by Kayhan Barzegar and Abdolrasol Divsallar
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has explicitly denounced the intention of war with United States. U.S President Donald Trump also says he “doesn’t want to go to war.” Open conflict therefore seems not to be a strategic choice, neither in Tehran nor in Washington. However, both leaders perceive their current escalatory policies as a success. The Supreme Leader perceives the ‘balancing threat’ and ‘massive retaliation’ as Iran’s decisive choice. Trump considers his ‘maximum pressure’ policy as the best way to contain Iran’s growing regional power.
Despite the fact that both leaders are well aware that continuing the current trend involves the high risk of military clash, the lack of an honorable strategy to get out of the crisis is a key characteristic of current escalations. However, past experiences of military to military back channel contacts could be used to set up a military de-confliction line between the two countries, giving politics more opportunity to manage the current inflammatory situation. In this respect, a direct covert communication line at the operational level between Iranian General Staff and the U.S. Joint Staff is needed to mitigate the tactical risks in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Syria. There are several critical reasons for establishing such a de-confliction line.
First, with the lack of strategic initiatives, both Iran and the U.S. are continuing to resort to tactical military and intelligence operations to generate policy changes and strategic impacts. Obviously, Tehran’s June 20 shoot down of a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk drone was a bold tactical attempt to signal Donald Trump, intending to reveal the costs of Trump’s policy and forcing him to make a strategic change. The U.S. is following the same path. Reports of American officers pushed by the White House to work on new clandestine operations inside Iran reveal the extent of U.S. officials’ tendency to invest in tactical blows to make a strategic political impacts.
These escalations are taking place in the absence of a strong international resolve to ameliorate the situation. Europe’s plan to implement a “special purpose vehicle,” INSTEX, to protect Iranian commerce from U.S. sanctions, is awash in uncertainties, while the UK-Iran tanker standoff has made the situation even more complex. On the other side, Russia and China are each faced with their own distinct dilemmas in terms of how to maximize their benefits from the current situation while escaping its costs.
Second, those who facilitate these tactical gains, namely field commanders’ and intelligence officers, are becoming influential figures in determining the course of future tensions. These figures are “tactical ministers”, who are gradually exerting the rule of military objectives over policy-makers. On the U.S. side, these people have been given considerable freedom of action to use their assets. For example, Marine General Frank McKenzie, the U.S. CENTCOM commander, has been given a great deal of operational autonomy in the Persian Gulf. In fact, he tends to exert strategic influence on policymakers by advocating the significance of tactical maneuvers in bringing about political change. Kelly Magsamen, who worked with McKenzie as a senior defense official, reportedly argued that he is shaping a public narrative around the Iran threat. This is increasing the possibility of commanders going rogue, confiscating the strategic arena from civilian officials.
The transformation of the U.S. military in recent years is also playing a role here. The rise of the so-called “strategic corporals” has left considerable battlefield responsibility in the hands of leaders of junior rank, who are regularly making consequential decisions with a staggering amount of firepower at their disposal. This has already boosted the capacity of tactical military leadership to shape policy.
On the Iranian side, though in a different mechanism, a similar pattern has emerged. Military reforms in the regional structures of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its regular military during the last decade have given field commanders more operational freedom to respond swiftly to emerging threats. Surviving in an asymmetric environment, which the Iranians define as the main characteristic of their future wars, necessitates loosening highly centralized command structures. Despite the level of operational freedom, this is considerably lower than that of the U.S. and is different among various units. Still, field commanders in the Iranian military are becoming more influential.
Third, both the Iranian and the U.S. armed forces have significantly escalated their activities in the Persian Gulf region. The Iranian military is on high alert, it has sped up operational adjustments to employ its new offensive-deterrence doctrine, and it has extensively increased its littoral activities. On the other side, the U.S. has sent 2500 new soldiers to the region since May 2019 and CENTCOM will probably ask for more in the future, expanding its naval and aerial escorting operations, so as to gather more real-time data to fulfill its campaign planning mission. The latter indicates an intensification of littoral Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations in the Persian Gulf region in order to meet the Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIRs). This information is needed to produce attack plans and operational Courses of Action (COA) that should be offered to strategic-level authorities.
The combination of the aforementioned three elements—the rising dependency of politics on tactical gains, the increased freedom of action given to field commanders, and the growing military activities in the region—has formed a mature military “contact zone” between Iran and the U.S. Progressively out of political control and influenced by “tactical ministers,” this “contact zone”—evolving in parallel with political events—is increasingly nourishing the current Iran-U.S. political standoff.
Today, when the lines between war and politics are blurred, the existence of this tactical zone has caused the subordination of strategy to tactics. In other words, military planning mainly advocated by mid-level commanders is gradually affecting the determination of policies. It looks as though history is once again proving what Sir B. H. Liddell Hart once wrote, that ‘policy has too often been governed by the military aim.’
This is a tricky trend, making politicians vulnerable to military errors, provocations, and interests. In the case of the RQ-4A shoot down, evidence suggested that the drone’s U.S. operators chosen an un-professional flight path by flying inside Iranian airspace, provoking Iranian field commanders to respond (The Pentagon has insisted that the shoot down occurred in international airspace. The New York Times, however, citing a senior U.S. official, reported there were some doubts inside the administration about whether the drone and a Boeing P-8 Poseidon manned aircraft had indeed avoided Iranian airspace throughout their entire flights.) These aggressive tactics can be accompanied by human errors and emotions, and the risk is that they may overwhelm strategic policies.
Military deterrence could fail under the pressure of such un-professional actions. This is because, beyond the routine Iranian-U.S. use of bridge-to-bridge radio communication in the Persian Gulf, no formal or informal mechanism exists to prevent minor provocations, errors, misunderstandings, or accidents from escalating into conflict. At such a tense moment, it is important for policymakers in both countries to remember what they are trying to achieve: sanctions relief for Iran and a so-called “better deal” for the Trump administration, one that would hopefully reduce the mutual sense of strategic insecurity.
Given the circumstances, Iran and the U.S. should establish a de-confliction line, an operational level military to military communication channel. This could keep the focus on political goals and prevent the two sides from falling into the trap of a war provoked by “tactical ministers.” It would be a short-term, limited contact line providing direct military access without imposing the political costs of a policy change in Tehran or Washington. The plan is essential for preventing further escalation until a strategic solution emerges on the political level.
The de-confliction line would be a 24-hour operational communication line within the mid-level Joint Staff command structure to manage tricky situations. The line is helpful to mitigate the risk of tactical officers’ impacts on strategic policy by drawing credible redlines in operational maneuvers and allowing for the possibility of sending timely coded messages between commanders overseeing the broader operational environment. Despite the limitations of such mechanisms, apparent in the U.S.-Russia de-confliction experience in Syria, still it is a viable solution for a situation of extensive mutual distrust, such as the one that exists between Iran and the U.S.
Iran and the U.S. have had previous successful military back-channel cooperation. For example, during the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003, Iran agreed not to shoot down U.S. warplanes that strayed into Iranian airspace due to errors or operational requirements. This happened even after the U.S. had labeled Iran part of the “Axis of Evil,” when relations between the two countries were tense. Apart from the fact that such connections will remain undisclosed, so as not to risk a loss of credibility or policy change on either side, the involvement of a third-party mediator such as Iraq or Qatar, who enjoy friendly ties with both sides, could be helpful.
Although the de-confliction line might not be considered a political solution to the broader U.S.-Iran political crisis, given its focus on immediate threat reduction, it will have a longer term potential to reverse the escalatory impacts of field commanders on politicians, thereby reducing the dangers posed by the current politics of fear. On the Iranian side, due to the considerable role of the military in regional policy formulation, any threat reduction mechanism at the military level will bring positive political effects, raising the chance of turning military commanders into peace advocates.
Finally, it is essential to remember that military to military communication should not include any major attempt to influence the military strategies of the other side. This is especially critical on Iran’s part, generating a new round of threat perception from U.S. intentions. In other words, the de-escalation line should be constrained, dealing only with pragmatic military de-confliction opportunities at the first stage.
Dr. Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. He is also an associate professor of international relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University. He tweets at @kbarzeg.
Dr. Abdolrasool Divsallar is a Rome-based independent scholar. Formerly, he was a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran (2017-2019). He tweets at @divsallar.
Both authors work and write on Iran’s foreign policy and strategic affairs.