An airstrike likely carried out by Israel kills five Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers in Damascus on Jan. 20, and Tehran retaliates through Iraqi proxies with missiles against al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. While most of the missiles were intercepted, some evaded air defenses and hit the base, causing traumatic brain injuries to at least three service members, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM). After what’s now some 160 attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, it was only a matter of time before one overcame American defenses. And it was that latest attack targeting the housing complex on a US military outpost in northeastern Jordan that killed 3 US service members and wounded some 40 more on Jan. 28. Meanwhile, Biden administration officials’ messaging in advance of what they claim to be a fitting response includes such recent headlines as “US intelligence officials estimate Tehran does not have full control of its proxy groups,” intimating another free pass for Iran.

Misunderstanding in Washington

Forty-five years after Iran’s February 1979 revolution and 71 since the US government overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, American officials continue to struggle to understand this nation of almost 90 million. On the other hand, Iran’s target choice after the most recent attack against IRGC personnel in Syria suggests that Tehran better interprets red lines than we do.

Iran is prepared for warfare, just not a war that might bring down the regime. Iran’s leaders realize how a direct retaliation against Israel might provoke just such a severe response, whereas they expect little of consequence from another strike against US targets. We can expect that Iran will continue to push the envelope and won’t stop regardless of how the war in Gaza is resolved.

That said, Iran has exploited the war in Gaza for its own political goals and the US has enabled Tehran to control the playing board by normalizing attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria. And Yemeni Houthi strikes against commercial and American military vessels in the Red Sea have caused oil prices to rise and tripled what shipping companies charge to take a container from Asia to Europe. According to JPMorgan Chase, worldwide consumer prices for goods would climb an extra 0.7% in the first half of this year if the disruptions continue.

Rather than trying to solve a crisis that threatens to draw the US into direct conflict with Iran, the Biden administration appears more intent to manage it. Neither the Gaza war nor the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers the fundamental cause for US-Iranian tensions, but both are certainly accelerants that should add to the already prevailing reasons why Washington must do more to advance a lasting, fair, and realistic solution acceptable to all parties. But for as many times as the White House declares that Iran has no appetite for war, I’m not so sure its rulers are working from the same memo. Yet believing that premise as he apparently does, President Joe Biden’s choices to lower the temperature and avoid a war he believes Iran does not want might end up provoking one.

The recent US-led strikes against Yemen’s Houthis will degrade this Iranian proxy’s military capabilities to some degree, but not their willingness or capacity to target US military and commercial shipping. Iran will continue to encourage, assist, and supply the Houthis, whose losses can only further Tehran’s political goals at home and abroad. Beating up on the Houthis from over the horizon does little to demonstrate American might or intimidate Iran, let alone the Houthis. There’s little more pain the US can inflict on the Houthis to influence their thinking that the devasting costs of 10 years of war, including hundreds of thousands of deaths and widespread famine, have not. Instead, for all their technical marvel, US precision strikes against Yemen are like pounding sand, for its negligible impact is grist for the propaganda mill that makes the US look weaker, rather than strong, and at best, a bully.

The US and Iran also appear to define and conduct war differently. By its nature as a revolutionary regime, Iran’s leaders see themselves at war right now — and an existential one at that which leaves little, if any, room for compromise. That’s not to say that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his reactionary supporters in the clergy and IRGC are reckless. On the contrary, as retired Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former commander of CENTCOM, said in reflecting on the January 2020 killing of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani, “The Iranians’ strategic decision-making is rational. Its leaders understand the threat of violence and its application.” 

A perpetual revolution

The Iranian leadership’s primary goal is to preserve, solidify, and extend a perpetually fragile revolution at home. Its entire military, intelligence, and national security apparatus is dedicated first and foremost to protecting the regime, rather than defending the nation. And a perpetual revolution that brings enduring hardship and deprivation needs an enemy to maintain its legitimacy, which negates any world in which Iran is prepared to coexist with either the US or Israel. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, Iran apparently chose to dismiss the warning the US secretly provided concerning the Islamic State’s Jan. 3 attack in Kerman, which killed more than 80 Iranians. Anonymous US officials said the intelligence was “specific enough about the location and sufficiently timely” in “thwarting the attack” or “at least mitigating the casualty toll.”

The strategy Iranian leaders have employed to preserve their control comprises codependent internal and external components. Internally, the regime has leveraged surveillance, repression, and cooptation to control society and preempt counterrevolutionary forces. Initially partnering with secular and leftist elements to overthrow the Shah, the revolution’s leaders integrated democratic institutions complementary if not ultimately subordinate to religious rule in founding a political structure known simply as Nezam (“the system”).

There’s a constitution and the semblance of a separation of powers with executive, legislative, and judicial branches while the supreme leader is the ultimate authority as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Over the years, however, the religious elements incrementally weakened and ultimately eviscerated any democratic influences, often with violence, as was the case against leftists and secular elements, and vetting only chosen religious conservatives to hold elected office. In a sense, they achieved the goal of purifying the country’s revolutionary and religious core, albeit at the cost of economic progress.

Iran’s external security component is its “Axis of Resistance,” which, in practice, is a form of deterrence and preemptive defense against external threats that might otherwise instigate and nurture internal counterrevolutionary elements. Iran’s use of proxies in confronting the US and Israel on battlefields beyond its own borders and in posing terrorist threats globally as it does with Lebanese Hezbollah serves as a fifth column.

Iran’s recent use of long-range missiles in hitting targets in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, and related tough talk, was deliberate and politically inspired by domestic considerations rather than military effectiveness and obliquely intended for the US and Israel. Iran’s leaders need to show strength, ruthlessness, and invincibility to dissuade those at home and abroad who are hoping for the US or other external players to bring down the regime. And this includes cultivating among its own people the aura of a first-tier world power that will not be pushed around by internal or external forces.

That having been said, such a posture, as Iran assumes in contributing to Russia’s war against Ukraine and unilaterally striking its Pakistani and Iraqi neighbors, brings it into new territory and might create circumstances the US can leverage asymmetrically. Neither action is consistent with the underdog David versus Goliath image Iran strives to project and might leave Iran’s conservative rulers open to political consequences from those suffering economically at home as well as nations apart from the US and Israel provoked into flexing their own muscles. Pakistan chose to respond to Iran’s ostensible targeting of Jaish al-Adl militants connected to attacks against its security forces by striking its own insurgent enemies on Iran’s side of the Baluchistan border.

Iranian rulers have historically demonstrated a pragmatic character, the current regime being no different, mitigating against the inclination for them to fall on their own swords and provoke destruction at the hands of more powerful external foes like the US and Israel. But Iran’s leaders genuinely believe the US remains committed to their destruction, although not at any cost, and scrupulously study and push the envelope to find, but not exceed, the red lines from which they realize there might be no return.

Successive US administrations have conflated Iranian aversion to a major war based on a disinclination to provoke its own annihilation with the belief that Iran seeks to peacefully coexist with America. Iran’s revolutionary regime simply can’t accept peace with the US, nor will it integrate itself into a global economy dominated by liberal democracies, further exposing itself to what it sees as Western coercion. The regime’s credibility and legitimacy ironically demands a constant state of war.

American policy toward Iran has vacillated between maximum pressure and the threat of military force to accommodation, incentivization, and, by some standards, appeasement. The Trump and Biden administrations, while adopting these antithetical approaches, did so while seeking to further withdraw the US from the Middle East, a rather hopeless pursuit so long as the world’s economy depends on oil and most of it moves through the region.

Domestic dynamics

Both administrations share, as did their predecessors, another mistaken core belief that the Iranian populace would ultimately revolt against its oppressive and failing leadership. And this perception, despite US intelligence community efforts to better inform policymakers’ understanding, is flawed. It’s an optic shaped, rather, by the influence of the more hawkish special interest groups and pundits that view the Iranian people through the narrow prism of its middle class and educated, who, along with Iran’s women, are arguably most adversely affected economically and socially by the regime’s repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement. After all, it is from this demographic that the greater share of Iranian expatriates come, and likewise the group with whom Americans have historically had the most engagement.

Iran’s middle class and educated are not, however, the decisive demographic the ruling clerics needs, fears, and therefore coopts, despite being the most politically active since the revolution. While the force behind the 2009 Green Movement and more recent protests sparked by the Sept. 16, 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating Iran's strict mandatory hijab rules, these and their other similar middle class uprisings were easily crushed by the regime. 

Iran’s poor and working class were key to the revolution’s success in providing the teeming crowds of protestors willing to sustain crippling general strikes and endure the brutality of the Shah’s security forces. They are likewise key today, when over 50% of Iran’s almost 90 million population are under the age of 24 in a country where 12 million live below the poverty line, one-third of the urban population lives in slums, and 50% of the workforce has only irregular employment. Iran’s leaders understand the capacity of their security forces, should millions take to the streets.

Iran’s leaders might not have fulfilled their 1979 promises to the poor and underprivileged, but they seem to have done enough to prevent their occasional sparks of economic discontent from igniting into a major threat. Even with all of the existing privations among the poor and the country’s more rural regions, communities which tend to be more religiously and socially conservative, they are arguably still better off today than they were in 1979.

Additionally, the security forces draw heavily on recruits from these poor communities. And as such, the regime is careful in its use of the first-line guardians of the revolution in putting down protests, the Basij. A volunteer paramilitary organization operating under the IRGC, Basij members are thoroughly indoctrinated, vetted, and often deliberately deployed away from their hometowns, where they might have less aversion to employing force.

The poor’s protests have predominantly been economic in nature and triggered by rising prices, particularly for gasoline. And while some of the crowds chanted against Khamenei and the Iranian leadership, they have not channeled support for political alternatives or sought greater democratic and social freedoms as has been the case with the middle class. This points to some irony in how American sanctions, as severe as they have been, disproportionately impact the very middle class and educated people who US officials have long hoped would rise up and install a Western-oriented democracy.

All, however, is not lost and a full-scale war is hardly inevitable. While the US cannot hope to normalize relations with the current regime, it can still influence Tehran’s behavior and reduce the threat we and our partners currently face in the region, as well as globally in regards to Iranian-directed terrorism. The US should not aspire to change Iran, but to minimize the threat it poses externally, expose its weakness, and undermine the justification it hides behind for the economic and social privations it imposes at home, leaving choices concerning its political destiny to its own people.

To accomplish this and focus on America’s security interests, the White House needs to recalibrate Iran’s risk calculus from a threshold that has seemingly risen. Doing so requires the US to identify and enforce red lines more consistently. At the same time, the US must think and act more asymmetrically in leveraging Iranian pressure points concerning its economy and image through deniable cyber operations targeting Iranian infrastructure and covert influence efforts undermining its omnipotent and virtuous narratives.

A more provocative approach

It was unsurprising that Iran would respond and choose a more provocative approach after the US May 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019. But Tehran’s increased lethality in confronting the US followed events it likely interpreted as offering a more permissive environment and was concurrent with a key turnover in Khamenei’s inner circle.

In 2016, Khamenei appointed a relatively young IRGC general, Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, as the new chairman of the Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS), the country's top military body. Bagheri replaced Hassan Firouzabadi, who held the post for 27 years. Bagheri participated in the seizure of the US embassy in 1979 and fought against Kurdish insurgents before serving in the war with Iraq, and his brother Hasan was a legendary military hero, giving him quite the revolutionary pedigree.

Not terribly well known in the West, Bagheri is essentially a strategist and intelligence officer, and a somewhat aggressive one, who founded the IRGC's military intelligence branch. He has up until recently maintained a lower profile than did IRGC Quds Force Commander Soleimani, with whom the regime claims he was close, and whose operational activity Bagheri’s strategy complemented. Bagheri is coming out from the shadows somewhat more these days, suggesting a more public or political role as Iran contemplates Khamenei’s succession and those in his inner circle jockey for position. He offered public comments after the December 2023 killing of senior IRGC advisor and coordinator Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Syria, apparently by Israel, which he referred to as a "strategic mistake" that will not go unanswered.

Iran’s arguably more aggressive posture with the US and Israel in recent years is not likely coincidental. American reluctance to penalize Iran for its role in the September 2019 Houthi drone and missile attacks that rocked and temporarily shut down Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities was a turning point. Iran not only saw US inaction as an invitation to greater aggression, but it was also a wakeup call for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about America’s reliability in offering a security umbrella against Iran. The US subsequently followed by pulling out of Afghanistan, northwest Syria, and reducing its overall presence in Iraq, and by doing so, degrading the near military threat Iran believed it faced from American forces.

The Biden administration’s symmetrical and restrained approach towards Iran by retaliating against the Houthis and Iraqi Shi’a paramilitary organizations will encourage rather than deter further Iranian enabled and facilitated provocations. In turn, Khamenei, advised by a decidedly aggressive chief of armed forces staff in Bagheri and a cadre of IRGC seniors all hoping to impress with their confrontational zeal, will exploit what they view as a permissive environment until their calculus is proven wrong. Unfortunately for those who would bear the cost, the White House’s current assessment and its measures to prevent the war it assures the public that neither party wants might provide the very circumstances and miscalculation to cause it.


Douglas London served extensively across the Middle East during 34 years with the CIA’s Clandestine Service and is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.