On Nov. 14, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh stated that “deterrence in the Middle East is working.”
But how does one know?
It is a fair question, when less than a month after Singh’s statement the Iran-backed Houthis attacked several commercial vessels in the Red Sea, and another attempted an attack on U.S. troops by another Iranian proxy, the militias in Iraq.
Deterrence is traditionally understood as the demonstration of a capability and the communication of intent to use it.
Although the Iranian regime and its proxies clearly continue to launch attacks on U.S. troops and assets — and at Israel — one can argue that major escalation has, so far, been largely avoided since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Escalation, in this case, has been strategically deterred.
Part of that is no doubt because of the impressive capabilities the U.S. has deployed to the region, which include two carrier strike groups, a range of fighter jets, 300 troops, an Ohio-class submarine, as well as consistent ammunition and other support to Israel — all in just over a month.
It has only used force six times — on Oct. 26, Nov. 8, Nov. 12, Nov. 21, Nov. 22, and Dec. 3. All were described as “self-defense” strikes, and the latter two each killed several Iran-connected fighters. Each action was described as a response to a series of attacks on U.S. troops. And while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan did acknowledge Iran as “the ultimate party responsible” for the Dec. 3 Houthi attack on commercial vessels, his response was to confer with regional allies about a task force to protect commercial vessels — hardly the rhetoric that would put an adversary on notice.
The Iranian regime has clearly made the calculation that a major regional escalation at the moment does not advance their interests. But their continued attacks on U.S. targets is not evidence of the persuasiveness of U.S. rhetoric and actions. There have been at least 76 attacks on U.S. forces over the last two months, which have caused injuries to at least 59 U.S. personnel. Iran-backed Houthis also shot down a U.S. drone.
Can more be done to deter not only escalation, but to stop these persistent attacks? The administration’s rhetoric may be critical here.
President Joe Biden’s administration has variously explained its approach as maintaining solidarity with Israel, preventing the conflict from spreading, operating in self-defense and, of course, achieving deterrence. Explicit statements regarding deterrence of Iran and its proxies have thus far not been included in those explanations.
In his first speech since the Oct. 7 attack, delivered on Oct. 10, Biden explained the rationale for the force posture changes in the region, noting it was “to strengthen deterrence.” Against whom? Biden explained further, “Let me say again — to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t.”
While it seems obvious that the country in question is Iran and the organizations alluded to are its proxies, the words “any” and “anyone” could apply to Russia, China, ISIS, or any other. Is the U.S. ready to use force against these, and if so, what do these entities “taking advantage of this situation” look like?
The Nov. 8 strike on Iranian facilities was aimed at sending a message that “the United States will defend itself, its personnel, and its interests.”
The language the Biden administration used during the second strike, which came on Oct. 26, included the following disclaimer: “These narrowly tailored strikes in self-defense were intended solely to protect and defend U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria. They are separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, and do not constitute a shift in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict.”
In that “separate and distinct” conflict, the statement continued, the administration urged “all state and non-state entities not to take action that would escalate into a broader regional conflict.”
Iran is not mentioned in the official statements regarding the deployment of either the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, deployed on Oct. 8, or the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group, which was deployed the following week. Both deployments were explained as measures to support Israel, and only the latter was mentioned as deploying “to deter any state or non-state actor seeking to escalate this war.”
Having focused on demonstrating capability and having used force for “self-defense,” the administration must clarify that deterrence is not only meant to prevent escalation, but to stop attacks on U.S. personnel.
This requires two steps. First, directly identify the Iranian regime as the catalyst for Oct. 7 and the regional escalation since — from Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel to the attacks on U.S. troops. America and Israel are engaged in a single regional conflict that extends far beyond Hamas in Gaza.
Next, the administration must identify to the Iranian regime the scenario that would constitute crossing a threshold — and invite a significant U.S. response — by its actions or those of its proxies.
While deterrence may be working in preventing escalation, the situation can change in an instant, as Oct. 7 demonstrated. Such an event can challenge the administration and expose miscalculation. Indeed, ambiguity often fosters tragic miscalculation.
Clarity of rhetoric can at least serve as a warning to an adversary, who, if nothing else, is certainly listening carefully.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, former deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command and former Chief of the National Guard Bureau, served for 42 years.
Jacob Olidort serves as director of research at the Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, or JINSA.
Have an opinion?
This article is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author.
If you would like to submit a letter to the editor, or submit an editorial of your own, please email email@example.com for Military Times or our services sites. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to reach Defense News, C4ISRNet or Federal Times. Want more perspectives like this sent straight to you? Subscribe to get our Commentary & Opinion newsletter once a week.