Grey zone deterrence is the blurring domain occurring through hybrid threats and multiple realms of economics, cyber, a policy consolidated by proxies, sharp power, and irregular warfare. In simple words, it is the area between distinct war and peace. The foremost objective is to coerce your enemy and pursue your security interests at the stake of the rival, keeping the war threshold low.
The Iranian Republic is cognizant that its deep-rooted ambition to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East is repugnant to the United States and its allies, specifically Israel. Iran has learned lessons from the protracted 8 yearlong Iran-Iraq war, where approximately a quarter million Iranians succumbed to injuries. Thus, its doctrine and strategic culture have been grounded on an abiding calculation of the regime’s interests under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The prominent asymmetry is about U.S. decision makers’ conceptual dual viewpoint in dealing with Iran, China, and Russia, along with some other ‘evil states’ in its eyes regarding war and peace, and has been contrived by the escalation ladder. This props up Iran’s motivation to act in the grey zone “in-between” due to U.S. inaction. Iran has deployed hybrid conventional military capabilities on the battlefield along with regular and irregular forces. Concomitantly, Iran operates tactics and covert activities to maneuver from the course of action enabling it to avoid a face to face combat with the adversary.
Washington officials maintain that to avoid an escalation that could eventually lead to an all-out war, the States has shown restraint against Iran and abstained from taking coercive measures. Hence, it has granted Iran significant space in its gray zone activities that bolster Iran to pursue its interests and forge ahead with its anti-status quo objectives. This involves adopting a phased action to maintain the fog of war pertaining to their intentions, ensuring a dilemma within the enemy on how to respond. Iran has an elaborate institutional setup abroad, giving it a comparative strategic advantage.
Iran has utilized its strategic geographic depth of the Strait of Hormuz to its best advantage by erecting naval forces capable of playing havoc with the oil shipments from the region. Iran employs small boats, mines, stealthy submarines, and anti-access, precision-guided drones and missiles to hit back at U.S. carrier strike groups operating in the MENA region and U.S. forces stationed around the edge of the Gulf. For instance, the October 1983 Marine Barracks bombing accompanied by Lebanese Hezbollah forced U.S. peacekeeping forces out of Lebanon. Similarly, in September 2019, a dozen drone and cruise missile strikes and 20 UAVs on Saudi oil infrastructure modeled Tehran’s capability to disrupt oil production in the region with the motivation to create inordinate effects. Iran was also alleged for the Khobar Towers bombings in 1996 that killed 19 Americans. Once again, this action came with no meaningful response from the United States. In Iraq, Iranian militias operate as Popular Mobilization Forces. Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen grants Iran a battlefield to stand eyeball with Saudi Arabia. This instills fear amongst Iran’s regional neighbors about its strategic designs.
Moreover, in 2017 and 2018, Iran fired missiles against ISIS targets in Syria and Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq. Iran’s missile system engages as an instrumental tool in its deterrence kit, with a range of 2000 km that Iran intends to extend. Iran targets ameliorating the arsenal with diversity to include cruise, ballistic, and rocket coast-to-sea missiles, enhancing accuracy and precision, and developing its nuclear program predominantly.
The U.S. has generally circumvented responding aggressively but, at times, has flexed its military muscle. In 2007, the U.S. in Erbil raided the Iranian Liaison Office and detained five Iranian diplomats subjecting them to be Quds Force operatives. The U.S. has used its allies, such as Germany, France, and Italy, who put travel bans on the Iranian military airline Mahan Air. Disagreements between the top U.S. leadership were evident when then-President Trump threatened to strike Iranian cultural sites, while the Secretary of Defense instantly abjured this. During the later phase of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. began Operation Earnest Will in July 1987 to provide a safe passage to Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf against Iran’s small boat attacks. The USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle’s presence did deter Iran and reduced its operations. However, the Kuwaiti Bridgeton hit a hidden sown mine which caused it limited damage. Lack of casualties compounded with avoiding an escalation, the U.S. did not respond. Operation Praying Mantis is another example of how Tehran did not pull back until it realized that the cost of the war exceeded the potential benefits. The U.S. economic pressure cut off roughly 80 percent of the Iranian oil revenues and, thus, a $200 billion loss in foreign income and investment. At the same time, Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA allowed Iran to enrich uranium and speed up its nuclear program.
The Israeli response in dealing with Iran has powerful lessons for the U.S. in capping Iran. It is no hidden fact that the U.S. also partners with Israel in this regard. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. and Israel targeted strikes on top Iranian defense officials, such as Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. It served the purpose of blurring the lines between deterrence and defense. Tehran found itself on the back step, incapable of retaliatory action. The punitive approach successfully exposed Iran’s strategic weakness, ingraining fear among Iranian elites of an alarming U.S. attack. This motivated Israel to continue its strikes on Tehran’s key arenas, specifically in Syria, with U.S. support. Tehran practiced cautiousness in communicating a significant response. This questioned the liability of the effectiveness of Tehran’s deterrence amongst its masses and leadership. Consequently, this was instrumental in eliminating Hezbollah attacks by employing armed drones to strike Israeli targets from Syria. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, specifically in early 2017, Israel has conducted more than 200 airstrikes inside Syria against more than 1,000 targets linked to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and against IRGC-QF.
Iran has the upper hand in a way that for Iran to become a regional power, it has to struggle for survival, which means risking all resources at its disposal. In contrast, in retrospect, the U.S. being a global superpower, has to perpetuate that it is under no threat of abiding by its global commitments. Iran’s mountainous terrain provides it with natural defense and the second largest population in the MENA region, which means a conventional workforce. Moreover, the U.S. presidents have to give in to public opinion keeping in mind the assumption that they would only have a four-year term to carry out their policy agenda. On the other hand, Iran’s supreme leader is democratically unelected, allowing it to refute public say concerning national security matters. Hence, it enables them to devise long-term plans. However, the U.S., in applying the Israeli model, must recognize that Israel has intelligence superiority. Unlike Washington, Israel is juxtaposed with Syria, whereas Iran is about 1,160 miles away, making it complex to deploy intelligence assets for Iran.
Loopholes exist within the U.S. system. The media proliferation within the U.S. to “leak” information for political gains presses clandestine action onerous. During the planned attack on Soleimani in Iraq, the Trump Administration declared a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. Washington tweeted the news of his death and publicly accepted the killing on global forums. However, this led the Iraqi government to face backlash and embarrassment. Hence, Iran could not restrain itself and responded with ‘surprisingly precise’ attacks in Iraq, where Americans worked.
This connotation for sure does not signify Iran’s superiority in all aspects. Tehran’s apprehension concerning U.S. advancements in technological leaps such as hypersonic missiles, AI, cyber warfare, and air power is valid after RMA. The U.S. exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has raised alarming bells within Tehran, which interprets it as an impediment to its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, fearing might the U.S launch a surprise attack since it intends to deploy other technological superior strike platforms in the region. A mistrust in Iranian civil-military relations was evident in the final months of the Trump administration when Iran notifying the Iraqi Shi’a groups to cease their anti-American operations was turned a deaf ear. Similarly, there are Iranian proxy networks that Iran has loosened its control which now carry independent operations raising concerns over missile defense.
The U.S. has confined activities and guarantees in the Middle East even for its conventional military forces. The former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, instead of using the rhetoric of nuclear umbrella for allies in the Middle East, meticulously used the terminology of ‘strategic umbrella” in her statement to reassure the allies perpetuated about the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, unlike in the Pacific, the U.S. does not extend nuclear assurance to any state within the Middle East, nor does it have long-term stationary nuclear forces or nuclear-capable forces there.
Conclusively, the Iranian Republic has the edge over the U.S. to pursue its national interests at rival stakes. The U.S. must comprehend the core elements of Iran’s gray zone strategy. Iran terms it as a ‘comprehensive deterrence’ (bazdarandegi-e hame janebe) doctrine based on tactical flexibility, strategic calculation, uncertainty, restraint, proportionality, protraction denying escalation, and varying options shared by sentiments of regional isolation and anti-imperialist principles. The crux is that deterrence varies over time, for better and for worse. Hence, the Biden administration should direct military de-escalation with Iran to prevent a nuclear face-off. A criterion must be set to curb Iran’s conventional deterrence for engaging in talks at the JCPOA over missile program and regional issues, along with an assurance that the U.S. would not return from the treaty in the future.