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How Iran Plans to Out Smart Trump: Enter the 'Grey Zone'

Thomas Trask

While international attention has shifted to the Syrian-Turkish border this past week, Friday's attack on an Iranian oil tanker offshore of Saudi Arabia is a reminder that recent tensions with Iran remain high.

In its escalating confrontation with the United States and its allies, Iran has adopted Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Keeler's strategy to "hit 'em where they ain't." It clearly worked for Willie, and it is working equally well for Iran, which is astutely employing limited force while President Trump plainly avoids it.

The United States need not be so self-deterred for multiple reasons. Iran's military capabilities, though by no means minimal, are still dwarfed by those of the United States. Additionally, Iran is most readily compelled by credible threats or use of force, not economic pressure.

But most relevant, Iran's playbook offers an excellent model for achieving strategic objectives by operating in the "gray zone" between peace and open kinetic conflict. The gray zone often involves plausibly deniable use of force to minimize the consequences of escalation.

To restore deterrence while minimizing risks of escalation, Washington should contest Tehran in the gray zone using limited military actions that fly under the radar, but which Iran still recognizes as executed by the United States.

Since May, Iran has successfully harassed unguarded oil tankers and attacked Saudi Arabia's critical energy infrastructure, all without provoking a costly response, let alone outright conflict. Yet simultaneously, they send a clear message that the international community will face real costs for sanctioning Tehran's energy exports and other vital economic sectors.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has done the opposite, speaking loudly about war while relying exclusively on sanctions. This is crippling U.S. credibility, practically inviting Iranian escalation by laying bare the disconnect between what the United States says and is willing to do.

When he has turned to the military, President Trump's actions so far have been visually demonstrative, but ultimately ineffectual, displays of conventional military power.

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