The U.S. Will Not Tolerate the Israel-Gaza Paradigm in Iraq
U.S. personnel—in Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi government—have of late been introduced to a type of violence that Israelis—especially in the Gaza border envelope—have been subjected to for nearly two decades. In both cases, Iranian backed militants fire cheap and mobile missiles, which have little operational or tactical value but can be an effective strategic tool. The strategy is to degrade the opponent’s will to fight while boosting their prestige through constant harassment and a slow but steady stream of damage and casualties. It has the added advantage of allowing Iran to set the pace of operations. Israel has pursued a management strategy to counter this type of attrition, but it assumes and permits a status-quo of near-constant low-level attacks. The U.S. looked poised to accept this status-quo against its assets in Iraq as well but shattered the paradigm with the killing of Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. With this disproportionate response (not ethically but strategically), the U.S. made it clear that it would not accept a constant baseline of low-level but escalating attacks on U.S. positions. It would not accept the military paradigm that Israel accepts vis-à-vis Gaza based militants.
In an episode of the hit series West Wing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed a proportional response to an attack on U.S. personnel. The fictional president rejected this, stating that an enemy expects a response before they take action. They make a cost-benefit assessment and decide to proceed if they are willing to pay the anticipated price. The fictional president instead advises an unpredictable and disproportionate response to make the enemy think twice, fearing a high cost for aggression. This is what the U.S. did by killing Soleimani, and what Israel has largely avoided doing in Gaza. In essence, it is harder to completely deter an enemy if they accept the expected costs from specific types of aggression.
Deterrence works by signaling to an enemy that they might pay an intolerable price should they exceed a certain level of aggression. Aggression below that threshold can be deemed fair game. If an enemy believes that they can secure strategic objectives with tolerable costs through low-level aggression, they may pursue such a course. The threshold is never perfectly clear, even if there is a stated “red line.” Like Obama’s 2012 threat to Assad regarding the use of chemical weapons, leaders have backed off from red lines, and their opponents have pushed the envelope, testing how much aggression their adversary will tolerate. If a leader wishes to avoid this situation, they must make it unambiguously clear that the cost-benefit calculation for low-level aggression is not in its enemy’s favor. The U.S. has done this in Iraq; Israel has failed to do so in Gaza.
Despite significant contextual differences, U.S. personnel in Iraq contend with a similar type of threat to Israel’s military and population—primarily in the Gaza envelope. Both face low-level aggression by Iranian sponsored militias that sporadically fire non-precision missiles at their personnel. Israel’s strategy is to manage the situation at a low-level of aggression with passive and active defense and partial/weak deterrence— because it is short-term by nature and frequently tested.
Defense is, by nature, a failure of deterrence; it is blocking an attack that would not have occurred had deterrence succeeded. Deterrence is clearly preferable because no attack is less dangerous, disruptive and expensive than blocking an attack. Strong deterrence is the best option short of the as-of-now unrealistic blossoming of peace between Israel and its opponents and the U.S. and Iran.
Deterrence requires signaling both capabilities and resolve. Iran understands that it is asymmetrically weaker than the U.S., but until recently, it doubted U.S. resolve. Israel and the Gazan militants have a similar dynamic. Iran believed that it could secure complete control of Iraq by driving out U.S. forces that are stationed there at the behest of the Iraqi government to fight ISIS. General Soleimani wagered that Iran could achieve this by ramping up a steady stream of proxy attacks on U.S. forces. The goal was to harass U.S. forces until they withdraw in exasperation while boosting the clout of Iran’s constellation of proxies and the Quds Force in general. This strategy followed the understanding that the U.S. would at most respond proportionally against those proxies, similar to Israel’s general modus operandi against Gazan militants. Iran’s proxies in Gaza (Hamas and PIJ) sporadically fire rockets at Israel—which usually responds by targeting infrastructure but not personnel—in a way careful to minimize the risk for escalation. The U.S. fostered Iran’s belief in a similarly muted U.S. response to low-level aggression after the tough-talking Trump administration failed to respond kinetically to an escalating series of Iranian attacks.
Soleimani’s killing showed that Iran miscalculated. The U.S. does not have Israel’s incentives to tolerate low-level aggression. Unlike Israel, whose population and economy are severely threatened in the event of a major war with Iranian backed militants in Gaza or Lebanon, Iranian proxies cannot readily target the U.S. homeland or severely impact its economy. The U.S. also does not have Israel’s management capabilities. It does not have a comprehensive air and missile defense system for its troops and assets in Iraq. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Iran thought it could harass the U.S. into withdrawing. However, like Israel in Operation Cast Lead, before it had Iron Dome, with management off the table, withdrawal is not the only remaining option. An asymmetrically, stronger state can also use the iron fist.
The U.S. could withdraw from Iraq, but unlike for Israel, the costs of escalation are not as high while withdrawal due to Iranian sponsored aggression would cement the view of the U.S. as a “paper tiger” among enemies and allies alike and spell the end of its “maximum pressure” strategy. Indeed, this allegation was increasingly made as the U.S. failed to respond kinetically to Iranian aggression against international shipping, downing a U.S. drone in international airspace, its ostentatious attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, and at least five rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq since October 2019.
If the U.S. was more risk averse, but still determined to maintain military operations in Iraq, it could adopt Israel’s approach and invest heavily in passive and active defenses, but that strategy, like in Israel’s case, signals a lack of resolve to undertake aggressive action. Why escalate when you can block satisfactorily and with less risk? A defensive approach would create high costs for the U.S. and benefit Iran, whose proxies could gain prestige by firing at the powerful U.S. with impunity.
If the U.S. decided to copy Israel’s management approach, it would spend vast sums to build defensive infrastructure with the unstated understanding that U.S. personnel would face a regular stream of rocket attacks that cause damage, sporadic casualties and overall disruption. Instead, the U.S. opted to signal that it would not tolerate the development of a situation similar to Israel’s south, where sporadic firing is the accepted norm. While missile, IED, and sniper attacks have often killed Israeli soldiers and civilians without sparking an intense escalation or a high profile assassination of Hamas or PIJ’s Iranian patrons, the U.S. made it very clear, kill one U.S. citizen, attack the U.S. embassy, and the U.S. will target the puppet master. President Trump’s killing of Soleimani sent the message that Iran can no longer hide behind its proxies and that the U.S. will not tolerate a low-level attrition campaign directed by Iran.
While the U.S. decision to kill Soleimani (among other proxy leadership), clearly sent the message that the U.S. would not permit a Gaza-esque status quo for its assets in Iraq, the move has potential for escalation. Iran will want to salvage its reputation as best it can. Iran's retaliation will be aimed at saving face. This requires it to walk a fine line between an attack that is too weak to revive its reputation and one that invites a devastating U.S. response. The U.S. seems to have made it clear that it will respond forcefully to an attack that kills a U.S. citizen, but Iran is left to wonder what kind of attack on U.S. allies, partners, and infrastructure will trigger a response that Iran will not have been willing to absorb. Furthermore, any kinetic Iranian retaliation has the potential for accidental escalation, perhaps by inadvertently killing U.S. personnel.
Iran’s leader probably assumes that President Trump is not seeking war. However, Trump’s recent tweet, laying out a specific response against 52 targets, put the U.S. reputation firmly on the line in what the strategic studies community calls a “costly signal.” Costly signaling can be dangerous because it increases the reputational cost if the U.S. backs down, but it is precisely through raising the stakes that it increases the credibility of a deterrent threat.
As Iran threatens retaliation, it and the U.S. are locked in an asymmetric game of Chicken where neither side wants war, but each wants the other to back down. Iran wants the U.S. to absorb a retaliation without going to war, and the U.S. wants Iran to absorb Soleimani’s slaying without a meaningful retaliation.
If the U.S. is going to play Chicken, it must ensure that Iran knows that the U.S. is driving a Mack truck towards Iran’s Miata and that its steering wheel and gas pedal are locked in place. Iran does not have the conventional military capabilities, economic leeway, or internal regime legitimacy to risk a severe U.S. response, and though dangerous, their asymmetric capabilities, including their proxies, are overrated. They can do damage in their first strike but would be utterly decimated by a strong U.S. response—especially one granted legitimacy through NATO backing—which is likely to be the case. Iran knows that, however bad and undesirable a war would be for the U.S., it would be immeasurably worse for Iran. The U.S. might lose blood and treasure, and the Trump administration might even lose reelection, but the Ayatollah regime would lose power, its leaders would fear suffering the fates of Kaddafi and Hussein and Iran's military capabilities, and economy would be utterly destroyed.
In a standard Chicken game, a crash (meaning war) is the worst option. In this asymmetric chicken game between the U.S. and Iran, perhaps a crash is better for the U.S. than swerving, especially when factoring in future U.S. credibility and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. U.S. domestic politics might also overdetermine escalation to war. President Trump might lose re-election should it not respond severely to a costly Iranian retaliation after putting its reputation on the line. While escalation would be a roll of the dice, backing down from a red line would be a sure loss.
The best option for the U.S. is not a crash, but for Iran to swerve. This would look like a symbolic retaliation and then a cessation of aggression and perhaps eventually a resumption of negotiations. The best way for the U.S. to solidify its deterrence gains from killing Soleimani and to avoid war is to make it unambiguously clear that it is willing and able to if need be to go to war, and not to express reluctance for further escalation. This entails firmly signaling that while the U.S. does not seek war, it is not desperate to avoid it at all costs. If the U.S. is able to credibly signal its resolve—Iran, if it is rational—will understand that swerving is its best course of action as well. To make this more likely, the U.S. should not downplay Iran’s retaliation or gloat over its deterrence win if Iran does swerve.
Iran’s much heralded retaliation seems to have been symbolic and purposefully intended not to kill Americans. Although the official position of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley is that Iran’s rocket attack against an Iraqi base housing U.S. troops in Iraq did intend to kill Americans, saying anything to the contrary would ruin the ability to give Iran a way to save face without further escalation, the option that the U.S. most desires. Logically, however, looking at the complex long-distance, precision capabilities that Iran demonstrated in its September 2019 attack on Saudi oil fields, if Iran had truly wanted to cause U.S. casualties it could have. The fact that Iran chose to use far less sophisticated arms against the U.S. following the killing of a revered general than it did against the Saudis shows that it was likely deterred from killing U.S. troops. This conclusion is bolstered by Iran’s sending the U.S. warning of the impending retaliation through three back channels. The questions that now remain are: whether and how Iran might further escalate, how the U.S. will respond if it does, and whether external and internal pressure—especially in the aftermath of its admission of accidentally downing a Ukrainian passenger plane—will force the regime to back down and negotiate a comprehensive and verifiable end to its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. ending its maximum pressure campaign.
Jeremiah Rozman is a D.C. based defense analyst who served in IDF and fought in Gaza in Cast Lead.