Military Philosophy: Perpetual Illegitimacy and Survival
Several countries link their foreign policy and military strategy, though few are as interwoven as Iran’s. Many foreign policy analysts contend that the Iranian government’s worldview is defined by the omnipresent external threats they perceive to face, especially from the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. From the Iranian perspective, Western adversaries seek to destroy their country and pursue regime change at all costs. Critically, Iran believes that because of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, their Shia government’s legitimacy will never be fully accepted by the West and that the current animosity is, in reality, directed at the regime’s “Islamic establishment.” Thinking that the West will only rest when the theocracy crumbles, hardliners like Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei believe that all negotiations with the West are disingenuous and therefore the Islamic Republic of Iran will never be free from the designs of Western aggression and regime change efforts. Since 2003, Iran has regarded an Iraq-style American ground invasion as the most existential threat to Iranian sovereignty. Additionally, with the recent deterioration of Iranian relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as increased Israeli aggression in Syria, Iran has committed to its assertive security measures and cautionary messaging to ensure the West knows the cost of aggressive action.
Asymmetric Warfare Strategy: The Porcupine Defense
Accordingly, Iran has combined foreign policy with carefully developed military capabilities plus strategy specifically designed to exploit adversarial weak points and avoid direct confrontations with superior U.S. and Israeli forces. Due to Iran’s immense power and resource deficiencies, their strategy is primarily designed for deterrence, combining foreign and domestic defense measures which “render the cost-benefit calculations unfavorable to attacking Iran.”
Following Taiwanese and North Korean examples, Iran has adopted an asymmetric warfare strategy to guarantee its sovereignty. Designed around forward defense capabilities and domestic deterrence, Iran emphasizes the pillars of anti-access and area denial to prevent enemy incursions into “territory or operational areas… [and] limit capabilities of the opposing force within such areas.”2 Learning lessons from Soviet Cold War overspending, Iran’s isolation during the Iran-Iraq War, as well as their previous experience with sanctions, Iran’s strategy stresses self-sufficiency, minimizing costs, avoiding direct conflict, and empowering their proxies – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia Militias, and others – to most effectively build international power in order to regionalize their retaliatory capabilities. Ultimately, Iran’s combined efforts aim to, as former Deputy Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command Lt. General Vincent Stewart (Ret.) told the Cipher Brief, “impose cost on a global scale, striking US interests…with the intent of expanding the conflict, while engaging the international community to restrain America’s actions.” Regionalizing the conflict with pre-existing non-state actors will force the US to combat an expensive global insurgency, spreading its forces to where other powerful actors will tire of American impunity and work to curb and dilute unilateral action.
Geography: Defending the “Fortress”
Located on one of the most economically vital trade routes in the world, Iran’s geographic control of the 21-mile wide Strait of Hormuz, which 20% of the world’s oil passes through, gives them an easily exploitable pressure point to threaten and antagonize their energy dependent adversaries, an essential forward defense deterrent. Not afraid to wield their power to disrupt a significant portion of the world’s oil supply, Iran is also the 17th largest country in the world by land area and incredibly well defended by its natural landscape. Iran’s only non-mountainous border region, the province of Khuzestan neighboring Iraq, is where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers empty into the Persian gulf, creating a swampy and easily defensible environment. Retreating from Khuzestan, Iranian forces dig in along the Zagros mountain range, which protects Iran from the west and provides a natural high ground defense barrier along the entire Persian Gulf, a lesson Iraq’s Saddam Hussein learned the hard way during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran maximizes these natural defenses to complement its asymmetric warfare strategy as additional mountain ranges along its northern and eastern borders combined with several other mountainous regions throughout the country allow Iran to shelter its cities, protect their mobile anti-aircraft systems, conceal ballistic missile launch sites, and screen other sensitive defense capabilities. These natural barriers, combined with their lethal and mobile defensive arsenal, prompted Stratfor to call Iran a “Mountain Fortress,” which presents a daunting challenge for any adversary to overcome.
Armory: Strength in Numbers
To understand Iranian foreign policy, one must first know how Iran has developed its unconventional forces, which make up the bulk of its asymmetrical warfare strategy. Even though they possess capable conventional armed forces, Iran’s most powerful military force is the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Existing outside conventional military control and only answerable to the clerical elite, the IRGC’s domestic and international purview make them the country’s most influential organization. Capacity wise, the IRGC and its Quds Force (QF), preserve domestic order and are Iran’s main foreign policy deterrent capable of clandestine regional (and occasionally global) force projection.3
Adopting an approach of extreme preparedness, Iran invests heavily in intelligence networks and technology as well as meticulously scrutinizes (and re-evaluates) previous U.S. battle plans to best prepare themselves for U.S. aggression. Iran thus tailors its defense around five strategies; versatile air defense, domestic missile capabilities, cyberwarfare, naval combat, and reduced airpower. Because of overwhelming U.S. air capabilities, Iran places a premium on mobile military technology. Iranian missile defense systems are either hidden or mobile, jeopardizing the West’s fighter jets and denying unthreatened air superiority. Due to arms sanctions, Iran has developed very capable, diverse, and accurate ballistic missile technology, bringing all of the U.S.’s Middle Eastern staging bases within range. These missiles are also deployed with proxies and fired domestically to threaten retaliation against regional adversaries, particularly Israel, and demonstrate strength. Short and Medium range ballistic missile capabilities make Iran a credible “deterrence by punishment” (retaliation) and “deterrence by denial” (movement prevention) threat, increasing foreign intervention costs while providing the base platform and technology Iran can later develop into a nuclear missile.4
While the Iranian Navy operates several submarines and a few conventional ships, the IRGC’s Navy is made up of 3,000-5,000 small attack boats armed with conventional and anti-ship cruise missiles. Instead of investing in one ship with limited capabilities and geographic utility, ultrafast boats are perfect for asymmetric deterrence because their numbers provide strategic depth. Attacking with overwhelming quantities of smaller and cheaper craft makes sinking one, or even several, inconsequential as there will always be more to continue an attack. Deployed along the entire coastline, requiring little infrastructure, and quickly replaceable, Iran’s inexpensive attack boats are a budget-friendly way to effectively defend their whole coastline.
Designed to counteract the U.S. Navy, these versatile, ultrafast boats will swarm attack capital ships and overwhelm defensive capabilities.5 Iran knows that their boats are individually outmatched, but, when participating in coordinated attacks of 100 armed as they are, only one needs to penetrate defenses in order to potentially sink a U.S. ship. Sinking or damaging a U.S. ship would be a galvanizing propaganda boon for Iran and a shocking blow to the already limited American public support for the conflict, which Iran views as the U.S. Military’s proverbial “Achilles heel.”
Due to limited traditional response capabilities, Iran’s most effective asymmetric warfare weapon is its cyberwarfare wherewithal. From 2013-2015, Iran increased cyber spending by 1200%, concentrating on defensive cybersecurity and economic sabotage, becoming very adept at gathering signals intelligence plus deploying cyberattacks as a form of deniable and de-escalatory retaliation. Iran has also deployed cyber resources with their proxies, adding coordinated cyberattacks to their repertoire.
Budget: Iran Gets the Most Bang for its Buck
Considering American, Israeli, and the Gulf States’ ballooning military budgets, combined with pressure from economic sanctions, Iran prioritizes technology that is developed domestically and inexpensively reproducible in large quantities. Compared to Israel, who’s 2017 military expenditure was $2,235 per capita, Iran spent just $195, representing only 3.75% of Iran’s GDP in contrast to 5.3% of Israel’s. Moreover, while the U.S. spends $686 billion and the Gulf States account for $100 billion combined, Iran effectively deters this almost $800 billion opposition with a paltry $17.4 billion military budget. Iran’s small defense budget is reflective of their determination to remain self-sufficient during conflict. Because of international abandonment during the Iran-Iraq War and continued sanctions pressure, Iran has learned how to maximize spending. Thus, ballistic missiles, mobile anti-aircraft launchers, and ultrafast boats are cost-effective anti-access and area denial measures yielding disproportionately effective results in aggression deterrence and regional power projection.
Exporting the Revolution: Regionalizing Iranian Deterrence
While IRGC military capabilities very clearly play into foreign policy goals, the most important aspects to Iranian deterrence are their powerful proxies. Iran’s unique role as the Middle East’s only Shia theocracy affords unique prospects for gaining support from regional Shia groups outside Iran, especially with chaos enveloping several neighboring states. The IRGC’s Quds Force is responsible for generating and organizing this support, forming militias and armed proxy groups of non-Iranian Shia loyal to Tehran. Quds Forces then command these units and pursue Iranian interests with minimal involvement or cost by Tehran. Often, because of Quds organization and support, these groups become powerful domestic players and give Iran substantial footholds in their respective countries. These organizations allow Iran to regionalize asymmetric deterrence, posing credible threats to regional American diplomats and interests should the U.S. strike first. In addition to providing deterrence, proxies exist as power projection organizations which Iran uses to grow its sphere of influence.
The Axis of Resistance: A Worldwide Effort
Termed the “Axis of Resistance” by Iranian leaders, Iran’s outlook on the world revolves around trying to shift the global power balance away from the West, specifically the U.S., and remove Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. Rolling back U.S. involvement is a global strategic goal shared by Iran, Russia, and China. However, Russian and Chinese involvement in the Axis can be more accurately characterized as strategic international support, economic cooperation, and technology sharing rather than clandestine networking or operational participation, with the notable exception being Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Initially little more than rhetoric, under former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s tutelage, the Axis moved from the shadows into a powerful coalition that undertook joint military operations and significantly strengthened Iran’s forward defense, strategic deterrence, and asymmetric warfare foreign policy capabilities.
Not confined to the Middle East, the Axis stretches Iran’s influence to even threaten America in its own hemisphere, although minimally. Russia, Iran, and Cuba have fostered strong economic, military, and intelligence partnerships to shore up Nicolás Maduro’s (previously Hugo Chávez’s) struggling Venezuela. Discussing coordination of their response to the crisis with Russia, Iran operates IRGC training camps, flies an air corridor between Caracas and Tehran, provides loans for Venezuelan infrastructure projects to Cuba, as well as imports Hezbollah fighters, Quds forces, and weapons to the South American nation.
Proxy Powers: Iran’s Most Effective Allies
Returning to the Middle East, Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” projection mechanisms are mostly non-governmental proxy forces. Tehran has successfully created proxy footholds in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria, as well as allegedly controls several sleeper cells throughout Europe and Northern Africa. The most successful of these is the Lebanese Hezbollah, one of Iran’s staunchest allies which has emerged as a legitimate force to combat and provoke Israel. Similar to Iran’s ballistic missiles, Hezbollah is a tangible forward defense threat that ensures any attack against Iran will be answered. Combined with domestic strategies, the Iranian supplied military power of proxies has built up a foreign policy “strategic equilibrium” of mutual deterrence capable of filling the asymmetrical relationship between Israeli and Iranian power.
While not exactly considered a normal proxy according to the Soufan Center’s Iranian Proxy “Playbook,” the partnership with the Yemeni Houthi rebel group demonstrates the strategic depth of Iran’s defense. Outflanking and bleeding Saudi Arabia of $6 billion per month, independent Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia vindicate the proxy strategy as a deterrent because Iran is able to inflict significant strategic costs while “being [recognized as] capable [and willing] of executing… operation[s]…, whether directly or through the Houthis,” and simultaneously ensuring Saudi Arabia cannot engage Iran due to lack of resources. Because the Houthis and other proxies can act without Tehran, proxy attacks “signal [Iranian] capability while denying culpability,” thus minimizing the risk to sovereign territory. Put simply, the IRGC and Quds have outsourced “direct warfighting” in pursuit of foreign policy goals to proxy powers.
Iran perfected their minimalist unconventional war technique in Syria. Secretly deployed in 2011, the Quds Force commanded a myriad of soldiers to turn the tide of the Syrian Civil War for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, consolidating Iran’s role within the country while decreasing military expenditures. Supplying less than 1% of Assad’s ground forces, Iran was able to mobilize Hezbollah as well as Lebanese and Afghan Shia militias to essentially secure Assad’s victory. Despite fighting in Syria, guaranteeing Assad’s rule was rationalized as a matter of Iranian national security essential for forward defense because it stopped Sunni groups, both ISIS and the Syrian Rebels, from gaining power, which would have been a crushing blow to Iran’s foreign policy objectives due to the Shia-Sunni conflict engulfing the region.6
In terms of soft-power, despite international sanctions, Iran will be a key player in Syria’s economic reconstruction. Assad’s dependence on Iranian support leaves Iran well positioned to gain foreign policy and strategic economic/military goals after the war, such as procuring a long desired land corridor to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s popularity and political legitimacy gives Iran considerable influence. Similarly, Iranian funding of Shia militias in Iraq has yielded substantial traction and drawn Iraq closer into the Iranian sphere of influence. Based on the success of Iranian proxies gaining legitimate domestic power bases, Iran’s strategy can be seen through a military/forward defense lens to regionalize any response to aggression. Additionally, proxies can be viewed through a strategic foreign policy lens to expand their regional interests and increase Iranian-led Shia influence throughout the Middle East.
Militant Foreign Policy: Cost Effective Deterrence and Building Alliances
Informed by their fatalistic, zero-sum worldview, Iran’s unique blend of foreign and military policy has successfully guarded against American and Israeli aggression while building regional partners. Iran has surrounded Saudi Arabia with proxy actors and built relationships with Turkey, Russia, and China, all of whom can prevent the United States from gaining international legitimacy for aggressive action. Often misconstrued as antagonistic power plays, Iranian sabre rattling (e.g. threatening to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) instead seeks to legitimize its deterrent capabilities and highlight Western weaknesses, especially political and diplomatic constraints. Resultantly, constant Iranian irascibility is an “unavoidable manifestation” crucial to sustaining its effective forward deterrence strategy by distracting from military deficiencies.
Despite its challenging situation, Iran has thrived by closely integrating its foreign policy and military strategy. Eternally in survival mode and largely prevented from acting on the world stage, Iranian foreign policy is often carried out with military means, especially IRGC and Quds Force action, to regionalize Iranian defense. Fighting ISIS, building militias in Iraq, supporting Assad in Syria, supplying arms and money to Hezbollah to oppose Israel, assisting the Houthis to distract Saudi Arabia, and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz are all examples of foreign policy used for forward defense. Inversely, Iran’s deterrence military strategy relies heavily on foreign policy. Iran’s domestic military industry is critical to its sanctions aversion while its ballistic and anti-aircraft missile capabilities are essential to preventing attacks and guaranteeing Iranian sovereignty. Ultimately, using a combination of foreign policy and military strategy to deftly mitigate power discrepancies with their adversaries preserves the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran while mitigating the risk of hostile action.
1 “The U.S. Department of Defense defines asymmetrical warfare as ‘the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.’”
2 The Crisis Group defines Iran’s “forward defense” policy as “an effort to exploit weak states, such as Lebanon and post 2003 Iraq, where it can meet its enemies on the battlefield through proxies without direct harm to Iran and its people.”
3 Force Projection — The ability to project the military instrument of national power from the United States or another theater, in response to requirements for military operations.
4 The US withdrawal from the JCPOA was in part motivated by expansion of the Iranian ballistic missile program. The West is very wary of Iranian ballistic missile programs and has repeatedly tried to discuss controls, but Tehran will only negotiate as part of a region wide arms control program that considers strategic threats like Israel.
5 A 2002 American war game gives this strategy validity, as the opposing force was able to sink US ships and kill sailors, ultimately winning the simulation despite the clear disadvantages.
6 Iranian leaders have undertaken major efforts to keep in power Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a key Iranian ally despite his secular ideology…[because of] (1) facilitates Iran’s arming and protection of Hezbollah; (2) is an ally of Iran in a region where most governments oppose the Islamic Republic; and (3) might be replaced by a government hostile to Iran if he fell.”