February 16, 2024

US officials are always talking about “deterring” Iran. What does that really mean?

Source: Vox

Journalist: Joshua Keating

Jonathan Lord, a former Defense Department official who now directs the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security, said the attacks on these targets seem calculated to “inject uncertainty into either US or Israeli decision making” but “avoid putting the US to a decision point where it has to respond forcefully.” Both sides are trying to influence the other’s behavior without sparking a conflict they can’t control. Using proxies makes it easier to maintain this balance than it would be if Iran were directly attacking the US military with its own military.

Of course, even “controlled” tit-for-tat exchanges of potentially deadly fire can easily lead to unintended escalation. The strike in late January that killed three US troops may have been a case of the “dog that caught the car,” Lord said, in that it prompted the US to take much more serious action in retaliation.

Some Republican critics have called for the Biden administration to take even more aggressive action to deter Iran, including striking within the country itself. Given the track record of US military interventions in the region over the past 20 years, the administration has very good reason to avoid getting involved in a direct conflict with Iran. (For what it’s worth, Trump also stopped short of striking within Iran itself, despite coming very close to doing so.)

Lord said that the US reluctance to escalate is “coming from a good place and well-intentioned,” but that the strategy has essentially given Iran the message that a certain amount of violence targeting US troops will be tolerated, or at least that the response to it will be measured and limited. “[Iran] has a freer hand, knowing that we’re going to be moderating our actions,” he said.

Read the full story and more from VOX.


  • Jonathan Lord

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Jonathan Lord is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security program at CNAS. Prior to joining CNAS, Lord served as a professional staff member for the House Arme...