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.

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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

SHOW 13 COMMENTS

13 Comments

  1. In reply to Rojas,
    “as a US ground invasion would be politically unacceptable domestically” – As a concerned American, I wish I could be as sure about that as you claim to be.

    “a major bombing campaign which would most likely result in unacceptable civilian casualties” – I heard reported on TV yesterday that in a recent survey of Americans over 60% agreed that killing 2 million Iranians would be acceptable to avoid a ground war in which 20,000 American military would be killed. I wonder if the respondents realized that the use of nuclear weapons on Iran was intended by the question. With such morally unacceptable ideas being circulated, one must strongly support the giving of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. If you haven’t read the powerful Nobel Lecture, given yesterday at the award ceremony in Oslo, you should.

  2. Thank you James. I will read the Nobel talk. And those are horrifying figures but I think if that 60 % thought more about the consequences they might not be so keen.

  3. Excellent piece! It is not surprising that Iran is developing its long range missiles as a deterrent to its enemies which are surrounding that country militarily including Russia! The radius of Iran defensive system can not be less than 2000 KM in order to protect itself from Israel, to the Persian Gulf, to India and all the way to Moscow!

  4. Paul Merrell, you brought up two very valid and important points that any well informed foreign policy analyst would not forget when projecting the strength of Iran in a military conflict: its ability to close the strait of Hormoz and Its military spending given the ability to produce at a lower cost.
    I’m wondering if this analysis here was meant to be genuine or we have another case of Shireen Hunter.

  5. From my perspective, an european with ideas differents of the majority, I think that Iran, and NorthKorea and Syria if don’t want to have americans in their home and be wiped out (as in several other countries) must have a powerful deterrent. the only way to be free of the threat of Israel, Saudis, Americans… and Nato.
    so ICBM, nukes and the intention to use them in case of aggressions. other options can be help of Russians or China despite interests are different and not convergent…..

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