How Iran's Strategic Drift Emboldens Its Enemies

Tehran's military means and political ends are out of sync.

Historically, Iran’s military strategy has been defensive, based on deterring potential rivals, developing restraining leverage over enemies, keeping adversaries pinned down in secondary theaters and undermining the will of potential enemies, while attempting to create influence as well as a defense zone that will provide it with strategic depth beyond its borders. The goal of this essay is to consider whether, as a result of the upheaval in the Middle East, Iran has been drawn into a regional policy with new characteristics, and whether its “strategic toolbox” is appropriate for this new policy.


Iran’s Traditional Defense Toolbox

Over the past two centuries, Iran’s policy and military personality was defensive, reflecting two underlying assumptions: that Iran was a victim of third-party aggression, and that such third parties were stronger than Iran. Iran’s military force is structured with this attitude in mind, built from three constituent parts.

Iran’s regular army, the Artesh, is exceptional in that it is built up primarily as an asymmetric, quasi-guerrilla force. For several years following 2003, its main reference scenario has been an American invasion. Together with the IRGC, the Artesh developed the Mosaic Doctrine of engaging an enemy asymmetrically as a guerrilla force while parts of Iran are under occupation. Naval and air force doctrines are also based on guerrilla rationale, principally revolving around attrition, disrupting enemy operations, and interrupting the enemy’s free use of the sea and skies.

Therefore Iran emphasizes surface-to-surface, -air and -sea missiles, as well as sea mines and small boats, over main battle platforms. There is also a preference for weapons that can be produced in Iran. These facts mean Iran’s military is not optimally built to launch ground offensives against a bordering peer or overseas expeditions. Its army, navy and air force are all designed to combat a better-armed invasion force at home, or in Iran’s “green water,” rather than projecting Iranian power away from home.

The IRGC’s Quds Force (the second constituent part) and other clandestine forces serve as Iran’s covert boots on the ground, and its means of operating clients and proxies. Indeed, the Iranian strategy is to make use of the ethnic groups and substate organizations (the third constituent) that are already present and active in its overseas theaters of interest. Iran gives them comprehensive aid and empowerment, even deploying covert forces to fight alongside them.

Using proxies and covert forces, Iran successfully wore down American willpower to remain within and influence Iraq, while simultaneously acting to destabilize Iraq’s Sunni regime. Iran thus became the most influential actor in Iraq, and prevented it from being used as a springboard against Iran. Iranian covert forces used funding, bribery, intervention in tribal politics, and even kidnapping and assassination to do this. The costs and risks to Iran were low, as it operated via indirect, deniable means, without risking escalation to a direct confrontation with the United States.

Iran uses Hezbollah to blur uncomfortable regional fault lines (Shiite-Sunni and Persian-Arab) by heightening the Muslim-Israeli one. Hezbollah also constitutes a deterrent against Israel, and a means of engaging Israel and wearing it down without direct confrontation. The costs to Iran, both financial and political, of maintaining Hezbollah are far lower than the cost of generating similar effects via a conventional expeditionary force.

Thus, since 1988, Iran has managed to defend its territory and its revolutionary-religious government by dismantling potential threats before they emerged, and without involving itself directly in a major conflict. It has defended its vital interests without incurring significant costs.


Has Something Changed in Iran’s Behavior?

In recent times, not only have the threats on Iran diminished, but a power vacuum has emerged around it: the USSR collapsed and new, mostly Muslim, states now buffer between Iran and Russia; European powers significantly reduced their regional footprint; contemporary Turkey is not as threatening as the Ottoman Empire, and is somewhat directionless; Sunni rule in Iraq was toppled, diminishing the threat of a pan-Arab or pan-Sunni front; the United States withdrew from Iraq and is withdrawing from Afghanistan, Iran’s eastern and western neighbors respectively, and thereafter seems reluctant to engage in additional armed conflicts; and Afghan Pashtuns are currently not in a position to pose a threat, a position likely to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future.