Iran Is a Problem. We Should Treat It Like One.
The Islamic Republic has gotten away with killing Americans for decades.
THROUGHOUT MY TWENTY-YEAR military career, one thing was constant: The Iranians were always trying to kill us. The only change was where, when, and the kind of weapons used. For me, it started in the summer of 2006.
“This place right here, Amil District,” said the sergeant, pointing to his map. “This place is EFP alley. You drive through this area and everyone needs to have their head on a swivel.”
I was in Baghdad, set to go outside the wire for the first time with the unit we were replacing. My squadron was learning the ropes from the old hands, something the military calls “report in place/transfer of authority.”
On my first patrol, the topic was—and remained—explosively formed projectiles (EFP), advanced improvised explosive devices that could penetrate our Humvees with a hot jet of molten metal. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps provided this technology to its Shia proxies, like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi.
Everyone feared EFPs, and for good reason. EFPs killed hundreds of Americans. If an EFP hit your vehicle, you could almost guarantee a casualty. Every time we drove through Amil District, the pucker factor increased. It was common for some troops to wear pre-positioned tourniquets on patrol. One of my troops awkwardly hiked his legs up against the seat in front of him because he was convinced the Iranians were aiming to make us amputees.
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But it wasn’t just EFPs. American forces would fight some of the deadliest battles in Iraq against Iranian proxies, resulting in more than 600 Americans killed. They also killed thousands of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis. Like Hamas, they raped, murdered, and tortured people for sport.
Fourteen years after that sergeant briefed me about Amil District, I faced off against the Iranians again, this time in Afghanistan. In meeting after meeting with senior Afghan government officials, nearly all of them asked why we were allowing Iran (and, of course, Pakistan) to supply our enemies as they killed American, coalition, and Afghan soldiers. I never really had a good answer, especially to our Afghan allies, who were at the receiving end of most of those Iranian arms.
IT’S NOW BEEN NEARLY TWO DECADES since I first drove through Amil District, and Iran is still killing American soldiers. Most recently, Iranian proxies, this time the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, killed three soldiers and wounded another forty in an unmanned aerial system attack on a remote American outpost in Jordan. On Monday, the Justice Department announced charges against an Iranian crime boss (working with Iranian intelligence) for trying to hire two Canadian criminals to murder an Iranian dissident living in Maryland. This plot is eerily reminiscent of the 2011 plot by the Revolutionary Guards to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a Washington, D.C. restaurant.
My former commander always told visiting senior officials, “While the pacing threat is Russia and China, the adversary that has consistently killed Americans is Iran.”
The Iranian threat sometimes seemed to lurk in the background of the Global War on Terror, but it was always at the forefront to most American servicemembers in harm’s way. Here’s a sobering statistic: American forces in the Middle East have been dodging more than 160 attacks by Iranian proxies since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. Yet this is just an acceleration of a preexisting trend. The attack in Jordan and the deaths days earlier of two Navy SEALs while trying to seize Iranian weapons destined for the Houthis are tragic reminders of the costs of this five-decade-long, simmering conflict with Iran.
Our undeclared fight with Iran has been (mis)managed by both Republican and Democratic administrations. There have been some notable successes, like Reagan’s tanker wars, Obama’s Stuxnet attacks, and Trump’s Soleimani strike. But there have been just as many, if not more, setbacks: Reagan’s pulling out from Lebanon, Assad’s triumph in Syria, and Iran’s ultimate victory in Iraq.
WITH THIS MIXED RECORD OF SUCCESS against a far weaker yet guileful adversary, a bit of intellectual humility would be in order. Instead, politicians double down on incendiary political rhetoric, as if Mad Libs of forceful verbs and adjectives could substitute for careful thinking and planning. Words like “strength,” “weakness,” and “deterrence” are bandied about like they alone represent a coherent and executable strategy against an enemy who has successfully killed thousands of Americans.
The United States has been committed to leaving the Middle East for the past three presidential administrations. Yet somehow we can never quite quit it. It is time to admit that we will not leave the Middle East. The “pivot” to the Pacific or Europe will never occur until we get serious about crafting a long-term sustainable deterrence strategy against Iran.
The U.S. armed forces are spread dangerously thin. If Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea all decided to pop off at the same time, it’s hard to see how the U.S. military would respond. Our security depends on deterring every threat at once. But we clearly haven’t deterred Iran—and the rest of the world’s bad actors have no doubt noticed.
One way to begin to restore deterrence against Iran would be a disproportionate response to the latest strike. The Iranians have been smacking us around for the last twenty years, even when we had nearly 200,000 troops on their eastern and western borders in Iraq and Afghanistan. In return, they suffered barely any meaningful setbacks.
What kind of signal does it send to Russia, China, and North Korea when we ignore consistent attacks from Iran? The same signal as failing to provide aid to Ukraine, exacerbating the repercussions from our disastrous retreat from Afghanistan. Whether the decision to pull out from Afghanistan was wise or not, it wasn’t exactly a sign of American power to watch our former allies fall to their deaths from American planes.
We can’t leave the Middle East without courting disaster for regional security and our economy. Our troops play a critical role in keeping vital shipping lanes open, supporting indigenous forces in their counter-ISIS fight, and, yes, keeping Iranian influence from spreading any further.
Deterrence is designed to prevent war, not to start it. No one wants a broader regional war with Iran. (Iran certainly doesn’t—though, of course, it’s always possible they’ll change their minds.) Reestablishing deterrence also doesn’t mean we have to keep every base. Any outpost or mission that has outlived its usefulness should be closed. Nobody wants to deploy on a mission that is not fulfilling. That’s a gigantic morale killer. Rather, the United States should make better use of its non-military means of national power—economic and financial power, information power, political power—to force Iran's rulers to make difficult choices in response to our actions, rather than the other way around.
The American people are rightly wary of another “forever war.” But if we want to deter the likes of Russia and China, we have to deter Iran first. That means signaling to our adversaries that we will continue to support our allies. And it means striking back harder when our enemies kill Americans.
If we don’t, we can expect a lot more American blood to be shed—not just by Iran, but by others, too.