Operating in the
‘Gray Zone’ to Counter Iran
The Washington Institute
The combined drone/cruise missile strike against key Saudi
oil facilities on September 14 marks the most audacious in a series of Iranian
asymmetric “gray zone” operations since May, all intended to counter
Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy. These operations can be expected
to continue as long as the United States focuses on driving Iranian oil exports
to zero; for this reason, President Trump’s decision to double-down on
sanctions after the strike will likely exacerbate matters. At the same time, if
Washington does not impose a military cost on Tehran for such actions, the
regime will continue to escalate, with negative repercussions for the U.S.
economy, American credibility, and regional stability. Understanding Tehran’s
gray zone strategy, and learning how to operate in the gray zone against Iran,
is therefore necessary if further escalation is to be avoided.
IRAN’S GRAY ZONE ACTIVITIES
Countries like Iran, Russia, and China often operate in the
gray zone between war and peace in order to challenge the status quo while
managing risk. They create ambiguity regarding objectives (through incremental
action) and attribution (through deniable covert, or proxy activities), thereby
creating uncertainty about how to respond. The proliferation of gray zone
conflicts worldwide is partly a result of America’s adherence to a binary
conception of war and peace. Grounded in Western cultural and legal traditions,
this dualism enables actors like Iran to operate with relative impunity “in
Tehran’s gray zone strategy is partly rooted in the
trauma of the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, the regime has gone to great lengths to
avoid conventional wars because it knows how bloody and costly they can be. For
example, even at the height of the Syria war, it deployed less than 1 percent of
its ground forces to the battlefield and offloaded many of the risks and burdens
onto its Shia “foreign legion” in order to minimize its own losses.
This is why Iran probes and tests limits, then backs down
if it encounters a firm response—though only temporarily. It uses indirect
means (e.g., damaging ships with mines) and foreign proxies (e.g., Hezbollah) to
create standoff and deniability while avoiding decisive engagement. It
emphasizes proportional responses to make interactions more predictable. It
paces its operations to control their tempo and flow so that events do not spin
out of control. And it often protracts conflicts to exploit the motivational
asymmetries that give it an edge in prolonged struggles. Tehran’s reliance on
nonlethal approaches in recent gray zone activities is further evidence that
risk management remains a priority. Escalation is still possible, but full-scale
war seems highly unlikely—unless the United States opts for it.
AN AMERICAN GRAY ZONE STRATEGY
Pursuing a gray zone strategy of its own represents
Washington’s best chance of avoiding significant escalation while buying time
for its pressure campaign to work. U.S. policymakers need to abandon the notion
that Tehran has a high tolerance for risks and costs, and that the path from
local clash to regional war is a short one. (Though that could change if
Washington pushes Iran further into a corner with intensified oil sanctions,
which the regime views as a potential threat to its hold on power.) They also
need to abandon certain ingrained habits of thought and action that are central
to the American way of war but inimical to success in the gray zone, such as a
preference for overwhelming force and rapid, decisive action.
What would an American gray zone strategy look like? The
following elements are essential:
Bolster credibility and deterrence. Forty years
of experience has taught Tehran that it can conduct gray zone activities
(including lethal operations) against American interests without risking a U.S.
military response. Lacking credibility, Washington has frequently
failed to deter the regime. Bolstering U.S. deterrence is therefore
central to defusing Tehran’s counter-pressure campaign. This means responding
to Iran’s probes and provocations in the region in order to show that
Washington is now more acceptant of risk than in the past. It also means not
crossing Tehran’s redlines, as intensified efforts to drive the country’s
oil exports to zero will likely spur even more forceful responses.
Employ covert/deniable action. Plausible
deniability works both ways. The United States should respond in-kind to Iranian
actions, using nonlethal ripostes to impose material costs. It should not
conduct lethal operations unless American blood has been shed. In addition to
its intrinsic benefits, covert action is much less likely to unnerve Americans
and allies who fear the administration seeks war with Iran. Just as the Abqaiq
strike demonstrated the vulnerability
of Saudi oil facilities, Iran’s own oil industry is vulnerable to
sabotage, cyberattacks, and precision strikes that could threaten its current
export flow of several hundred thousand barrels per day. Around 90 percent of
these exports go through a single oil terminal, Kharg Island. Fires and
accidents are not uncommon at petrochemical facilities even under normal
circumstances, so a well-executed covert operation at Kharg could be both
plausibly denied and quite costly to Iran. This possibility should give the
Balance restraint and proportionality. Undue
restraint can increase escalation risks by inviting new challenges. Conversely,
abandoning restraint and opting for escalation can unnecessarily increase U.S.
risks while engendering domestic and foreign opposition to further action. To
avoid each of these scenarios, Washington should respond proportionally to
Iranian actions, just as Tehran does when confronted with threats, while
ensuring that it targets assets the regime truly values.
Increase uncertainty, impose costs. In
responding to challenges, Washington often acts predictably, making it easier
for opponents to assess the risks and limit the costs of testing the United
States. Instead, it should respond unpredictably by not limiting itself to
targeting assets involved in a given provocation. And it should ensure that
Tehran gets worse than it gives in these exchanges. Doing so may induce the
regime to act with greater caution.
Alter incentive structures. A hostile regime
fighting for its survival will always be more willing to take risks than a U.S.
administration merely pursuing the national interest. Thus, it is critical to
avoid cornering Tehran. This may mean tolerating a degree of leakage in U.S. oil
sanctions, thereby reducing Iran’s incentive to engage in destabilizing
activities. Such a sanctions policy would complement rather than undermine
efforts to manage escalation. The president’s decision to further strengthen
sanctions after the strike on Saudi Arabia will likely complicate this task.
Go long, not big. In gray zone competitions,
advantage is often achieved by incremental, cumulative gains rather than rapid,
decisive action. Washington should therefore resist the desire to escalate in
order to achieve quick results. Yet these tenets may clash with President
Trump’s desire to forge a new agreement with Iran before the end of his term.
That is, it may not be possible to square his high-pressure approach to
catalyzing negotiations with his desire to avoid escalation. In fact, doubling
down on the pressure campaign might escalate the situation and scuttle
any prospect for negotiations.
Broaden gray zone options. To further limit the
potential for escalation, the United States should develop novel operational
approaches using electronic warfare, offensive cyber weapons, and unmanned
vehicles. It should also consider the pros and cons of expanding its geographic
arena of action.
Act on multiple fronts. Tehran generally
eschews escalation on two or more fronts simultaneously; when under pressure on
one front, it tends to back off on another. Accordingly, the United States
should work with regional partners like Israel—which is already striking
Iranian targets abroad—and Saudi Arabia to pressure Tehran from multiple
An effective U.S. gray zone strategy could help blunt
Iran’s counter-pressure campaign, constrain its ability to engage in
destabilizing regional activities, and dissuade it from eventually attempting a slow-motion
nuclear breakout. Conversely, failure to pursue such a strategy could
embolden Tehran on all of these fronts. More fundamentally, if the United States
does not operate successfully in the gray zone against a third-tier power like
Iran, this will raise questions about its ability to counter much more capable
actors like Russia and China in the years to come.
Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of
the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.