How to Make a Lasting Deal With Iran

Maximum pressure won’t make Tehran capitulate. Letting it enhance its conventional military capabilities could convince it to rein in proxies and curb its nuclear and missile programs.

A man uses binoculars to view the border with Israel on Sept. 2 at the "Garden of Iran" Park, which was built by the Iranian government, in the southern Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras.
A man uses binoculars to view the border with Israel on Sept. 2 at the "Garden of Iran" Park, which was built by the Iranian government, in the southern Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the Trump administration’s assertions, it is increasingly clear that the maximum pressure approach deployed to force Iran to temper its behavior in the Middle East is not working. Iran has allegedly engaged in provocations in the Persian Gulf and has taken concrete steps to scale back its commitments to enrichment limitations under the 2015 nuclear deal. Meanwhile, it hasn’t limited its missile program and has doubled down on its reliance on nonstate actors throughout the region.

Tensions flared again in the Middle East late last month after Israel apparently launched strikes on Iranian forces and their proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. As this shadow war moves into the light of day, Israeli officials argue that these attacks are meant to curb Iran’s expanding regional influence through its support and training for nonstate actors—which is a growing threat from Israel’s perspective. The most recent exchange between Israel and Iran highlights the security challenges Iran poses to U.S. interests and partners in the region, and, more importantly, why the U.S. government needs a new and innovative strategy to effectively engage with Iran.   

While the United States and its regional partners have legitimate concerns about Iran’s exploitation of nonstate actors, they don’t appear to understand Iran’s motivations. Thus, they have adopted policies that have proved ineffective and counterproductive.

Today, Washington is seeking to force Iran to forgo all three pillars of its deterrent capabilities: its nuclear program, its missile program, and its proxies. But from Tehran’s point of view, forgoing all deterrent capabilities would leave the regime defenseless and powerless. It is similar to asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons up front with only limited guarantees by the other parties. No state would compromise what it perceives as its means of survival for purely economic benefits.  

Indeed, Tehran has not just refused to mitigate its regional activities but has pursued them even more aggressively. This is making Washington increasingly agitated. The question is: What, after decades of sanctions and pressure, would it really take for Iran to change its behavior in the region? 

The first step would be for Washington to understand Tehran’s strategic thinking, which would allow it to craft policies that incentivize Iran to reduce rather than exacerbate its use of proxies in the region.

Iran has three strategic objectives: to deter military strikes by the United States and its partners, to build its strength as a regional power, and to pursue the first two while maintaining nonalignment and self-reliance. These aims speak to Iran’s quest for survival and power, which any state in Iran’s geopolitical position would pursue. 

To meet these objectives, Tehran has resorted to asymmetric warfare tactics to compensate for its limited and outdated conventional military forces. However, this strategy has become a double-edged sword. The United States and its regional partners rightly feel threatened by Iran’s asymmetric warfare tactics, which, in turn, only increases the military threat to Iran. These dynamics constitute a classic security dilemma. 

The question is: What, after decades of sanctions and pressure, would it really take for Iran to change its behavior in the region?

Iran has had to deal with this challenge with a weaker hand. A straightforward comparison of military spending reveals the massive disparity between the United States and Iran. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that Iran’s leadership did not “understand reality” when it came to its military power imbalance with the United States. The United States is “by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars” invested over the past two years, he reminded readers. If one adds to the equation military spending by Saudi Arabia, which exceeded $67 billion in 2018, and Israel, with nearly $16 billion, Iran’s $13.2 billion spending during the same time period pales by comparison. In fact, even these numbers fail to capture the magnitude of the asymmetry, given that this imbalance has persisted for four decades. Iran knows this and doesn’t need a reminder from Trump.

Because Iran lacks normal means of deterrence and power projection, it has developed an unusual strategy. This approach includes nuclear hedging for deterrence in the long term, a sophisticated missile program for defense and deterrence today, and the build-up of regional proxies such as Hezbollah to give it depth. 

The nuclear deal postponed the nuclear hedging option, which now is gradually returning as Iran responds to U.S. pressure by abandoning the limits it accepted under the deal. The missiles will remain a key element of Iran’s deterrence posture, despite efforts by the United States and some European partners to impose limits. Neither of these programs, however, gives Iran the regional influence that it strives for.

Nonstate actors provide Iran with deterrent benefits as well as regional influence by threatening U.S. interests and partners in the region. Iran’s asymmetric tactics are cheaper than other options, a factor that is crucial for the country given the economic sanctions it has endured for decades. More importantly, these tactics offer Iranian leaders a strategic advantage. 

Iranian proxies serve three purposes. First, nonstate actors act as a deterrent because they have the ability to inflict costs on U.S. forces, bases, interests, and partners, thereby making a potential military conflict more costly for the United States, tilting its cost-benefit calculations toward restraint. Second, nonstate actors have expanded Iran’s regional influence by allowing it to be involved in regional conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen as an important player that cannot be ignored. Third, and perhaps most important, it allows Iran to partake in limited confrontations outside its borders and engage in provocations without taking a direct hit inside the country. Nonstate actors also provide Iran with deniability. For Tehran, these tactics have been seemingly effective to date—much more effective than its weaker conventional military capabilities would have been. In fact, nonstate actors have become Iran’s most potent weapon.

Nonstate actors provide Iran with deterrent benefits as well as regional influence by threatening U.S. interests and partners in the region.

The more Iran is threatened and pressured, the more it will redouble its deterrent efforts. Given its relative weakness, it will necessarily rely on nonstate actors. Proxies are cheaper than missiles or nuclear weapons and can be amassed almost immediately. Moreover, nonstate actors’ geographical range significantly complicates matters for the United States and its partners as they seek to respond. As financial pressure builds up, Iran will increasingly rely on nonstate actors and other more aggressive tactics to deter escalating threats. Tehran’s reasoning is clear: If the country’s financial resources are in decline, then it needs to act sooner rather than later and through its most accessible and least costly means.  

There is an alternative strategy to Washington’s threats and pressure tactics. A comprehensive regional arms control framework that offers more than economic incentives by providing security benefits and incentives could be the most effective approach—allowing Iran to gradually rebuild its conventional military capabilities, particularly its Air Force, which used to be one of the most sophisticated in the world prior to the 1979 revolution. Iran has been keen to modernize it to be on par with its regional rivals and might seek the chance to do so in return for limits on its missile program, such as preventing Iran from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a curb on the use of proxies. As a result, Iran would rely less on asymmetric warfare tactics by increasing its security and regional power status but in a significantly less destabilizing manner. 

After all, Iran’s use of nonstate actors is not sustainable in the long run. The states where these proxies are thriving now—such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—will not always be as fertile ground for Iran’s growing presence as they are today. Conventional military capabilities would better guarantee the power and deterrence Iran seeks—especially if it did not have to face an imminent threat from a superpower that has a strong presence with forces and bases all around Iran. 

From Washington’s perspective, it might seem that enhancing Tehran’s conventional military capabilities is a nonstarter that would constitute an even greater threat to other players in the region, including outside powers. But the trade-off between conventional capabilities and nonstate actors is one that Iran’s neighbors and adversaries should consider. Iran’s support of nonstate actors has created some of the biggest security challenges in the region, posed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and several militias in Iraq. The high-impact, low-cost nature of Iran’s proxies makes them particularly threatening to other states and destabilizing to the region—as happened last month.  

Moreover, engaging nonstate actors carries a serious moral hazard of potentially catastrophic unintended consequences if they go rogue. The reality that is often ignored in Washington is that these proxies are not under Tehran’s rule. They operate more as allies than subordinates.  

An even greater U.S. concern is that Iran has trained regional nonstate actors in naval combat expertise, which creates a threat in the Persian Gulf that is more difficult to contain. Experts estimate that the cost of a war with Iran for the United States would greatly exceed the cost of its war with Iraq; the sprawling effects of Iranian nonstate allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen combined with its missile program could reach virtually every country in the region, which means that a war between the United States and Iran would quickly escalate into a full-blown regional conflict. 

There is a strong long-term incentive for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia to seriously consider the stabilizing effects that stronger Iranian conventional capabilities could have.

The United States could spend trillions of dollars and face an astounding human cost in blood and refugees. More importantly, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its network of nonstate allies that are professionally trained for guerrilla warfare would likely survive any military conflict with the United States and continue to put this training to use. These examples alone imply a strong long-term incentive for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia to seriously consider the stabilizing effects that stronger Iranian conventional capabilities could have.

As Trump withdraws U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, with less physical presence in the Middle East, it is possible for Washington to return to its former status as a regional broker, with a less prominent role. This would shift Iran’s strategic calculus as well, tilting its cost-benefit calculations in favor of scaling back on the use of nonstate actors to advance its interests. 

At the moment, the United States is ramping up pressure and military threats, and the nuclear deal is unraveling. In response, Iran is engaged in a quest for deterrence and leverage-building. Putting the relationship on a different path is unlikely right now, but it is nevertheless worth exploring. 

An arms control agreement designed to shift Iran’s policy from asymmetric warfare tactics to more enhanced conventional military capabilities might seem far-fetched considering the obstacles to developing, implementing, and verifying such an agreement. It would require a long-term commitment from all parties involved. However challenging such a deal might be, it is preferable to the alternative of continuing under the status quo or the outbreak of war. 

Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She is also an associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Twitter: @MahsaRouhi