The Gray Zone: Iran’s push to pressure, subvert, and co-opt the United States
Aimee Hanstein, CENTCOM
November 17, 2020
Iranian Military Missile
Gray zones are a type of hybrid warfare, a place between war and peace. Gray zones have been used by countries across the globe to antagonize, but also defend. How some adversarial countries operate in these zones are what makes it dangerous and concerning. China, Russia, and Iran have continuously used this hybrid warfare to infiltrate systems and push countries like the US to war. Iran’s use of gray zones, specifically led to talks of World War III back in February 2020. The Iran-Iraq war led to the death of a quarter of a million Iranians and left the country with still-unhealed wounds and the US has no desire to go to physical war after decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. This history means there is a roughly even chance that Iran’s gray zone operations could lead to physical war or could lead to the US implementing a gray zone strategy of their own. Despite this, Iran’s increase in operations such as killing US soldiers in Iraq or threatening to assassinate US ambassadors, means a physical war may eventually be possible.
Gray zones are defined by the US Military Special Operations Command as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality” and they are often characterized by “ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frames”.  Gray zones challenge the status quo while managing risk and avoiding war. They create ambiguity regarding objectives (through incremental action) and attribution (through unacknowledged/deniable covert or proxy activities), thereby denying adversaries legal justification for action and creating uncertainty about how to respond. Below the level of war, gray zone conflicts pose a challenge to US efforts to pursue its interests, influence, or power and do so in ways designed to avoid direct US military responses. The question then becomes if it isn’t direct military confrontation, then why should the US care? The US should care because these gray zone actions undermine the country’s advantages and strengths, and even the country’s democracy at times.
Countries such as China, Russia, and Iran have demonstrated favoring the use of gray zones. Israel, a key US ally, has used a gray zone strategy towards Iran. China’s gray zone measures involve information and disinformation operations as well as political and economic coercion. China has also carried out cyber and space operations, and has used civilian, paramilitary, and government tools to assert administrative control over disputed island features and the maritime zones that those features create. Russia’s measures include political and economic coercion abroad, its gray zone cyber and space operations, and its use of proxy forces in Syria. In September, Russia stated that they would work on military cooperation with Iran after the Iran arms embargo would be lifted, knowing the United States does not want Iran to have access to these types of weapons; this can be considered another measure of a gray zone. While Russia and China’s measure in the gray zone are concerning, the on-again-off-again relationship each country has with the United States makes it less likely to reach an all-out conflict. That is not to say conflict may not happen elsewhere, such as Europe or Asia, but with the United States, these measures do not reach the threat level that Iran’s measures do.
Iran, like other countries, uses gray zones to advance their interests while trying to manage risk, and avoid war. Iran tests and probes to see what they can get away with while countries like the United States allow this due to fears of miscalculation and escalation (such as USS Stark and IranAir 655) as well as the legacy of past traumas (such as the hostage crisis and Iraq). Iran also uses an asymmetric approach as well as a hybrid warfare approach. Asymmetry refers to turning the enemy’s strengths into vulnerabilities as well as exploiting enemy’s vulnerabilities; basically actions that yield disproportionate results. Iran’s elements include conducting forward defense by avoiding and detering conventional wars, due to these elements, they are consistent with their overall strategies and exercise patience. Iran is also flexible with their tactics and can be ambiguous and show indirection. Iran has driven wedges in hostile coalitions, encircling their enemies. Iran uses hybrid operations to achieve synergies and hybrid forces to expand capabilities and options. Their theories of success include a culture of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance. Their theories of success also include imposing costs via proxy or direct action, and seek incremental cumulative gain. Iran may also try to gain success by undermining enemy morales and protracting conflicts to exploit motivational asymmetries. The results they are aiming for are to avoid conventional wars, expand influence and reach, end US influence in the region, and become a dominant power. Iran has done this so far by carrying out embassy invasions, ballistic and cruise missile tests, harassment of US/allied naval vessels, attempts to shoot down US drones, rocket and IED attacks on US personnel in Iraq, cyber activities, and nuclear activities.
In September 2020, US intelligence reports found that Iran was weighing an assassination on the US Ambassador to South Africa. US intelligence officials were aware of the threat against the ambassador since the spring of 2020 but in September, the intelligence got more detailed. It is not reported how much more detailed or specific the intelligence became. Intelligence reports showed that the Iranian Embassy in Pretoria was involved. It is unknown how the embassy was involved but it has been reported that Iran has a clandestine network of Iranian operatives in South Africa. It is unknown why the Iranians specifically picked Ambassador Marks. Ambassador Marks may have been the target due to the Ambassadors long-term friendship with President Trump, but it is more likely due to being an easier target than U.S. diplomats in other parts of the world (such as Western Europe) where the US has stronger relationships with local law enforcement and intelligence services. The news came as Iran still seeks to retaliate against the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani by US troops in Iraq.
On October 26, 2020, satellite images showed construction at Iran nuclear site. The photos show new excavations, new roads, and a possible underground centrifuge assembly facility. This comes after the UN nuclear agency acknowledged Tehran is building an underground advanced centrifuge assembly plant after its last one exploded in a reported sabotage attack last summer. This construction also came as the United States neared Election day in a campaign that pitted President Donald Trump, who led a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that led Tehran to abandon all limits on its atomic program, and President-Elect Joe Biden, who has instead expressed a willingness to work with Iran and return to the nuclear deal. This construction could mean that Iran believed former Vice President Joe Biden would win the election and feels that it can get away with starting to build a new nuclear site, or that it no longer takes President Trump’s threats seriously and is building despite the US pushback. Iran’s use of gray zones has pushed the border of what is considered a gray zone and what should be considered an act of war. The weighing of an assassination plot as well as carrying out air strikes on Iraqi bases where there are US soldiers, are on that border yet the US has not acted in an effective way to deter these types of moves from Iran. The inaction of the US has led Iran to believe that they can continue these types of acts and get away with it.
Iran has also been known to financially support groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis. Hamas and Hezbollah are both terrorist groups according to the United States, and while the Houthis are not considered a terrorist group, many of their top leaders are considered terrorists by the US. Iran is believed to fund Hezbollah about $100 million per year, however, Western diplomats and analysts in Lebanon estimated Hezbollah receives closer to $200 million a year from Iran. It is likely, due to reports, that Hezbollah then funnels money through Hamas based on their successful attacks. Iran has been reported to send weapons to the Houthis as part of the ongoing conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s support of proxies and terrorist groups shows that the country is trying to expand its power. The fact that these groups are in three separate countries (Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Yemen) is no coincidence, especially given that Iran does not share a border with any of these countries. While Iran is considered a state that sponsors terrorism by the US, little is done diplomatically to deal with this with the exception of sanctions. While sanctions may be effective in some cases, the sanctions hurt the people of Iran more than it hurts the government and leaders of Iran. Unfortunately, the US may think the sanctions hurting the people of Iran will force them to protest their government, however it is more likely and has been shown that this actually creates more of an anti-American/anti-Western viewpoint amongst some of the citizens of Iran. This is not the case for all of the people of Iran as there are individuals who are against their government. An anti-American viewpoint only fuels the Iranian government into pushing the limits even more.
Iran’s interest in avoiding war and its preference for operating in these gray zones are not grounded in a transitory calculation of the regime’s interests but it is a deeply rooted feature of the regime’s strategic culture that is reflected in its way of war. This can be seen in their use of gray zones not only against the US but also against Israel (Hamas funding), Lebanon (Hezbollah funding), and precision oil strikes against Saudi Arabia. There have also been Iranian-supported kidnappings and attacks in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. It has also been reported that Iran has been building a permanent military base in Syria, (about eight miles south of Damascus), there is also an IRGC presence and Iranian-backed militia presence in Syria. These groups provide training and resources to different groups fighting in Syria.
While Iran uses these measures to actively avoid war, some of these acts would be considered acts of conflict or acts of war by the US and other countries. Iran is purposely trying to create conflicts in the Middle East region and with the US while hiding behind the curtain of not wanting conflict or war. The question remains, will the continuous use of gray zones by Iran eventually lead to war or a major conflict? The US and Iran were on the brink of conflict following the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani and Iran fed into this narrative and still does by promising revenge for the General’s death. Media across the world reported that this could lead to World War III and both the US and Iran contributed to the reports. While this may be a legitimate threat, it could also be a gray zone measure. The distortion of reality of World War III between Iran and the US hinders an effective policy response. Iran’s use of gray zones has led to continuously rising tensions and has oftentimes led to inaction by the United States and other countries around the world. These ineffective policy responses as well as inaction could signal that the current administration does not know how to deal with Iran or is still trying to come up with a long-overdue plan to counter Iran’s measures.
The recent US brokering of the Abraham Accords between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Israel, could mean that the US is trying to gain more allies in the Middle East region in the event of a war with Iran. Part of the reasoning behind the Abraham Accords between the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain and Israel were to come together to defeat the common threat of Iran. Other Arab countries in the region have been encouraged by the US to create peace deals with Israel for this same reason. Iran has not responded well to the Abraham Accords and has labeled these countries as traitors. This brokering gives the US the physical manpower in the region to create the “allies” or to even support these countries in their own potential conflicts with Iran. This new set of allies is also beneficial for the US in United Nations matters against Iran as these countries may be more willing to back the US on votes, sanctions, and other matters. When it comes to military actions, joint forces could be created as well as joint training and scenarios involving Iran, such as in the South China Sea with the US, Taiwan, and Japan.
Another alternative the US could possibly do to try to counter Iran is come up with it’s own gray zone strategy towards the country. It is very likely that a gray zone strategy towards Iran from the US would pose the kind of dilemmas for Iran that Iran has posed for the US. It is likely that a gray zone strategy could enable the US to better manage risk, escalation, and avert conflict. The US may also need to develop competence in this form of competition and conflict since more adversaries are using it in general; this strategy would almost certainly put the US in a position to handle these issues more effectively. The US gray zone strategy towards Iran could consist of unacknowledged activities, indirect and subtle messages, as well as military threats and actions to create political issues for Iran, as this could potentially help increase deterrence. This strategy could probably help contain Iran’s growing regional influence and deter some of the most damaging actions coming from Iran, all while limiting the potential for an escalating situation.
The US strategy could respond firmly and threaten punishment. A balanced approach would likely be best to help avoid excessive restraint and it would avoid unnecessarily escalatory steps. The US could explore and exploit Iran’s desire to avoid war and prevent escalation, as well as manage risk by increasing uncertainty. Unless forced to protect US interests, it may be disadvantageous for the US to cross international red lines. The US could also use less-lethal and non-lethal actions and increase its cyber activities towards Iran. Iran’s gray zone measures include their own denial of activities, the US would need to reveal evidence of Iran's role in these activities to put pressure on Iran and get rid of the veil of ambiguity.
Overall, the US may need to do more than just inflict economic sanctions against Iran in order to counter Iran in the gray zone. The US has an intelligence and military advantage over Iran and needs to do more to use these capabilities to deter Iran from moving past the gray zone. Though the US needs to enhance its military capabilities towards Iran, the US also needs to grow it’s non-military capabilities and enhance diplomacy and cyber acts to effectively deter Iran. Whether that means growing the ally network in the Middle East region in the event of conflict with Iran, or coming up with a gray zone strategy to deter Iran outside of military actions. Iran’s measures and acts within the gray zone are almost reaching the threshold of war or conflict, if the US does not take any action, Iran will continue to push the limits.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor any threats against the US and other countries that come from Iran. The CENTCOM team will work with the Illicit Finance team to continue to monitor Iran’s financial contribution to terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and other proxies. CTG CENTCOM team will continue to monitor Iran and report any threats and intelligence it comes across and will continue to report intelligence reports relevant to these findings. CTG will work with federal agencies, if and when necessary, on reporting intelligence and findings on Iran that come up during duties like WATCH and Threat Hunter. CTG will report any incidents from Iran to relevant law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
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