If the U.S. truly wishes to deter Iran, it must shift from a focus on hitting Iran’s proxies to targeting the disease itself.
Recent events have underscored the urgent need for a reconsideration of America’s Iran policy. In response to constant drone attacks on American bases, which resulted in injuries to more than two dozen U.S. military personnel and one fatality, the U.S. dispatched an F-16 and F-15 to bomb weapons and ammunition storage areas in Syria connected to Iran’s chief terror arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
But this anemic response has not stopped Iranian aggression via its proxy forces, and will likely lead to further escalation by Iran — at a time and place of Iran’s choosing.
The United States has historically responded to such provocations with a proportional strategy driven largely by State Department fears over broadening a conflict. But merely proportional measures are insufficient. The concept of escalation dominance offers a paradigm shift in how the U.S. should approach Iran.
When President Joe Biden’s foreign policy awakes from its dilatory slumber, it either falls into a desultory rut or a destructive real-world application of an academic theory that should have stayed in the lecture hall.
Understanding Escalation Dominance
Escalation dominance is rooted in the idea that a state should possess both the capabilities and the will to control the escalation of hostilities. By controlling the pace and scope of escalation, a state can effectively deter aggression and neutralize threats. One cannot exercise escalation dominance by merely responding to symptoms or by playing a tit-for-tat game with adversaries. Real dominance requires addressing the source of the problem directly.
Consider the strategy the U.S. has employed against Iranian proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon or various militias in Syria. These strategies perpetuate a never-ending cycle of violence without addressing the central issue: Iran itself. While limited strikes against Iranian proxies might offer temporary tactical gains, they do not influence Tehran’s strategic calculus — after all, Iran’s mullahs are more than willing to fight to the last Hamas or Hezbollah militant. In some cases, these actions can even play into Iran’s hands, allowing it to perpetuate a narrative of victimhood and rally its base around nationalist sentiments.
If the U.S. truly wishes to deter Iran, it must shift from a focus on hitting Iran’s proxies — merely symptoms of Iran’s revolutionary aims — to targeting the disease itself. Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 serves as a potent example. The naval operation, gamed out the year before, anticipated an Iranian military response to the U.S. Navy starting to escort U.S.-flagged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
There were two schools of thought on how to respond to Iranian attacks. The State Department’s view was one of proportional response. The Defense Department recommended a rapid and violent escalation to show the Iranians they could not control the pace of escalation.
As Iran continued laying mines in international waters and attacking neutral shipping, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was severely damaged by a mine that wounded 10 sailors. Only four days later, Operation Praying Mantis saw the U.S. Navy attack some nine Iranian naval vessels and militarized offshore oil platforms, sinking five vessels while killing 56 Iranian personnel at the loss of two American helicopter crewmen. This contributed to a rapid change in Iranian behavior for the better.
By crippling the Iranian Navy, the U.S. demonstrated the kind of direct action that could yield a significant effect — on its own terms, playing to America’s strength at sea.
Economic Warfare as a Complement
The U.S. should also deploy economic measures directly against Iran’s critical assets. This means going beyond sanctions that hurt its proxy networks and instead focusing on its oil exports, which are the lifeblood of its economy. Creating internal economic pressures can catalyze domestic unrest, which in turn would curtail Iran’s vast regional ambitions.
The Trump administration had successfully implemented this policy. Biden unraveled it.
One of the more vexing aspects of Iran’s portfolio of trouble is its nuclear program. Here too, a strategy of escalation dominance should apply. Rather than engaging in drawn-out negotiations that allow Iran to buy time, the U.S. must present Tehran with unambiguous consequences for its nuclear pursuits, up to and including seizing its oil exports.
Changing the Dynamics Inside the Beltway
Finally, a revamped U.S. approach must also root out Iranian influence within American policy circles. Personnel decisions can be critical in determining the direction and effectiveness of America’s Iran policy. The U.S. needs decision-makers who understand the imperative of escalation dominance, rather than those who advocate for appeasement or proportional responses — or, as has been shown, may even harbor a degree of loyalty to the mullahs in Tehran.
The Biden administration’s proportional response strategy toward Iran can be attributed to an ideological commitment to diplomatic resolution and multilateralism. The is latter rooted in the rejection of American exceptionalism, meaning American interests are no more important than the interests of other nations or groups — and likely less so, given the inherent American sins of slavery, racism, capitalism, etc. This approach aligns with the broader Democratic foreign policy framework, which favors negotiation and consensus-building over unilateral military action.
The administration likely views a proportional response as a middle-ground strategy that allows it to show strength without shutting the door on diplomacy. The hope is that by responding but not over-responding to Iranian aggression, they maintain the moral high ground and keep alive the possibility of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, especially concerning its nuclear program — even though history since 1979 shows that to be a futile hope.
However, this strategy is interpreted as weakness by Tehran. A proportional approach fails to disrupt Iran’s long-term strategic calculations, allowing it to continue its aggressive regional activities with minimal risk. In contrast, a more robust strategy that employs the U.S. Navy directly against vulnerable Iranian assets would signal a willingness to challenge Iran’s escalatory behavior. This latter approach would fit more closely with the traditional realist American foreign policy doctrine, which prioritizes the assertive use of military power to defend national interests.
In the intricate chess game of geopolitics, a strategy of mere proportionality falls short against an adversary like Iran. Adopting a policy of escalation dominance allows the U.S. to seize the initiative, destabilize Iran’s grand strategy, and potentially bring Tehran back to the negotiation table under terms favorable to American and allied interests. Such a strategy, coupled with economic warfare and vigilance in internal policy formation, can forge a new path toward stability in the Middle East.