In a new report, Michael Eisenstadt explores Iran’s gray zone strategy of operating between war and peace. The following is the executive summary from the report, available in full here from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Operating in the Gray Zone:
Countering Iran's Asymmetric Way of War
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran has distinguished itself as perhaps the world’s foremost practitioner of “gray zone” activities. For nearly four decades, the United States has struggled to respond effectively to this asymmetric way of war. Washington has often granted Tehran unnecessary leeway in the conduct of its gray zone operations due to fears of escalation and “all-out war”—fears that the regime encourages. Yet the whole purpose of this modus operandi is to enable Iran to advance its interests while avoiding such destabilizing outcomes. With the intensification of Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Tehran in May 2019—reflected by increased efforts to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero—Iran has intensified its gray zone activities as part of its own counterpressure campaign. This has stoked fears of further escalation and a broader conflict. For these reasons, it is more important than ever for the United States to understand Iran’s gray zone strategy and to devise its own gray zone strategy to counter it.
Iran’s Gray Zone Strategy
Countries like Iran, Russia, and China often operate in the gray zone between war and peace in order to challenge the status quo, while managing risk and avoiding war. They create ambiguity regarding objectives (through incremental action) and attribution (through unacknowledged covert or proxy activities), denying adversaries a legal justification for action and creating uncertainty about how to respond. The proliferation of gray zone conflicts worldwide is partly a result of Washington and its allies’ adherence to a binary conception of war and peace. Grounded in Western state-centric cultural and legal traditions, this dualism enables actors like Iran to operate with relative impunity “in between.” Tehran’s gray zone activities are informed by the following factors:
The shadow of the Iran-Iraq War. Tehran’s gray zone strategy is partly rooted in the trauma of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). As a result, the regime has gone to great lengths to avoid conventional wars because it knows how bloody and costly they can be. When it has to fight, it prefers to do so on foreign soil, far from its borders, and to rely on proxies for much of the heavy lifting. Thus, even at the height of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, it deployed less than 1 percent of its ground forces to the battlefield and offloaded many of the risks and burdens onto its Shia “foreign legion” in order to minimize its own losses.
A hybrid deterrence/warfighting triad. To this end, Iran has created a hybrid, asymmetric deterrence/warfighting triad consisting of (1) a guerrilla navy capable of disrupting oil exports from the Persian Gulf; (2) an arsenal of missiles and drones capable of long-range precision strikes; and (3) a stable of foreign proxies—its Shia foreign legion—to project influence and force throughout the region and beyond. It may now be adding a fourth leg to this triad: offensive cyber operations. Iran also relies on nonmilitary means, such as the threat of withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, to bolster deterrence. This deterrent furnishes the foundation for Tehran’s gray zone strategy by constraining adversaries and affording it the freedom to act. Moreover, Iran has developed a distinctive mode of operation for gray zone activities that enables it to advance its interests while managing risk, limiting the potential for escalation, and avoiding war. These activities are often mutually reinforcing: Tehran’s robust deterrent facilitates its gray zone activities, which in turn bolster its deterrent posture.
A distinctive way of war. Iran will probe and test limits, backing down (temporarily) if it encounters a firm response. It uses indirect means (e.g., mines, improvised explosive devices, rockets), foreign proxies and partners (e.g., Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis), and activities on foreign soil to create standoff and ambiguity while avoiding decisive engagement. It emphasizes proportional responses to make interactions more predictable, while threatening “all-out war” to deter escalatory moves by others. It paces its operations to control their tempo and flow so that events do not spin out of control. It seeks to diversify and expand its policy toolkit to provide an array of options beyond vertical escalation. And it protracts conflicts to exploit the motivational asymmetries that often give it an edge in prolonged struggles. Tehran’s reliance on nonlethal gray zone activities since May 2019 demonstrates that even when it takes audacious actions such as the September 14 strike on Saudi oil facilities, risk management remains a priority—although it occasionally overreaches, a tendency that weak U.S. responses may encourage. Thus, further escalation is quite possible, though an all-out war seems highly unlikely—unless the United States opts for this course of action.
Click here for the full analysis.
Michael Eisenstadt is the David Kahn and Douglas Kahn Fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Military and Security Studies Program. He served for 26 in the U.S. Army Reserve, doing stints at U.S. Central Command headquarters and in the region, before retiring in 2010. Prior to joining the Institute in 1989, Eisenstadt worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government.