Small Wars Journal

A New DIME Approach to Policy for Iran and China

Wed, 06/29/2022 - 8:08pm

A New DIME Approach to Policy for Iran and China

By Jeremiah Shenefield

The role of any foreign policy, regardless of political leanings, should always focus first on the preservation of the national security of the United States. The central sticking points for politicians, government bureaucrats, and planners are what topics rise to the level of national security concerns? Policymakers have claimed national security extends to international terrorism threats, climate change, or ensuring lasting global democracy in the face of authoritarianism. While all reasonable, a common policy concern/goal is the pursuit of economic prosperity and the continued status of the U.S. as the global economic leader. Economies are broad, touch every aspect of society, politics, and foreign policy, especially in Washington. The driver of global economy and commerce is energy; either solar, wind, fossils fuels, commerce, and by extension, world economies grind to a haul without it. Outside regional terrorism and proxy/sectarian wars, energy is the reason Iran is still relevant in U.S. foreign policy circles. Policy effects regarding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) must weigh risks to global shipping commerce, threats to gulf allies (themselves involved in energy exports and affairs), the proliferation of weapons and destabilizing governments, and the wider role energy plays in the newest global power struggle between the U.S. and China.

            Assuming the current administration believes that China is the pacing and economic threat that analysts believe the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is, every policy decision should have an element that affects China. Regarding Iran, the IRGC and current regime should be the single focus for the Middle Eastern regional policy the U.S. needs to address in 2022. With an eye to goals and end states, the question becomes clear when viewed through a grand strategy of countering China. How does U.S. policy places DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) effects on the IRGC (and by extension, the regime) to undercut Tehran’s support for regional terror actors, secure regional stability, and eventually cut or eliminate Iranian energy exports to China? In doing so, impacting the PRC’s ability to expand its economic and military might in the years to come. The U.S. needs to accomplish all three of those goals without impacting the Persian people, destabilizing the country (causing further chaos across the region), or overtly challenging the Chinese economy, thereby forcing a higher likelihood of global conflict with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Every DIME recommendation involves differing degrees of risk assumption. Each recommendation involves the potential for regional instability, political fallout, disagreements with allies (large and small), and the remote likelihood of Chinese interference at any stage. If the overall strategic goal is to counter China; U.S. policy regarding Iran plays a role and opens potential new vectors to cool relations across the Middle East while continuing to pressure China globally.

China Connection

The current administration, like every other recent example, claims to have a global focus but, moves from crisis to crisis with little consideration for how these moves impact the grand strategy. The Biden administration’s interest in returning to the JCPOA, for example, has had limited effects at stopping drone attacks against U.S. forces, nor have these efforts addressed how these moves relate to the wider regional security concerns or how these efforts affect the PRC. (Cordesman 2021, 2)(Chmaytelli 2022) The U.S. grand strategy must be focused on protecting the homeland and countering PLA while also securing global commerce against PRC expansion in the Pacific. Until recently, the U.S. economy was becoming energy independent, lessening the need for gulf oil reserves and thereby potentially lowering regional importance. (Scobell, Nader and Alterman 2016, 1) Until gulf oil is no longer needed, the U.S. economy and, by extension, policymakers are forced to address middle east actors such as the growth and eventual defeat of ISIS, Iranian malign activities such as attempts to block the Straits of Hormuz or souring relations with the Saudis and Emiratis. In addition to potential new markets in the Middle East, China also has economic and energy interests in the region. As the U.S. has become more energy independent, China has increased its own energy needs, which cannot be satisfied domestically. China, unbound by international norms or concerns for human rights, must feed its economy with Iranian oil while continuing to source energy from nations that are not bound to U.S. influences or impacted by U.S. troop deployments. (Ibid, 1, 3) This is why the U.S. cannot disregard the Middle East even after the retreat from Afghanistan. (Bennett 2021)

Nesting a regional DIME policy regarding Iran under a grand strategy to counter China’s global advance makes sense. While regional actors such as the Houthis, Iraqi SMGs, and Hezbollah have a role in the implementation of various DIME effects, placing effects on China is the desired end state. China’s interactions with Iran are extensive. Not only does China supply Tehran with arms, but China also played a significant role in starting Tehran’s arms industry. (Harold and Nader 2012, 7) Continued hostility between Tehran in Washington also allows China to hedge against the U.S. in the middle east, provides Beijing with markets in Tehran devoid of American influence (this also benefits Tehran by weakening the international sanctions imposed against it), and continues the stream of vital oil back to Beijing. (Ibid, 5, 10, 13) China realizes to keep its market influence, especially Iranian oil revenue fueling its economy, the Chinese need to keep relations between the IRGC/Tehran and Washington at odds. Chinese analysts would be concerned with a lessening of hostility due to troop reductions, Tehran falling into Washington’s political orbit through a democratic groundswell, the growth of a more moderate Artesh leadership’s growing influence, or even regional ethnic impacts such as Tehran taking a tougher stand against Chinese abuses of the Uyghur population. (Ibid, 20, 22) (Ward, Steven R. and Georgetown University. Center for Peace and Security Studies 2009, 307)(Ramani 2018)

If the U.S. is to draft a DIME policy against Tehran, it should keep the vulnerabilities and outcomes inflicted against China in mind alongside U.S. goals of limiting effects against the Persian people. Effects with a higher risk level of implementation that also negatively impact either the Chinese/Iranian relationship or, more specifically, their energy relationship should be weighed and considered before all others. When considering a DIME policy to place effects on the IRGC and Tehran, the U.S. should first flip the script on China and develop and implement a whole of government grey-zone/unconventional warfare (UW) approach to strategy development and implementation. (Gould and Pomerleau 2022) ‘The U.S. Army War College advocates for ends, ways, and means approach to devising (a) strategy. “In this case, the “ends” is a unified, whole-of-government approach to a gray zone issue (first in Iran then extended to China). The “ways” is through a meaningful, collaborative, interagency assessment of the gray zone issue. The “means” are members of the National Security Council (NSC). (Troeder, Elizabeth, and Army War College (U.S.) 2019, 26) The effects of the new DIME policy are radical and would likely become a hard sell to allies and politicians alike; however, since past efforts have failed to address Iran, new approaches might be preferable in 2022.

New DIME Policy Recommendations

Older Iranian policies failed for being too narrow a scope and were not nested with a grand strategy. Former President Obama’s poorly conceived diplomatic outreach to curb the Iranian nuclear program via the JCPOA did not target the IRGC, nor did it address their actions across the region. It tried to succeed by appealing to the Persian people to reenter the international world and contribute to stability and economic growth instead of pursuing nukes. (Obama 2013, 5) Former President Trump’s failed maximum pressure campaign and dismissal of the JCPOA was dis-jointed and lacked an acknowledgment of the risk associated with leaving the international agreement, nor did it address the fundamental concerns for the remaining international members of the JCPOA regarding the “sunset” clause to restart nuclear research. (Landau and Asculai 2019, 2) Trump’s killing of IRGC-Qods Force and Shia Militia leadership, however, was a step in the right direction but lacked the “ends” necessary to have lasting impacts. (Zraick 2020). Providing a new policy recommendation to both the President and Congress is an opportunity to force a review of grand strategy that will nest regional concerns into a radical departure from the past failures. By addressing both U.S. governing branches, budgetary concerns, policy discrepancies, and motivation discussions could address any discussion of DIME details before open sessions on CSPAN ever take place.

Diplomatically U.S. policy should first examine how to appeal to a long-time enemy. The purpose of starting with diplomacy is to change the global and regional narratives of militarism and distrust between the US and Tehran in public and as a sign of goodwill to appeal to the Persian people. With an eye on China and with a constant focus on how the UW campaigns are used, removing sanctions is the first policy step to engage Tehran and the international community. With a nod toward non-European nations, sanctions relief could show good faith and push Iran back towards the international community. Nations such as Turkey, India, South Korea, and Japan could grow their economies and undercut Chinese efforts to leverage the energy and commercial influence unmolested from competition in Iran while also undercutting the animosity Tehran uses to feed self-imposed isolation and control of its population with the message of death to America. (Harold and Nader 2012, 1) Without allowing U.S. companies to invest in Iran (potentially dodging a political pitfall) while still opening up Tehran’s economy, selected sanctions relief allows for an olive branch to the Persian people to grow their backward economy while also pressuring Tehran through third party friendly nations. Further diplomatic concessions such as allowing Tehran to keep their ballistic missile program and unmanned aerial vehicle fleets allow for a reasonable balance of power that the Gulf nations and Israel could support because of their counter ballistic missile defenses, which are already in place and supply a hedge without overtly starting a new regional arms race. By dismissing the threat, Iran loses the justification to expand and threaten its neighbors. (Cordesman 2021, 6, 12) Allowing simple concessions to technology the IRGC already has also fostered the perception that the U.S. is not targeting the Persian people. These steps also allow for the defense of the nation by the more moderate Artesh without impacting their defensive capabilities.

Diplomatic efforts visible to the Persian people are key to undercut the IRGC influence within the nation. Some believe that constant brinkmanship has failed and the time for reasonable peace movements can appeal to the people under Tehran’s thumb. (Disney, Feffer and Hosein 2008, 1) Diplomatic messaging efforts come in multiple forms, but the U.S. should look to rival China for tricks to gain magnanimous influence. Two programs, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and vaccine distribution diplomacy are the immediate starting points. China has already begun investing in Iranian infrastructure and Iranian efforts to produce their COVID-19 vaccines have had limited effects. (Harold and Nader 2012, 11) (Bozorgmeha 2020) Either through infrastructure investments or delivery of COVID-19 vaccines (for example); in concert with other medical outreach efforts are all diplomatic ways to show the Persians our displeasure is directed against the leadership and the IRGC, not them. These low-cost ways and means are a complete flip from the past forty-plus years and are advisable because the past policies have been ineffective at either stopping IRGC malign behavior or producing the desired ends to weaken the regime. These efforts also feed well into the UW information campaign that happens while diplomatic efforts were ongoing.

Information (IO) messaging, Cyber, and non-kinetic UW operations are the lead efforts in the new policy recommendations to place effects on the IRGC because the overall purpose is the split Tehran and Beijing apart as covertly and cost-efficiently as possible. The Intelligence Community (IC) should implement the ways and means under the direction and oversight of the NSC. The IC needs to direct focused and cohesive negative messaging against IRGC while directing positive messaging campaigns towards the populace. This is a tall order but there are tips to start planning for future IO. First, cyber-attacks have shown effectiveness at placing effects to limit Iranian nuclear advancements such as the Stuxnet virus attacks years ago. (Paphiti and Bachmann 2016, 35-36) These efforts need to target the IRGC’s proxy operations, finances, lethal and non-lethal transshipment nodes outside Iran, and should open up foreign internet access routes from places like Japan, India, or Europe to increase access to non-censored information, effectively subverting IRGC information domination. Cyber operations can also facilitate communication that would otherwise be controlled and monitored by the regime, fostering avenues for dissidents to spread ideas and garner support unmolested by the IRGC.

Each of these cyber efforts can also benefit wider IO campaigns which also have impacts on the international community and can further shape efforts against China. First, IO campaigns highlighting Chinese abuse of Muslim communities, such as the Uyghurs, while also highlighting Chinese equipment used to repress the Persian people during protests is an avenue to affect the views of the Persian people towards Beijing. (Harold and Nader 2012, 14-15) Social media campaigns that raise the profile of the Persian ethnic perception over the views of the regime spread national pride and weaken Tehran’s own revolutionary messaging. Cyber operations nested with effective IO campaigns were used to target Islamic State’s (IS) online accounts in the mid-2010s and these efforts could also be utilized by launching bots and other fake accounts that undercut the IRGC and regimes messages, further boosting decent. (Erbschloe 2017, 58, 61)

Many of these tools rely not only on skilled U.S. operators and algorithms but Farsi speakers, and above all, placement, and access to Iran’s networks. These efforts take time and have significant risks, but these ways and means are much less expansive and expensive than current efforts to deploy massive strategic assets to the region and can nest efforts into the wider fight to limit Chinese influence globally and in the Middle East.

The term “gray zone” or Unconventional Warfare (UW, going forward) was coined by the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command “to describe activities, actions, or conflict in the space between peace and war.” “The types of UW campaigns…are considered elements of soft power and are differentiated as instruments of national power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) and tools of national security policy (finance, intelligence, and law enforcement). (Troeder, Elizabeth, and Army War College (U.S.) 2019, xi, 22-23) The purpose of advocating for a UW military approach is to keep with the themes of covert actions to split the IRGC from Beijing while also limiting the effects (both actual and perceived) on the Persian population. Advocating for UW as the military element to DIME addresses needs for action, deterrence, intelligence collection, and crisis response. UW’s “tasks” are to engage the IRGC in less attributable ways such as training dissidence and rival ethnic groups to wage war against the IRGC and its proxies without direct U.S. intervention. (Erbschloe 2017, 57-58) Past examples of this style of UW operations include U.S. Special Forces training the tribal Montagnard to fight against the Vietcong in South Vietnam. (Nicoll 2001) These ends would ideally cut down on the IRGC influence and lessen their ability to interact with Beijing because the IRGC would be too weak and distracted to look externally. UW is less expensive, operations are conducted in more permissible areas outside Iran, and is by nature covert, supporting ongoing diplomatic and information messaging campaigns at the same time. The U.S. does not need the military footprint it has in Syria and Iraq now or at its high during the Iraqi and Afghan surges and the circular logic of keeping these forces in Iraq in 2022 only inflames tensions with Tehran and its proxies. (Lamear 2022) UW military operations also have economic components if implemented correctly. “Once the two sides sit down together, U.S. negotiators can employ a carrot-and-stick approach to induce Iranian cooperation without massive troop buildup on the border but while also engaging in cyber and UW campaigns against the regime. This approach should combine significant economic incentives for Iran, such as possible World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, ending trade sanctions, foreign direct investment in Iran’s petroleum industry, much-needed civilian aircraft parts, and possibly a security guarantee to usher Iran back into the international community.” (Disney, Feffer and Hosein 2008, 2) The task of working out the details is very difficult when negotiating sanctions removal but the overall purpose is in keeping with wider diplomatic and IO efforts to appeal to the Persian citizens.


            Each policy recommendation element assumes varying levels of risk both domestically and internationally. Narrowing risks assessment to a simple list is not possible and planning considerations/high-risk decision points should be weighed alongside normal planning risk concerns such as timelines and gaging political fallout if things go wrong. A recommendation allowing Iran to keep its ballistic missile inventory while lessening sanctions could cause preemptive escalation from Israel and any overt military actions or cyber operations that are attributed to the U.S. could cause “escalatory” actions such as attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, which have direct economic blow-back globally and further impact the grand strategy. (Ward, Steven R. and Georgetown University. Center for Peace and Security Studies 2009, 299, 320)(Harold and Nader 2012, 18) The IRGCs military capabilities are only growing, and coupled with other malign behavior, might force an unwanted Israeli military counter if the IDF assumes the U.S. is acing more favorably towards Tehran. (Lamson 2022) Consider that any actions favorable to Iran perceived or otherwise might have unintended consequences like driving Saudi Arabia towards China’s couple these concerns with the loss of any cyber tools used during DIME operations may not be available for a future conflict. (Scobell, Nader and Alterman 2016, 5-6) Unintended risk should also consider the potential of a destabilized Iran much like what the world saw in the 2011 Arab Spring. Artesh or the democratic revolutionaries, training during UW operations might not be able to control the resulting unrest.

Alternative Analysis and Evaluations

            To fairly evaluate the proposed new DIME foreign policy measures, critical war gaming outlined the specific strengths and weaknesses weighed against criteria such as the cost, the risk of success/failure, and effects on grand strategy, among other factors. The outline of risk initially described was also factored into the scoring. After thoughtful analysis, the recommendations to focus on diplomatic efforts extended to the Persian people; information, and cyber operations to place effects on the IRGC, and their relations both internally and externally to proxies (not to mention on the PRC) all ranked as strengths. Limiting military operations to UW operations to weaken the IRGC’s control over the nation while providing a more cost-effective counter to expensive military asset deployments such as deploying troops or aircraft carriers also all ranked as strength along with olive branch economic measures to divide the Persian people away from the regime in Tehran and by extension to Beijing.

            This policy is not without weaknesses. Damaging domestic and foreign allies and political capital through diplomatic efforts with nothing in return from Tehran upfront rated low. IO and cyber operations have risks associated with poor execution, loss of assets, and risk doing further damage to attitudes towards the U.S. Couple those weaknesses with the potential danger faced by the loss of U.S. personnel conducting UW training and operations alongside the potential for wider escalation which could further destabilize the region or even risk of inflaming relations with China. Assuming these weaknesses have alternatives such as a heavier military hand or more aggressive diplomatic actions; there is no indication those effects would increase the likelihood of success. Most alternatives have categorically failed in the past. New actions only risk escalating tensions and damaging the overall strategy of countering China which is a reasonable planning concern.

Final Thoughts

These policy recommendations are radically different from those implemented since 1979 but any policy towards Iran should be complete, have an assessment of risk, while also nesting each DIME effect with the global grand strategy to keep pace with China. A focus on information and diplomacy with a mind toward UW implementation for all future military actions coupled further with new economic opportunities could give the Persian people just enough operating space to cut themselves off from China while limiting the IRGC’s control over the people. This is not a clean DIME policy, but if implemented successfully the IRGC’s influence abroad could be cut significantly and this trickle-down of influence coupled with the rise of the newly impacted and internationally linked Persian people could impact the flow of energy to Beijing, thereby nesting with U.S. grand strategy. There is still a significant risk, but this policy survived vetting, review, and plausible alternatives and delivers a course of action that is dramatically and potentially more cost-effective means of addressing both Tehran and Beijing.


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About the Author(s)

Mr. Jeremiah Shenefield is a DOD contractor and a U.S. Army Reservist. He is a recent graduate of Norwich University’s (VT) Master of Arts in Strategic Studies program. His views do not represent the views or policies of any firm, the U.S. Army Reserves, or Norwich University.