Iran’s ‘forward defense’ doctrine has become a contradiction in terms

Iran’s ‘forward defense’ doctrine has become a contradiction in terms

It is difficult to underestimate the regional impact of the Iranian Revolution. The downfall of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, marked the end of what had arguably been the most stable decade in the Gulf since the Second World War. The revolutionary, pan-Islamist project led by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini vowed to undermine the US-led regional order and overthrow the various Arab governments allied with Washington. The sense of neglect of neighboring Shiite populations, as well as Sunni Islamist groups such as Hamas, would be explored for those ends.

Today, many of the most critical crises and conflicts in Arab countries have a link to the vision the Iranian regime has exported since 1979, even if the revolutionary fervor has gradually given way to a somewhat more pragmatic if no less bellicose approach. 

In Syria, the Iran-backed, Allawite-dominated Assad regime has been slaughtering a predominantly Sunni population, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have assembled transnational Shiite militias that will ensure Iran a long-term foothold; Hezbollah, a militant group nurtured from the beginning by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is the kingmaker in Lebanon; following the US invasion of Iraq — which some Tehran-linked figures such as Ahmed Chalabi pushed for — Iran filled the vacuum while the pro-Iran government of Nouri Al-Maliki alienated Iraq’s Sunnis; and in Yemen, the offensive by the Houthi militia, a revivalist Zaydi group with ideological and strategic ties to Iran, started the current conflict.

Despite the central role played by Iran and its allies and proxies in these various scenarios, the view that Iran’s regional posture and military doctrine is essentially defensive still echoes in policy debates in Western capitals and in expert circles. 

A recent report by International Crisis Group, a leading NGO that specializes in conflict prevention and resolution, is yet another example of this view: “Where the Islamic Republic’s enemies see a grasping would-be empire, its own strategists see an embattled state redressing historical wrongs,” it says. 

The report calls for a better understanding of the drivers behind the Iranian leadership’s regional ambitions, specifically its “strong defensive impulse.” But it also notes that “the Islamic Republic must accept that its approach is perceived as offensive — and adjust accordingly.”

In many ways, this argument about a perception gap between the way Tehran and for example Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Washington understand Iran’s regional role is reminiscent of a seminal book by Robert Jervis, an American political scientist. In “Perception and Misperception in International Politics,” incidentally published three years before the Iranian Revolution, Jervis looks into the way leaders and decision-makers are heavily guided by preconceived notions. This influences them to take ill-conceived decisions and misunderstand and exaggerate the threats they face, often leading to conflict spirals and tensions running out of control. 

The longstanding Cold War between Washington and Tehran is and always has been decisive in shaping the Iranian regime’s calculations. Yet purely from a regional perspective, the concept of “forward defense,” which according to Iran experts underpins the Iranian regime’s military and deterrence doctrine, has since 2003 become a contradiction in terms.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

 

The role of the CIA in the coup against democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, or the support from the US and various Arab governments to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, are among the crucial episodes that are said to decisively influence the Iranian regime’s world view. 

This debate often looks like the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg; the threat of revolutionary Iran, or the threats to Iran in the post-imperial age. While the role of the CIA and British intelligence in the 1953 coup is a classic example of how imperialism died hard, American and Arab support for Saddam Hussein is a far more complex issue. 

In a recent piece published by The National Interest magazine, Paul Pillar argues that “no experience has contributed more to Iranian leaders’ sense of beleaguerment than the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.” Pillar notes that Iraq started the war, Iranian casualties are estimated in the hundreds of thousands and the Iranians have not forgotten the US and Arab backing of Saddam’s military. 

As do various others writing about the issue, Pillar omits the Iranian regime’s open calls for the downfall of several Arab leaders and the encouragement of Shiite opposition groups within Iraq to resort to violence against Saddam’s regime, which led it to respond. As much of a monster that Saddam-led Baathism in Iraq was, other Arab governments looked at the Iranian threat to Saddam’s regime and saw themselves. 

The huge US military build-up in the region, particularly the establishment of a military command in the early 1980s and the deployment of US naval forces that same decade, were to a great extent a response by the US and its Arab allies to the threat represented by the radicalism of Iran under the ayatollahs.

So are Iran’s regional policies mainly offensive or defensive? Naturally, the view from Berlin, London or Paris is certainly very different from that of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama or even Tel Aviv. 

The longstanding Cold War between Washington and Tehran is and always has been decisive in shaping the Iranian regime’s calculations. Yet purely from a regional perspective, the concept of “forward defense,” which according to Iran experts underpins the Iranian regime’s military and deterrence doctrine, has since 2003 become a contradiction in terms. The key trigger for Iranian expansionism may have been provided by the US-led invasion of Iraq, but by all measures the Iranian regime’s regional policies are expansionist and aggressive by nature. Across the board, the self-perceived oppressed has become the oppressor. 

  • Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.  
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