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Analysis: Iranian Military Rhetoric Reflects Outside Pressures

By Alex Vatanka

The commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp (IRGC), Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi, said on 8 October that U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are merely the foundations of an expansionist U.S. military strategy to subdue the entire Middle East, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported. Safavi added: "If this strategy fails heavily in Iraq, it will, undoubtedly, stop. Otherwise it may extend to neighboring countries."

This line of thinking reflects Iran's fear that it is the next candidate for regime change in the context of the White House's "axis of evil," and it explains regime hard-liners' efforts to undermine U.S. objectives in Iraq. From the hard-liners' perspective, the survival of the Islamic Republic is at stake. The IRGC -- constitutionally designated to be the guardian of the Islamic revolution and Iran's territorial integrity, and which is believed to control the country's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs -- therefore has a unique responsibility, and this arm of the regime has found itself to be in the ascendancy as pressure piles on Iran.
"U.S. military presence [in Iraq] will not become an element of strength [for Washington] at our [Iran's] expense. The opposite is true, because their forces would turn into a hostage in Iranian hands in the event of an attack."

In contrast with the IRGC's apparent policy of brinkmanship -- senior IRGC official Hassan Abbasi cited "a strategy drawn up for the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon civilization" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 June 2004) -- more moderate political figures like President Mohammad Khatami emphasize the peaceful nature of the country's nuclear program, underscore the defensive nature of Iranian military doctrine, and argue that the ballistic-missile program is only a deterrent.

Many in the regime deem it necessary to be bellicose in order to avoid the fate of Iraq's Ba'athist regime. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the recently installed hard-line-dominated parliament, ranking officers in the regular armed services and the IRGC, and the conservative media are increasingly emphasizing Iran's abilities to avenge a possible U.S. or Israeli strike at Iranian nuclear facilities, as well as a capacity to sabotage U.S. initiatives throughout the wider Middle East. As Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told AFP on 18 August, Iranian assets and capabilities can be activated region-wide and presumably utilized in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the waters of the Persian Gulf. In the same interview, Shamkhani said that the "U.S. military presence [in Iraq] will not become an element of strength [for Washington] at our [Iran's] expense. The opposite is true, because their forces would turn into a hostage in Iranian hands in the event of an attack" on Iran. The clear message from that interview and similar statements is that the regime in Tehran will fully mobilize all resources at its disposal to hurt the United States, although Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi later claimed that Shamkhani was misquoted.

Coinciding with the last two International Atomic Energy Agency sessions debating Iran's file, the IRGC put on a show of military muscle. In September the largest-ever "Ashura" exercises were conducted with prominence given to "asymmetric assets" and "resistance units" staging "deep defense." In October, the IRGC test-fired a Shihab-3 missile with allegedly improved range and accuracy.

During the September Ashura exercises, IRGC commanders noted that Iran's military strategy has learned from its eight-year war with Iraq (1980-88) and by observing recent U.S. military invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. IRGC spokesman Masud Jazayeri said that "considering that some powers can observe some parts of our military exercise, we hope that the greedy enemies avoid carrying out any possible attack against our country after witnessing our capabilities," ISNA reported on 14 September. Whether such rhetoric can help the IRGC gain the upper hand remains to be seen. But the Iranians have clearly monitored the U.S. military's performance in Iraq and registered its tactical and operational shortcomings. The latter seem to have shaped the nature of the latest Ashura drills, where the focus was on small rapid-reaction forces, speedy transportation of ground-force units, and enhancing the military skills of the paramilitary Basij forces. In other words, Iranian military leaders hope to deter a U.S. military invasion by emphasizing the heavy costs that Washington is likely to incur once it has entered Iran.

Iran's mass media openly discuss the country's military options. The brazen rhetoric often runs parallel with debate on guerrilla warfare. That the U.S. military will have superiority in conventional battle is taken for granted. On 21 September, the reformist "Mardom Salari" newspaper ran an analysis on "deep defense" that quotes an assessment from the U.K.-based Center for Defense Studies which concludes, "if it [Iran] should come under attack, the advantage of deep defense in the cities by the IRGC and Basij volunteer forces can mobilize a devastating defense against foreign aggression." Safavi has claimed that the Basij paramilitary force is 10 million strong and organized along 3,000 battalions. This is an outlandish figure, but it is very difficult to estimate the extent of popular mobilization against a U.S. military intervention.

As far as "asymmetric assets" are concerned, the opinions of the chief of staff of the armed forces, General Hassan Firuzabadi, are revealing. When the current parliament rejected a bill drafted by the outgoing reformist deputies on the professionalization of the military, Firuzabadi declared that a professional military would be "mercenary," "Kayhan" reported on 20 September. Harkening back to the heyday of the Iran-Iraq war, Firuzabadi appealed instead to religious fervor by suggesting that the regime's military strategy depends on "young individuals between 18 and 25 who have no dependents and are ready to sacrifice their lives to defend Islam, the Koran, and the country."

In reality, Iran has moved a long way since the early 1980s when revolutionary zeal could mobilize the public. There is no doubt that the IRGC and senior officials in the regular armed forces are very fearful about Washington's intentions. As the regime's survival is the ultimate goal, however, even the ideologues of the IRGC can be expected to compromise.

Alex Vatanka is an analyst at Jane's Information Group.