The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Iran File: US must rethink its deterrence posture against Iran
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
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Iran is increasingly attacking the United States as part of its cycle of escalation with Israel. Iranian and Iranian-backed forces have conducted two drone attacks against US forces in recent months. Tehran itself asserted that one was an Israeli target, while Iranian proxies called the other a response to Israeli operations in Syria. The Iranian regime likely sees attacking the US as less likely to trigger painful retaliations based on historical patterns and the current US emphasis on de-escalating tensions with Iran. Iran will likely attack more US targets in the months ahead as the regional conflict with Israel continues and possibly intensifies unless the US reestablishes credible deterrence against such attacks.
Iran-Israel tensions have grown over 2021 as Iranian intransigeance on nuclear negotiations and advances in Iran’s nuclear program and capabilities have continued. Israel has reportedly conducted cyberattacks against Iran this year, *repeatedly bombed Iranian and Iranian proxy positions in Syria, and recently *announced preparations for war against Iran if the Iranian nuclear program continues past some unidentified threshold. These operations follow a string of Israeli operations against the Iranian nuclear program directly, including prominent assassinations and sabotage of nuclear facilities since 2020.
The regional conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv will intensify if the regime *maintains maximalist demands in the Vienna nuclear talks, leading to further delays in Iran’s return to fulfilling its nuclear deal commitments. The Raisi administration has indicated that it may return to the talks with a maximalist stance, although the regime could soften its position in the coming weeks.
The Iran-Israel escalation pattern is likely to continue even if progress is made in the nuclear deal negotiations, however. The Iranians have continued yearslong efforts to bring advanced capabilities into Syria that threaten Israel. Tel Aviv will almost certainly continue its attacks to disrupt and deter the deployment of such capabilities, particularly if trends favoring the renormalization of the Assad regime continue.
Iran and its proxies have described recent attacks against the US in Iraq and Syria as retaliation for Israeli actions. Iraqi proxies launched two kamikaze drones against US forces at the Erbil International Airport on September 11. *Iranian state media and proxy Telegram channels claimed the attack targeted a Mossad center. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) may have ordered the attack in response to a series of covert Israeli operations in Iran over the past year, including the November 2020 assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhri Zadeh. Iranian officials *have claimed in recent months that an Israeli intelligence network is operating in Iraqi Kurdistan with *US backing and could support further Israeli covert actions in Iran. The IRGC may order similar attacks against US positions as part of Iran’s regional conflict with Israel.
Iran attacked another US position in Syria in retaliation for Israeli air strikes. Iranian and Iranian-backed forces conducted a drone and rocket attack on the al Tanf Garrison, which houses around 200 US troops, on October 20. The attack damaged locations where US service members sleep and stand guard and would have likely killed Americans had the 200 troops not evacuated beforehand. An Iranian-controlled Syrian unit claimed the attack was retaliation for an Israeli air strike on an Iranian position near Palmyra on October 13. Israel’s air campaign aims to counter the Iranian military buildup in Syria, which Tehran could use to strike Israel.
Iran prefers to attack the US in retaliation for Israeli actions for two reasons. First, these attacks advance the Iranian effort to expel US forces from the region. Iranian leadership likely calculates that the Biden administration may withdraw if the regime kills enough Americans and raises the cost of maintaining the US presence in the region without sparking a larger conflict. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan likely encouraged this long-standing Iranian expectation.
Second, the regime likely considers American forces a safer target than Israeli targets. Tehran has paid a relatively small cost for its attacks against the US in Iraq and Syria in 2021; the Biden administration has struck only minor facilities along the Iraq-Syria border in retaliation for attacks on US forces. It has publicly remained focused on restarting the Vienna nuclear talks and sought to de-escalate tensions with Iran rather than using sufficient force to reestablish deterrence. Israel, on the other hand, has demonstrated the will and ability to conduct a wide range of physical strikes or cyberattacks in Iran and against its proxies.
The Biden administration must rethink how to establish deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. The current approach has inadvertently emboldened Iran to attack the US as part of the ongoing escalation pattern between Tehran and Tel Aviv. It is primarily by chance that Iran has not killed any Americans in 2021; the two attacks discussed above could have done so. Washington must be willing to use greater force—or nonmilitary means that impose much greater pain on Iran—to convince Iran’s leaders that attacking American positions as part of the Iran-Israel escalation pattern is a bad idea. The US should not allow the fear of derailing, or of being blamed for derailing, the nuclear talks to prevent it from taking the measures necessary to protect its forces in the region continuing the fight against the Islamic State and working with its allies.