Operating in the "Gray Zone" to Counter Iran

(Washington Institute for Near East Policy) Michael Eisenstadt - The combined drone/cruise missile strike against key Saudi oil facilities on Sep. 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. 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. 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. Plausible deniability works both ways. The U.S. should respond in-kind to Iranian actions, using nonlethal ripostes to impose material costs. 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. 90% of its oil exports go through a single terminal, Kharg Island. The U.S. should ensure that Tehran gets worse than it gives in these exchanges. 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 U.S. 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. The writer is director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.

2019-09-20 00:00:00

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