(Persia Digest) - After weeks of rising tensions, speculation as to when or whether a war between the United States and Iran will break out may be misplaced. The current conflict is conducted below the conventional threshold for armed conflict and may remain a ‘threshold war’, John Raine argues.
John Raine writes in IISS that speculation as to when or whether a war with Iran will break out is understandable. But it may be misplaced. Despite the deployment of US and UK warships to the Gulf, the current conflict is being conducted below the conventional threshold for armed conflict, but above that for hostile competition. It may escalate, but it may also be that what we are seeing now is the war itself, a ‘threshold war’.
Does it matter what we call the conflict? In practice, the protagonists will become increasingly preoccupied with the latest hostile act, to which responses may be as influenced by domestic political as much as regional strategic considerations. But an understanding of the nature and arc of conflict can be critical in gaming longer-term responses and commitments, and shaping political expectations. It also matters to those who are not parties to – but will be affected by – the conflict.
What makes a threshold war?
Threshold conflicts are conducted remotely. Hostile acts are kept away from sovereign territory, although Iran has attacked US allies and interests in the region (including in Iraq) through proxies, mounted raids on non-US shipping (either to damage vessels, which it denies, or to impede and detain them, which it has attempted to justify), and conducted attacks on allies such as Saudi Arabia. The use of air assets also keeps the conflict remote. Both sides have used drones and the Iranians have used rockets. And cyber capabilities, as used by the US, are an even more remote capability.
The red line that, if crossed, would mark an escalation to a different kind of conflict would be a direct attack on Iranian sovereign territory. The Iranians would be obliged to retaliate in a more direct and damaging way than ever before.
Threshold warfare is asymmetric. The advantage for either side lies not with size and firepower, but the penetrative and disruptive power of their capabilities. In terms of firepower, Iran is a non-peer adversary by a wide margin compared to the US and its allies, but uses techniques and theatres where it enjoys a strategic advantage either geographically, such as Yemen, or operationally, such as deniable attacks on shipping or arrests of US alleged spies. Unconcerned by international law or domestic opinion, the unaccountable regime in Tehran has a manoeuvre advantage over the US in deploying these techniques. That levels the score and makes a deadlock more likely.
Threshold warfare is sustainable by both parties because its costs are low, both in terms of cash and casualties. But more subtly, it can run on simply because both parties can become invested in the hostile posture and reap political benefits at home from being engaged in hostilities, but not warfare, with an idealised adversary. It supports Iran’s narrative of defiance and resistance – a material asset that widens its appeal and recruiting base beyond the Shia. For the US, it enables an administration determined to isolate and damage Iran, to lever others into its anti-Iran camp. In short, it is helpfully polarising.
That is, of course, of limited comfort to the region or to businesses affected by the attendant volatility, or indeed to Western allies of the US who would prefer not to be forced into alignment with current US policy. For them the key adjustment is to the indeterminate length and parameters of the conflict: the new geopolitical reality in a region historically full of awkward realities.
For the growing number of protagonists and victims alike, the most important feature of threshold warfare is the imprecision of its borders and limits. Its lack of shape is politically and militarily problematic. No decisive manoeuvre can offer a resolution. As US policy has shown, Washington is searching for this in the grandest of terms by forcing the regime through sanctions and other pressure to at least step back from its current policies on nuclearisation and power projection, if not to collapse totally.
But that forcing is met by a state geared towards both the absorption of external pressure and, more significantly, to fighting asymmetrically. The prospect of escalated and extended asymmetric manoeuvres may not only be undaunting to Iran but actually welcome. At any rate, the forcing is unlikely to lead to a climactic event that either solves the Iranian problem or makes it less worrying.
Who is directing Iran’s strategy?
It should be remembered that this is a vital play for the regime, and the Supreme Leader will have set the broad parameters for engagement with the approval of the Supreme National Security Council. The selection of targets, and the design of operations to meet these targets, appears from those carried out so far to be in the hands of the IRGC Quds Force and the IRGC, which suggests that their respective commanders, Qasem Soleimani and Hossein Salami, are playing leading roles.
Supreme National Security Council Head Ali Shamkhani has been vocal and has technical responsibility for coordinating strategy, but the animating and executive roles are likely to lie with the IRGC commanders, not him. That leaves scope for others, including President Hassan Rouhani, to be left out of the decision making on, for example, operations with potentially strategic significance. The role of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif continues to be to both defend Iranian actions and proffer negotiating terms, as he did as recently as 18 July.
The tension inevitably will be between those such as Zarif and Rouhani, who see the implications for Iran internationally, and those such as Soleimani and Salami, who are focused on generating leverage and maintaining defiance. The latter two will also significantly have an eye to the preservation and exploitation of Iran’s overseas reach in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. But the involvement of the Supreme Leader and the Supreme National Security Council ensures this is some way from the IRGC and Quds Force ‘going rogue’.
It would also appear that there is a role for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, whose recent, high-profile contribution was the arrest of a CIA spy ring. While that may have been the result of attempts by intelligence officials to claw back some prestige from their counterparts at the IRGC, it nonetheless appears to fit within the broad strategic framework.
Is there a way out of this?
Iran’s strategic objectives are to retain escalation dominance, to create negotiating leverage, and communicate capability and defiance. The second of these is becoming more important as Iran faces up to the implications of sanctions and isolation. If it can raise the cost to the US and the Europeans of continuing to pursue their strategy of pressure, it will.
At the same time Iran is determined to collect as many cards as it can to play during what it probably still believes will be the negotiating phase, whether that it is comprehensive or limited in nature. Seizing assets – including not only tankers, but also foreign prisoners – is a familiar Iranian way of generating negotiating leverage. It is significant in this context that Tehran has already indicated that it would be prepared to do a ‘tanker swap’ with the UK.
We have also seen Iran try to peel the EU away from the US over its sanctions policy, with suggestions of a side deal with the Europeans over JCPOA compliance. But in an illustration of how its strategy is prone to incoherence, Iran may well have squandered any lingering European sympathy with its attacks on shipping. There were signs in the Iranian frustration over INSTEX that it had already discounted the Europeans as being of any utility in breaking the blockade: to get a result Iran, as ever, needed to focus on the US.
Iran and the US have indicated a willingness to talk, but both wish to do so from a position of advantage. The fact of asymmetric warfare is that neither side ever enjoys as clear an advantage as in a conventional conflict, whether in terms of ground held or resources captured. That calls for a rethink about the threshold at which either side reaches out to contain hostilities. As Iran has the choice of domain and geography in which to act, it is unlikely that it will consider its options as anything near exhausted at this stage.
If there is a way out it is through mediators and discreet negotiations designed first to de-escalate and then to stabilise the regional power balance. That is looking unlikely as channels become soured by tit-for-tat operations, but it may ultimately be preferable to both sides than escalation from threshold war to shooting war.
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