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How Iran is Winning, One Attack at a Time


Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, USN (ret), served as Commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Commander of the 32 Nation Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East. In those roles he led teams that planned and executed joint and combined combat, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations at sea and in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for the Middle East. As the DASD, he was responsible for defense policy for 15 countries and represented the Department of Defense of national policy in that area. He is also a retired CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer in the Special Activities Center and a United States Marine. He is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East Institute, an ABC News National Security Analyst, and a Co-founder of Lobo Institute.

View all articles by Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy

Michael Nagata retired from the US Army in 2019 after 38 years of Active Duty, with 34 years in US Special Operations. His final position was Director of Strategy for the National Counterterrorism Center from 2016 to 2019. Nagata served as Commander of US Special Operations Command-Central, and was responsible for Special Operations across the Central Command region from 2013 to 2015, and was heavily involved in the first two years of combat operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

View all articles by Michael Nagata

General Joseph Votel is President and CEO of BENS, a position he assumed following a 39-year military career, during which time he served as Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Staff Special Operations Command.  He notably led the 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State Caliphate.

View all articles by N. Joseph Votel

Bilal Y. Saab is a former Senior Advisor for Security Cooperation in the Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, with oversight responsibilities for U.S. Central Command. He is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI) and is the author of Rebuilding Arab Defense: U.S. Security Cooperation in the Middle East, to be released in 2022.

View all articles by X. Bilal Y. Saab

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — This week, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement confirming that “U.S. forces at Al Dhafra Air Base, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), engaged two inbound missile threats with multiple Patriot interceptors coincident to efforts by the armed forces of the UAE in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, 2022. The combined efforts successfully prevented both missiles from impacting the base. There were no U.S. casualties.”

A few weeks before that, military bases in Iraq and Syria that house U.S. troops also were attacked. In December of last year, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was hit when two rockets landed in the Green Zone. Luckily, like the Jan. 24 Houthi attack on the UAE, there were no U.S. casualties (though the Houthi strike of Jan. 17 did kill two Indian nationals and one Pakistani).

What these attacks and many others in the region have in common is Iran’s irrefutable involvement. They may have different local contexts and their perpetrators, all loyal to Iran, may have different motivations, but every single one of those attacks was possible only because Iran provided either the weapons or the know-how to assemble and use them.

This network of Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, and possibly elsewhere is what makes Tehran so deadly in the region. It’s a clever method of power projection, honed over decades, because it allows the Iranians to weaken their adversaries and achieve their strategic aims with the fewest costs possible. Iran will fight to the last Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese, and Bahraini.

The Iranians have every intention of continuing to rely on their indirect approach because it has paid strategic dividends. Their hope is that we will continue to play their game and go after only their proxies whenever we are attacked. In the case of the Houthis, for example, Tehran expects us and our regional partners to hit the Houthis — and only the Houthis — every time they lob missiles at Al Dhafra. And in many ways, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. In January 2020, we did eliminate Iran’s top military commander and architect of this proxy network, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, but we were careful to do it in the region, not on Iranian soil.

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U.S. kinetic strikes on Iranian proxies, while necessary, clearly are insufficient. Simply put, there are more militias under Iran’s command in the region than there are American bombs. To reestablish deterrence against Iran, we have to place our tactical/operational activities, at which we’re incredibly effective, at the service of a broader strategy. We need to make it clear to the Iranians that their asymmetric playbook, especially when it targets U.S. personnel and interests, has a steep price.

We’ve communicated those red lines before, and successfully so. In Iraq, we held Iran accountable for the attacks its Iraqi proxies often perpetrated against our troops using improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs) and explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). Those tools killed at least 196 American soldiers and wounded nearly 900 between 2005 and 2011.

But now, it’s not IRAMs and EFPs that Iran is providing, it’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and weaponized unmanned aerial systems (UASs). Those are much more powerful weapons of war that could cause considerable physical damage to cities and critical infrastructure and kill a lot of people.

We have to nip this Iranian tactic in the bud before things really escalate — or next time we might not be so lucky and those missiles could lead to significant casualties. This is not just about defending our partners, as crucial as that responsibility is. This is about protecting our own military and diplomatic personnel in the region, as well as our core interests in that still vital part of the world to global commerce and international security.

It’s never an easy conversation when we discuss any potential use of force. But we’re under attack, quite literally and regularly, and nuclear diplomacy alone, no matter what happens in the talks in Vienna, will not fix or effectively manage this growing problem. We have every right to defend ourselves and our collective security interests.

From an operational standpoint, this requires consulting our carefully crafted Iran target list. We don’t need to specify to the Iranians what we would hit inside Iran, or how, if they attack us again, but it’s vital that we communicate that threat credibly. The worst thing we could possibly do is issue that threat but fail to follow through. Our credibility in the region has already been jeopardized over the years because of the lack of U.S. response to various acts of aggression and intimidation by Iran. Let’s at least not further weaken it and ideally bolster it partly through the measures described above.

In addition to sending a crystal-clear message to Tehran about the consequences of another potential attack (this is the deterrence-by-punishment element), we need to upgrade our defenses (this is the deterrence-by-denial element). We can do that by establishing a fusion cell based on the Houthi missile and UAS threat to provide Gulf Arab partners intelligence of activities that are a precursor to future attacks along with a real-time warning of the launch of those attacks.

We currently have a fusion cell with the Emiratis, but it is focused on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, not the Houthis. Creating this cell will require U.S. resources, but nothing we cannot afford or that would distract from security priorities in other key theaters. Such resources could include two or three Predator tails and other national intelligence assets that would provide persistent, high-quality intelligence and warning of planned or impending attacks on U.S. personnel and bases or on those of our Saudi and Emirati partners.

More broadly speaking, while immediate tactical solutions to help our regional partners deal with Houthi attacks are required, only the United States can create the kind of sophisticated regional enterprise, both military and non-military, necessary to confront the rapidly growing power of Iranian proxies across the region, including the Houthis. The question is whether Washington has the political appetite to do any of this.

There are American voices who might call such potential U.S. responses escalatory, even reckless. While there’s always risk in any U.S. response that could include the use of force, the risk of inaction is far greater because it will invite further Iranian aggression, at which point it would be virtually impossible for the United States not to strike the Iranians hard and deep.

It is precisely such a scenario we should try to prevent, and it all starts with reestablishing deterrence. Most important of all in this equation — something more risk-averse advocates should never forget — is that Iran is the aggressor and it still has a say over what we choose to do. It can decide to stop its strategic weapons shipments to its proxies and deescalate, or it can continue with its vastly irresponsible approach but suffer the consequences.

This piece was first published by the Washington-based think tank MEI

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