Even before the bold American airstrike in January that killed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Republic’s terrorist and expeditionary operations, journalists and experts were predicting that Washington risked “miscalculations” and out-of-control “escalation,” warning that the two countries were “on the brink of war.” Breathless comparisons to Europe in 1914 began to appear. But nine months after Suleimani’s demise, these warnings hardly seem justified. Michael Eisenstadt explains why:
The counterpressure campaign that Iran launched in May 2019 against America’s “maximum-pressure” policy . . . has relied on activities in the “gray zone” between war and peace. These include covert or unacknowledged attacks on petrochemical infrastructure and transportation in the [Persian] Gulf, proxy attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq, and clandestine cyber operations. Indeed, Iran is perhaps the world’s foremost practitioner of gray-zone operations (although China and Russia have also long employed this modus operandi). For nearly four decades, Americans have struggled to understand and to respond effectively to this asymmetric way of war.
Iran’s gray-zone strategy works by leveraging a number of differences in the ways that Tehran and Washington think and operate. The most important of these differences is conceptual. U.S. decision-makers have tended to conceive of war and peace with Iran (as well as with other significant state actors such as China and Russia) in stark, binary terms and have frequently been constrained by fear of escalation—creating opportunities for Iran (and others) to act in the gray zone “in between.” (The main exception here—by and large a relatively recent one—is in the cyber domain.)
By contrast, Tehran tends to see conflict as a continuum. The key terrain in gray-zone conflicts, then, is the gray matter in the heads of those American policymakers who believe that a local clash could somehow rapidly escalate to an all-out war. The result is often U.S. inaction, which provides gray-zone operators such as Iran greater freedom to act. Tehran’s interest in avoiding war and its preference for operating in the gray zone are not grounded in a transitory calculation of the regime’s interests; it is a deeply rooted feature of the regime’s strategic culture that is reflected in its way of war.