Iran is “probably” plotting “covert actions against American officials” to retaliate for the U.S. assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Qods Force who was killed in a 2020 airstrike, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned on May 10, 2022. Tehran’s long-term goal is to force the U.S. military to withdraw from the region, Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, the DIA director, reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Although Iran has demonstrated willingness to attack the United States and its allies deployed in the Middle East, it does not seek an escalation in regional tensions or full-scale conflict. “Iran’s conventional military strategy is based on deterrence and retaliation,” the DIA chief reported. To pressure the United States, Tehran has funded, armed and collaborated with to proxy networks across Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In the future, the Islamic republic will rely on unconventional tactics “with plausible deniability,” including cyber attacks. Iran already fields the largest arsenal of missiles and drones in the Middle East, and it has increasingly relied on drones because they are inexpensive and versatile. The following are excerpts from the DIA assessment.
Iran is the primary state challenger to U.S. interests in the Middle East because of its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities, broad proxy and partner networks, and demonstrated willingness to use force against U.S. and partner forces. Iran’s national security strategy aims to ensure the continuity of clerical rule, maintain internal stability, secure its position as a dominant regional power, and achieve economic prosperity. Tehran employs a complex set of diplomatic, military, and security capabilities, including unconventional forces that recruit and train partners and proxies to achieve its objectives and conventional forces that can impose high costs on adversaries.
Tehran probably calibrates its attacks to pressure adversaries and proportionally retaliate for real or perceived transgressions against Iran, while attempting to prevent escalation to full-scale conflict. Iranian officials continue to perceive that they have not sufficiently retaliated for the 8 January 2020 death of former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qasem Soleimani, and probably are planning covert actions against U.S. officials to retaliate for his death while attempting to maintain plausible deniability and minimize escalation. Iran probably will continue to focus on unconventional attacks or minimally deniable actions, such as cyberoperations, rather than overt conventional retaliation to counter Western pressure.
Iranian Military Capabilities
Iran’s conventional military strategy is based on deterrence and retaliation. If deterrence fails, Iran probably would seek to demonstrate strength by striking its adversaries. Iran fields the region’s largest arsenal of UAVs and missiles and has increasingly relied on UAVS, likely because they are inexpensive, versatile, and Iran probably believes they sometimes allow for plausible deniability. Iran has emphasized improving UAV accuracy, lethality, and over-the-horizon capabilities. Iran also proliferates UAV equipment and training to proxy and partner networks, which provides Tehran a deniable means of attacking U.S. and partner interests throughout the Middle East.
Iran routinely uses its naval forces to monitor U.S. and allied naval operations off its coast — including near the Strait of Hormuz — and occasionally engages in dangerous and unprofessional interactions. Since 2019, Iran’s naval forces have become more brazen and have seized, sabotaged, and attacked merchant ships in the region — in some cases retaliating for Israeli and allied activities.
Some Iranian missiles are able to strike targets 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders, and it has demonstrated the willingness to use them. Iran continues to increase the accuracy and lethality of its ballistic missile force, including shortrange ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with increasing range and antiship capability and MRBMs with accuracy and warhead improvements. Since at least 2016, Iran has unveiled antiship cruise missiles launched from aircraft and submarines, mobile air defense systems, and several land-attack cruise missiles that fly at low altitudes and can attack a target from multiple directions, complicating missile defense. Iran continues to develop space launch vehicles with boosters that could capable of ICBM ranges if configured for that purpose. Tehran also aspires to build, launch, and operate satellites and has attempted to place several experimental satellites into orbit—including the successful April 2020 and March 2022 launches of Iran's first military reconnaissance satellites.
Iran is a party to the CWC and BWC. However, since 2018, the United States Government has found Iran to be noncompliant with its CWC obligations due to its failure to declare its chemical weapons transfers and complete list of riot control agents (RCAs), and failure to submit a complete list of chemical weapons production facilities. The United States Government is also concerned that Iran is pursuing pharmaceutical-based agents for offensive purposes.
In 2021, Iran conducted arms sales negotiations with Russia, China, and North Korea. These negotiations probably reflect Iran’s military modernization priorities—missile, naval, UAV, and air defense forces— but Tehran also may pursue more robust air power and EW capabilities based on lessons learned from recent conflicts.
Iran’s Regional Military Activities
Regionally, Tehran continues to provide advisory, financial, and materiel support to partner and proxy networks in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to build strategic depth, facilitate attacks against United States’ and its regional partners’ interests, and guarantee Iran’s long-term regional influence. Tehran has leveraged its relationships to attack the continued U.S. presence in the region and is attempting to force a U.S. military drawdown. Esmail Ghani, the IRGC-QF commander, has advanced the regional lines of effort he inherited in January 2020 from his predecessor, Qasem Soleimani.
In 2021, Iran began using more aggressive measures and novel tactics—including targeting Israeli associated commercial shipping—as part of a new strategy to counter Israel. Tehran has increasingly relied on UAVs to fulfill this strategy and has conducted or enabled at least six UAV attacks against Israeli interests in the past year. Iran also seeks to prevent Israel from normalizing its relations with Arab states, combining threats from its proxies and partners with diplomatic outreach.
In Iraq, Iran seeks to ensure that Iranian-aligned Shia militia groups maintain military and political influence. Iran has improved militia capabilities and increased their operational independence. In 2021, Iraqi militias used Iranian-provided one-way UAVs to attack U.S. targets for the first time and have modulated subsequent attacks based on political circumstances. Iran has directed temporary pauses in militia attacks to manage escalation and improve the militias’ political prospects in response to Iraq’s October 2021 elections. Militias conducted multiple UAV and indirect fire attacks on U.S. forces in January to increase pressure on the United States to withdraw.
In Lebanon, Tehran works with Lebanese Hizballah—its most important and capable substate partner— to project power and bolster regional Shia militants’ capabilities. Iran acts as Hizballah’s primary patron, and their strategic interests rarely diverge.
In Syria, Iran seeks to secure a lasting economic and military presence while deterring continued Israeli strikes on Iranian interests. During the past year, Tehran has demonstrated its willingness to target U.S. forces in Syria. Since 2019, Iranian-backed forces have conducted several rocket attacks against U.S. and coalition partners in Syria. In October 2021, Iranian forces in Syria struck U.S. forces with multiple UAVs in the most sophisticated attack against a U.S. military base in the country to date, reportedly in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike that used airspace near the At Tanf area.
In Yemen, Iran continues to support the Huthis with advisers and weapons to facilitate complex and long-range attacks against Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in order to pressure the Saudi led-coalition. In the past year, Iran supplied the Huthis with one of its most advanced one-way–attack UAVs, the Shahed-136, which provides Iran and the Huthis long-range strike capabilities. Following three UAV and missile attacks against the UAE in January, the Huthis have refocused their cross-border UAV and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and maritime targets in the Red Sea.
However as of 1 April, the United Nations brokered an informal truce for the Huthis and Saudi-led Coalition to cease all military operations in Yemen for two months. The truce promised the temporary reopening of Al-Hudaydah port and Sanaa Airport, and the possibility of extending the truce into a more permanent ceasefire. The Huthis have not formally or publicly agreed to the truce, but as of 15 April both parties were still adhering to it despite accusations of violations. Separately on 7 April, following a Gulf Cooperation Council-hosted dialogue in Riyadh between Yemeni factions, Yemeni President Abd Rabuh Mansour Hadi announced the transfer of his authorities to a new Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). The PLC consists of eight leaders from different anti-Huthi Yemeni factions. Although the truce and creation of PLC demonstrates some progress towards a more permanent ceasefire, the Huthis probably still seek to improve their negotiating position through military operations and external attacks.
Iran has continued its regional activities despite the 2018 reimposition of sanctions pursuant to the U.S. exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has impeded Tehran’s access to traditional government funding streams, including oil exports. Iran has worked to circumvent sanctions, but currency depreciation, high inflation, and unemployment continue to plague its economy. Iran’s 2022 defense budget is substantially larger than its previous five defense budgets, but fiscal constraints very likely will prevent it from fully funding its planned expenditures.
Tehran Nuclear Development Efforts
Tehran also has continued to reduce its adherence to the JCPOA to gain leverage in talks and revive the deal on terms favorable to Iran, including continued demands for sanctions relief. Tehran has halted some transparency measures for its nuclear program and enriched uranium up to 20- and 60-percent, beyond the JCPOA limit of 3.67-percent. Iran also has conducted research and development with advanced centrifuges beyond agreed limits and has produced small quantities of enriched uranium metal for the first time.
During the next year, Tehran probably will respond to U.S. and partner operations in a manner it determines is similar or proportional to avoid risking unmanageable escalation. Tehran’s response probably would seek to demonstrate strength, reduce Western regional influence, and reestablish deterrence following repeated attacks on Iranian interests in Iran and Syria. Such responses probably will include deniable attacks, cyberoperations, or nuclear-related actions. Iran probably will seek to avoid escalation it expects would undermine JCPOA negotiations or impede its goal of compelling a U.S. withdrawal from the region.
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