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Reciprocity and Coercion: Ending the Downturn in U.S.-Iran Relations

Just days after the United States struck Iranian-linked targets in Syria, militia members fired a volley of rockets at Ain Al-Asad air base. The U.S. strike was conducted in response to an attack on Balad airbase in Iraq on February 20 by Iranian proxies. These recent actions have raised concerns that the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran are now engaged in an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat strikes that will undermine Iraqi security and risk a mutual American and Iranian return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The July 2015 agreement placed onerous restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. This deal broke down in May 2018 when then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement and began to reimpose the sanctions that had been lifted to entice Iranian compliance. The tensions during the Trump administration peaked in January 2020 when Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was assassinated as he was leaving the Baghdad International Airport. In response, the Iranian government launched a ballistic missile salvo that wounded U.S. troops at Ain Al-Asad, but luckily did not result in any American deaths.

The United States will not be able to completely deter Iranian action in Iraq or in the broader Middle East. Washington lacks coercive credibility, and, more importantly, political dysfunction in Washington has undermined the oft-forgotten pillar of true deterrence: reciprocity. This requirement entails that both sides derive a benefit from not taking negative actions, locking them into a mutually stable relationship that rewards good behavior, largely through the absence of coercive force. Rather than focus on how to use force to deter, Washington needs to signal how Iran could benefit from an ease in tensions—and use such an outcome to squelch Iranian actions through its proxies that undermine U.S. foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

The Biden administration has inherited a dysfunctional and escalatory bilateral relationship with Iran. For the past two years, Iran has gradually ended compliance with the JCPOA, while its armed forces and allied militias have sought to disrupt global energy supplies, attacked Saudi Arabia with cruise missiles and drones, and relied on Iraqi militias to disrupt operations for U.S. forces. The Biden administration has an incentive to stop the escalatory cycle, but faces pressure to impose punitive costs on Iran to cease its actions to “restore deterrence.” This concept is premised on the idea that military force can impose costs and, through such actions, dissuade Tehran from using force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

To truly deter, however, the United States must consider that its tool for coercive credibility and the political constraints imposed upon the use of force are not high enough to dissuade Iran’s own coercive action. The United States will not fight a land war in Iran, nor is it prepared to conduct the type of air campaign that would be needed to truly inflict harm on the Islamic Republic’s military. Instead, Washington has settled for sanctions, which do impose a cost on the Iranian government, but which have a poor track record in shaping Iranian behavior on its nuclear program or its regional policies. The Trump administration sought to make U.S. action more credible, tying Iran directly to its proxies in Iraq by striking Soleimani for the actions of a militia he that indirectly controlled. This action did impose costs on Iranian leadership, but the strike was inside Iraq, and the United States then did nothing after the IRGC fired missiles at American forces. This self-imposed restraint is a clear indicator that Washington will not extend its efforts into Iran proper. The Biden administration so far has pursued a similar strategy: striking a target in Syria in response to an attack in Iraq, which is linked to Iran, but not inside Iraq. This approach is more measured than the options Trump pursued largely because the previous attacks inside Iraq created significant backlash inside the country for U.S. forces, and the current administration would like to retain a U.S. and allied footprint to continue training the Iraqi Security Forces. This strategy seeks to marginalize Iranian influence through the standing up of more professional institutions inside Iraq, rather than undertaking actions that would inflame pro-Iranian political factions that use any opportunity to pressure the civilian leadership to oust U.S. forces from the country.

The Iranians have not backed down in the face of these actions. Instead, its armed forces and militias responded to the Biden team’s strike with a missile strike of its own on an Israeli ship in the Gulf of Oman, an uptick in the firing of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia from positions in Yemen, and the recent rocket attack in Iraq. Tehran has calculated that Washington will not strike targets in Tehran, or that such action—however unlikely—would be limited in scope and the core tenets of the regime would not be forced from power. Iran can manage this risk through its own actions, working through proxies or not claiming credit for its military’s actions. This strategy is, ultimately, two-tiered. Iran’s strikes on Saudi Arabia are designed to impose a cost on a regional U.S. partner for Riyadh’s support of Washington and, in turn, to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia that Washington is not a credible ally. The intent is to force Riyadh to distance itself from Washington, which would then give Iran more momentum to force Washington to leave the region, and then negotiate with the Gulf Arab states from a position of strength. This strategy has failed. As Iran increases its provocative action, Gulf Arab states have only deepened ties with Washington, even if the region’s monarchs are unhappy with the current status quo.

Given this reality, and assuming that Washington’s coercive leverage is (by choice) too small to impose a regime-threatening cost on Iran, Washington should consider a different tact. In the absence of a credible coercive force, Washington should signal to Tehran that it would benefit from cooperation. This benefit need not get complicated, but instead focus on the core premise of the nuclear deal: sanctions relief. This approach would prioritize the American return to the JCPOA as the means to de-escalate with Iran. It would create a pathway to “buying” Iranian compliance with a set of nuclear agreements, use the ease in tensions to positively impact regional security, and offer Iran an incentive for good behavior. To do this, Washington needs to prioritize direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran.

In response to the latest rocket attack, it is all but certain that the voice for military action will grow, and debates will take place about where and which groups to target. Those debates are about tactics and ultimately will not be enough to dissuade Iranian behavior. A true strategy requires signaling the tangible benefits of de-escalation—beyond simply saying that any such behavior will ensure the country will not be bombed—and offer a pathway for reciprocal benefits from sustained engagement. This is how to truly deter, and this approach is needed in order to end a tit-for-tat cycle that leads nowhere for both parties.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

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