- Iran desires to mitigate the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.
- Threats of subversion and domestic instability dominate Iran’s policymaking and military planning.
- National interest is the primary shaper of Iran’s strategic thinking, not ideology.
- Iran’s preference for low-intensity, proxy, and asymmetric warfare reflects a desire to avoid conventional escalation.
Title: Irans Strategic Thinking
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- Iran is a fundamentally defensive state. It is principally concerned with its own stability and regime survival, and its main strategic goals are to mitigate its relative isolation while deterring potential attack from multiple regional adversaries. Iran’s relative insecurity fuels its search for regional strategic depth and preference for military self-sufficiency.
- Iran’s foreign and security policies are shaped by dual factors of national interests (expediency) and ideology. The tension between these poles of thought defines the national security debate within the regime, though expediency will trump ideological concerns whenever the leadership believes there is a real conflict. The soft- and hard-power activities employed by Iran’s Resistance Network of proxies and partners, such Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias, represent both these factors in Iranian strategy.
- Iran prioritizes internal security concerns above external ones. Vigilance against subversion and preserving domestic stability dominate security policymaking and military planning.
- Iran’s consensual decision-making style is becoming more coherent as the senior leadership becomes tighter and its security organizations evolve and professionalize.
- Iran’s behavior is driven by its perception of threats to national interests and core ideological principles. Recognizing when the state; the continuation of the revolution; Iran’s economic viability; or its leadership among Muslims, Shia Muslims, or regional neighbors is at risk is crucial for analysts and policymakers in deciphering and anticipating Iran’s security decisions.
- Iran has a historical preference for conducting low-intensity, proxy, and asymmetric warfare. Using others to fight its conflicts and keep adversaries occupied away from its borders is a logical response to Iran’s difficult strategic position and helps limit escalation of conflict.
- Iran’s military strategies and doctrines are reactive to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies. Iran invests in military capabilities and develops operational art intended to mitigate US superiority in conventional power.
Iran is not an unpredictable, irrational, rogue nation. It is simply inadequately understood. By analyzing Iran’s strategic culture, we can assess the regime’s threat perceptions and strategic calculus.
Iran’s national consciousness is defined by its longevity and resilience as a nation and a civilization, along with modern Iran’s inability to regain the relative power it possessed during the early centuries of the Persian Empire. Iran’s geographic and strategic position in the Middle East provides a natural defense against invasion but also a sense of isolation and a historical lack of natural allies. Iran’s foreign policies are also complicated by the multiple and, at times, contradictory identities the nation has acquired throughout its history: Persian, Islamic, Shiite, and revolutionary. Tehran’s revolutionary principles provide the basis of the regime’s legitimacy and most of its foreign policies while demarking key parameters for the leadership decisions. Ideology will be trumped by national interests (expediency) when the two conflict, however.
The Iranian regime’s decision making on security and strategic issues is best described as a consensual process among the key political and military leaders. Decisions to use conventional force, shift major foreign policies, or direct the actions of the Islamic Republic’s paramilitary and covert organizations are made and executed through both direct and indirect channels, all under the supreme leader’s guidance. Iran’s legacy conventional military, the Artesh, is becoming more integrated with the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, although this unique bifurcated military structure still complicates Iran’s strategy, planning, and command and control.
This paper explores the origin and nature of Iranian military and security strategy since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It identifies the historical and cultural drivers of Iran’s strategic culture, explores the nature of Tehran’s decision-making processes, reviews the evolution of the regime’s threat perceptions, and examines Iran’s strategic calculus during three historic case studies: the Tanker War, the US war in Iraq, and the current Syrian crisis. During these periods, Iran’s leaders felt regional developments posed an existential threat to Iran’s stability and security. These cases have forced operational evolution within Iran’s military and spurred strategic evolution among its leadership.
Even if the world powers complete a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Tehran, policymakers should expect Iran to continue its low-intensity, covert, global conflict with the United States and its allies, along with a long-term effort to improve deterrence against Western conventional military power.