Iran Between Managing Allies and Modulating Its Deterrence

This is a bad time for Iran to become embroiled in an expanding regional war that pits the Islamic Republic and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen against Israel and the United States. The Iranian regime has been stunned by Israel’s December 25 drone assassination outside Damascus of Seyyed Razi Mousavi—an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general responsible for relations between Syria and Iran. And it was shocked by Israel’s January 2 assassination in Beirut of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, who served as Hamas’s main intermediary between Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic. Iranian leaders were even more shocked two days later when a US airstrike on Baghdad killed Abu Takwa, a leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Iraqi Shia militias that the United States blamed for several drone assaults on US forces. A week after the dramatic Baghdad airstrike, American and British forces attacked Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, striking some 60 targets at 16 sites.

The series of lethal events exploded against the backdrop of Iran’s mounting domestic crises, signified most bloodily by two January 3 bombings in Kerman that killed 95 people. The attacks have provoked outrage in a population that has suffered for more than a year from violent state repression and endless economic woes. Facing a severe legitimacy crisis, Iran’s leaders—including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—are hoping that the March elections for the Majlis (the parliament) and the Council of Experts (a body ostensibly responsible for choosing Khamenei’s successor) will ease their political isolation. But this hope will be dashed if Iran becomes enmeshed in a wider regional war.

The Red Sea face-off presents both a point of possible diplomatic leverage for Iran and a severe headache.

Such a prospect expanded with Iran’s January 16 attacks on Northern Iraq and Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. These events suggest that the “grey zone” (as one author put it) that Iran has used to pursue “resistance” while avoiding a full-fledged war with its adversaries is narrowing. Still, it is too early to conclude that this zone is dissolving into darkness. The regional clock is now twenty minutes to midnight. It could move forward or back depending on several factors, including the readiness of Iran’s regional allies to back away from further conflict with the United States and Israel. On this score, the intensifying Red Sea face-off between the Houthis and US and UK forces presents both a point of possible diplomatic leverage for Iran and a severe headache. To lessen the pain, Tehran needs the Biden administration to push Israel to accept a ceasefire in Gaza. Paradoxically, the evolution of Iran’s resistance strategy partly depends on the White House’s ability to stop a war that the international community is insisting must end now.

The Ambiguities of Modulated Deterrence

During their Tehran meeting in early November, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly told Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh that Iran would not directly intervene in Gaza and would not press Hezbollah to do so. Still, by early December the efforts of all the key leaders to deter their enemies had not stopped escalating conflict along the Israel-Lebanon border, in Iraq, or in the Red Sea region, where Houthi forces have upped the ante by attacking commercial ships that they are allege are Israel-linked.

In part, this development was itself a product of ambiguities inherent in a doctrine and practice of what can be called “modulated deterrence.” This doctrine hinges on a rival calculating how much pain it can inflict on its enemy without signaling that it is pursuing all-out war. Calculating this equation is not only tricky: it is also potentially dangerous since any miscalculation could be seen by a rival as a bid to use the shield of deterrence to pursue just such a war. The probability that this fear will provoke a cascade of retaliation is likely to grow when leaders are seen by their own forces, their public, or their regional allies as failing to maintain deterrence.

Modulated Deterrence Uncontained?

The risks associated with modulated deterrence have certainly contributed to the escalation happening in the Middle East in recent weeks. There is a palpable perception in Iran, among both elites and the wider public, that Iran’s leaders have failed to deter Israel or the United States. This view can be traced to the January 3, 2020 US assassination of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional security strategy. Since that assassination, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly pledged that they will avenge his killing in ways that deter further attacks on Iranian civilian or military targets.

But this pledge has certainly not come to pass. The Kerman bombings, which targeted processions marking the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s killing, were clearly timed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) (which took responsibility for the attack) to show its capacity to spill blood on Iranian soil. In the wake of the Kerman blasts and Israel’s December 25 assassination of IRGC General Mousavi, Iran’s leaders are under mounting pressure to show that they can defend the homeland by striking at Iran’s enemies abroad. This is exactly what they did when they ordered strikes on what they called Israeli spy assets in Irbil, the capital of the Iraqi Regional Government, and on Islamic State sites. Once again, their challenge is to respond without getting pulled into a vortex of uncontrolled escalation.

Houthi leaders are not inclined to emulate the risk avoidance deterrence policies of their regional allies.

Two factors complicate this tricky balancing act. First is that the Houthis, one of Tehran’s closest regional allies, appear to welcome a wider conflict with the United States. Unlike Iran, Hezbollah, or Iraq’s semi-official Shia forces, Yemen’s Iran-armed Houthi militia (also called Ansar Allah) is not tethered to a recognized government. Thus, Houthi leaders are not inclined to emulate the risk avoidance deterrence policies of their regional allies. Indeed, Ansar Allah is a charismatic, quasi-millenarian revolutionary movement motivated not only by an anti-Israel ideology but, as detailed in a UN report, by a deep hatred of Jews and Judaism.

Fueled by these animosities—and capable of deploying missiles and drones—Ansar Allah has welcomed a wider conflict with the United States. Such apparent immunity to deterrence has given the Houthis pride of place in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.” Tehran has reaffirmed its support for the Houthis even as their conflict with US forces in the Red Sea has escalated. So far unphased by repeated US missile strikes, the Houthis have continued their attacks on shipping, thus forcing international companies to begin rerouting their vessels away from the Red Sea. The Houthis’ boldness provides Iran with some measure of potential leverage, but only if they are prepared to back off if there is a ceasefire in Gaza. That readiness is yet to be tested.

The second factor complicating Iran’s resistance balancing act is Israel’s determination to continue its war in Gaza. While Israel recently reduced some troop deployments there, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel will not stop until it reaches its goal of destroying Hamas. Israel’s assassinations of Hamas’s al-Arouri and the IRGC’s Mousavi show that it will not back off, even if its actions risk a wider war with Hezbollah. With Netanyahu asserting that Israel’s assault on Hamas may last throughout 2024, the danger of the Gaza war metastasizing is increasing. As this dynamic unfolds, it will become harder for Iran to navigate between the logic of diplomacy and confrontation.

The Risks of Confrontation Grow

If recent events are any indication, Iran’s leaders are not managing this challenge very well.  In an apparent effort to demonstrate that Tehran is not ceding the field of maritime resistance to the Houthis, on January 11 the Iranian navy seized an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. Tehran asserted that this action was “in retaliation for the theft of oil by the American regime.” With the United States reportedly contemplating putting armed personnel on commercial ships, and as the Red Sea situation worsens, Iran could be inviting a collision with the United States.

As the Red Sea situation worsens, Iran could be inviting a collision with the United States.

Iran’s January 16 missile attacks on northern Iraq and Pakistan Baluchistan province seem even more hazardous, if not reckless. While Tehran claimed that it was targeting alleged Israeli spy facilities in Irbil, the attack killed Peshraw Dizayee, a prominent Iraqi businessman, and several members of his family, including his 11-month-old daughter. Outraged, Iraq withdrew its ambassador from Tehran and is now threatening to take the matter to the UN Security Council. That Iran’s actions have provoked this angry response from a friendly Arab government whose security forces include Tehran-linked Shia militias—members in the “axis of resistance”—highlights the apparent ease with which Iran’s enemies can undercut it.

As for Iran’s attack on Pakistan, Iran has asserted that it targeted two bases of the Sunni jihadist group Jaish al-Adl. That Iran made no mention of Israel suggests Tehran’s actual concern—the sectarian threat of Sunni activism or even separatism in Baluchistan. Iran’s attack will do little do deter such activism and may even encourage more of it. It also infuriated Pakistan, a country that, while supportive of the Palestinians, has carefully avoided emulating Iran’s hardline position on Gaza. In light of the downsides, Iran’s attacks have elicited much speculation from experts on what it was trying to achieve. One well-informed report points out that Baluchi secessionist groups have long presented a danger for Iran and Pakistan, and that security forces in both countries have complained that the other side has not done enough to address the shared threat. Indeed, a December 18 attack on the southeastern Iran city of Rask by Jaish al-Adl, which killed 11 Iranian police officers, may have precipitated Iran’s Pakistan attack.

This tit-for-tat exchange may be sufficient for Pakistan and Iran to conclude that each has sustained deterrence, thus reducing the chance of a larger confrontation. But beyond this particular geographic theater, Tehran may also be demonstrating the reach of its missile system. Still hurting from the December and January attacks, the IRGC is flexing its muscles, likely with the Supreme Leader’s green light.

The Wages of Diplomacy

While sustaining its resistance balancing act, Iran has also tried to signal openness to diplomacy. Its reasons for doing so are clear: it is only through international pressure that Tehran can stop Israel’s assault on Hamas and help it to survive in Gaza. But it is hard for Iran to forge a diplomatic stance that enjoys international credibility. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani stated in November that Iran supports the establishment “of a unified Palestinian state government from [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.” This maximalist position, which is advocated by the Supreme Leader, was echoed in early January, when Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian asserted that the “root cause” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates to the creation of Israel in 1948. But in his ensuing meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Amir-Abdollahian made no mention of this position. As for Lavrov, he stated that “similar to Iran, we also desire peace in the region, an end to the war in the Gaza Strip, and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

While sustaining its resistance balancing act, Iran has also tried to signal openness to diplomacy.

Yet as both men know, no such similarity exists. Iran advocates a diplomatic “solution” that Russia (which has diplomatic relations with Israel) does not support. The same is true for China, which also has relations with Israel and considerable investments in its economy, and which despite its alignment with Tehran, has called for a large-scale international peace conference with the goal of establishing a two-state solution. While Iran’s leaders are pleased that their stance on Israel’s supposed illegitimacy finds a sympathetic echo in many quarters of the world, Iran’s call for diplomacy clashes with its foreign minister’s assertion that the United States and other Western governments must “address the root causes of the crisis and stop their support” for the “Zionist regime.” In short, it is not easy for Iran to sustain the alluring elan of resistance yet position itself as a credible player on the global stage that is ready to back compromises that it has long spurned.

Biden to the Rescue?

Diplomacy aside, Iranian hardliners are calling for abandoning the policy of “strategic patience.” Yet they must tread carefully, since in January Khamenei used that very term when he cautioned Iran’s military to avoid a direct conflict with US forces. But this warning did not deter Mahdi Mohammadi, a hardline security analyst and an assistant to Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf.  In a defiant post on X (formerly Twitter), Mohammadi called for Iran to abandon military restraint. Mohammadi’s words telegraph the pressure on the regime to show that it will punish its enemies more severely. Such pressure will surely grow after the January 20 Israeli missile strike on Damascus that killed five senior IRGC officers.

With Majlis and Council of Experts elections scheduled for March, this is a tricky time for Iran to risk a collision with its enemies. After more than a year of repression following the killing of Mahsa Amini, the regime hopes that elections will attenuate its isolation without opening the door to reformist candidates. Managing this balancing act will be harder because that many Iranians have openly accused the regime of using regional conflicts to justify repression. As former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif put it in November, Iranians are “tired of paying the price” for the regime’s confrontational approach to Israel. Such sentiments clearly worry Khamenei, who in a recent speech accused the West of promoting a “sense of hopelessness, particularly among the younger generation,” many of whom, he admitted, are asking “what’s the use of participating in elections?” Khamenei does not have a good answer to his own question.

Strange as it may seem, the intensifying dispute between the White House and Netanyahu on this issue of a Gaza ceasefire—and on the broader issue of a Palestinian state—could help Iran climb out of the strategic and political hole it has dug for itself. Indeed, because Khamenei’s paramount concern is the survival of the regime, he may try to shield the axis of resistance from the perils of uncontrolled regional escalation by accepting some kind of diplomatic compromise. Whether US President Joe Biden can deliver this is another question.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/Khamenei