a US drone killed a key combatant in Iraq, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force. This casualty triggered outrage even though that military commander directed the deaths of thousands of combatants and non-combatants alike. In this context, the US strategy has tightened.

Economic Persuasion and Coercion

The Trump administration extended sanctions waivers for another 90 days in November 2019, which provides some nuclear program oversight. At the same time, the US increased sanctions on Iran’s construction sector because of its IRGC connections. US and allied forces in the Arabian Gulf increased defensive and offensive capabilities. 

With these adjustments, the four elements of US combined effect strategy remain intact. How so?

First, persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons is still negotiable. President Rouhani announced that while Iran would resume enriching uranium, this and other steps were reversible, subject to gaining European support for circumventing US sanctions. Second, legitimate US coercion has increased because of the precision strike on the forward-deployed Quds Force commander. Third, US deterrence so far has limited Iran’s response to ineffective missile strikes on bases in Iraq. Fourth, US defense of allies and partners is an ongoing contest. 

There are many uncertainties. Can US diplomacy engage Europeans better than Iran’s? Will Iran succeed in getting US thought leaders to label the Quds Force commander’s death an assassination? Are US capabilities and will sufficient to deter and defend against higher levels of Iranian aggression in all domains? Besides US casualties, what are the US “red lines” in terms of scale and types of aggression?

Given such ambiguity, US strategy can be most persuasive if a US response to Iranian aggression removes critical capabilities. That is not sufficient, however. With economic and military instruments of power engaged, what is the US doing with respect to diplomatic, informational, and social tools to complement coercion, deterrence and defense? 

Leverage Persuasion

The answer to this question needs to be more than reacting, responding, restoring, and being resilient after the fact. All instruments of power in all domains are relevant in complex warfare. US strategy should be actively leveraging persuasion now. Cooperation can expand to minimize confrontation if and when Iran moderates its threatening behavior.

To get there, a basic US strategy should combine proactive: diplomacy to persuade allied and partner support; truth-telling narratives that are persuasive in Iranian civil society; and cyber, electronic and precision coercion.

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

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