How Iran wins, one attack at a time

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — This week, US Central Command (CENTCOM) made a statement confirming that “U.S. forces at Al Dhafra Air Base, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), repelled two missile threats with multiple Patriot interceptors, coinciding with UAE military efforts in the early morning hours of January. October 24, 2022 Joint efforts prevented both missiles from hitting the base. There were no American casualties.”

A few weeks earlier, military bases in Iraq and Syria, where US troops are stationed, were also attacked. Last December, the US embassy in Baghdad was hit when two rockets landed in the Green Zone. Fortunately, as in the Houthi attack on the UAE on January 24, there were no losses from the United States (although two Indian citizens and one Pakistani did die as a result of the Houthi strike on January 17).

What these attacks and many others in the region have in common is the undeniable involvement of Iran. They may have different local contexts and their perpetrators, all loyal to Iran, may have different motives, but each of these attacks was only possible because Iran provided either the weapon or the know-how to assemble and use it.

This network of Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain and perhaps elsewhere is what makes Tehran so deadly in the region. It is a skillful method of power projection honed over decades because it allows the Iranians to weaken their adversaries and achieve their strategic goals at the lowest possible cost. Iran will fight to the last Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese and Bahraini.

The Iranians are determined to continue relying on their indirect approach because it pays strategic dividends. They hope that we will continue to play their game and only go after their proxies whenever we are attacked. In the case of the Houthis, for example, Tehran expects us and our regional partners to strike at the Houthis – and only at the Houthis – every time they fire rockets at al-Dhafra. And in many ways, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. In January 2020, we did eliminate General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military leader and the architect of this proxy network, but we tried to do it in the region and not on Iranian soil.


Cipher Brief Subscriber+ members receive exclusive expert briefings from members of our expert network. Go Subscribe + Today

Join us on Wednesday, February 2 for a briefing on US business opportunities in the Middle East with cipher expert Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan (ret.).


Kinetic US strikes against Iranian proteges, although necessary, are clearly insufficient. Simply put, there are more militias under Iranian command in the region than American bombs. In order to restore deterrence against Iran, we must put our tactical/operational activities, in which we are incredibly effective, at the service of a broader strategy. We must make it clear to the Iranians that their asymmetric course of action, especially when it targets US personnel and interests, comes at a high cost.

We have reported these red lines before, and successfully. In Iraq, we have blamed Iran for attacks that its Iraqi proxies have frequently carried out against our forces using Improvised Rocket Munitions (IRAM) and Explosive Penetrators (EFP). These tools killed at least 196 US soldiers and injured about 900 people between 2005 and 2011.

But now Iran is not supplying IRAM and EFP, but ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS). It is a much more powerful weapon of war that can cause significant physical damage to cities and critical infrastructure and kill many people.

We need to nip these Iranian tactics in the bud before things really escalate, otherwise we might not be lucky next time and those missiles could cause significant casualties. It’s not just about protecting our partners, however important that responsibility may be. It is about protecting our own military and diplomatic personnel in the region, as well as our core interests in this still vital part of the world for global trade and international security.

When we discuss any potential use of force, the conversation is never easy. But we are being attacked, literally and regularly, and by nuclear diplomacy alone, whatever happens at the talks in Vienna cannot be fixed or dealt with effectively. growing problem. We have every right to defend ourselves and our collective security interests.

From an operational standpoint, this requires checking against our carefully crafted list of targets in Iran. We do not need to tell the Iranians that we will strike inside Iran or how if they attack us again, but it is vital that we communicate this threat. reliably. The worst thing we could do is to release this threat and not carry it out. Our trust in the region has already been compromised over the years by the lack of US response to various acts of aggression and intimidation by Iran. let’s at least not farther weaken it, and ideally partially strengthen it with the help of the measures described above.

In addition to sending a crystal clear message to Tehran about the consequences of another potential attack (this is deterrence through punishment), we need to modernize our defenses (this is deterrence through denial). We can do this by creating a synthesis team based on the Houthi missiles and the UAV threat to provide partners in the Arab Gulf countries with intelligence on actions that are harbingers of future attacks, as well as real-time warning of the beginning of these attacks.

We currently have an unified cell with the Emirates, but it is focused on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, not the Houthis. Building this cell will require US resources, but nothing that we can’t afford or detract from security priorities in other key theaters of operations. Such resources may include two or three Predator tails and other national intelligence resources that will provide continuous high-quality intelligence and warning of planned or impending attacks on US personnel and bases or our partners in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

More broadly, while immediate tactical decisions are needed to help our regional partners deal with Houthi attacks, only the United States can put together the sophisticated regional enterprise, both military and non-military, needed to counter the rapidly growing power of Iranian proxies. throughout the region, including the Houthis. The question is, does Washington have political desire to do any of it.

There are voices of Americans who might call such a potential US reaction escalation and even recklessness. While any U.S. response, which may include the use of force, is always risky, the risk of inaction is much higher because it will provoke further Iranian aggression, at which point it will be almost impossible for the United States not to hit the Iranians hard. deep.

This is the scenario we must try to prevent, and it all starts with the restoration of containment. The most important thing in this equation – which the more risk-averse supporters should never forget – is that Iran is the aggressor, and it still has a say in what we decide to do. He may decide to cut off the supply of strategic weapons to his proxies and de-escalate, or he may continue his utterly irresponsible approach but suffer the consequences.

This article was first published by a Washington think tank. MPEI

Join Cyber ​​Initiatives Group for the first summit of 2022 with a director including General Keith Alexander, Hon. Susan Gordon, Dmitry Alperovich, General David Petraeus, CISA Founding Director Chris Krebs and others. Registration for this virtual event on February 9th is free. Get ready to think differently. Book your seat today.

Learn more about expert findings, perspectives and national security analysis in The Cipher Brief

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.