With the United States’ coming withdrawal from Afghanistan it may seem like the focus of the U.S. military is shifting from the Middle East to the Great Powers conflicts brewing with Russia and China.
But America’s enemies in the region are still very much a threat, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran. A recently published Rand Corporation report detailed just how big a threat Iran is in the Middle East, what its goals are, and how it will seek to achieve those goals.
The report doesn’t just list Iran as a single entity. Rand Corporation’s research details that Iran’s threat is actually a massive fighting force, a network of potentially tens of thousands of fighters, all willing to answer the call of the Iranian government, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, or the Ayatollah himself.
Rand breaks the network down into four separate classes: Targeters, Deterrers, Stabilizers, and Influencers.
Targeters’ sole purpose is to bleed the United States in terms of manpower, materiel, and especially money. Iran supports certain groups just to keep up attacks on American forces in the region to increase the costs of keeping them deployed. Beyond attacking U.S. troops, they also make it as difficult as possible for the U.S. to operate in the region, deterring their movements and forcing them to consider an Iranian or militia response when planning operations.
The deterrers are similar actors, not affiliated with any state, but designed to increase the costs of other countries in the region to operate. This group targets Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Stabilizers are paid to do just what the name implies, to stabilize certain countries or major groups within those countries, usually Iranian allies. Stabilizers are used in place like Syria, which is experiencing massive instability due to the ongoing civil war, but also deals with instability based on its ethnic and religious diversity.
Iranian influencers aren’t on instagram snapping photos, they are used by the Iranian network to expand Iranian influence in the region, giving Iran a bigger say in the area’s greater political affairs.
This means Iran will never directly attack the United States – or anyone else if it can avoid it. Iran’s military goal is to keep the fighting and instability experienced by other countries far from inside Iranian territory. Instead it will use this network to project its power, influence, and physical attacks.
In the meantime, the United States and its regional allies will have to contend with the threat network’s mission, dictated by the government of the Islamic Republic. The cost of that contention will depend on the American military’s desired goals and the political establishment’s willingness to pursue those goals, likely at as high a cost as Iran can inflict on the United States.
This also means that the U.S. will have to develop a means of countering the network, which blunt force is unlikely to achieve on its own. Rand recommends the U.S. defense apparatus develop a counter for each of Iran’s classes.
Because of the American desire to cooperate with locals in the region, Rand recommends caution in choosing which groups to cooperate with, as they could be a member of the Iran Threat Network. To bolster its regional partners while countering Iranian influence, Rand recommends increasing military-to-military partnerships to build the capacity of friendly forces in the Middle East.
It all sounds easier said than done, but the United States can be a powerful ally to any regional partner. The U.S. military has defeated networks of enemy operations in the past, including in Iraq, where Iran’s threat network holds increasing sway – so victory is still possible.