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Nukes Unlikely to Change Iran’s Strategy

            Nuclear arms would be unlikely to change Iran’s fundamental interests and strategy in the Middle East, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation’s Alireza Nader. Tehran is primarily concerned with survival. So it probably would not attack Israel or U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf if it were to attain nuclear weapons, according to the report. The Islamic Republic would not likely use them against its Muslim neighbors either. Iran “does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” argues Nader. The following are excerpts, with a link to the full text at the end.

            •The Islamic Republic is a revisionist state that seeks to undermine what it perceives to
              be the American-dominated order in the Middle East. However, it does not have
              territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations.
            •Nuclear arms would probably reinforce Iran's traditional national security objectives,
              including deterring a U.S. or Israeli attack.
            • Iran is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against other Muslim countries, particularly in
              view of its diminishing influence and deteriorating economy; it is unlikely to use them
              against Israel given Israel's overwhelming military superiority.
            •The Iranian government does not use terrorism for ideological reasons. Instead, Iran's
              support for terrorism is motivated by cost and benefit calculations, with the aims of
              maintaining deterrence and preserving or expanding its influence in the Middle East.
            •Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East.
              An inadvertent or accidental nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran is a dangerous
              possibility. However, there is not much evidence to suggest that rogue elements could
              have easy access to Iranian nuclear weapons, even if the Islamic Republic were to
              collapse.
            •Elements of the political elite, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be fervent
              Mahdists or millenarians, but their beliefs are not directly related to nuclear weapons
              and will not shape Iran's nuclear decision making.
 
             There is substantial evidence to suggest that Iran would not be greatly emboldened by a nuclear weapons capability. Nevertheless, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East. An accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel would be a dangerous possibility. Moreover, quite aside from how Iran might behave, its possession of nuclear weapons could arguably set off a cascade effect, encouraging other regional rivals to move in the same direction.
 

 

Iran: A Rough Year in 2013

Alireza Nader

            For Iran, 2013 could be one of the most challenging years—both at home and in relations with the outside world—since the 1979 revolution. The Islamic Republic faces the potential of stronger economic sanctions and even an Israeli and/or U.S. military strike because of its intransigence in complying with U.N. resolutions on its nuclear program.
 
            But the world’s only modern theocracy also must deal with twin domestic challenges-- deepening malaise among the young and increasing tensions among the political elite. Both could be important factors in the presidential election scheduled for June 14, which will feature a new slate of candidates since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will have served the two-term limit. Home-grown problems could outweigh the regime’s foreign policy woes.
 
The Nuclear Controversy
 
            Iran and the world’s major powers have all indicated an interest in a new round of diplomatic talks in 2013 to end the long standoff over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. The gap is still enormous, however, after three rounds in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow in 2012. The big question is whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is truly interested in making a deal—and on terms that will also satisfy the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
 
            Khamenei is not easily swayed by pressure. He has survived imprisonment and lived through the revolution, assassination attempts, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, popular uprisings, and decades of sanctions. He views Iran’s uranium enrichment program not only as a natural and legal right, but also a measure of Tehran’s success against the United States. In 2012, he often publicly talked about the U.S. “decline” in the Middle East, reflected in part by the fall of three pro-American rulers with other U.S. allies wobbling. Tehran also spins the so-called Arab Spring as an “Islamic awakening” modeled on its own Islamic revolution.
 
            Despite what he says publicly, however, Khamenei is also savvy enough to know that the same political changes represent new challenges for his regime as well. Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s most important Arab ally, is under siege from a protest movement that turned into a surprisingly powerful military campaign. The spillover impacts Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which also faces its own unique problems. And other regional powers, most notably Turkey, are increasingly questioning Iran’s geopolitical aspirations.
 
The Economy
 
            Iran begins 2013 with growing economic woes that may be an important calculation in Khamenei’s decision. He needs tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues to maintain a vast and often loyal network that has maintained his rule as Iran’s ultimate leader for the past 23 years. But the world’s toughest sanctions, soaring inflation, and the plummeting value of Iran’s currency produced the perfect economic storm in 2012. And Tehran’s economic crisis will not end any time soon.
 
            Iran’s oil exports declined by as much as one-half in 2012, a factor that could produce additional pressure from key Khamenei constituents, including the Bazaar merchant class and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. 
 
            But chronic mismanagement is the chief cause of Iran’s economic problems. After his 2005 election, President Ahmadinejad eliminated economic planning agencies such as the Management and Planning Organization. He also sidelined skilled technocrats who were not politically loyal to him.  He fueled inflation by injecting massive cash into the economy and reducing subsidies. During his presidency, imports of goods from Asia and Europe skyrocketed, contributing to the closure or bankruptcy of hundreds of Iranian factories. The list goes on and on.
 
            Corruption across the regime has contributed to the economic crisis. In 2012, the Islamic Republic was perceived as one of the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. It ranked 133rd—tied with Russia, Kazakhstan, Honduras and Guyana—out of the 176 countries and territories that were ranked.
 
            The Revolutionary Guards, which control large parts of the economy, are also reportedly corrupt. The most powerful military organization in Iran has charitable foundations (bonyads) that are tax-exempt and largely free of government scrutiny. The Guards have also been linked to illicit smuggling and narcotics trafficking. Some veteran officers have reportedly amassed significant wealth.
 
            The economy is now the Islamic Republic’s Achilles Heel. Iran has been successful in educating millions of Iranians and rebuilding its infrastructure after the Iran-Iraq War. But it has not reached the potential of a country with one of the world’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas and a well-educated and resourceful population.
 
Presidential Election
 
             The Islamic Republic begins 2013 with anxiety among both the public and the government over the impending presidential election. The 2009 election produced the deepest political schism since the revolution, with millions turning out in massive popular protests across the country to challenge the official outcome. It gave birth to the opposition Green Movement and created an enduring crisis of legitimacy for the Supreme Leader.
 
             The 2013 election may be more tightly scripted than any earlier presidential race to prevent serious debates or competition. Candidates are technically vetted by the Guardian Council, but they must also have the Supreme Leader’s unspoken approval. As the regime becomes increasingly militarized, candidates may also need to either have ties to the Revolutionary Guards or be amenable to its interests.
 
             In December 2012, the Iranian parliament passed legislation requiring all candidates to have the endorsement of more than 100 of the regime’s “experts” and to be between the ages of 40 and 75. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who has long been Khamenei’s main political rival and a focus of hardline ire, is now 78 years old. He ran again in 2005 against Ahmadinejad, but lost. He is now excluded from running again.
 
             Other potential challengers also appear to be sidelined—at least for now. Among them is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is Ahmadinejad’s ally and in-law. (Their children are married.) Khamenei loyalists have called him a “deviant” threat to the clergy and the Supreme Leader.
 
             The spectrum of rivals reflects the unprecedented divisions. All were among the early revolutionaries who ousted the shah and hung together for more than a decade. Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who had Khamenei’s full endorsement just four years ago, is now perceived as a threat to the Supreme Leader’s hold on power.
 
             But the most important challenge to the regime may still come from the Green Movement. Its symbolic leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are under house arrest but they remain a potent threat to Khamenei’s rule, perhaps even more than an Israeli military strike or U.S. sanctions.
 
 
Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a lecturer on Iranian politics at the George Washington University.
 
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 

Part III: Would Iran Turn to Terror?

Alireza Nader

            In a conflict with the United States or Israel, Tehran could turn to terror tactics—directly or indirectly through proxies—to create leverage when it is significantly outmanned and outgunned against conventional military forces. The Islamic Republic has sporadically used terrorism as a weapon against both countries in the past.
 
            The Islamic Republic appears to justify extremist tactics to counter Western military superiority. Iran was not able, for example, to confront the United States after U.S. Marines deployed in Lebanon in the early 1980s. So it reportedly aided and abetted terrorist attacks that produced mass casualties—including 241 Marines in a 1983 attack—and in turn forced the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon.
 
            The last major Iranian-sponsored terrorist attack against the United States was the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans and wounded more than 370 of many nationalities. The facility housed American military personnel. The Islamic Republic, however, has usually been careful to maintain plausible deniability by using proxies, such as Iraqi Shiite militias in carrying out attacks on American targets.
 
            Tensions between Iran and Israel have played out mainly through Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. But Tehran has also been tied to direct attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets outside Israel. The last major attacks on Israeli facilities abroad were the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy and the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires. Iran then largely restricted its sponsorship of terrorism to targets within Israel for roughly eight years. But since mid-2012, Tehran and its proxies have been linked to attacks on Israelis in Bulgaria, India, Thailand, Georgia and Kenya.
 
            For Washington, the looming question is whether the Islamic Republic would employ extremist tactics inside the United States after a U.S. or Israeli air strike on Iran. The regime’s agents were linked to attacks on Iranian dissidents on American soil, particularly soon after the 1979 revolution. But Tehran limited its activities inside the United States until an alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. in 2011. U.S. officials have attempted to determine if the assassination plot, uncovered in an early stage, signaled a change in Iranian doctrine and intentions.

            Three factors may have contributed to more ambitious projects: Hardliners, many of whom are veterans of the Revolutionary Guards, have steadily cemented their hold on policy since President Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Tehran blames the United States and/or Israel for the assassination of five Iranian scientists and cyber-attacks, such as the Stuxnet virus, on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Tensions have also increased over Iran’s nuclear program, especially as sanctions have taken a deeper bite out of the economy.

            The Islamic Republic increasingly believes it is in an existential conflict with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed that an attack on Iran would lead to retaliation world-wide. The regime would meet “pressure with pressure,” he said. Revolutionary Guards officers have also threatened to strike the U.S. homeland if Iran is attacked. So an Iranian strategy that included targets inside the United States would not be a surprise.
 
Alireza Nader, coauthor of “Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry” (RAND 2011), is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Part II: Will Iran Close the Strait of Hormuz?

Alireza Nader

            Iran’s repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are a pivotal part of a military strategy based on psychological and asymmetric warfare. Blocking the strategic waterway, through which 90 percent of Persian Gulf oil flows to the outside world, would have sweeping implications for regional security and global oil markets. It may be the Islamic Republic’s most potent weapon. Tehran has also hinted it would retaliate against U.S. forces, notably the Fifth Fleet based in the Persian Gulf, if it is attacked.
 
            Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has developed sufficient military capabilities to back up its threats. The Revolutionary Guards Navy may be able to inflict damage on U.S. forces. It operates hundreds of small and relatively fast attack boats, some armed with sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles. Its fleet could attempt to swarm larger U.S. ships and try to penetrate their defenses, even if they could not destroy the more powerful American vessels. Iran could also fire missiles at U.S. warships from its 1000 mile-long Gulf coastline. An even more controversial Iranian move would be scattering mines either near the Strait or in the Persian Gulf, which could slow or stop shipping as the U.S. Navy tried to clear the waterway.
 
            Iran’s naval forces cannot permanently hold or close the Strait, however. The United States would be able to neutralize Iran’s military assets, given its overwhelming firepower. And Iran’s conventional navy would not be able to reinforce the Revolutionary Guards, since its antiquated frigates and corvettes, most dating from the Shah’s time, would be sitting ducks for U.S. fighters. Iran’s three Russian-supplied Kilo submarines could also be quickly detected and sunk.
 
            Iran might instead seek to repeat the strategy used by Hezbollah in the 2006 war with Israel—holding ground by bleeding the adversary. It may hope to emerge as the political and psychological victor by hitting a few U.S. warships, perhaps even a carrier, causing high oil prices, and increasing international pressure—all tactics designed to force the United States to stop its strikes.
 
            Impeding shipping in the narrow Strait would give Iran much-needed leverage since it cannot technically win a military confrontation against the United States. Just by threatening to close the Strait, Iran increases pressure on the United States to restrain Israel from attacking Iran. Other key players—including major oil importers such as China, Japan, and India—would be reluctant to support military action because of heavy dependence on Persian Gulf oil. Closing off the Gulf sealanes would also limit the flow from Saudi Arabia and the neighboring oil-rich sheikhdoms, which Iran may calculate gives it a psychological edge.
 
            But the Islamic Republic would also pay a heavy price for fighting in the Persian Gulf. Its forces could be destroyed without first inflicting substantial damage, which would humiliate the regime. Despite military rhetoric, Iran’s naval forces are poorly matched against the U.S. Fifth fleet.
 
            Iran is also heavily dependent on freedom of navigation through the Persian Gulf to export its own oil, especially important given its increasingly troubled economy. Most Iranian exports and imports flow through the Strait. Iran may be more dependent on the Strait than other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, both of which are building pipelines to bypass the strategic waterway.
 
            Despite repeated warnings, the regime’s intentions and capabilities remain unclear. Its threats in the Strait may instead be part of a long-term strategy to buy time,
to forestall a military conflict while working on its nuclear program. In the meantime, Iranian posturing in the Persian Gulf is a powerful form of deterrence against Israeli or U.S. strikes.
 
Alireza Nader, coauthor of “Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry” (RAND 2011), is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Part I: How Would Iran Fight Back?

Alireza Nader

            Iran’s response to Israeli or U.S. air strikes is likely to feature unconventional tactics that would not necessarily lead to battlefield successes, such as defeat of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But its strategy could theoretically achieve an overall political and psychological victory.
 
            The Islamic Republic’s reaction would incorporate lessons learned from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006—two of the defining conflicts of the late 20th century. The Gulf War was the longest and deadliest modern Middle East conflict. And Hezbollah, with aid and arms from Iran, fought the longest modern war with Israel. Iran would almost certainly also factor in past U.S. military operations in the region.
 
            Despite their boasting, Iranian leaders are well aware that they cannot defeat the U.S. military in a face-to-face conflict. But as Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel demonstrated, battlefield losses (or draws) can be turned into psychological victories. The Islamic Republic has devoted substantial information and media resources to fight a psychological war (jang e ravani). Hezbollah was able to withstand the Israeli military and shoot missiles into Israeli cities throughout the conflict – and thus convince many Arabs that it had won.
 
            Iran could again try to claim a victory simply by withstanding an assault and retaining much of its nuclear know-how and technology, even if it sustained significant losses. But Israel and the United States have also learned from the 2006 Hezbollah war. Regardless, any war with Iran could be long, costly and ultimately unsuccessful in eliminating Iran’s nuclear drive.
 
            Again facing a superior enemy, Iran would likely rely on a largely defensive and flexible military doctrine known as a mosaic defense (defa e mozaik). Iran has decentralized its military command and control as part of its doctrine of mosaic defense. Its military officials have noted past U.S. operations that targeted command-and-control centers, including wars against Iraq in 1990-91 and 2003, and have actually divided their command into 32 units, one for each of Iran’s provinces.
 
            The Iranian air force, made up of aging U.S. and Russian platforms, is no match for either the United States or Israel. And Tehran lacks sophisticated air defenses, despite attempts to purchase them from Russia or develop its own.
 
            Given its limitations, Iran has emphasized passive defense (defa e gheir amali). It has buried and hardened key nuclear facilities. Most of Iran’s missiles can be placed on mobile launchers, making them more elusive for Israeli or U.S. fighters. Iran has also built underground silos to make its missiles less vulnerable to airstrikes. The silos could also house nuclear weapons.
 
            After absorbing initial air strikes through passive defense, Iran could then retaliate through conventional missile attacks and asymmetric tactics, from dropping mines in the Persian Gulf to using proxies to attack Israeli or American targets. Iran could use its growing asymmetric naval capabilities to cause economic havoc and increase the pressure on all parties dependent on the Strait of Hormuz.
 
            Iran’s most powerful weapons may be the hundreds of missiles that can reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan. The goal would be a psychological victory. Volleys of missiles shot at U.S. allies, such as Qatar, could seek to punish Arab regimes that host U.S. warplanes or allow overfly rights.
 
            Tehran’s military doctrine is defined largely by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), rather than by the Artesh, the often neglected regular military. The Guards would seek to avoid a protracted conflict that could damage the Iranian economy and public morale.  The Iran-Iraq War, called the Holy Defense (defa e moghadas), produced hundreds of thousands of casualties and a deep wound in the national psyche. Millions of Iranians were willing to fight for the regime in the revolution’s early days, but many may not view a new conflict as a holy defense of the Islamic Republic.
 
Alireza Nader, coauthor of Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry (RAND, 2011), is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 

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