It took only 12 days in office for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to put Iran “on notice” that the era of compromise had been replaced by an era of confrontation. In a stern message on Feb. 1, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn accused Iran of a “provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants.” Two days later, Washington slapped sanctions on 25 individuals and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile tests, even though U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 had only called on, not enjoined, Iran to refrain from such tests.
In response, Iran threatened its own sanctions and held a military drill, including rocket launches. Gen. Amir Ali Hazjizadeh, an Iranian air force commander with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), threatened: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”
Despite the bombast, both sides have so far been careful not to escalate too far, too fast. The sanctions designations were carefully selected so as not to violate the terms of the nuclear deal. Likewise, the missiles tested during Iran’s military drill were not ballistic, and these launches therefore did not contravene the U.N. Security Council resolution.
But such tit-for-tat measures, if they continue, could easily spiral out of control and provoke a military confrontation. This is especially true since the bilateral communication channels born of the nuclear talks, which helped to contain tense episodes under the Barack Obama administration, are no more. Unlike the previous administration, Trump’s National Security Council and State Department appear uninterested in engaging their Iranian counterparts.
If Washington hopes to develop an effective strategy for dealing with Tehran, it must first understand the sources of Iranian conduct in the region.
It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power
It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power: While Tehran has more influence in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa than it used to, its role in all four is more bitterly contested by state and nonstate actors than in the past. As a Persian nation among Arabs and Turks, a Shiite state among Sunnis, there are natural barriers to Iran’s reach — hence its failure to export its nearly four-decade-old revolution to any neighboring country. In the words of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, “Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get.”
The policies of all contemporary Iranian leaders, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, have been shaped by two impulses: regime preservation and restoration — critics would say expansion — of Iran’s role as a regional leader.
The pursuit of self-preservation, the principal objective of any political system, borders on paranoia in an Iranian political culture steeped in a deep sense of insecurity and solitude.
Consider the words of this aggrieved Iranian leader: “Why is it normal for France and Britain to even have nuclear and hydrogen weapons, but for Iran, which is not a member of NATO and its security is not guaranteed by any country in the world, the simple principle of self-defense becomes so problematic?” This complaint was not lodged by a turbaned anti-American official in the Islamic Republic but by the Shah of Iran, the steadfast American ally and a prime recipient of U.S. weaponry who launched the country’s nuclear program.
The security perspective of Iran’s current leaders is shaped by the traumatic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, in which almost the entire region and the West supported Saddam Hussein’s war effort. Subsequently, they witnessed the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq, their neighbors to the east and the west.
To compensate for its sense of encirclement by U.S. forces and pro-U.S. states, and its inferior conventional military capacity compared with that of its neighbors, Iran developed a network of partners and proxies to push threats away from its borders. Tehran dubs this its “forward-defense policy,” a euphemism for many in the region for Iran’s exploitation of other states as buffers at the expense of their sovereignty.
The Lebanese Hezbollah is the cornerstone of Iran’s forward-leaning strategy. As a senior Israeli official once put it: “For us, Iran is a 1,000 kilometers away, whereas for Iran, Israel is 10 meters away from across the Lebanese border.” Many in Tehran are convinced the primary reason Israel did not strike Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactor during the nuclear crisis was its fear of hundreds of Hezbollah’s Iran-supplied missiles pointing at Israeli cities.
What Iran calls the “axis of resistance” to Israel and the United States — known to Iran’s Sunni neighbors as the “Shiite crescent” — is a more aggressive extension of its forward-defense policy. It not only gives Iran strategic depth but allows it to project power in the Levant. Iran long rejected the notion that sectarianism lay at the root of its alliances, but as Syria’s zero-sum proxy war deepened, it has shed even the pretense of staying above the sectarian fray. Tehran now mobilizes Shiite militias from across the region to fight in Iraq and Syria while it fails to condemn — and even facilitates — the atrocities they commit in these countries’ Sunni heartlands, stoking resentment and providing Sunni extremists a potent recruitment tool.
Tehran’s conventional deterrence appears no less threatening to the region.
Tehran’s conventional deterrence appears no less threatening to the region. Its centerpiece is a ballistic missile program — a legacy of having been a victim of these during the Iran-Iraq War. As the only Iranian weapon that could reach its adversaries on their soil, the missiles are deemed an existential asset by Tehran, which will pursue their development regardless of whatever sanctions are imposed. The Iranians refused to put their missiles on the bargaining table during the nuclear negotiations and are unlikely to compromise on them, absent fundamental changes to the region’s security structure of which Iran would be an integral part.
It’s hardly surprising that what looks defensive from Tehran would be perceived elsewhere as aggressive. But what makes Iran’s regional policy seem especially menacing is the second impetus behind it — its desire for regional power status, which to neighboring capitals looks like a bid for hegemony. To them, that scenario is as unbearable as Iran’s isolation from the region is unacceptable to Tehran.
Any U.S. policy toward Iran’s regional ambitions must take these dynamics into account. This will allow Washington to develop a realistic assessment of Tehran’s likely reactions, of which the following are the most obvious:
First, the United States could continue its decades-old pursuit of containing Iran. This entails sanctioning Tehran and ensuring that it is unable to modernize or significantly expand its military capabilities and reach while supplying its regional rivals with the latest cutting-edge weaponry. The problem with this policy is that it has plainly failed, as new wars and instability have opened opportunities for Iran to increase its influence in the region. It is also clear that the more Washington sides with and arms Iran’s Sunni neighbors, the more it pushes Tehran to double down on means of asymmetric deterrence and forward defense.
The idea of designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization is one initiative sure to backfire. Ironically, the IRGC is likely to welcome this step. Given its extensive role in Iran’s opaque economy, the designation will further chill foreign investment in Iran, thereby helping it preserve its vested economic interests and boosting its domestic standing as a champion of resistance to the United States.
But the most damaging impact, as some in the U.S. military and security establishment have warned, would be on U.S. troops who operate in proximity to Iranian advisors and Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. Defeating the Islamic State and stabilizing Iraq will become much more difficult if these militias turn their guns on U.S. military advisors — as they did when the United States still had 130,000 troops in Iraq — instead of their shared foe. For now, the help of these militias may prove indispensable in liberating Mosul.
Second, Washington could up the ante and resort to military confrontation. During the campaign, President Trump vowed to put that option on the table — promising to shoot Iranian boats that harass U.S. Navy ships “out of the water.” But direct military confrontation in the Persian Gulf could have perilous consequences, pushing the Iranians toward familiar asymmetric responses: to either use their speed boats, mini-submarines, or mines to directly target U.S. ships or employ partners (like the Houthis in Yemen) to fire missiles at U.S. Navy vessels or those of its allies in the Red Sea.
Those risks could make an indirect and limited conflict more attractive. The Trump administration could consider targeting the Houthis, which it sees as an Iranian proxy, in order to send a strong signal to its Gulf allies and Tehran alike. So long as the conflict is containable, going after Iranian and Houthi equities in Yemen might seem less risky than in Iraq and Syria, where Iran could retaliate directly against U.S. forces.
But even limited use of military force could have disastrous ramifications. So far, Iran has provided just enough assistance to the Houthis to provoke Saudi Arabia into launching a military campaign that has cost it billions of dollars, with no end in sight. But a U.S.-led escalation of the conflict could further radicalize the Houthis, who have a history of ignoring Tehran’s advice, and push them to invade Saudi Arabia’s southern provinces if negotiations fail to yield a settlement. This would further intensify a ruinous war, weakening Yemen internally, to Iran’s advantage, and pushing the Houthis further into Tehran’s arms.
Finally, the best option — albeit one that currently appears inconceivable given the Trump administration’s marrow-deep suspicion of and belligerence toward Iran — would be for the United States to take into account Tehran’s legitimate security concerns and explore whether cooperation on areas of common interest is possible. At the same time, it could clearly communicate red lines that could trigger a strong response, such as reprisals against Mosul’s population by Iran-backed militias, or attacks by Hezbollah against Israel from the Golan Heights, or shipments of sophisticated weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.
Washington does not need to bring its guard down, throw long-standing allies under the bus, or turn a blind eye to Iran’s behavior in the region. But in the same way that the Trump administration is prepared to have a dialogue with Moscow — whose actions in the region are also not aligned with Washington’s — to understand its hopes and fears, cooperate with it when possible, and contain it when necessary, it must engage Tehran.
Washington may eventually be able to help create the conditions or even lead in building a sustainable order that guarantees peace and prosperity for both large and small nations in the region. In the meantime, however, it should operate by the dictum: First, do no harm. That means it should avoid deepening the chaos by picking a heedless fight with one of the region’s few stable countries.