February 20, 2017


Iranian Concepts of Warfare: Understanding Tehran's Evolving Military Doctrines (J. Matthew McInnis, February 16, 2017, American Enterprise Institute)

Understanding the writings of the informal thought oligarchy of military leaders and the most influential authors in the IRI's extensive system of think tanks and staff colleges is also crucial to comprehending modern Iranian doctrinal trends.

Historical experience, religious ideals, and ideological concerns shape the IRI's approach to war and military doctrine, but they do not determine it. Across many historical periods, from the Persian Empire, through the Islamic conquest, the Safavid dynasty, the 19th-century Qajar dynasty, the Pahlavi shahs in the 20th century, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian state struggled with its relationship to modernity and its religious and political nature. Many of these unresolved issues carried over into postrevolutionary era, even as new ideological concepts became dominant and Iran faced two external existential threats--Iraq and the United States. The IRI's split military structure, which is divided between the conventional Artesh and the ideologically driven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its current military thinking centered on defensive and asymmetric warfare against the United States are arguably reactions to these overlapping factors.

Several broad conclusions can be made about the characteristics of modern IRI doctrine, based on these key historical influences and formal processes, as well as a review of available IRI doctrinal materials, relevant senior leader statements, and major Iranian military exercises over the past five years. IRI military doctrine does not descend from Islamic revolutionary thought per se. IRI doctrines instead appear to draw mostly on military lessons learned to find effective, pragmatic solutions for Tehran's security challenges in the framework of the state's ideological and geostrategic objectives. Most doctrines are ad hoc, despite the overall increasing formality and complexity of the IRI's system for strategy development. There is explicit incorporation of foreign military thinking and capabilities, especially US doctrines, although ex post facto ideological and Islamic moral justification from the supreme leader for any doctrine is still required. The Artesh and the IRGC's competing military structures will remain an inherent feature of Iranian doctrine and strategy, even as the IRI leadership engages in stronger efforts to improve interoperability.

As a revolutionary state constantly worried about potential instability and counterrevolution triggered by its adversaries during conflict, the IRI sees war in 360 degrees. Iranian doctrines reflect this porousness across the spectrum of offensive and defensive operations, when an external Artesh campaign may need to quickly transition into an internal one, or when IRGC actions may move from regime defense to deterrence to power projection then back to deterrence or attempt to achieve all three objectives simultaneously.

Together these concepts can be used to form a working model of the IRI's existing doctrines, showing how they align against Tehran's defensive and offensive objectives, indicating areas of particular doctrinal strengths and weakness, and pointing to potential future directions for the Iranian military. The IRI military is still dominated by defensive doctrines oriented around four primary objectives: regime security, territorial defense, demonstrative deterrence (or shows of force), and retaliatory deterrence.

Posted by at February 20, 2017 6:57 AM