Dr. Kaveh Afrasiabi, professor of political science at the University of Tehran has published an article outlining Iran’s strategy against a possible confrontation with the United States. As Colt stated in Thursday’s Winds of War Briefing, the article is a “rather optimistic (from the mullahs’ perspective) look at how Iran would fight back” , but if this is the best face Iran can put on its ability to fight the American military, it should not be very comforting to the mullahs.
Dr. Afrasiabi begins the article by discussing a recent Iranian military exercise that ‘mesmeriz[ed] foreign observers, who have described as “spectacular”‘. He then begins to dicuss how Iranian strategy against the United States has evolved by looking at past conflicts.
Learning from both the 2003 Iraq war and Iran’s own precious experiences of the 1980-88 war with Iraq and the 1987-88 confrontation with US forces in the Persian Gulf, Iranians have focused on the merits of a fluid and complex defensive strategy that seeks to take advantage of certain weaknesses in the US military superpower while maximizing the precious few areas where they may have the upper hand, eg, numerical superiority in ground forces, guerrilla tactics, terrain, etc.
The Iranian military leadership is misguided if they believe they can out-maneuver, out-think, out-man or out-fight American forces in a conventional fight. One thing that should be clear is that America’s military has no peer on the conventional battlefield. The American military’s command, control, communications, information, weapons and technology are several levels of magnitude greater than Iranian capabilities. If the “certain weaknesses” the Iranians are referring to is the soft logistical chain, then they are not accounting for the U.S. military’s adaptations to this problem. The Army has learned valuable lessons in Iraq, and is armoring supply vehicles and increasing the training of support personnel, many of whom also have combat experience in Iraq. And unlike Iran’s military, American forces are seasoned combat veterans accustomed to the difficulties of war.
In reality, Iran’s ability to strike back lies exclusively in guerrilla warfare, terrorist attacks and its missile technology. Last summer, in Iranian Involvement, Reloaded we discussed Iran’s active recruitement of suicide bombers; and in Taming the Tiger, we discussed Iran’s unconventional military advantages and the state of its armed forces.
Iran’s true threats lay in its unconventional assets: Hezbollah, ballistic missiles, and chemical and biological weapons arsenals. Iran’s missiles would be able to strike American forces in the region, and tipped with chemical or biological agents, pose a great threat.
Dr. Afrasiabi confirms that these unconventional forces are a key to Iran’s strategy to counter an American military advance. Interestingly enough, Dr. Afrasiabi neglects to mention the potential of utilizing Hezbollah as an overseas proxy against American military and civilian installations, which should not be discounted. Nor does he mention unleashing al Qaeda personnel who have been sheltered in Iran. Perhaps this would be a tacit admission of Iran’s complicity in global terrorism.
[S]ome 25,000 volunteers have so far signed up at newly established draft centers for “suicide attacks” against any potential intruders in what is commonly termed “asymmetrical warfare”.
Iran’s proliferation of a highly sophisticated and mobile ballistic-missile system plays a crucial role in its strategy, again relying on lessons learned from the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003: in the earlier war over Kuwait, Iraq’s missiles played an important role in extending the warfare to Israel, notwithstanding the failure of America’s Patriot missiles to deflect most of Iraq’s incoming missiles raining in on Israel and, to a lesser extent, on the US forces in Saudi Arabia. Also, per the admission of the top US commander in the Kuwait conflict, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the hunt for Iraq’s mobile Scud missiles consumed a bulk of the coalition’s air strategy and was as difficult as searching for “needles in a haystack”.
Today, in the evolution of Iran’s military doctrine, the country relies on increasingly precise long-range missiles, eg, Shahab-3 and Fateh-110, that can “hit targets in Tel Aviv”, to echo Iranian Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi.
Another component of Iranian strategy is to increase instability in the region by attempting to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan (as if Iran isn’t already doing this, particularly in Iraq, with its support of Sadr and attempts to influence elections).
Another key element of Iran’s strategy is to “increase the arch of crisis” in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where it has considerable influence, to undermine the United States’ foothold in the region, hoping to create a counter-domino effect wherein instead of gaining inside Iran, the US would actually lose territory partly as a result of thinning its forces and military “overstretch”.
Iran’s strategy against American military action can be boiled down to the following: oppose America’s military with conventional forces working in conjunction with a guerilla/terrorist force inside Iran; attack American allies in the region with missiles, perhaps with WMD technology; intimidate of neighboring nations to prevent them from hosting American forces; and spreading the conflict to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The article also reveals some interesting points about America’s military posture in the Middle East. Dr. Afrasiabi recognizes that American forces have surrounded Iran (see The Keystone State) and this is giving the mullahs much to think about.
Consequently, there is a sense of a national-security siege in Iran these days, in light of a tightening “security belt” by the US benefiting from military bases in Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the island-turned-garrison of Diego Garcia.
The containment of Iran has had more than just a worrying effect on the mullahs. The Iranian economy is showing signs of strain from America’s posture.
In fact, the military threat against Iran has proved poison for the Iranian economy, chasing away foreign investment and causing considerable capital flight, an intolerable situation prompting some Iranian economists even to call for filing complaints against the US in international tribunals seeking financial remedies. This is a little far-fetched, no doubt, and the Iranians would have to set a new legal precedent to win their cause in the eyes of international law. Iran cannot possibly allow the poor investment climate caused by the military threats to continue indefinitely, and reciprocating with an extended deterrence strategy that raises the risk value of US allies in the region is meant to offset this rather unhappy situation.
America’s policy of containment is frightening the Iranian mullahs, and is forcing them to consider open confrontation with the United States military. Dr. Afrasiabi’s analysis indicates that the Iranian military is planning to fight the last war (Lebanon, Iraq) but is not considering America’s ability to adapt to weaknesses exposed in Iraq. Iran’s advantages include the expected diplomatic pressure leveraged by the international community, Hezbollah operations overseas, a potential nuclear threat, and America’s lack of forces at hand at the moment. Due to American military superiority, Iran would be reduced to fighting an unconventional war, much like the current insurgency in Iraq, but American forces have gained valuable combat experience in theater. Iran’s ability to launch missiles undetected would not last forever, and the advent of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, which were not present in the First Gulf War, will reduce Iran’s ability to launch at will. Any use of WMD will have serious consequences, and will be met in kind. No doubt an American campaign in Iran would be difficult and costly, but allowing Iran to become a nuclear power would have a chilling effect on reshaping the Middle East to reduce the threat of state sponsored terrorism.
Iran has an out – disavow support for Hezbollah, turn over al Qaeda sheltered in-country, and quit their nuclear program. The choice is up to the mullahs, but based on their past history of open defiance to America’s presence in the Middle East, the likelihood of Iran backing down from a conflict is low.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.