The Islamic Republic of Iran today is being confronted by existential attacks on its alliance system, the axis of resistance, on two fronts: first Syria, and now Iraq. While it has largely contained the Syrian civil war—having reversed the tide in favor of Bashar al Assad’s regime after three years of sustained military, political, and economic support—the crumbling of the Iraqi state and the possibility of a Sunni resurgence has elites in Iran alarmed.
Iran is now in the uncomfortable position of planning to stage a military intervention in Iraq, one that is likely to follow a pattern that has emerged since 1979.
Two decisive military experiences in the 1980s have helped shape Iran’s approach to military intervention and its very strong preference for covert operations. The first is the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which is arguably the defining experience of the Islamic Republic, on par with the revolution itself. While Iran’s conventional military achieved its primary objective of not conceding an inch of Iranian soil to Iraq using overt operations, it was far less successful in projecting power into Iraq, and the stalemated war ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars. Critically, Iran learned the limits of its conventional military power, constrained by technological and industrial shortcomings and international balance-of-power dynamics. The second experience was attempts by the Movements Branch, the predecessor of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Jerusalem (Qods) Force, to create resistance movements across the Middle East, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and helped shape an evolving template which has been used widely elsewhere since. This second experience has left a greater imprint on Iranian military interventions due to its relative military success, cost-effectiveness, and deniability.
With this background in mind, what is Iran’s approach to military interventions? It typically follows three basic principles.
1. Leave a light footprint
Iran’s preference for a light footprint, especially covert operations, has been confirmed on numerous occasions since 1979; it has relied on small and discreet special operations and intelligence units which gather vital information and act as trainers and advisers to realize its goals, the most well-known example being Major-General Qasem Soleimani’s Jerusalem Force. As Robert Beckhusen has neatly summarized, “The Quds Force is not a front-line unit, but functions as a special operations group whose presence and leadership improves indigenous forces on the battlefield.” This preference, shaped by its experiences in the 1980s, coalesced into a more consistent approach in the aftermath of the killing of 13 Iranian diplomats in its Mazari Sharif consulate by the Afghan Taliban in 1998. This was an episode in which a large-scale Iranian overt operation in Afghanistan was seriously contemplated by the regime’s national security establishment. While we do not know all of the facts, credible accounts have begun to emerge. As current senior military adviser to the supreme leader and former IRGC commander Majour-General Yayha Rahim-Safavi recounts:
At that time  I was commander of the IRGC and in 48 hours deployed two divisions with airplanes on the border of Taybad. I made an operational plan and took it before [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to ask permission so that we could advance to the Herat region with a number of divisions. Herat is approximately 130 km from our border. I said: ‘Give us permission, for the punishment of the Taliban, to advance to Herat; annihilate, punish, eliminate them and return.’
This is said to be one of the few occasions in which Khamenei went against the consensus of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the main body responsible for Iran’s foreign and national security policymaking. According to Rahim-Safavi, Khamenei disagreed on two grounds, saying that: “First the Taliban has not entered our territory and not infiltrated our country; the entry of Iran into the land of Afghanistan may lead others to react.” Here, Khamenei appears to have firmly established violation of Iranian territory as one of the very few red-lines that could trigger overt military intervention. Second, Khamenei is said to have asserted that “Right now 13 people have been martyred and you go to seek revenge,” but in a large-scale deployment this number could increase because “it is not the case that only you kill them.” Rahim-Safavi’s alternative proposal to “strike the Taliban border outposts with artillery and mortar and then demolish them with bulldozers and loaders in a short period,” was ultimately accepted. This was only a stopgap measure, however, and the thrust of Iran’s response to the Taliban from 1998 onward relied on covert operations, including a partnership with the Northern Alliance, an indigenous force in Afghanistan.
Iran’s preference for leaving a light footprint in military interventions has been strong enough that even in Syria, where reliable local forces have been stretched to their limits, Iran has tried to avoid using Iranian troops and deployed Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a special groups, and—allegedly—Shia Hazara refugees from Iran, among others.
2. Partner with indigenous forces and use unconventional warfare
Iran has historically emphasized partnering with indigenous forces in carrying out its military interventions. While reliable publicly available information remains scant, these partnerships appear to follow a basic pattern epitomized by Hezbollah, though there can be important variations from case to case. First, it typically targets marginalized Muslim communities in the midst of a crisis in states where it wants to intervene. The Shia community in Lebanon following the Israeli invasion of 1982 certainly fits this profile, with its vulnerability creating an opening for Iran to enter and offer a partnership that includes financing, training, and arms, in exchange for cooperation in reaching Iranian foreign and security policy goals.
Second, rather than creating narrowly-focused armed groups, Iran typically attempts to create movements which can attract a social base (in part through the provision of social services), actively influence the politics of the states they live in, and act as a military force against opponents in and around their immediate geographical context. Hezbollah today constitutes precisely such a movement, a state within a state in southern Lebanon that broadens the scope of Iranian influence in the Levant.
Third, Iran’s reliance on indigenous forces often goes hand in hand with the use of unconventional warfare. The emphasis on this type of warfare emerged out of the exigencies of the Iran-Iraq War, in which Iran’s conventional military edge vis-à-vis Iraq steadily eroded over the course of the war. Since then, the IRGC has specialized in unconventional warfare and offers training and arms in this field to indigenous forces that partner with Iran. This is often borne out of necessity: Iran simply cannot train and equip its partners with mass-produced and technologically advanced military hardware like the United States can. Iran is, however, proficient in the mass production and use of small arms and light weapons as well as light vehicles, watercraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to great military effect. Such an approach allows Iran to rapidly build up the military capacity of its indigenous partners at a relatively low cost, and can be very effective in inflicting casualties and demoralizing enemies. This was certainly the experience of Israel during its occupation of Lebanon and war with Hezbollah, when it was not defeated in purely conventional military terms but was eventually forced to retreat without having obtained many of its primary objectives.
Beyond establishing deeply-rooted Iranian social, political, and economic influence in the states where it is operating, this basic principle also supports the goal of leaving a light footprint, giving Iran a degree of deniability and allowing it to engage in proxy conflicts.
3. Create broad non-sectarian coalitions
In its military interventions, Iran has tried to legitimize its actions and weaken its opponents by creating broad non-sectarian coalitions, meaning that it often seeks to avoid overt sectarianism both in its discourse and actions, where feasible. This has been borne out with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which regularly works with Christians and other denominations under the banner of anti-Zionism, and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which included Sunni Tajiks and Shia Hazara under an anti-Taliban banner. In Syria, it has been fighting to preserve a secular Arab Baathist regime presided over by Alawi (who, contrary to some claims, are outside of mainstream Shiism) and Sunni elites under the banner of anti-terrorism.
On one level, as a state that aspires to be an Islamic power and not merely a Shia power, it is important for Iran to be seen as not acting in an overtly sectarian manner in the various places it intervenes. The increasing sectarianism of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq threatens to alienate Islam’s Sunni majority from Iran, an outcome the latter will seek to avoid, though its fear of reputational costs will be balanced by the need to advance its national interests. On another level, as implied by Khamenei’s response to Rahim-Safavi in 1998, the Islamic Republic is highly cognizant of the way overt operations and outright military occupation can not only damage Iran’s reputation as an anti-imperialist force, but actually create a rally-around-the-flag effect that would ultimately doom any military intervention.
While some see the current Iraq crisis as an opportunity for Iran—and in the long-term it may well have advantages—in the short term it is a profound threat to its national security. For all themystique surrounding Jerusalem Force commander Soleimani, who the Western media would have us believe is an Iranian “Kaiser Soze,” regime leaders must be wondering if he was asleep at the helm in Iraq in allowing the Sunni discontent to reach crisis proportions. Indeed, the possibility of carving out a Shia Arab state from the dying Iraqi body politic is at best a last resort fraught with perils. The creation of hostile Sunni Arab state on Iran’s frontiers may give its regional foes the perfect vehicle for destabilizing its already fragile western border, including Iran’s Arab-majority oil producing province of Khuzestan, while an independent Kurdish state could strengthen the hands of Iranian Kurds seeking greater autonomy or outright secession. Geopolitically, this outcome would break the contiguity of borders between the Axis of Resistance, weakening Iran’s regional position.
The current situation will necessitate an Iranian military intervention, and indeed the basic framework laid out here is already playing out in Iraq. Despite reports of Iranian troop deployments in Iraq, Iran does not appear to be engaging in overt operations at this point but will likely maintain a light footprint and deny any military involvement, even in the face of credible claims to the contrary. In Iraq, demographics negate the problem of finding reliable military manpower. Rather, the Islamic Republic is likely to focus on creating lightly equipped local defense units capable of holding territory and putting into the field heavily equipped mobile units capable of taking the fight to ISIL and its allies. The existence of Iranian partners such as the Peace Brigades (a resurrected Mahdi Army), League of the Righteous (Asaib Ahl al-Haq) and Hezbollah Brigades (Kataib Hezbollah), which have either been on deployment in Syria or dormant, will accelerate this process and significantly deepen Iran’s ties with indigenous Shia forces in Iraq. Of course, In Iraq it is all the more urgent for Iran to be perceived as acting in a non-sectarian manner, and for these reasons Iran has been trying to enlist Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the coalition to fight ISIL. Despite its best efforts, however, the creation of a broad non-sectarian coalition may be difficult given Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unilateralism, Shia-Sunni antagonism (aggravated by Iran’s support for Shia militias) and potential Kurdish opportunism. More generally, Iran will likely present the crisis as a war on terror, as it has been doing in Syria, and it may encounter some success with this narrative given the optics of ISIL’s blitzkrieg across Iraq.
There are, of course, caveats to the way this approach to military intervention may be carried out in Iraq, and certain scenarios may force Iran to deviate from its preferred modus operandi. The first scenario is one in which the red-line against hostile intrusion into Iranian territory, established as early as 1998 by Khamenei, is crossed. If ISIL attempts to penetrate the frontier, we are likely to see overt operations including a pursue-and-destroy mission into Iraqi territory. Any such intervention, however, would probably remain highly defensive in nature. The second scenario is one in which ISIL poses an immediate threat to the Shia holy sites or Baghdad itself. These areas are strategically and symbolically important and geographically close enough that a large-scale overt operation is practicable.
One question that remains somewhat ambiguous when it comes to the case of Iranian military intervention in Iraq is Iran’s willingness to coordinate with other states at the military level, especially extra-regional powers such as the United States. While Iran does not have a strong track record of such military cooperation, in the past it has at least shown the capacity to work with rivals such as the United States, the most prominent example in recent memory being U.S.-Iran cooperation to overthrow the Taliban and establish a mutually acceptable regime in Afghanistan in 2001. At the moment, despite murmurs on both sides about the possibility of military cooperation, it seems unlikely on any significant scale given the political difficulties it presents to both sides. In Iraq, Iran is likely to go it alone, at least for now.
Farzan Sabet is a doctoral candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. His research interests include EU3+3-Iran nuclear negotiations, Iranian civil-military relations and security policy, among other things. He is also co-founder and managing editor of IranPolitik.com, an independent website on Iranian domestic politics and foreign affairs. Follow his website on twitter @IranPolitik.
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