A Deterrent Force Still Absent

How Essential is it to Combat Iranian Threats?
Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conduct a military drill with ballistic missiles and unmanned air vehicles at Great Salt Desert, in the middle of the Iranian Plateau, on January 15, 2021 in Iran. (Getty)

The standoff between the United States and Iran has become a routine one. However, the present American appeasement of the rulers of Tehran shows the White House’s limited approach on a diplomatic or military level. We can see this in the Biden administration’s unwillingness to escalate the confrontation with Iran.

Who should take the first step to resume compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is not a concern for the United States, a U.S. official said last week, suggesting greater flexibility on the part of Washington. "That's not the issue, who goes first," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, seeking to dispel what he said was the erroneous view that the United States insists on Iran's full compliance before Washington would take any steps to resume its own commitments.

The political system in Iran is characterized by a multitude of loosely connected and generally fiercely competitive power centers, both formal and informal. The former is grounded in the constitution and in governmental regulations and takes the form of state institutions and offices. The latter includes religious-political associations, revolutionary foundations, and paramilitary organizations aligned with various factions of Iran's clerical leadership.

In the first of a series of Transition 2021 memos examining policy challenges across the Middle East, esteemed diplomat and policymaker Dennis Ross provides an innovative approach to reengaging Iran in nuclear diplomacy. His ideas make it possible to extend Iran’s breakout time, preserve U.S. negotiating leverage, and strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe and across the Middle East.

Long-range drone systems

Iran boasts a family of long-range drone systems with sufficient range to reach Riyadh with lightweight explosive or sensor payloads, whether launched from its own territory, Yemen, or Iraq. Iran-backed militias have twice assisted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in launching small explosive-laden delta-wing drones from Iraq into Saudi Arabia at ranges of 600-700 kilometers. Houthi-held territory in Yemen has also been used to launch long-range Sammad-2 and Sammad-3 explosive-laden drones against Riyadh.

Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. (Israel has more capable ballistic missiles, but fewer in number and type.) Most were acquired from foreign sources, notably North Korea. The Islamic Republic is the only country to develop a 2,000-km missile without first having a nuclear weapons capability.

Nuclear program

However, the missile program is a complex and sophisticated response to Iran’s unique security challenges which should be analyzed on its own. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) in July 2015 has made this task more urgent. With the nuclear program rolled back, the missiles have become a new target of international attention. The ballistic program is run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), commonly known as the Revolutionary Guards, which has been subject to numerous sanctions because of its alleged terror activities and other infractions.

Revolutionary Guards

The Persian country has more than 500,000 active-duty personnel, including 125,000 members of its elite Revolutionary Guards, according to a report last year by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. But international sanctions and restrictions on arms imports have made it hard for Iran to develop or buy more sophisticated weaponry.

To compensate for the imbalance, Iran has developed “asymmetrical” responses - ballistic missiles, deadly drones and a web of militia allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, among other things - with the aim of being able to inflict pain while avoiding the traditional battlefield.

Drones threat

Iran has used drones to harass the US naval presence around the Arabian Gulf, augment its influence in Syria and Iraq, and attack or threaten the critical infrastructure of US allies in the region. To neutralize the Iranian drone threat, the US should pursue a strategy based on raising the costs of further attacks, investing in counter-drone technologies, and extending the UN arms embargo.

“Iran is poised to blow through additional nuclear deal restrictions in the next few weeks. This is the crucial time to avoid an escalation of the situation,” said Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, an organization that has closely tracked nuclear negotiations involving Iran.

One reason for a sense of urgency among some U.S. officials as well as those outside the American government is that Iran holds presidential elections in June, with the campaign season kicking off in May. The politics surrounding the 2015 nuclear agreement are very sensitive in Iran, so the mullahs’ regime is unlikely to allow any major moves on it amid a campaign.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) drill held by Iranian army in Semnan, Iran on January 5, 2021. (Getty)
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) drill held by Iranian army in Semnan, Iran on January 5, 2021. (Getty)

Iran - China

For Iran, China is its most important potential savior in midst of the US embargo as it is Tehran’s first trading partner. Beijing was the first destination for Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. This highlights the importance of China to Iran at present and reflects the possibility of China-Iran trade and investment cooperation continuing conditioned upon developing a secure financial transaction mechanism between the two countries.

According to Khamenei, there are two potential ways to confront the sanctions –  either "begging sanctioners to lift sanctions" which would prompt them to roll out "a few arrogant demands" or "using domestic sources to produce sanctioned products."

Iran’s Defense Ministry unveiled a mass of new drones over the weekend for the Islamic Republic’s army and air force. According to Tehran, the drones have advanced capabilities and can fly more than 1,000 km., which means they could reach Israel from Iran.

“This would rival the best drones that the US and other countries are now using. These drones have a range of up to 1,500 km, and can fly for several hours. It is a message to Israel, the US and their allies – We can reach you.” wrote Seth J. Frantzman, the Middle East affairs analyst at The Jerusalem Post.

Radical terrorism in its many forms remains the most immediate global threat. The Lebanon-based Hezbollah has a long history of executing terrorist attacks against American targets in the Middle East at Iran’s direction. Such state-sponsored terrorist attacks pose the Iran’s greatest potential threats to the U.S. homeland, at least until Iran develops a long-range ballistic missile capable of targeting the United States.

Iran will likely continue to enhance the precision and increase the range of its solid-fuel, Fateh-family of ballistic missiles, while also seeking to improve pre-launch survivability. In parallel, Tehran is likely to build a capacity to develop real-time targeting using unscrewed aerial vehicles and drones.

It is expected that Iran will continue to target maritime navigation in the Gulf waters, and continue to target the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from Yemen, in parallel with its refusal to negotiate with the United States over the nuclear issue. Iran wants to obtain greater privileges and raise the ceiling of its demands with the U.S., as well as to reach a direct agreement with the U.S. and put aside the Europeans. The Iranian escalation comes due to the lack of a deterrent force or the inability of the U.S. and Europe to document Iran's violations which can be attributed to American and European avoidance of any security escalation in the Strait of Hormuz for economic reasons.