America Can Deter Iran Without an Indefinite Troop Presence Abroad
The current approach of deterrence through a large U.S. troop presence is ineffective at deterring Iran or its Iraqi militias.
Deterring Iran doesn’t have to involve a massive U.S. presence or military action. Currently, the United States places between 45,000-65,000 troops in the Middle East at the cost of billions of dollars per month. Despite this, Washington’s costly strategy still fails to prevent the type of rocket attacks against U.S. personnel that occurred in December. With the U.S. reversing the decision to redeploy a carrier outside the Middle East, shortly after deploying an additional missile submarine and missile cruisers to deter Iran, we need to acknowledge that the current policy isn’t deterrence at all.
The current approach of deterrence through a large U.S. troop presence is ineffective at deterring Iran or its Iraqi militias. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attributed the recent rocket attack to Iran-backed militias. General Kenneth McKenzie, who heads U.S. forces in the Middle East, admitted the U.S. would have to tolerate a “low level of proxy attacks in the region.” The continuation of these attacks is an indictment of the current U.S. strategy. U.S. leaders need to acknowledge the current strategy doesn’t deter those attacks.
Proponents of maintaining the current presence in the Middle East misunderstand deterrence. The concept of “contested deterrence” emerged following the assassination of Soleimani in early 2020. But if deterrence is contested, then it isn’t deterrence. The Soviet Union never lobbed missiles at West Germany. If it had, we would rightly recognize this as a failure of deterrence. But when it comes to Iran, U.S. decision-makers are content to continue our strategy even as rockets rain down on the U.S. embassy.
If deterrence is broken, how do we fix it?
The solution is not doubling down on our presence in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. deployment of additional naval vessels is a mistake. The missile submarine being deployed to the Persian Gulf is most notable for its ability to conduct tomahawk strikes, which does nothing to protect forces from incoming attacks but does a lot to increase Iran’s threat perception.
More forces in the region means more chances an overzealous Iranian commander misreads the situation and strikes out. Consider that Iran’s downing of a civilian airliner in 2020 was due to the miscalculated fear of an American attack during the height of tensions. American naval and air assets already have the ability to strike within Iran and throughout the Middle East. Anything more at this point doesn’t serve a military purpose. Instead, it inflates fears that the U.S. is posturing for an attack.
If Iran does decide a U.S. attack is imminent, our naval presence gives Iran a slew of high-value targets. Iran’s ballistic missiles, some of which have become accurate to within 10 meters, can target U.S. carriers and other ships. One of Iran’s recent military exercises was based on that very scenario. Iran is not a superpower which can conduct strikes far from its borders. Though some of its missiles boast a range of up to 2000km, most operational variants in its missile arsenal are short-range.
In other words, the immense damage and U.S. casualties Iran could inflict in a war are only possible because of how close U.S. forces are. To prevent Iran from having that capability, the U.S. can merely move forces out of Iran’s maritime backyard.
Deterring Iran with additional troop deployments hasn’t worked in the past, either. Last January when tensions were at a high after the Soleimani strike, deploying thousands of additional troops didn’t change Iran’s decision calculus. Iranian missiles hit a U.S. base in Iraq in the following days regardless. Employing the same strategy against Iran and expecting different results is foolish.
This is not a call to strike Iran for not recognizing deterrence as it should. This is a call to the incoming Biden administration to consider whether the costs of staying in the Middle East are worth the remarkably little benefit we derive from it. The limited objectives the U.S. pursues in protecting maritime trade and conducting counterterrorism operations can be done without the massive U.S. presence in the region. On the failed deterrence strategy, President-elect Biden shouldn’t double down. He should draw down.
Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.