Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.{{authorBox.message}}

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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.

Iran File: Tehran faces multiple regional crises 

[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’s regional position is weaker now than it was during the last round of the Vienna nuclear talks in June 2021. Regional crises in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and with Israel have expanded in recent months, threatening Iran’s domestic stability and influence abroad. US policymakers should take advantage of these challenges to Iran when the Vienna talks resume and in developing regional strategies.

Iraq and Lebanon

Crises in Iraq and Lebanon are challenging Iran’s regional project and influence. Iran-backed political parties *lost two-thirds of their parliamentary seats in the national Iraqi elections on October 10. The election results have dramatically reduced Tehran’s formal political influence in Iraq and signified voters’ opposition to Iranian involvement in domestic Iraqi affairs.

Iranian influence in Iraq could decline further in the coming months. A rival Shia party led by cleric Moqtada al Sadr won the most parliamentary seats and will have a significant role in determining the next prime minister. Sadr *has indicated that he will support Mustafa al Kadhimi to retain the position. Sadr and Kadhimi seek to reduce Iranian control in Iraq and *disarm its proxy militias. Whether Sadr and Kadhimi will seriously contest Tehran’s reach is uncertain, but Iranian leadership would view such attempts as a major security threat given the role of these proxies in Iran’s deterrence strategy and national defense. Iranian proxies, likely with Tehran’s orders, have legally challenged the election results, and they orchestrated protests near the Green Zone in Baghdad on October 23, demanding a recount.

Iran faces similar challenges in Lebanon, which is experiencing mounting civil instability. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy that effectively controls Lebanon’s government, clashed with the Lebanese Forces—a Christian political party—in Beirut on October 14. The fighting erupted as Hezbollah and other Shia parties marched to protest the ongoing investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. The groups argue that the investigation is heavily politicized and called for removing the judge leading the inquiry. These tensions, coupled with an economic collapse and shortages of basic goods and electricity that culminated in a country-wide blackout on October 9, are driving increasing instability in Lebanon. Iran uses Hezbollah to amplify Iranian influence in the Levant and to deter Israeli military escalations in Iran and around the region. The growing risk of civil conflict in Lebanon could imperil Iran’s reach.

Turkey

Growing competition with Turkey for regional influence could undermine Iran in the Caucasus. Ankara seeks to bring the Caucasus into its sphere of influence and *link Turkish rail lines and roads to Azerbaijan through Armenia, circumventing Iran. Turkey has accordingly increased military cooperation with Azerbaijan and *political outreach to Armenia in recent months. Iranian officials and state-run media have responded by *criticizing Turkey’s actions, *threatening Azerbaijan, and alleging that Turkey seeks to constrain Iranian influence in the Caucasus. Media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) *accused Turkey of excluding Iran from the regional transit corridor, in part to outcompete Iranian goods in the Caucasus and Russia.

Competition between Iran and Turkey in the Caucasus could become conflict in Iraq. Iranian proxies have *attacked Turkish forces in northern Iraq *three times since April 2021, most recently on September 24. The IRGC may have meant to impose a cost on Turkey for its growing involvement in the Caucasus and could conduct further attacks. Tehran frequently escalates against adversaries in one theater to achieve objectives in another. These regional dynamics highlight the ways in which seemingly unrelated regional crises are interacting as regional and extra-regional actors compete across the theater.

Afghanistan

Senior Iranian officials *are concerned that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan could spread instability in Iran. Regime leadership considers domestic unrest an existential threat and seeks to mitigate external factors that could stoke internal disorder. The regime has accordingly *militarized the border region and *urged the Taliban to prevent sectarian conflict or the resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province. Iranian leadership hopes to cooperate with the Taliban toward stability but likely retains some skepticism that the new government can preserve stability in Afghanistan in the months and years ahead. Iranian officials *have maintained relations with the Afghan resistance since the Taliban takeover, likely to prepare for cooperation with them if the Taliban government collapses.

Israel

Iran will likely face an additional crisis with Israel if the nuclear talks break down or stall further. Israel may take overt or covert action to degrade the Iranian nuclear program in the months ahead. Israel has increasingly demonstrated its capability to attack high-profile individuals and locations in Iran since July 2020 and could conduct similar operations in the future. Such action would further underscore the extent of Israel’s infiltration of the Iranian security establishment.

Israeli attacks would also exacerbate the ongoing regional escalation cycle between Israel and Iran. The IRGC would likely retaliate throughout the region for increasing Israeli attacks against the Iranian nuclear program. The regime *has escalated against Israel around the Strait of Hormuz more frequently throughout 2021 than in previous years and could conduct additional attacks, disrupting international maritime traffic. Senior Iranian officials have also expressed concern over alleged Israeli intelligence networks in *Azerbaijan and *Iraqi Kurdistan, which the IRGC could also target.

The US should take advantage of Iran’s weakening regional position during the nuclear talks. The Biden administration will reenter the Vienna negotiations (assuming the talks restart at all) from a position of relative strength, given the regional pressures Tehran faces. The Raisi administration will reenter with maximalist demands, such as the US lifting the arms embargo against Iran, and is using the progress it has made with its nuclear program in recent months to impose a sense of urgency on Western negotiators. The US must resist Iran’s efforts to impose urgency and should not accede to any maximalist demands. Iranian leadership’s regional outlook will continually inform how much pressure they feel in the talks. The US, especially its intelligence community, must continuously reevaluate how regional crises and trends are affecting the Iranian position in the nuclear negotiations.

Iran File: Iran loses optimism for cooperation with Taliban  

[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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Iranian leadership is becoming increasingly skeptical of its ability to build a constructive relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Tehran still likely prefers to work with the Taliban to advance Iranian strategic objectives but is contingency planning in case its relationship with the Taliban deteriorates or the Taliban government collapses. These contingency plans may include cooperating with the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance.

Senior Iranian officials *have criticized the composition of the Taliban’s government and *expressed doubt that the Taliban has made meaningful changes in response to Iranian concerns in recent weeks. Iranian leadership is concerned the Taliban will repress Shia Afghans and has sought to ensure the rights and political representation of this minority under the new Taliban government. The Taliban did not include any minorities in the government announced on September 7, ignoring Iran’s urging. The Taliban later appointed some Hazara and Iran-aligned individuals to key positions on September 20, but Iranian officials *have indicated that the appointments are insufficient.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) still likely prefers to work with the Taliban than fight it. IRGC-affiliated media outlets *chastised Iranian reformists who were *calling for a military intervention into Afghanistan to protect Iranian interests and Shia Afghans from the Taliban. The IRGC outlets *argued that Iran should not intervene in Afghanistan like it has in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The Iranian regime may be preparing to work with the Afghan resistance as part of a larger hedging strategy in case Iran-Taliban relations deteriorate or the Taliban government collapses. The regime *has hosted Afghan warlord and anti-Taliban figure Ismail Khan since he fled Afghanistan on August 15. Khan has since used Iran to *coordinate and meet with other Afghan warlords opposing the Taliban, likely with Iran’s approval. Iran has also been in *contact with Afghan resistance figures based in the Panjshir Valley. These relationships could be a foundation for future cooperation with an anti-Taliban resistance.

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