The types of responses the United States could undertake are broad if the United States was willing to use the same tactics that Iran has mastered, said Sean McFate, a professor at the National Defense University and the author of “The New Rules of War.”
“If we want to fight back, do it in the shadows,” he said.
Mr. McFate said the United States could put a bounty on Iran’s paramilitary and proxy forces. That would create an incentive for mercenary forces to take on Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies. American intelligence forces also could find new ways to assist existing protests against the Iranian government. Such efforts could include spreading information, either embarrassing truths or deliberate false rumors, aimed at undermining the support that Tehran’s elites have for Iran’s leaders, he said. The United States could also look at ways to make protests by Iran’s labor movement more effective at weakening the government.
Current and former officials say that Iran’s covert attacks against shipping and its downing of an American drone are an attempt to try to raise pressure on the United States. Iran, they say, hopes that by sowing chaos in the Persian Gulf it can drive up oil prices, which will put pressure on both Mr. Trump and American allies dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Iran maintains that the drone it shot down had violated its airspace, while American officials insist it had been over international waters.
“From the Iranian perspective, unconventional attacks, threats against Gulf shipping and air routes and bellicose rhetoric represent the best ways to pressure the international community to compel the U.S. to relieve sanctions without igniting a conventional conflict,” said Norman T. Roule, a former national intelligence manager for Iran and a C.I.A. Middle East expert.
While a number of senior American national security officials agree that further action against Iran is needed, they are divided about how public that action needs to be.
Some officials believe the United States needs be willing to master the kind of deniable, shadowy techniques Tehran has perfected in order to halt Iran’s aggressions. Others think that, while helpful, such clandestine attacks will not be enough to reassure American allies or deter Iran.
Iran will most likely for a time pause its activities, said senior American officials. But, with sanctions biting, they say Iran will once again resume attacks on shipping. That will once more force the White House to consider a direct military strike.