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The US Is Trying to Restore Deterrence in the Gulf. That Won’t be Enough

Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a security dilemma. Here are some potential ways out.

The United States’ ability to deter Iran in the Gulf is collapsing, as shown by an escalating series of violent actions either known or suspected to be Iranian. U.S. officials have responded with sensible steps that are largely consistent with scholarly insights on deterrence theory. But even if they manage to restore deterrence, it will provide only a temporary respite to the primary source of instability in the Gulf: the security dilemma confronting Saudi Arabia and Iran. U.S. policymakers must address this more fundamental issue, lest the region arrive at a “1914 moment” and careen into war.

Recalibrating a failed U.S. deterrence policy

As global tensions escalated in the wake of the Sept. 14 missile and drone strikes on the oil refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford held a rare and unscheduled press conference on Sept. 21. World leaders were anxiously awaiting an outline of America’s planned military response to what the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had declared “an act of war” by leaders in Tehran. 

Few would have been surprised if President Trump ordered missile and airstrikes on Iranian military or oil facilities, given that the president had in June approved (though at the last minute called off) strikes on Iranian targets after the downing of a U.S. drone. Indeed, American military strikes against Iran would have been entirely consistent with a strategy of deterrence-by-punishment. In other words, in order to reinstate deterrence and prevent further escalation, U.S. leaders would act immediately and decisively to demonstrate America’s willingness and capacity to impose direct and mounting costs on Iranian leaders in Tehran should they continue to undertake actions injurious to U.S. or allied interests.

Instead, Esper and Dunford announced a largely defensive response that more closely reflected a strategy of deterrence-by-denial. Instead of imposing visible punishment on Iran, the United States chose to bolster the defenses of Saudi Arabia and other allies in a bid to reduce the prospects of Iranian success in future strikes. RAND researcher Michael Mazarr notes that classic studies of deterrence theories and historical practice suggest that “denial strategies are inherently more reliable than punishment strategies.” Moreover, denial strategies minimize the risks of escalation inherent in deterrence-by-punishment strategies whose credibility depends on delivering punishment when challenged.

This deterrence-by-denial logic is also reflected in the cyberattacks on Iran ordered by the current administration and its two predecessors. Bush began and Obama intensified cyber efforts to disable Iranian centrifuges that were enriching uranium; some U.S. officials claim to have set back the Iranian nuclear program up to two years. Cyberattacks also figured in President Trump’s response to the June downing of a U.S. drone over the Gulf: he rejected his advisors’ universal recommendations for direct strikes, and instead ordered cyberattacks to degrade the computers, intelligence systems, and missiles that enable Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping. President Trump is considering similar cyberstrikes in response to the Sept. 14 oil attacks — and as a way to restore U.S. deterrence while avoiding the risks of further escalation inherent in kinetic strikes. 

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Of course, these deterrence-by-denial steps do not foreclose the options of a more aggressive American military response down the road. Since May, U.S. defense officials have announced several military deployments to the region, including the addition of a carrier strike group, bombers, missile defense units, and multiple ground troop deployments aimed at bolstering the offensive and defensive capabilities of U.S. and allied forces alike. While hardliners in Tehran may doubt the credibility of the threat of direct U.S. military strikes — President Trump has often expressed a desire to “avoid entangling his presidency in another messy military conflict in the Middle East,” as Brookings’ Iran expert Suzanne Maloney puts it — there can be no denying the physical capacity of the United States military to inflict tremendous damage on Iran. Bridging this credibility gap will remain the central critical challenge for U.S. policymakers as they work to restore deterrence.

The Gulf’s security dilemma

 But even if the United States restores its ability to deter Iran from unwanted behavior, and even if this leads to the negotiations that leaders in both Washington and Tehran claim to seek, a failure to address the basic security dilemma confronting Saudi Arabia and Iran will simply leave the region perched on its perpetual knife’s edge. Both sides must ultimately aim to identify concrete steps that Iran, the Arab Gulf states, and outside actors can take to ease the fears and mistrust that fuel sectarian divisions, competition, and conflict.

Arab fears of Iranian hegemony have steadily grown since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought a militant Shi’a clerical regime to power in Tehran. Iranian political, financial, and military support to Shi’a proxy groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have been cited as evidence that Iran is now in control of four Arab capitals. These claims wildly exaggerate the influence wielded by clerics in Tehran, but they nonetheless accurately reflect the sectarian fears permeating much of the region.  These fears have led Arab Gulf leaders to reckless behavior. Witness Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, which has produced the world’s largest humanitarian disaster while providing Iran a pretext for deepening and expanding its engagement in Saudi Arabia’s strategic backyard.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders see themselves as an isolated and victimized Persian and Shi’a minority in a region dominated by Sunni Arab leaders who are backed politically, financially, and militarily by the world’s most powerful state. They note that the defense budget of Saudi Arabia alone is nearly four times that of Iran. And they have for decades chafed under U.S. and multilateral sanctions — economic, financial, and military — meant to limit Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, hobble its conventional military, and curb its support to terrorist groups and sectarian militias. 

Failing to address the security dilemma

In different ways and through different means, Presidents Obama and Trump have tried but failed to ease this security dilemma.

President Obama and the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) undoubtedly viewed this nuclear deal as way to reassure Arab Gulf allies that Iran could not go nuclear for a decade or more. But it also reassured Iranian leaders by recognizing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium (within specified limits and under strict international supervision) and throwing them an economic lifeline by lifting U.S. sanctions and allowing much-needed foreign investment. 

The deal was necessarily imperfect. Some of the restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear program expire over time. The agreement expressly did not address Iran’s ballistic-missile efforts, its support for regional proxies, and other troubling Iranian behavior. Nonetheless, the curbs on Iran’s nuclear programs were substantial, the inspections regime was intrusive, and inspections would be conducted on a permanent basis. Moreover, many of the U.S. and multilateral sanctions targeting Iran’s missile programs and support to terrorist groups remained in place or were actually strengthened.

Nonetheless, Arab Gulf leaders were concerned that this nuclear deal would leave Iran free to sow  instability throughout the region through other means. They also feared such a deal could eventually lead to a U.S. rapprochement with Iran that threatened their privileged position in U.S regional strategies. In their nightmares, these leaders likely feared that this would be a first step toward Washington’s unqualified embrace of Iran as a legitimate regional power — as during the decades-long reign of the Shah. 

If that seems far-fetched or far-off, recall that several other trends in U.S. security policy have been raising alarms in Arab capitals: the growing U.S. strategic focus on Asia, withdrawals of U.S. military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a 2017 National Defense Strategy emphasizing great power competition with China and Russia. Taken together, they were viewed as confirmation that the decades-long U.S. security commitment to the region was evaporating before their eyes. 

Upon taking office, President Trump took several quick steps intended to reassure the Arab Gulf states. He made his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia, where he trumpeted the sale of billions of dollars of American weapons and blamed Iran for fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” He withdrew from the JCPOA, reimposed tough U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, and loudly demanded that Tehran end nuclear enrichment, terminate its ballistic missile program, and stop supporting proxy forces. He appointed as key security advisors several virulent critics of Iran, including Mike Pompeo, James Mattis, and John Bolton, and announced a strategy of “maximum pressure.” Moreover, Trump remained mute as Arab leaders arrested, imprisoned or executed thousands of political opponents, journalists, and human rights workers — reassuring these regimes that America would give them a free hand to solidify their authoritarian control. 

As a whole, these steps should have gone a long way to reassure America’s traditional allies and minimize the security fears and concerns from the Arab side of the Gulf. Yet quite predictably, they inflamed fears in Tehran. The renewed sanctions in particular have backed Iranian leaders into a corner from which they have come out fighting. President Rouhani’s pledges to improve the economy have collapsed due to the lack of government revenues, absence of foreign investment, rising inflation, and growing unemployment. Meanwhile, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has strengthened the position of hardliners who claim that Iranian concessions at the negotiating table have unnecessarily endangered Iranian national security by making the country more vulnerable to Western exploitation and pressures. Moreover, they remain suspicious that the real U.S. objective is to cause the collapse of the Islamic theocracy in Tehran. This sense of exposure and vulnerability has led Iranian leaders to replace their initial strategy of “patience” with one of “maximum resistance” that seeks to raise the costs of America’s own strategy, highlight the vulnerability of Gulf infrastructure and international shipping to Iranian attacks, and boost Iranian leverage should negotiations be renewed.

Mitigating the security dilemma — for real this time

This explosive strategic context means that U.S. policymakers need not only to restore effective deterrence but to mitigate the underlying security dilemma. 

President Obama was correct when he suggested that for violence to end and regional stability to return, Saudi Arabia and Iran would need to find a way to “share the neighborhood.” Just as U.S. policy seeks to address the justifiable security concerns of the Arab Gulf states, it must also strive to ease Iranian perceptions of its vulnerabilities in a way that minimizes the security dilemma from both sides of the Gulf. The ultimate goal of such an approach should be the inclusion of Iran into a regional security architecture that provides assurances and reduces vulnerabilities both for the Arab Gulf states, but also for Iran. Former Central Intelligence Agency senior Middle East analyst Emile Nakhleh similarly observes that “security collaboration between Riyadh and Tehran is necessary for the long-term security of the Gulf.”

Small confidence-building steps could help reduce the temperature in the region. For example, the United States might allow Iran to resume limited oil exports in exchange for returning to full compliance with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions. 

Another step would be supporting the efforts of the United Nations Special Envoy to end the conflict in Yemen. A political resolution allowing the rebelling Houthi minority an acceptable role in governance would at once reduce their need for Iranian military support and provide the Saudis an exit ramp from an expensive and exhausting conflict.

Just as Gulf Arab states fear Iran’s ballistic missiles, so Tehran is concerned with Arab air forces with offensive strike capability. U.S. military sales to the Gulf States should emphasize the strengthening of purely defensive capabilities — specifically, missile defenses — while avoiding significant improvements to the offensive military capabilities of Arab Gulf states. This can and should be done in conjunction with comparable Russian and Chinese efforts to do the same in their arms sales to Iran, Syria, or other countries in the region. U.S. international diplomacy should push for strict adherence to export limitations on all regional programs consistent with the existing Missile Technology Control Regime. Iran already adheres to a self-imposed range limitation of 2,000 kilometers  for its ballistic missiles. Through negotiations, Iran might be persuaded to concede additional restrictions on the sophistication, deployment, and ranges of its missiles in exchange for firm commitments to ease specific U.S. economic and military sanctions.

To facilitate freedom of navigation in the Hormuz Strait, the U.S. could invite Iranian conventional naval forces to participate in joint multinational patrols of this vital international waterway. Iran should be first required to adhere to international standards of conduct at sea similar to the “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Seas Agreement” negotiated in 2014 to prevent unintended altercations in the Pacific and since joined by more than 20 countries including the United States and China. The current U.S. effort to marshal an international naval coalition (“Operation Sentinel”) in the Gulf has thus far failed to attract key allied support from even traditional Western allies like France and Germany and consequently needs to be rebranded to attract broader support. Participation by other partners with a vested interest in Gulf security could include Russia and China, both of whom could help curb Iranian misbehavior. And if the U.S. fails to take the lead in this area, others will forge security arrangements that do not take U.S. interests into account. Already, the United Arab Emirates has begun direct military-to-military engagement with Iran in order to better manage the risk of unintentional escalation.

Additionally, the history of conventional arms control in Europe might be explored for models on the conduct of joint inspections regimes, the establishment of mutual confidence building measures, and the imposition of verifiable limitations on the deployment of conventional ground, air or missile forces in the region. Improved transparency along these lines could usefully reduce the sense of uncertainty and vulnerability currently aggravating the security dilemma.

These security issues are difficult, but managing proxies and cyberwarfare are likely to prove even more daunting. The shadowy and covert nature of these activities make transparency and accountability more difficult. Nonetheless, there might be an opportunity for the United States, Russia, and China to press their respective allies to impose restrictions and limitations on the scope, type, and extent of assistance offered to proxy groups. Incentives such as easing military sanctions on Iran might also be exchanged for Iranian limits on military technologies and weapons provided to its proxies in order to reduce the threats they pose to U.S. allies. Lastly, the Middle East might provide a testbed for the United States to lead an international effort to establish a set of mutually agreed norms of behavior to guide the conduct of cyberwarfare, as my colleague has recently suggested the U.S. could also usefully do to better manage proxy warfare. 

All of these recommendations carry risks. None will be easy to implement. None will guarantee success. However, failing to more effectively address the Saudi-Iran security dilemma from both sides of the Gulf risks a devastating war that could push a struggling region to the brink of catastrophe and collapse.