The Persian Approach

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Robert M says:

    From stictly a objective point of view you may get two out of three but the drive to nukes isn’t going to happen. Given their history with US the USA, if the situation were reversed would YOU. NO, you wouldn’t.
    I’ll play two scenarios off the top of my head and they both assume Iran has nukes. One, once they decide(and you know they are watching all the forward bases) that we are going to attack a nuke or two goes out into the strait of Hormuz with the purpose of closing it. A lot of economic pain in the West and in the PRC.
    Two retention of said nukes on missles till we show up. EMC time and again. Hurts them more than us for purposes of CCI. Keeping playing that game till…
    All your talk of how “blooded” our troop are is true and we will win the military phase of the war but we don’t have enough troops(500,000) even with a complete mobilization of the reserves and national guard(700,000) to OCCUPY a country of that size to win the political phase.

  • Justin B says:

    Robert M,

    You forget that there is a strong anti-Mullah movement going in Iran that the current government will have to contend with. We did not defeat the Taliban by simply overpowering them with ***OUR*** military, but built a coalition of neighbors and the Northern Alliance to do it.

    Admittedly, Iran has far more Al Qaeda members that Iraq–at least assuming that they have fled from Afghanistan and are not already in Iraq, and admittedly, Iran has WMD’s of at least some level. It appears that you are proposing that the regime having more insurgents and WMD’s will greatly deter our ability to bring terrorists to justice and allows Iran to run a nuke program and further prepare defenses against us. I say you are 100% right, which is why we cannot allow them to develop nukes and may have to take military action sooner rather than later. It also clearly justifies us removing Saddam. If he had nukes, he would be further emboldened, just as we are seeing the Mullahs now.

    To your point, if the situation was reversed, would you stop making nukes, my answer would clearly depend on how serious I thought the US was about removing my regime from power. The more we display strength, the more likely they are to disarm, but the more we play games like Europe and the UN are doing with them and like Clinton did with them and NK, the less they respect our threat. If we are bluffing, I would keep making nukes, but if we are gonna invade, then I would be rolling over as quick as I could.

  • Robert M says:

    They won’t be bluffing. It is in their legitimate interest to keep us at bay. So all they are going to do is build. The more we bark and they add up the military, political and economic counters and they counter with theirs they would probably see it the way I do. And they’ll keep building in case we do make the change.
    They’ll give up Al-Queda as Al-Queda considers Shia Iran heretics that should be burned at the stake. They’ll do all they can for influence in Iraq to protect Iran not bring about some theocratic government because ethnically Iraq’s Shia are arabs not persians. Plus from a Iraqi Shia point of view thaey would like to be there own man after Saddam and Bush’s failure in 91
    Nor is Iran ethnically diverse enough from my readings to provide a Northern Alliance. As to its neighbors they would like to see a net addition to the general treasury not an expenditure and drain for American goals.
    By the way keep Clinton is not the source of this problem. The mullahs came to power under Carter. Reagan traded arms with them after he sicced the rabid dog on them. Bush 41 didn’t do anything against them nor did he kill the rabid dog when he had a chance.
    North Korea is a worse can of worms than Iran. I think of them as the PRC’s proxy rabid dog. I have no realistic idea what real good can come of this proxy. I do know Beijing is closer to Pyongyang than the continental USA….

  • Justin B says:

    Clinton is clearly to blame for not taking action against their buildup towards nukes and imposing sactions prior to the Bush administration. He is clearly to blame for his treaty with NK that allowed them to get billions in aid to build their nuclear power industry when they “promised” not to develop nukes in exchange. These countries did not start a nuke program yesterday. We knew this was coming. Clinton allowed Pakistan and India to develop and test nukes plus he let the Chinese steal and bribe away our technologies to develop their own weapons.

    Now what we have is several more nations that have nuclear weapons and other WMD’s. We have Pakistani scientists selling nuclear secrets to rogue nations and we had Libya hiding tons of chem weapons, etc. The mullahs are not the problem here. The presence of WMD’s in the mullah’s hands is the problem. Even just plain WMD’s are not the biggest issue, nuclear weapons are the real problem. The second part of the problem with Iran is their harboring of Al Qaeda and allowing them safe passage between Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I am not going to say the Mullahs are good guys or that Iran’s leaders are running a model of justice and equality, but Iran’s brand of Shariah law is much less repressive than many other countries in Africa and the Middle East (post forthcoming on Shariah law and its impact on Mid East and even Western Democracies like Canada, Germany and France). They have an affluent and educated population by Middle Eastern standards so just being anti-American (the government, not the people per se) and being an Islamic theocracy is not at issue. The Mullahs and the people of Iran can do whatever they want with their government, but they cannot build and develop WMD’s and harbor Al Qaeda terrorists.

    We are not the world’s protector or their schoolteacher giving lessons in “Can’t we all just get along”. But look at what the UN is doing with Iran and NK. They are allowing anyone and everyone that wants them to develop WMD technologies and spread the proliferation of the most deadly of weapons. And who would want to invest billions into building weapons like this when they have starving people at home? What peaceful nation needs these things to protect themselves when we have the UN Security Council that adjudicates territorial disputes instead of allowing outright war? Wait, perhaps that is the problem… The UN does not A. Know what their job is and B. do their job. So only a nation that plans of having its neighbors or other nations attack it or plans on attacking their neighbors needs WMD’s for defense. You don’t hear about the Costa Rican WMD program. Or the Chilean buildup of mustard gas. The development of these weapons is to give these nations enhanced status at the negotiating table since other nations are more likely to back down to a Nuclear Power.

    But to the point of a “Northern Alliance”, you greatly underestimate the anti-Mullah forces at work in Iran. The people do not like the Mullahs or Shariah Law. Few that have any education at all or think the world has evolved past 1000 AD like Shariah Law. Imagine if the US was run by a bunch of fanatics that made Jimmy Farwell preaching about teletubbies look like the voice of moderation. Iran has a strong secular movement and has a lot of expatriates that live in the US among other places. People do not like living under the Taliban or Saddam or the Mullahs. We are not the Mullah’s biggest enemy, their own people and their expatriates that live in free nations and want to return to Iran as educated and affluent people are the enemy.

    Steal and get a hand cut off. Commit adultery and get stoned to death. Fornicate when you are unmarried and get 80 lashes. Drink alcohol and get 60 lashes. Yep, people are lining up to move to those countries aren’t they. The people there think life is grand. We can’t even say “Merry Christmas” here without people thinking we are ramming God down their throat. So think about this question:

    Knowing what you do about human nature and taking into account the social mores and cultural upbringing that these folks have, Do you think that people like getting whipped or stoned to death or beheaded or having hands cut off, especially innocent people that are wrongly accused? Do you think that some segment of the population is unhappy?

  • Robert M says:

    Justin B
    You are giving reasons why the USA should encircle or invade Iran without accepting any reasons the Iranians should have to evade this policy by obtaining nukes. I don’t accept this arguement. I think it is bad policy because we are currently engaged in a game of chicken that we cannot currently back up because in the END we must OCCUPY IRAN and we don’t currently have the military and economic resources to do it. And in the end if Iran uses nukes on American soil we will have less to OCCUPY IRAN with.
    You have importantly stated why the Iranians want them and why I believe they are going to obtain them if they haven’t already. “The developement of these weapons is to give these nations enhanced status at the negotiating table since other nations are more likely to back down to a Nuclear Power.”
    As to Clinton. I can accept that his policy failed vis a vis North Korea. I don’t believe the facts will bear out the idea the programs for nukes or improving them in India, Pakistan, North Korea and the PRC started on his watch.
    Let’s drop this discussion because what we are both concerned w/ is what to do now.

  • Justin B says:

    Robert M,

    Here is what President Justin would do… well first, I would assemble a cabinet of supermodels, but that is more for domestic policy not foreign… =)

    I would stabilize the situation as much as I could in the cities and the parts or Iraq that we occupy and get Iraqi troops trained and hold the January elections. That is the priority. During this process I would issue an ultimatum to Iran, “Close down the borders and stop the flow of terrorist into Iraq, or we will close it down.” I would then start massing troops on the border to “secure it”. Same with Syria. I would start assembling troops on their borders and demand they stop what they are doing.

    Then I would do what they are doing… namely sending people into their country to topple the government. I would use as many SEALS and covert ops people as I could to conduct sabotage missions to attack terrorists and WMD programs. I would have CIA operatives doing as much as they can to disable the further buildup and to embolden the anti-Mullah forces.

    You do not have to send 200,000 troops into Iran or actually invade to get them to comply. But these are the precursors to an invasion anyway and we basically dare them to either attack us overtly or test our will by developing nukes.

  • Justin B says:

    Oh yeah, and I would make Ron Artest Ambassador to France. You think Chirac is gonna mess with him? And if that Zapatero spouts off, Artest will go and beat the hell out of France by “mistake” and let his buddies take out Spain. Foreign Policy NBA style… “I Love This Game.” =)


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