When the Syrian opposition stronghold of Aleppo fell in late 2016, Iran was the central player in a coalition that dropped barrel bombs on marketplaces, besieged the city, and killed more than 31,000 civilians. If Washington had better understood Tehran’s capacity for expeditionary warfare and degree of commitment to Damascus sooner, it would have gained the tools to craft much wiser policy in the conflict. Syria is just one example in which greater insight into Iran’s security decision-making will determine successful US policy in the Middle East.
The need for better analysis of Iranian hard power—both conventional and unconventional—is arguably more important today than ever before in light of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and growing Iranian influence across the region. If the United States hopes to roll back Iranian influence, knowledge of Iran’s security decision-making calculus would be essential to contain escalation, blunt Iran’s offensive actions, and decisively achieve US objectives. Simply put, the US needs a better understanding of how Iran fights and prepares for war.
Rather than supplying definitive formulas or “playbooks” for Iranian behavior, which would be impossible from a US standpoint, this work provides a series of analytic frameworks and tools for policymakers to appropriately interpret the Iran’s decision-making. It draws on historical case studies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a post-JCPOA failure crisis simulation exercise, extensive analysis of senior Iranian leadership statements and writings, military exercise observation, and economic assessments.
This monograph begins with an exploration of Iran’s strategic culture. Iran’s strategic culture is inextricably tied to how the Islamic Republic sees the role of military force in its strategic calculus. In thinking through a post-JCPOA world—with loosened arms embargoes and realigned political realities—the United States needs to consider how and why Iran would use military force.
Section II attempts to answer some essential questions about how the Islamic Republic views the nature of war. We will address why Iran decides to use military force, how it understands deterrence against the US, why it decides to escalate or de-escalate a conflict, how Iran understands retaliation and reciprocity, and in what context it will attempt to end a conflict.
Section III attempts to build an analytic framework for examining Iran’s war-fighting concepts. It will lay out how formal and informal structures in Iran create strategy and doctrine, which institutions or individuals matter in shaping doctrinal ideas, and which historical and ideological factors drive Iran’s thinking about military power.
Section IV discusses if and how Iran will pursue structural changes for its military force after the nuclear deal. The JCPOA does provide new financial means and, eventually, access to additional military weapons and technology that may allow Iran to undergo a real military transformation. This section also examines how Iran makes decisions about military procurement and production. It addresses ways to understand Iranian defense spending, Iran’s current and future military budget trends, the strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s military industrial base, Tehran’s likely paths to modernize its military, and the drivers of Iran’s decision-making on weapons and acquisitions.
The US spent the past four decades often befuddled by Iran’s security policies. As a result, Tehran operates with relative freedom and impunity across the region. The Iranian leadership can be considered “logical” if its decision-making patterns and worldview are well understood (as much as we oppose that worldview). Western policymakers’ failure to understand this is the primary source of poor US strategy in the region since 1979. Hopefully, this monograph will lift the shroud on Iranian strategic thinking and guide better paths to a more stable Middle East.