How to Counter Iran’s Missiles and Proxies
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Prospects for reviving the Iran nuclear deal are getting murkier by the day. What seems clear, though, is that the U.S. is unlikely to secure a broader agreement that addresses Iran’s missile arsenal and network of heavily armed proxy forces. Finding other ways of containing and degrading those threats — all the more dangerous in combination — should be a priority.
This won’t be easy. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has called into question the Biden administration’s resolve under pressure. And the White House just announced that by the end of this year its forces will transition to a training and advising mission in Iraq, where Iran-backed militias are vying for influence. To answer Iran’s maneuvers, the administration will need to redouble its other efforts.
Iran’s operations extend across a wide front. Tens of thousands of Iranian-backed fighters in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza have undermined failing states, threatened Israel, directly targeted U.S. forces and their Arab allies, and disrupted global commerce. Attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia have threatened oil markets. Rockets launched at U.S. bases by Iraqi Shiite militias risk sparking a wider U.S.-Iran conflict. A state-within-a-state, Hezbollah is blocking reforms critical to reviving Lebanon’s economy.
Iran’s exports of advanced weapons have made these groups more capable. Its proxies now possess thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, kits to improve the accuracy of their older munitions, and the training and equipment needed to produce missiles for themselves. Militia fighters have recently begun employing weaponized drones that are much harder to intercept. The sheer size of these arsenals threatens to overwhelm existing defenses. Israel’s Iron Dome system has performed admirably against volleys of Hamas rockets. It would have a harder time against Hezbollah’s more than 150,000 rockets and missiles.
Iran’s president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, has declared its missiles and proxies “not negotiable.” Only concerted international pressure might change his mind, and this may be achievable. The U.S. rallied global powers behind the 2015 nuclear deal by focusing on a single point of agreement — that Tehran should not have the bomb. Those same powers also share an interest in stabilizing the region. This includes China, which has more extensive trade ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates than with Iran.
A regional code of conduct to constrain missile proliferation and the activities of non-state actors could make a difference. It wouldn’t stop all conflicts but would make them less likely to start or escalate. In the same vein, the U.S. and its European allies should promote other diplomatic efforts to ease tensions, for instance through talks to end the war in Yemen and improve relations between Gulf states and Iran.
At the same time, the U.S. must do more to deter the proxy threat. When attacked, U.S. forces should hit back harder and more consistently — but without fanfare. The aim should be to raise the costs of such assaults without forcing militias to save face by retaliating.
The U.S. and its allies should ramp up their efforts to interdict shipments of missile technology to Iran, and from Iran to its proxies. The administration is rightly considering new sanctions to alter Tehran’s calculations and to cut off key inputs for its missiles and drones. The U.S. should also help partners in the region bolster their missile defenses and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Warmer relations between Israel and several Gulf states create opportunities to collaborate on new technologies (such as lasers and high-power microwaves) to combat low-flying drones and rockets.
Over the longer term, undermining support for these non-state groups is crucial. Resentment of Iranian influence has already flared in Lebanon and Iraq. Even as it withdraws its own troops, the U.S. should continue to strengthen the Iraqi army against militia influence, support the civilian government with aid, and press for action against the militias that are murdering activists and journalists. The extent of Iran’s financial support for its proxies is also worth highlighting — so ordinary Iranians can see how their meager resources are being spent.
Such efforts will require patience — and, to be sure, they won’t address the still-looming nuclear threat. But they can lower tensions in the region and make it harder for Iran to foment conflict. That’s worth doing.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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