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June 18, 2019

In early May, the United States deployed an aircraft carrier group, a bomber wing, and a Patriot Battery to the Gulf region reportedly in response to threats by Iran and its proxies. At the time, the potential for escalation seemed high with the Air Force flying “deterrence missions” and Iranian military leaders referring to the aircraft carrier as a “target.” Shortly after the United States announced the deployment, four ships—including two Saudi oil tankers and a Norwegian ship—were damaged and intelligence reporting of possible attacks prompted US Embassy Baghdad to evacuate non-essential personnel. In fact, after the evacuation, a rocket landed less than a mile from the embassy compound that appeared to have been launched from a Shia-dominated area of Baghdad. Around the same time, Houthi rebels in Yemen, who receive support from Iran, used drones to attack an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia and may be responsible for recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

The Opacity of Proxy War

The United States blamed Iran for the escalation, specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as the proxy militias the IRGC supports. Iran, predictably, denied any role in the attacks. If the Iranian claim is true, then these were acts of rogues and criminals against which aircraft carriers and bombers are powerless. However, even if their claim were true, the timing and targets of the attack suggest that if not them, then someone was acting on their behalf, as these attacks signaled to the United States and its partners that they would pay a cost when they act against Iranian interests. It is worth noting that while the Houthis did claim to have conducted attacks against Saudi targets, leaders of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq universally denounced the attack on the Green Zone. For its part, Tehran suggested that “third parties” were trying to instigate conflict in the region. Meanwhile, the CENTCOM commander is reportedly considering asking for more forces in the Middle East after concluding that the presence of the aircraft carrier and bomber wing “curtailed the Iranian threat.” In fact, the United States is deploying a further 1,000 troops to the Middle East in response to additional attacks on tankers in the Gulf and an Iranian announcement that it plans to continue enriching uranium.  

Effectively Responding to Proxies (Even When They Are Hard to See)

Now that the threat from Iran may no longer be “on hold,” it is time to consider how the United States can best deal with the opaque conditions associated with fighting someone else’s proxies. Publicly, it is impossible to settle the “whodunit.” Iran would simply deny any intelligence the United States does release, portraying it as politically motivated and false. Moreover, if there is no information that directly links Tehran to these attacks, then they could have been conducted by rogue elements or a third party interested in starting a conflict, as Iran claims. It is worth noting that in attacks where the IRGC was most certainly involved, such as the multiple attacks against the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) at Camp Liberty, the rockets tended to hit their targets with devastating effect.

Moreover, as Douglas Ollivant and Erica Gaston point out, proxies like Iraqi militant groups are often more motivated by political survival than by orders from Tehran. If they thought they could get a political boost from “messaging” the United States by shooting rockets in the direction of the Embassy, they would likely do so, even without orders from Tehran. However, violence does not play well these days with the Iraqi electorate, so it is unlikely they would have conducted these attacks on their own initiative. The fact they not only denied participation, but also condemned the attacks as inflammatory, suggests they share the Iraqi electorate’s perception.

The more important question, however, is does it matter whether the IRGC, or other Iranian actors, ordered the specific attacks? The fact that proxies might take matters into their own hands does not mitigate the fact of the proxy relationship. Iran, as benefactor, provides support and direction for a number of proxies in the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and militias like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq. Moreover, Iran provides these groups lethal assistance and a general orientation that identifies the United States and its partners as enemies. As a result, it should not be surprising when those groups attack US personnel, partners, and interests. One of the moral hazards of engaging in a proxy relationship is that proxy interests can diverge and any support can be used in ways the benefactor did not intend. By engaging in a proxy relationship, Iran thus risks this moral hazard and is—to some degree at least—responsible for the consequences that relationship entails.

Establishing responsibility, however, does not entail the specifics of any response and, unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. Retaliating directly against Iran will accomplish little if these attacks were indeed conducted by rogue elements: Iran is too dependent on its proxies to abandon them easily. Doing nothing, on the other hand, will just encourage more of the same behavior, regardless of who is actually responsible.

So, if the goal is to change Iranian behavior, one must be clear about what behavior one wants changed. Using force against Iran and its proxies will only encourage it to bolster its ability to defend itself, including developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Moreover, it will make them even more reliant on its proxies as they are its primary means of projecting power. Thus, strikes against Iranian assets will have little effect on these priorities. So while “delivering an overwhelming military response” should there be future attacks sounds satisfying, it may not be the most prudent course of action, especially if that response is directed at Iraqi militias.

In determining a way ahead, any effective response requires a clear objective. In this context, the United States should seek to deter any future escalation while reducing the destabilizing role Iranian-sponsored militants play. The following are recommendations to facilitate those objectives.

Manage Escalation

Escalation is another hazard of proxy war, which is exacerbated by the opaqueness of the various actors’ relationships and motivations. To the extent one cannot determine responsibility and reason for any given attack, it is difficult to determine the best response. The fact that the attacks in the Gulf and Iraq occurred after the United States announced the deployment of the carrier and bomber groups suggest those attacks may have been responsive in nature. The point here, however, is not “never escalate.” As noted above, that will only encourage future bad acts. Rather, the point here is to avoid needless provocation. Successful escalation depends on three things: 1) a credible ability to escalate, 2) a clear objective that is more important to one’s side rather than the others, and 3) a belief by the other side that the objective in question is, in fact, more important to one’s side than theirs.

So, while the original movement of US forces in the region may have been motivated by accurate intelligence, it may have also constituted a provocation. This point does not mean that the United States should withdraw these forces or otherwise reduce its presence as they are essential to offering a credible response to future attacks. However, for their continued presence—as well as the addition of other forces—to be productive, their employment should be linked to a specific behavior, such as attacking shipping, which does not existentially threaten the Iranian regime. Doing so will only lead to further escalation and an actual war. There may be a time and place for that at some point, but by then any conflict will have escalated beyond a concern regarding proxies.  

Don’t Put the Iraqi Government in the Middle

Forcing Iraq to choose between its relationship with the United States and its relationship with Iran is a recipe for disaster. As Paul Pillar notes, both Iraq and Iran fought a devastating war that neither wish to repeat. Placing the Iraqi government in a position where it would take steps to threaten Iranian security would not likely meet with much cooperation and, to the extent it did, reignite sectarian divisions. What Iraq needs right now is political reconciliation and reconstruction. Anything that undermines those rather fragile processes is not in Iraq’s or the United States’ interest. The United States needs a partner in Iraq—not a proxy.

This point does not suggest the United States should not engage the Iraqi government over the threat some of the Iraqi militias pose. The Iraqi government is responsible for protecting the lives of people living within its borders. As Iraqis recently learned when Exxon personnel departed oil fields in Iraq in response to the attacks, they have a lot to lose if security cannot be guaranteed. So upset were the Iraqis over the withdrawal that the Oil Minister called it “unacceptable and unwarranted” and the Basra Provincial Council called on the Iraqi government to take legal procedures against the company. Making clear that much of the political, military, and economic support the Iraqi government needs to survive—much less function—is contingent on a good faith effort to reign in the militias, is an important step to incentivize them to accept the necessary risk to do so.

Do Not Treat All Proxies the Same

The fact that Iran’s proxies may have, and acted upon, divergent interests does not make them any less a proxy. It does, however, suggest that they will not respond to any pressure directed toward them consistently. This point is especially true of the Houthis, who launched their war against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime independent of Iranian direction and who would continue fighting if Iran withdrew its support. Moreover, it is important to remember that the Houthis practice a different form of Shiism than the Iranian regime and are thus not natural allies. This point suggests that efforts to invigorate the peace process in Yemen will make them less dependent on Iran over the long term and less likely to be offered, much less accept, additional support.

Iraq’s militias also have diverse interests. Groups like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its former armed element, the Badr Brigade, have a stake in the current government and Iraq’s continued path to reconciliation, reconstruction, and stability. The requirements of this progress can put them at odds with Iran not only because it fears Iraq may become a threat again, but also because Western states and Iraq’s Sunni neighbors are in a better position to put them on that path than Iran. In fact, Badr Brigade Commander Hadi al-Ameri and former Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji, both closely associated with Iran, have expressed support for a continued security cooperation relationship with the United States. Even Qais al-Khazali, leader of the vehemently anti-American Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, made allowances for the United States to keep “a small contingent of advisers and trainers for logistical matters,” even while calling for a withdrawal of US combat forces that helped defeat Islamic State. Simply put, Iraq will not benefit from the same kind of isolation Iran currently enjoys and its leaders seem to know that.

This point suggests that rather than oppose militia integration, the United States should encourage it and work with the Iraqi government to ensure processes are in place for greater influence and oversight over the Popular Mobilization Forces, of which Iran-backed militias are a part.  Doing so will not be without risk as these groups will remain vectors for Iranian influence for the foreseeable future. However, better integration into Iraq’s security services can give the Iraqi government better oversight over the activities while increasing the militia’s stake in the success of the Iraqi government.

In Iraq, Play to US Comparative Advantage

As the Exxon and security cooperation example illustrates, the Iraqis rely on the West, and especially the United States, a great deal. Moreover, the United States and its partners can offer Iraq much more than Iran. In addition to being a better security partner, the United States can assist Iraq with integrating into the international community and developing the economic and financial capabilities necessary to participate in the global economy in ways a politically and economically isolated Iran never could.

Hold Iran Responsible for the Bad Acts of its Proxies

As noted above, the fact that Iran provides lethal assistance as well an orientation against US presence in the Middle East entails a certain level of responsibility for its proxies’ behavior. Thus, it makes sense to continue political efforts to isolate Iran from the international community over its use of proxies while at the same time making it clear that future attacks by those proxies will entail a proportionate response from the United States.

Iran is a malign actor in the region; however, absent regime change, the United States and its partners will not fundamentally change its security calculations and thus much of the behavior for which it is already sanctioned drives much of the current conflict. Given that regime change is not achievable, at least in the short-term, without a resort to war, it is too costly an option to consider. Thus, the United States must confront Iran the way it fights, which means confronting its proxies. Doing so, however, will emphasize political efforts to continue to isolate Iran from the international community, make dependence on Iranian support less attractive to its proxies, and cultivate partners who can provide the kind of good governance and responsible behavior that serve as a more attractive model than Iran’s divisive practices can provide. None of the measures suggested here are without risk or are guaranteed to work; however, they do represent a plausible way ahead to minimize Iran’s ability to further destabilize the region.  

Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative and Research Professor for Strategy, the Military Profession and Ethic at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily the United States Government.

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