Near-term scenarios for the U.S.-Iran competition

Reports that the recent attacks from the U.S. and Iran against each other are leading to war significantly exaggerate the situation. Each country’s moves are part of long-standing strategies focused on influencing the other’s behavior.

Iranian schoolgirls take part in a rally to mark the anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis
Tehran’s recent moves are part of a long history of provocations against the U.S. Here, schoolgirls make their way to a demonstration marking the 40th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis, outside the former American embassy in Tehran. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Recent moves by the U.S. and Iran are not out of the norm
  • Neither side would benefit from a war against the other
  • Both will continue activities aimed achieving their goals

Much of the reporting and punditry on the ongoing confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been laced with cautions of “escalation,” “crisis” and “war.” These assessments are grossly overblown. While the competition between the two countries remains heated, with no resolution in sight, both seem committed to managing the confrontation in the short term. The next turn may well depend on the outcome of national elections in the U.S.

In recent months, a series of events have occurred that many have viewed as a provocative tit-for-tat escalation: Iranian-sponsored Iraqi militias attacked U.S. forces; the U.S. responded by bombing militia bases in Iraq and Syria; the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was then attacked; the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who commanded the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and the Iranians retaliated with ballistic missile strikes on U.S. military bases in Iraq. However, this series of events was not necessarily escalatory.

This round of provocations from Iran is hardly the first. Tehran has made several attempts to intimidate the U.S.

The latest round of provocations from Iran is hardly the first. Over the last two years, the Iranian regime has made several attempts to intimidate the U.S., embarrass or crack the resolve of the administration and drive a wedge between the Americans and their friends and allies in the region and in Europe. These efforts included interdicting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, downing a U.S. surveillance drone and attacking Saudi oil infrastructure.

Influencing behavior

Rather than acts of escalation, these moves seem simply to be various attempts at accomplishing the same objectives, not ratcheting-up the confrontation. On occasion, after the Americans responded in one form or another, the regime in Tehran stopped, only to try a different tactic to harass the U.S. or threaten its interests in the region. 

Both sides seem primarily focused on influencing the other’s behavior. The current U.S. administration believes the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, failed to constrain Tehran’s destabilizing behavior in the region as advertised. In addition to lingering worries over Iran’s nuclear program, Washington is deeply concerned about the Iranian regime’s support for surrogates, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias such as Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq. Indeed, the U.S. interpreted Iran’s “weaponizing” of the Iraqi Shia militia as part of a concerted effort to expand its sphere of influence into a so-called Shia Crescent stretching from Syria to the Gulf states.


Facts & figures

A map of the Middle East showing Iran’s Shia Crescent ambition
Iran is building a network of allies among countries with significant Shia populations in its effort to gain regional hegemony. © macpixxel for GIS

For its part, the regime in Tehran framed its actions as a response to what it claimed was illegitimate sanctioning by the U.S. administration and a destabilizing American presence in the region.

Constrained confrontation

There are several reasons to presume that the confrontation between the two sides will remain constrained. First and most importantly, American and Iranian military power is asymmetrical. A war with an American ground incursion into Iran would be bloody and protracted. On the other hand, the U.S. could conduct an aggressive air-sea campaign that would be destructive, but ultimately indecisive. In turn, Iran has no capacity to conduct a conventional campaign against the U.S.

Also, Iran’s friends and allies would be of little or no help in the event of a major escalation. Several nations, including Turkey, India and Oman try to maintain good relations with both the U.S. and Iran – they are unlikely to break and support the regime in Tehran decisively. While Russia, China and Iran are aligned in attempting to constrain American global influence, neither Moscow nor Beijing has shown any inclination to join forces with Iran in anything other than a symbolic manner. China seems to have accepted Iran’s isolation as a given; it is stockpiling oil supplies, so it is not dependent on Iranian crude. For all its vocal support, Moscow sees taking Iranian oil off the market as merely increasing revenue for Russian energy sales.

The regime’s worst nightmare is to face pressure from the outside and the inside.

Iran is increasingly becoming untethered from Western Europe. Though the Europeans have worked assiduously to sustain the Iran nuclear deal and keep opportunities for engagement with Tehran open, they have largely failed in the face of U.S. sanctions. Recently, the United Kingdom, France and Germany (known as the E3), triggered a dispute-settlement mechanism contained within the JCPOA, which may lead to the United Nations Security Council reimposing international economic sanctions against Iran.

European powers officially still say they are committed to the JCPOA. However, they are being forced to take a tougher stance by U.S. pressure, rising Iranian aggression and Iran’s refusal since May to fully comply with its commitments in the deal. Moreover, Iran has to deal with internal dissent, which has been endemic since 2017 and has only increased after the accidental downing of the Ukraine civilian airliner that occurred during an Iranian ballistic missile strike on Iraq in January.

Internal dissent, which is significant at this time, presents a challenge to the Iranian government. The regime’s worst nightmare is to face intense pressure from the outside and the inside. Iran excels at handling one or the other. When pressed from without, its leaders rally the people and even use the external threat as a pretext for clamping down on dissent even more harshly. When threatened from within, they ruthlessly suppress opposition voices. When the regime is hammered from both directions simultaneously, as is occurring currently, it struggles.

Resilient regime

A prudent assessment is that the regime will weather the storm – it has proven remarkably resilient over the decades. Furthermore, it still has solid control over governance, civil society, the economy, security forces and the media. While the Iranian economy is in poor shape, the regime has endured such conditions before.

Iran could soon face a succession crisis: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 80 years old. However, this is a future challenge that the regime knows it will eventually have to tackle.

On the other hand, authoritarian regimes like Iran are by their nature opaque. Their leaders hide the truth from the outside world, their own people – even from each other. If the regime was at risk of collapse, there might well be very few warning signs.

There is scant chance of a major shift in the U.S. position in the near term.

There is scant chance of a major shift in the U.S. position in the near term. There are no signs that President Donald Trump has been weakened by the recently concluded impeachment process. Nor, at present, does the American Iran policy appear to be significantly affecting national politics in the run-up to the presidential elections.

While there is a great deal of domestic discord in the public press and the public policy community, there are few signs this issue has a substantial influence on the American people in how they view the administration and its foreign and security policies. Those that support the president continue to do so. Those that do not, like him no better. Those who are undecided, currently do not see this is a deciding issue.

Faced with little political fallout and unpalatable options, the U.S. will probably not revise its policies significantly. The administration is unlikely to back off its pressure campaign, absent major concessions from Iran. It sees the effort as an important part of its strategy to contain Iran and as a signal to North Korea that the U.S. is not inclined to compromise on negotiating over nuclear proliferation.

Neither will the U.S. seek escalation. The administration is assiduously trying to avoid war or increased military confrontation. Its strategy is not to attempt regime change through external pressure or subversion.

The most likely scenario is that the two sides will continue to spar until the outcome of the U.S. election is clear and the Iranians know exactly who they will be dealing with over the long term.

Iran may remain relatively risk-averse, choosing to focus on stability and internal security in the short term. Nevertheless, it would be imprudent not to expect Iran to continue at least some level of aggressive, provocative activity, if for no other reason than not to lose face in confronting the U.S. campaign to isolate it.

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