Iran Is Already Losing

Washington shouldn’t fall for Tehran’s trap and get involved in a conflict in the Gulf. Instead, it should stick to its current war of attrition.

By Michaël Tanchum, a professor at the University of Navarra in Spain.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, speaks during the unveiling of an exhibition of what Iran says are U.S. and other drones captured in its territory at the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense Museum in Tehran on Sept. 21.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, speaks during the unveiling of an exhibition of what Iran says are U.S. and other drones captured in its territory at the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense Museum in Tehran on Sept. 21. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure was attacked, forcing the world’s top oil exporter to shut down half of its production—marking the single largest disruption in history. Although Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the sophisticated strike combining Iranian-made cruise missiles and drones, such an attack could only be conducted under the auspices of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and likely came from either Iran itself or neighboring Iraq. The strike’s unprecedented scale marks a new level of escalation that seems to challenge the United States to hit back or risk losing its status as the region’s security provider.

The IRGC’s strategy, as I explained in a previous Foreign Policy article in June, is precisely to trap Washington into this binary choice: “If the United States does not acknowledge Iran’s role as one of the guarantors of maritime security through offering incentives [to negotiate], the strikes will continue. And if they do, the United States will be put in a position of proving that the IRGC’s bite doesn’t match its bark by dismantling a significant portion of the corps’ anti-access, area denial capabilities, such as the cruise missile batteries that line Iran’s Persian Gulf coast, through the use of military force.”

To its credit, the Trump administration has so far not taken the bait. It should continue to avoid doing so. If anything, the brazen attack highlights one critical fact: Iran is losing the war of attrition with the United States. As equally unexpected as Washington’s strategic patience is that the IRGC—a master of asymmetric warfare­—has been bested at its own game of deniable attacks. In fact, a spate of mysterious, unattributable attacks against the sophisticated weaponry stored by IRGC-backed Shiite militias in Iraq is undermining Iran’s push for regional hegemony.

Iran’s ability to project power across the Arab world’s geographic heartland depends on its ability to dominate neighboring Iraq. Without Iraq, Iran has no land corridor to the Mediterranean nor to the Saudi border. Yet since July 19, at least five major airstrikes have targeted Shiite militia munitions depots storing Iranian missiles. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the operations, suspicion has fallen on the United States and Israel, allegedly supported by countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Azerbaijan. Regardless of the source, the attacks have taken a page out of Iran’s own playbook to thwart Tehran’s bid for Middle East hegemony.

It appears that the United States (or its partners) has been playing smart in a long war that it can actually win by continuing to let Iran lose.

It appears, in other words, that the United States (or its partners) has been playing smart in a long war that it can actually win by continuing to let Iran lose.

The long war goes beyond mysterious airstrikes. Every day that sanctions are in force, the United States is deepening the war of attrition without firing a shot. After President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal last year, Washington initiated six months of partial sanctions against Iran’s energy sector in November 2018. Those saw Tehran lose a staggering $10 billion in revenues. The International Monetary Fund forecast a 6 percent contraction of GDP in 2019

Then, on May 2 this year, the Trump administration inaugurated its maximum pressure policy, under which Iran’s oil exports plummeted from a peak of 2.8 million barrels per day the previous year to 200,000. Given subsequent sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical and metals industries, the country’s economy has gone from strained to buckling.

In all of this, the stated U.S. policy includes bringing Iran back to the negotiating table to redress the flaws Washington perceives in the nuclear deal. Most prominently, the United States objects that the agreement did not impede Iran’s ability to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles or its sponsorship of Shiite militias in sovereign Arab nations. Until Tehran returns to the table, Washington—with its allies and partners—will continue its own form of hybrid warfare by trying to degrade Iranian capabilities through a combination of financial pressure and targeted strikes, often unattributable, to roll back Iran’s gains on these two fronts.

The United States might succeed. Iran’s missile program is a common concern for the United States’ European allies, which are still nuclear deal signatories. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom hold Iran to be in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2331, which enshrines the Iran deal in international law and calls upon Iran to refrain for eight years from developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. This divergence between Tehran and Europe has provided Europe with a justification for staying the course on Trump’s sanctions and thus tacitly supporting the United States’ war of attrition.

Meanwhile, Iran’s proxy militias threaten the security of the United States’ Middle Eastern partners—particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Iran has carved out a formidable sphere of influence by using proxy Shiite paramilitary forces—the militias in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthi movement in Yemen—encircling Saudi Arabia and forming a contiguous land corridor from Iran’s to Israel’s borders. Attacks on major bases belonging to the IRGC and the proxy militias have continued, including in Iraq’s western Anbar province and Syria’s city of Bukamal opposite Iraq’s Qaim border crossing, reportedly involving both Saudi and Israeli participation. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have all joined the U.S.-led maritime commerce protection force, and even the more reticent and neutral Kuwait is contemplating following suit.

Beyond all the forces arrayed against it, Iran’s strategy is financially unsustainable. The price tag for its proxy empire is an estimated $16 billion, financed by Tehran’s hydrocarbon revenues. The cost is even higher when factoring in Iran’s energy and financial contributions to allied regimes. According to Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, sanctions have forced Iran to cut military spending by 29 percent this year. The impact on Hezbollah is illustrative. Iran’s annual $700 million cash transfer to the militia and political party has been slashed, forcing the organization to adopt an austerity program whose across-the-board cuts have married fighters receiving only half their salaries and single fighters even less.

Not surprisingly, Iran has been trying its best to undermine the U.S. maximum pressure policy. On May 12, the IRGC navy sabotaged four ships in the UAE’s Fujairah oil port. Days later, pumping stations that feed Saudi Arabia’s Petroline pipeline were attacked. Although Houthi forces claimed that attack, evidence suggests that the pipeline strike also originated from Iraq.

Iran’s message was simple: If it is prevented from selling oil, it will prevent the United States’ Persian Gulf allies from selling oil, too. The strikes may have raised tensions, but they did not significantly impede the transport of oil.

From June through September, Iran and its partners carried out more disruptive attacks, all carefully calibrated to remain below the threshold that would provide justification for international support for a U.S. attack on Iranian territory. IRGC naval forces attacked tankers with limpet mines that were placed above the water line so as not to sink the ships. IRGC forces downed an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone but did not attack the accompanying manned P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Whenever possible, Iran denied direct involvement.

Resisting provocation, the United States has managed to keep its European and Middle Eastern partners from breaking ranks. Global adherence to U.S. sanctions on Iran has remained intact, with the partial exception of China, with which the Trump administration decided to simultaneously engage in a trade war. U.S. strategic patience has proved to be a winning virtue.

Holding a losing hand, Iran apparently attempted to reshuffle the deck with the Sept. 14 strikes on Saudi Arabia’s massive Abqaiq oil processing plant and its Khurais oil field. With Abqaiq treating two-thirds of Saudi crude oil output, the damage to the plant removed 5.7 million barrels per day, equivalent to 5 percent of the world’s oil supply. In other words, Iran sought a provocation large enough to potentially goad the United States into finally reacting and touch off a conflagration that would be unsustainable for the United States’ Arab allies in the Gulf.

Responding to the attacks with a tweet saying that the country was “locked and loaded,” U.S. President Donald Trump simultaneously showed strategic patience by insisting that he was “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Riyadh is wisely not rushing for a response. In the meantime, attacks continue to target major bases belonging to the IRGC and its proxies.

Washington need not tangle itself in Iran’s no-win trap. Tehran has presented Washington with a cause célèbre around which to rally an international maritime commerce protection force in the Persian Gulf, perhaps even with a U.N. mandate that would allow hitherto hesitant countries like Germany to participate. If and when the United States decides to strike an Iranian oil or military installation, the attack should be unattributable, remaining below the threshold of justifiable Iranian retaliation. With that, the United States could get back to the business of winning by letting Iran lose the war of attrition.

Michaël Tanchum is a professor at the University of Navarra in Spain and a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. He is also a fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at the Centre for Strategic Policy Implementation at the Baskent University in Ankara. Twitter: @michaeltanchum