The United States has repeatedly failed to understand the unique requirements of gray zone deterrence. A U.S. strategy would not only facilitate more successful diplomacy with Tehran but also enhance efforts to counter other actors such as China and Russia.
In this timely Policy Focus, military analyst Michael Eisenstadt details how the Islamic Republic operates in the gray zone between war and peace to manage escalation, leverages asymmetries to achieve disproportionate effects, and employs its hybrid force structure for maximum effect. The current U.S. approach, he explains, is based on overt action, blunt force, and emphatic messaging, all of which entail a heightened potential for escalation. But an alternative approach—one focused on unacknowledged activities, indirection, subtlety, and discreet messaging—could more effectively deter Iran while reducing the risk of further escalation and broader conflict.
The Islamic republic has developed extensive tools to engage in conflict short of war, in what has come to be known as the “gray zone.” Examples include the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, and the 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The U.S. government has struggled to adapt to the unique requirements of gray zone deterrence, especially as it reduces its military presence in the Middle East. What steps need to be taken not only more effectively to deter Iran but also for more menacing actors like China and Russia?