The Logic Behind Iran’s Regional Posture

by Adnan Tabatabai

On December 3, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei convened Iran’s top military brass. Iranian media circulated one key sentence of his remarks on the front pages of newspapers: “Today, the armed forces are in need of the best human resources…to save the nation from vulnerability against the enemy.”

Although Iran watchers will interpret this sentence to indicate Iranian determination to further invest in its military force, the key word they should pay attention to is “vulnerability,” because it entails the essence of Iran’s security policies. 

There is an astonishing mismatch between how Iranian top security officials and external observers assess Iran’s military strength and ambitions. While the latter believes that Iran is committed to expanding its hard and soft power in the region at any cost, the former consistently stresses the defensive nature of the Islamic Republic’s military capacity.

Iran Knows Its Limits

Regardless of the official rhetoric, Iran’s security establishment is very well aware of the country’s military and geopolitical limits. Those who design and shape Iran’s security policies know that its conventional military capabilities are by far inferior to those of its enemies, particularly the United States and Israel, which Iran perceives as its main threats.

Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities, despite its disastrous war in Yemen, clearly outweighs what Iran can field. The purchase of state-of-the art military equipment from the United States, alongside the recent arms deals of Western powers with other Persian Gulf states like Qatar and the UAE, adds to the regional mismatch.

Even after increasing its defense budget this summer, Iran’s approximately $13 billion in annual military expenditures amount to less than one-fifth what Saudi Arabia spends. Furthermore, Iran is aware that no superpower will come to its aid in the case of a military attack. Russia never was and never will be a protecting power for Iran like the US is to its regional allies.

This is why Iran’s security strategists are convinced that the Islamic Republic must boost its deterrent capabilities, particularly its ballistic missiles and its asymmetric warfare capabilities.

These decision-makers fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Their security mindset is shaped by the traumatic experience of being attacked by a neighboring state with the military support of every regional and extra-regional actor (with the exception of Syria under Hafez al-Assad).

Keeping Enemies at Bay

According to its logic of deterrence, Iran wants to make sure that enemies think twice before challenging or attacking the country. As a result, Iran has developed ballistic missiles that can critically hurt regional enemies and has built alliances with state and non-state actors to establish a defensive perimeter against any potential aggressor.

Ever since the 1979 revolution, Iranian officials have done their bit to create tensions with neighboring countries as well as with the United States and Israel. To this day, Tehran does not acknowledge or address its own responsibility for this climate of enmity.

At the same time, however, targeted killings of nuclear scientists, cyber-attacks on Iranian nuclear plants, and coercive policies of sanctions and military threats have been routine in US and Israeli policies towards Iran. Added to this has been the intense hostility directed at Iran from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. This was no different when Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, reached out to the West and tried to reconcile regional tensions during his presidency from 1998 to 2005.

Addressing Iran’s Threat Perception

Iran’s threat perception, the main driver of its security doctrine, is once again peaking. In such an environment it’s difficult, if not impossible, to enter talks with Iran on its missile program and/or its regional posture. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that exerting further pressure on Iran is exactly what drives Iran’s deterrence policy.

Within 24 hours of one another, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari and the Chief of Staff of Iran’s Joined Armed Forces General Mohammad Bagheri talked about limiting Iran’s missiles to 2000 kilometers. Both clearly outlined the logic behind it, saying that this range suffices to deter Iran’s enemies. This doctrine is defensive at its core. It is driven by Iran’s main priorities of maintaining territorial integrity and safeguarding regional interests, which entail security calculations, economic interests, and cultural relations.

At the same time, the line between Tehran’s forward defence policy and offensive expansion is blurry. What Iranians perceive as a means of defence may not be perceived as such by others. As a result, there will be a need to define confidence-building measures—both from and towards Iran.

Only when these factors are integrated into the discussion of Iran’s stance on regional issues can a proper foundation be laid for meaningful talks with Tehran.

Photo: Revolutionary Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari and Navy of the Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Ali Fadavi.

Adnan Tabatabai

Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and CEO of the Germany based think tank CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. As an Iranian affairs analyst, he is consulted by European policy-makers and businesses, as well as by research institutions and political foundations. Tabatabai holds an assigned lectureship at the University of Dusseldorf, and is the author of the book "Morgen in Iran“ (2016, Edition Korber Stiftung). Twitter: @A_Tabatabai



  1. @ “Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities, despite its disastrous war in Yemen, clearly outweighs what Iran can field. … Even after increasing its defense budget this summer, Iran’s approximately $13 billion in annual military expenditures amount to less than one-fifth what Saudi Arabia spends.”

    Those two sentences are materially misleading for, inter alia, two major reasons:

    1. The Saudi military purchases are for ultra-high priced American military/industrial complex weapons, while Iran’s equivalent weapons are procured at a far lower price.

    2. The Saudis will not attempt to invade Iran because Iran has the incontestable ability to close the Hormuz Strait through which all Saudi oil must pass on its way to market. Iran has a huge battery of missiles dug into the mountains to the north of the Strait and a very large fleet of mine-laying fast PT boats and mini-submarines. U.S. Navy tests about 3 years ago of its ability to detect and remove mines resulted in a disappointing 3 dummy mines detected out of 20. About 20 per cent of the world’s oil supply moves through that Strait. Closing the Strait would devastate not only Saudi Arabia’s economy but also the entire West’s. Who needs nukes when you have that capability?

    Any analysis that does not take those two factors into account falls woefully short of being useful.

  2. All nations may aspire to hold the military power of the U.S. somewhat at bay by possessing a weapon of mass destruction. A nuclear bomb is one option, although it is a bit expensive to develop, and then to safeguard. Cheaper options, such as cyber weapons, have surfaced, and others, like gas, or germ weapons, are, for the moment, shelved, or dormant….

    National paranoia is alive and well in most nations, save those who have calculated realities more accurately. Examples are Canada/Mexico, and other nations accustomed to trading on agreed and mutually beneficial terms.

    Iran has experienced real bullying clashes with western nations, e.g., British, French, colonial reach, and that of U.S./Russian hegemonic competition. Perhaps the costs of these activities in treasure and blood will be weighed against the questionable benefits generated.

    It takes two to tango, a dance substantially toying with emotions than, say, the more social paring of a waltz, or square dance. Isn’t it time to change the music?

  3. The idea of defining – and implementing – confidence building measures with respect to Iran’s ‘forward defense policy and offensive expansion’ seems a good one. But is there a viable framework in which such CBMs could be negotiated?

  4. Considering the consistent and credible threats from Israel and the US, with some talk from Saudi Arabia, and multiple encroachments on Iran’s territory over the past several hundred years, including the cooked-up invasion by Iraq in the 1980s, Iran is only being prudent by preparing for further aggression against it. Especially when much of Israel’s motivation, and therefore the US’s, can be understood as a diversion to take regional geopolitical attention away from Israel’s continuing subjugation of the Palestinians.
    Iran presents no credible threat to Israel and Israel presents no threat to Iran apart from the possibility of a few bombing raids, and these would probably require US assistance. But if Israel could persuade the US to launch a full-scale attack on Iran, as it did so successfully with Iraq, then things would be very different.
    Further, as a US ground invasion would be politically unacceptable domestically, the US would have to resort to a major bombing campaign which would most likely result in unacceptable civilian casualties.
    This would raise two questions: what would be achieved?
    What would be the purpose? Answers: from the US perspective, nothing or something far worse. From an Israeli perspective, further chaos in the region (at no cost and without the loss of a single Israeli life as with the destruction of Iraq), reduction of a largely fictitious Iranian military threat and more distraction while it continues its main business on the West Bank.

  5. valla zamane shah generala hadeaghal shabih gi jo naboudan. Generala ke hamachoun rayban michoupouchan va hatman bachehachoun to Beirut va Dubai zendigiye assoun va azad dare, harfaz eslam baraye mardome bichareye iran mizanan. Mordechoure in din

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