What Comes Next for Iran's Defense Doctrine?

IRGC commandos and missile boats during the Great Prophet IX exercise. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Shahab-o-din Vajedi

Tehran is gradually shedding its defensive posture in favor of an offensive disposition.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in a speech delivered on the occasion of the National Army Day on April 18, 2015, characterized Iran’s defense doctrine as “defensive.” He emphasized that the military strategy of Iran was based on “active deterrence for establishment of peace and security in Iran and the regional countries.” In its modern history, Iran has initiated no war against a foreign country, but has been a victim of foreign interventions and “imposed” foreign wars (Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, for example). Iran’s military policy is also defined by a “no-first-strike doctrine” and an unwavering determination to fend off foreign invasions, whatever might be the human and material costs, while not being an aggressor itself.

The deterrence-based defense doctrine seeks to raise the aggressors’ risks and costs of military invasions to an unacceptably high level, to make the enemy (read: the United States) seriously think of its adventurous and reckless military actions against Iran. It is designed to avoid a conventional war against a technologically superior and vastly powerful enemy, and aims to employ asymmetric warfare tactics to confuse the enemy and maximize passive defenses by relying on strategic depth, manpower mobilization and psychological warfare to strike fear in enemy’s mind. Mindful of the hostile regional environment surrounding Iran, the doctrine mostly relies on Iranian domestic capabilities, including its missile inventory, to fight a lengthy war and survive. In case of a shooting war with the United States, Iran’s armed forces would also seek to close the Strait of Hormuz—the lifeline of the global oil supply—to internationalize the conflict by driving up oil prices to astronomical heights and thus win the war of wills against the enemy. The defense doctrine, in a nutshell, would ensure Iran’s security and survival by inflicting highly punishing damage on the enemy and its possible partners in the war.

The doctrine is unique in important ways. Unlike the military doctrines of many regional and global powers, Iran’s defense doctrine is heavily premised on the idea of “defensive defense,” that is, the development of military capabilities aimed at protecting Iran from foreign aggression, not to jeopardize the security of neighboring or distant states. India’s current military doctrine, known as the “Cold Start Doctrine,” for example, stands ready to launch retaliatory conventional attacks on Pakistan while stopping short of crossing the nuclear threshold. America’s military doctrine has always sought to sustain U.S. global leadership through alliances with friendly states and a forward military presence to deal with threats worldwide. Russia’s post-1991 military doctrine has consistently proclaimed the use of military force only for defensive purposes, when available nonmilitary options yield no result. Iran’s military doctrine, in contrast, has evolved, and refined itself in the process, as a response to a highly inhospitable regional security environment. Just a year after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iraq invaded Iran, and by the early 2010s, the United States posed credible security threats by occupying two of Iran’s eastern and western neighbors—Afghanistan and Iraq—though eliminating its erstwhile enemies, the Taliban and the Saddam Hussein regime.

However, it is not only external threats but a combination of historical, strategic and political factors, such as perceived self-image, perceived strategic centrality in the Middle East, fierce nationalistic resistance to foreign intervention and independence from imperialist domination by the U.S.-led West, especially in the post-1979 period, that has been the driving force behind Iran’s defense doctrine. The overall contents and thrust of the doctrine were largely determined by two great events: the war with Iraq, and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the rubric of “war on terror.” In the process, the doctrine has developed firm roots linking national defense services to national and regional interests, security needs and strategic priorities.

The doctrine has, at the same time, intimidated Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors and probably the United States. Iran’s continuous augmentation in military capabilities and sophistications in high precision and allegedly nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are a major cause of concern to regional and external opponents. It also seems that Iran’s defensive deterrent strategy is gradually developing an offensive dimension, as Tehran’s cross-border military involvements in Iraq and Syria suggest.

Self-Image, Threat Perception and Strategic Response