Over the past four years, the United States has taken a more aggressive approach with Iran through the “super-maximum pressure” economic campaign, overt military action, and confrontational rhetoric. The stated intent for this policy has been to force Iran back to the negotiating table and conclude a more comprehensive deal that addresses Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, advanced ballistic missile technology, and malicious activities through proxies and terrorist organizations across the Middle East. This policy has failed in every regard.

Since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, Iran has begun enriching more uranium at higher levels, developing and using advanced ballistic missiles more often, and leveraging proxies to attack Americans and US partners and allies in the Middle East more overtly. Furthermore, the economic and reputational damage inflicted on the Iranian population and regime due to renewed US sanctions and escalatory military actions have allowed hardline domestic political parties to gain power in Iran. The United States must pivot away from this ineffective policy before domestic political realities in Iran prevent anything but overt conflict between the two countries. An irregular warfare campaign would better impose cost on Iran. This method would allow for diplomatic engagement to encourage changes in Iranian behavior and to maximize the likelihood of political success for Iranian politicians most likely to facilitate such changes. In the end, irregular warfare is a more effective means by which to change Iran’s cost-benefit analysis and thus its behavior.

Failure of Super-Maximum Pressure

The 2017 National Security Strategy identifies Iran as a revisionist regional power that sponsors terrorism worldwide, uses partners and proxies to expand its influence in the Middle East, proliferates advanced ballistic missile technology, and seeks a nuclear weapon. The 2018 National Defense Strategy further states how Iran is competing for regional dominance through state-sponsored terrorism, its network of proxies, and its ballistic missile program. Current US policy is designed to compel Iran to change this behavior by inflicting damage on the Iranian regime.

However, rather than encouraging constructive change, the policy of super-maximum pressure has driven Iran into more destructive behavior for US interests. Since 2018, Iran has steadily increased uranium enrichment, and recently passed a law in response to the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which promises to enrich uranium closer to weapons-grade levels. Furthermore, Iran continues to develop advanced ballistic missiles and has actually used them on six occasions since 2017, two of which targeted US military bases in Iraq. Finally, Iranian-aligned groups continue to undermine US policy in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with proxy groups openly attacking American forces and facilities in the region and those of US partners and allies. The most brazen include Houthi drone and missile attacks against Saudi military and oil infrastructure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) downing of a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz, and Iranian-aligned militia group attacks against US diplomatic and military facilities in Iraq.

Consider the case of Iranian missile attacks in Iraq. The strikes on al-Asad Airbase and another base in Erbil were retaliation for the targeted killing of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. These attacks could have easily led to a war that the United States did not want. Despite initial assessments that Iran deliberately avoided targeting US servicemembers, follow-on analysis indicates the very opposite. Not only were at least sixty-four soldiers treated for concussions and traumatic brain injuries, but Iran targeted living quarters, aircraft hangers, and support facilities, all of which could have easily contained US soldiers at the time of the attack. Further, Iran launched the missile attacks in waves, a tactic designed to target first responders who emerge from bunkers to assess damage and treat potential casualties.

Had an American soldier died in the attack, the United States and Iran would likely be at war. Herein lies the central problem with current US policy: it creates situations where the Iranian regime must respond to overt US actions in order to avoid reputational damage at home. At the same time, this policy does not provide a diplomatic off-ramp for Iran. So, the United States cedes decision making in the confrontation to a country with less-precise means by which to retaliate. This makes miscalculation and error more likely. Miscalculation and error lead to war.

The United States is already seeing the ill effects of super-maximum pressure come to fruition domestically in Iran. This past February, Iran held its first parliamentary election since the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the subsequent shift in US policy. The election saw conservative and hardline factions win 221 of the 290 seats, which more than doubled their share in parliament. Furthermore, reformist allies of President Hassan Rouhani, who won the past two presidential elections based on his promise to improve the Iranian economy through international negotiation, won only nineteen seats, compared to 121 in 2016. Many of the conservative parties are closely aligned with the IRGC and espouse a more confrontational approach to the United States. In fact, the former commander of the IRGC air force, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, is now the parliamentary speaker. If these election results serve as a guide, then the Iranian presidential election in June 2021 will likely yield a more hardline president. The IRGC plans on running several strong candidates, chief among them Hossein Dehghan, a former IRGC commander and current military advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. A Dehghan presidency, or that of any IRGC-backed candidate, would lead to further militarization of Iran’s foreign policy, against the stated goals of US policy.

The super-maximum pressure campaign has affected Iran’s cost-benefit analysis, but in the wrong direction for US interests. This policy has compelled the Iranian regime to escalate in order to avoid political consequences at home and has emboldened its most extreme political blocs. The result has been a more dangerous and less stable Middle East.

A Better Way: Irregular Warfare

An irregular warfare campaign, by contrast to current policy, would change Iran’s cost-benefit analysis to incentivize behavior more closely aligned with US interests. Rather than a series of overt economic, military, and diplomatic actions meant to punish Iran into compliance, an irregular warfare campaign would allow the United States to impose cost on Iran, while engaging diplomatically to change its behavior.

The recently published Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy defines irregular warfare as:

A struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy. [Irregular Warfare] favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.

Irregular warfare uses a mix of unconventional warfare, stability operations, foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency to influence an adversary, its population, and the relevant international community. These core competencies share the commonality of expeditionary partnered operations; that is, operations, activities, and investments conducted  with and through partners. So, a comprehensive irregular warfare campaign includes three elements. First, it involves working with state partners in the region to bolster internal security, governance, infrastructure development, and external defense in opposition to adversaries. This ensures that the United States maintains a network of strong and stable partners that are resistant to Iranian influence and that of its proxy groups. Second, it also supports resistance organizations and movements to undermine the legitimacy of adversaries and their partners. These activities deny Iran the ability to leverage its own networks against the United States. Finally, an irregular warfare campaign includes direct action through state and nonstate partners against terrorist organizations and proxies that adversaries support. These operations impose human and financial costs on Iran as it attempts to use its proxies abroad.

Within this construct, an irregular warfare campaign relies on other military and nonmilitary activities to define the sphere of competition and shape the information environment. Information operations, cyber warfare, and intelligence operations are essential to develop global messaging that bolsters the effects of partnered operations and targets the opinion of domestic and international communities. The global messaging aspect of the irregular warfare campaign affects the perceived legitimacy of adversarial behavior and thus sets the conditions for change. Since irregular warfare is most effective through indirect and asymmetric methods, it does not preclude parallel diplomatic efforts that tend to change state behavior more effectively than overt military action. States strive to make policy decisions in line with their interests. An irregular warfare campaign shapes how a state views those interests and their associated costs, such that policy outcomes conform to US preferences.

Current US policy attempts to decrease Iran’s material power, its influence with other states and proxy groups, and its will to pursue nuclear weapons, develop ballistic missiles, and support terrorist organizations. However, the United States is using a series of hammers to achieve these goals, with largely negative results. In this way, US policy has overly focused on affecting Iran’s material capabilities, rather than its will to develop and employ those capabilities. An irregular warfare campaign would focus on the latter, by imposing costs on Iran without spoiling nonmilitary efforts. To be clear, an irregular warfare campaign against Iran is not a group of Army Green Berets running around the Zagros Mountains trying to foment an insurgency. However, it does include opposing Iranian-aligned militias and their influence in Iraq through partners like the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service; less-overt targeting of IRGC cadre in Syria and Yemen; and exposing Iran’s foreign adventurism and destabilizing actions to the international community. An irregular warfare campaign would highlight the human and financial cost of Iran’s illicit activities to a struggling Iranian domestic population, while affecting the Iranian regime’s power, influence, and will to incur such costs.

Affecting Iran’s Cost-Benefit Analysis

The super-maximum pressure campaign has made the behavior that the United States seeks to change more legitimate in the eyes of the Iranian population. Under the JCPOA, Iranians expected economic improvement, especially with respect to unemployment and inflation. So, spending money on militants abroad, exporting ballistic missile technology, and risking snapback sanctions by enriching uranium would have made it harder for the regime to satisfy those domestic demands.

However, since the United States left the JCPOA, Iranian support for those very activities has risen to all-time highs. According to University of Maryland Center for International and Security Studies polling, three-quarters of Iranians oppose ending enrichment under any circumstances; 60 percent of Iranians favor keeping troops in Syria; a majority say Iran’s ballistic missile program is non-negotiable and a strong deterrent; and 80 percent believe that IRGC activities in the Middle East keep Iranians more secure. The massive protests at the end of 2019 against a fuel price increase demonstrate that the Iranian regime is vulnerable to domestic unrest, and that the Iranian people are willing to hold their government accountable for economic decline. However, despite this economic pain at home, Iranians are more likely to support politicians that promise confrontation in response to US military, economic, and diplomatic escalation, rather than those who prefer negotiation. This is not a recipe for US policy success.

An irregular warfare campaign coupled with economic and diplomatic engagement would alter the domestic political paradigm in Iran. Such a campaign would impose cost on the Iranian regime for its illicit activities abroad, while presenting the Iranian population with a path toward economic improvement through accommodation with the United States. By utilizing indirect and asymmetric means, irregular warfare keeps the competition with Iran beneath the threshold of violence that necessitates Iranian actions damaging to US interests. The super-maximum pressure campaign crossed this threshold. Remaining beneath it decreases the likelihood that the Iranian population would view escalation with the United States at the expense of economic improvement as legitimate.

As the United States transitions to a new administration, Iran policy ought to be front and center since it is essential for a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East. Maintaining the status quo would only reinforce the failures of super-maximum pressure, continuing to present capitulation or escalation as Iran’s only options and making malign behavior more acceptable to the Iranian people. At the same time, the United States cannot realistically return to the JCPOA without making politically unacceptable concessions to Iran. Doing so would incentivize the sort of behavior that the United States wants Tehran to change. An irregular warfare campaign and renewed diplomatic engagement is a way to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, while imposing costs for the malicious behavior that the JCPOA failed to address.

Maj. Alex Deep is a Special Forces officer assigned to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida and a Modern War Institute Fellow. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Studies and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and previously taught courses in International Relations and the Politics of the Middle East at the United States Military Academy. He has deployed multiple times in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Syria as a member of 3rd Special Forces Group, and returned from his most recent deployment in November 2019.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Maryam Kamyab, Mohammad Mohsenifar