Since its war with Iraq ended, writes Michael Eisenstadt, the Islamic Republic has taken to operating in a “gray zone” between war and peace, using proxy militias, terrorist groups, and plausibly deniable attacks to achieve its goals without open warfare. Taking the recent attack on Saudi Arabia as an example of this strategy, Eisenstadt urges the U.S. to retaliate by giving Tehran a taste of its own medicine:
Pursuing a gray-zone strategy of its own represents Washington’s best chance of avoiding significant escalation while buying time for its pressure campaign to work. U.S. policymakers need to abandon the notion that Tehran has a high tolerance for risks and costs, and that the path from local clash to regional war is a short one.
Forty years of experience have taught Tehran that it can conduct gray-zone activities (including lethal operations) against American interests without risking a U.S. military response. [Thus] Washington has frequently failed to deter the regime. Bolstering U.S. deterrence is therefore central to [dealing with the Islamic Republic’s current behavior]. This means responding to Iran’s probes and provocations in the region in order to show that Washington is now more willing to accept risk than in the past.
Just as the [most recent] strike demonstrated the vulnerability of Saudi oil facilities, Iran’s own oil industry is vulnerable to sabotage, cyberattacks, and precision strikes that could threaten its current export flow of several hundred thousand barrels per day. . . . Undue restraint can increase the risk of escalation by inviting new challenges. Conversely, abandoning restraint and opting for escalation can unnecessarily increase U.S. risks while engendering domestic and foreign opposition to further action.
In gray-zone competitions, the advantage is often achieved by incremental, cumulative gains rather than rapid, decisive action. Washington should therefore resist the desire to escalate in order to achieve quick results.