Deterring Iran in the Gray Zone: Insights from Four Decades of Conflict

September 2021 No Comments

Speaker(s): Eisenstadt, M. (Kahn Fellow & Director of Military and Security Studies Program, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Date: 30 September 2021

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a speaker session with Mr. Michael Eisenstadt (The Washington Institute), as part of its SMA STRATCOM Academic Alliance Speaker Series.

Iran has been increasing its gray zone activities to compete geopolitically with the US and other rivals. Mr. Eisenstadt commented that states which are not content with the geopolitical status quo, like China, Russia, and Iran, will increase their gray zone activities. Ultimately, these states want to weaken US credibility and geopolitical influence by attacking it through cyber warfare, use of proxies, and other gray zone activities. For Iran, competing in the gray zone allows it to advance its anti-US geopolitical agenda while avoiding conventional warfare. However, Iran will engage in conventional warfare if it must. US conception of competition as either in war or peace, provides Iran—which views itself in a constant state of competition—with an advantage to incrementally weaken the US over time.

Iran continues to increase its gray zone capabilities. In the 1980s, Iran’s gray zone activities were mostly wars fought through proxy militias; however, Iran’s current gray zone activities include, but are not limited to: cyber-attacks, information operations, and the threat of long-range missiles. Also, by spacing out its actions in the gray zone, Iran is able to decrease the chances of retribution from the US. For the US to better compete with Iran, the US will need to change how it conceptualizes the gray zone and how it processes its actions within. Mr. Eisenstadt commented that the US must figure out how to better align its deterrence strategy with its actions, force Iran to operate along less effective means, and understand that competing in the gray zone is a long-term strategy and campaign. 

Speaker Session Recording

Note: We are aware that many government IT providers have blocked access to YouTube from government machines during the pandemic in response to bandwidth limitations. We recommend viewing the recording on YouTube from a non-government computer or listening to the audio file (below), if you are in this position.

Briefing Materials

Eisenstadt Biography

Eisenstadt Slides


Submit A Comment