Increasing U.S. Sanctions Pressure Raises the Risks of Iranian Retaliation

4 MINS READMay 16, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Protesters pretend to hit a man wearing a mask of U.S. President Donald Trump during an April 12, 2019, rally in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Iranians pretend to hit a man wearing a mask of US President Donald Trump during an anti-US rally following Friday prayers in Tehran on April 12, 2019. - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this week accused the United States of being the real "leader of world terrorism", hitting back after Washington blacklisted Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation. Tehran was quick to retaliate on Monday by declaring US troops "terrorists" following Washington's move, which was welcomed by Iran's regional arch-rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia.

(AFP/Getty Images)
  • Iranian retaliation against sanctions pressure would most like consist of cyberattacks.
  • While a direct military response by Iran is less likely, U.S. companies and civilians in the region must still take the possibility into account.
  • Iran's embassies, intelligence networks and proxies give it a global reach, though retaliation is more likely in the Middle East.

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Turning up sanctions pressure on Iran means the United States is increasing the risk that Tehran will respond aggressively against the U.S. government and military, and against the private sector. Already-fraught relations between the two countries worsened May 8, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country would suspend some commitments under the nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rouhani said that Iran could begin enriching uranium above levels mandated by the JCPOA within 60 days, an action that represents the latest of many escalations between the two countries.

The Big Picture

Iran is taking measured steps to withdraw from the 2015 JCPOA in response to new, heightened sanctions pressure. This allows Iran to retaliate against new pressure while maintaining the possibility of new negotiations. But should Iran go beyond that strategic framework, it has a number of options to retaliate. In considering such retaliation options, it must also consider that overly strong retaliation against the United States or its regional allies could trigger a broader conflict.

Retaliatory Options

Iran has a wide range of retaliatory options short of a military strike that it is more likely to use against the United States — and also against U.S. allies in the Middle East like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Its most likely response will likely tap Iran's cyber capabilities, which it has steadily developed and already has used to launch an increasing number of cyberattacks against U.S. companies. This sort of retaliation offers Tehran some plausible deniability, allowing it to lessen the odds of an immediate U.S. response. Previous attacks have targeted companies in the United States, Europe, Israel and in Gulf States including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

With regard to physical threats, Iran might choose to harass or detain Americans, particularly those with dual citizenship. Should relations with Europe continue to deteriorate, Europeans could also be at risk. In a less likely but most extreme scenario, Iranian intelligence services or military forces could attack U.S. personnel, companies, civilians or facilities, and perhaps Jewish-owned companies, or Tehran could direct one of its proxies to do so. Military and commercial vessels could also be at risk of targeted harassment or attacks, especially in the Persian Gulf. Unknown assailants allegedly attacked four commercial tankers off the coast of the Emirati port of Fujairah in an incident the United Arab Emirates has described as sabotage. There are no firm indications tying the incident to Iran, but unnamed U.S. officials indicated Iranian proxies may have been involved.

Iran Proxies and Areas of Previous Operations

Physical retaliation by Iran or even just the resumption of uranium enrichment could each trigger a military strike on Iran. The United States almost certainly would lead any such raid, but the armed forces of Israel, Saudi Arabia the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain could also be involved. Any military assault on Iran would be likely to trigger a regional war causing substantial disruptions throughout the Middle East, threatening shipping routes through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and majorly affecting global oil markets.

Potential Hot Spots

Iran's embassies, intelligence networks and proxies give it a global reach, though retaliation is more likely to occur in some places. Iran itself is the most obvious; its security forces there have harassed dozens of foreigners before. Its array of proxy groups across the Middle East could carry out attacks or kidnappings in the Palestinian territories, in Yemen, in Iraq, Bahrain or Syria, or in Lebanon via Hezbollah. May 14 drone strikes against Saudi oil facilities by the Iranian-sponsored Houthis forced authorities to temporarily suspend operations. While it is unclear if Iran directed these attacks, they do demonstrate the reach of Iran's proxies.

Outside the Middle East, recent plots in the United States and Europe show that Iran also has the capability to coordinate attacks in Western countries. Attacks by any of its proxies against U.S. forces or companies could trigger a broader escalation, since the United States has said that any attack by those proxies would be treated as an attack by Iran itself. There is also a risk that proxy forces could act independently and carry out a strike. Iran helps its proxies with financial and technical support, but it doesn't necessarily guide their daily operations.

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