This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More …


Since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, there have been several indications that Iran is shifting to an offensive military doctrine through the adoption of hybrid warfare. This essay will demonstrate that Iran’s “forward defense” doctrine emphasis on the offensive is influenced not simply by the “window of opportunity” created by regional upheaval but by a dispute about the domestic politics of the Islamic Republic between the radical Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the reform camp within the regime currently represented by President Hassan Rouhani. This development represents a marked setback for the “civilianization” of the Iranian state.

A definitional note is required at the outset. Military doctrine, understood as the “fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives,”[1] includes identifying the potential threat/enemy, designing a relevant military strategy, and planning to implement this designed strategy, including operational plans, arms procurement and force training. Offensive doctrines “aim to disarm the adversary — to destroy his armed forces,” and call for early and intense attack, including include important preemptive strains.[2] Offensive doctrine also advocate “taking the initiative in launching a war (be it expansionist, preventive or preemptive), and conducting the war on (or transferring it to) enemy territory.”[3] Defensive doctrines “aim to deny an adversary the objective that he seeks,”[4] “ruling out any initiation of hostilities and strictly confines one’s combat to the defense of one’s own territory.”[5] Deterrent doctrines aim to punish an aggressor — to raise his costs without reference to reducing one’s own.”[6]

Hybrid warfare constitutes a subtle blend of all instruments of power, combining regular and irregular modes of fighting, which applies to most, past and present, wars.[7] Two major features characterize the contemporary use of this type of warfare. The first is the emphasis on the irregular mode (e.g., guerrilla, terrorism and special operations) and on non-kinetic means (e.g., intelligence operations, information and cyber warfare). The second is the offensive orientation out of an acknowledged state of weakness. In other words, hybrid warfare is used to create a grey-zone area where one exercises coercion to influence and gain advantage, while avoiding escalation and severe retribution.[8]

Since the mid-1980s, Iran has adopted a defensive/deterrent doctrine characterized by focal points: the development of long-range ballistic missiles as a deterrent; and defense mainly by irregular forces in asymmetric warfare. In this, Iran has drawn heavily on the lessons learned during its eight-year-long war with Iraq. That is, the doctrine’s above noted foci are meant to avoid a repetition of this war’s “failures,” that is the so-called “War of the Cities” in which thousands of Iranian civilians were killed by Iraqi missiles due to the lack of an equal missile force to deter Iraq, and building on its “successes,” that is the IRGC and the Badr Corps in Iraq from local Shiite groups.[9] After 2003, Iran’s main threat changed to be an American invasion a la Operation Iraqi Freedom. In response, Iran has developed by 2005, the so-called “mosaic defense” doctrine. Besides a focus on naval and air-defense capabilities to disrupt the enemy’s control of sea and air lanes, “mosaic defense” essentially employs an asymmetrical approach by the IRGC and Artesh, through the mobilization of a large, dispersed militia force to engage in attritional warfare against the invading forces.[10]

Several indicators attest to that since 2012 Iran has been changing its defensive/deterrent doctrine, adding an offensive dimension by adopting hybrid warfare. Dubbed “forward defense” doctrine, it implies that Iran should fight its opponents outside its borders to prevent conflict inside Iran.[11] Four main dimensions illustrate the hybrid nature of this doctrine and its offensive approach: proxies, drone and naval guerrilla warfare and cyber. In addition to direct involvement by the IRGC forces in the war in Syria in support of Bashar Assad’s regime since 2012, Iran has expanded its network of “military clients” beyond Hezbollah in Lebanon.[12] This network has involved forming a Shiite foreign legion (from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) to fight side by side with the IRGC in Syria,[13] backing Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia since 2014 in the fight against ISIS, and providing vital military support and advice to the Houthis in Yemen.

The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community warned that Iran continues to develop military capabilities to target the military assets of the U.S. and its allies in the region, including “unmanned explosive boats, naval mines, submarines and advanced torpedoes, armed and attack UAVs, anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles [and] anti-ship ballistic missiles.”[14] Notably, the use of these systems by the IRGC was manifested in the 2019 attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the shooting down of a U.S. drone in June. and the drone attack on the Aramco installations in Saudi Arabia in September.

In 2012, Tehran established a Joint Chiefs of Staff Cyber Command, though the IRGC has its own Cyber Defense Command. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Commander of the IRGC, stated in 2015 that Iran should “adopt a pre-emptive approach towards future cyber risks.”[15] In 2017-2018, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance reported that groups such as “Iranian Cyber Army” have launched hacking attacks against foreign organizations, along with increasing investment in cyber capabilities “as a means for Iran to attempt to offset its conventional military weakness vis-à-vis its neighbours and the U.S.”[16]

Alex Vatanka posed the question of whether the latest Iranian interventions amount to a new offensive doctrine as such or merely a reflection of opportunism for the regional power vacuum.[17] Other scholars account for Iran’s expansion of hybrid warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as a reaction to changes in the regional environment. Matthew Mclnnis states that “the wars in Syria and Iraq are the primary drivers of recent changes in Iranian doctrine. The challenge Iran faces in preserving allied regimes in Damascus and Baghdad demonstrates the inadequacy of the Iranian military doctrine and capabilities.”[18] Similarly, Michael Eisenstadt asserts that as Tehran views the Syrian conflict as an “imposed war,” and therefore it opted for intervention “in responding to this crisis.”[19]

Of course, these explanations are not without reason. The Iranian regime celebrated the Arab Spring as an “Islamic Awakening,” a belated imitation of the Islamic revolution.[20] As much as the Arab Spring has challenged the stability of two regimes allied to Iran, it has also opened a strategic window of opportunity for Iran. That is, the regional chaos empowered the revisionists and weakened the status-quo powers. However, this change in security environment came at a time when the IRGC holds both the ideological bedrock of the Islamist regime and the expertise in asymmetrical warfare. This, in turn, suggests that the structural change was probably channeled through the tensions in Iran’s civil-military relations — the power struggle between the IRGC and the “reformers,” incorporating the technocrats, reformers/moderates, now represented by the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani.

Neither party challenges the legitimacy of the Islamic republic or disputes prioritizing “expediency of the regime” (Maslahat-e Nizam). But they differ significantly over which way to achieve these aims and who controls what for that purpose. The IRGC advocates a confrontational foreign and security policy abroad and an independent, socioeconomic role of its own domestically. The “reformers,” by contrast, advocate promotion of détente with the outside world, national decision-making by the elected authorities and a pro-market economy — which, combined, challenge the IRGC’s political and corporate interests.

In this struggle which has been on the rise since the early 2000s, Supreme Leader Khamenei has apparently decided to give the IRGC a carte blanche and rein in the reformers in his attempt to safeguard the long-term survival of the regime.[21] Khamenei’s most trusted subject is the IRGC, which was created in 1979 with the explicit aim, later to be constitutionally mandated, of protecting the Islamist regime. At the moment of truth, that is the anti-regime, pro-democracy demonstrations in 1999 and 2009, it was none other the IRGC that took over to crush the dissent and enabled the regime’s survival. In 1989, Khamenei had already entrusted the IRGC with the “armed defense of the Islamic Republic’s revolution and the regime.”[22] In 2019, referring to the 2009 events in which the “conspiracy was neutralized” thanks to the preparedness of the Armed Forces; Khamenei returned to this theme as he stated that the Armed Forces, especially the IRGC, “must be careful of sedition and must have the necessary posture and preparedness to counter it.”[23]

The IRGC’s adoption of the offensive doctrine could be a case par excellence for Jack Snyder’s assertion that “offensive bias is exacerbated when civilian control is weak” and grows more extreme “when offensive doctrine is used as a weapon in civil-military disputes about domestic politics, or institutional arrangements.”[24] Iran’s armed forces comprise the Army (or Artesh), the IRGC and the Police, all under the command of the Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS). The IRGC consists of ground, naval and air services, which parallel the structure of Artesh. Within this bifurcated military structure, the IRGC has usually been privileged and a long-standing rivalry ensued.[25] The IRGC has the monopoly over the ballistic-missile force, the special operations Quds Force, and has its own militia, the Mobilization Resistance Forces (MRF, or Basij), which turned under its control in 2007, and its own Cyber Defense Command. Moreover, it has greater access to resources. Beyond its already expansive business conglomerate, the IRGC in 2014-2016 has a budget three times larger than that of Artesh, though the IRGC is almost half of its size.[26]

Indicators to that the tense civil-military relations, Khamenei appointed in June 2016 — in the most significant change in military command since the end of war with Iraq — Maj. Gen. Mohamed Baqeri, who is widely considered to be the godfather of the IRGC intelligence, as the new chief of the AFGS; in November, he appointed Brig. Gen. Qumars Heydari, a former IRGC commander, as the head of the Artesh Ground Forces command. At the same time, President Rouhani appointed Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, a former Artesh commander, as Minister of Defense in his cabinet in August 2017, following cutting the budget of the AFGS in half.[27] Rouhani has also increased the budget for IRGC’s ballistic missile program and military campaigns overseas “to placate the corps and counter the argument that it needed businesses to fund its operations in Syria and Iraq,”[28] but doubts remain if this has worked out.  

The IRGC-led effort toward adopting an offensive doctrine can hardly be mistaken. As was the case in “mosaic defense,” IRGC commanders are the ones who took the lead and pronounced Iran’s new “forward defense” doctrine. In August 2012, IRGC Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami stated the view that “our doctrines are defensive at the level of (grand) strategy, but our strategies and tactics are offensive;”[29] in 2016, Salami emphasized the ability of the IRGC to carry out defensive and offensive operations.[30] Most recently, as of July 2019, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Pakpour, CO of the IRGC Ground Force said that a “deep-attack doctrine” is already practiced by the IRGC.[31] Khamenei’s appointment of Salami as the new IRGC commander in April 2019, given Salami’s hardline approach compared to his predecessor, could be seen as another evidence of Khamenei’s endorsement of this approach by the IRGC.[32] Moreover, when talking to the IRGC commanders in October 2019, Khamenei stated “we mustn’t be satisfied with our region. By remaining within our borders, we shouldn’t neglect the threats over our borders. A broad overseas vision, which is the IRGC’s responsibility, is our strategic depth and it is of the utmost importance.”[33] 

The above is, unfortunately, bad news for “civilianizing” the state in Iran for two reasons. First, the external environment seems more conducive to empowering the IRGC inside and promoting is offensive doctrine abroad. Not only have the IRGC-led interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen been thus far successful in defeating Iran’s foes and bolstering its allies and affiliated militias, but also the attacks in June-September 2019, as noted earlier, have been met with faint response by the United States. Second, U.S. President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May 2018 and the Rouhani government’s subsequent failure to prevent the adverse economic effects of restoring sanctions could well play into the hands of the IRGC as the recent anti-government demonstrations in Iran could show. In 2018, Ahmed Hashim suggested that “should serious disturbances erupt again in 2018 or subsequently, elements of the IRGC may conclude that the Rouhani government is incapable of handling the political and socioeconomic conditions and may force the government out.”[34] This remains an open question.  

Note: This essay is drawn from a paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 52nd Annual Meeting, San Antonio, Texas, November 16, 2018.

[1] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “AAP-06 NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, Edition 2018,” https://nso.nato.int/natoterm/content/nato/pages/home.html?lg=en.
 

[2] Barry R. Posen, Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the World Wars (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984), 14.
 

[3] Ariel Levite, Offense and Defense in Israeli Military Doctrine (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989), 61.
 

[4] Posen, Sources of Military Doctrine, 14.
 

[5] Levite, Offense and Defense, 61.
 

[6] Posen, Sources of Military Doctrine, 14.
 

[7] ÉlieTenenbaum, “Hybrid Warfare in the Strategic Spectrum: An Historical Assessment,” in Guillaume Lasconjarias and Jeffrey A. Larsen, NATO’s Response to Hybrid Threats (Rome: NATO Defense College, Forum Paper No. 24, 2015), 101-102.
 

[8] “Hybrid Warfare: Shades of Grey,” The Economist, January 27-February 2, 2018.
 

[9] Steven R. Ward, “The Continuing Evolution of Iran’s Military Doctrine,” Middle East Journal 59, 4 (2005): 559-576.
 

[10] Alex Vatanka, “Analysis: Iranian Military Rhetoric Reflects Outside Pressures,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 1, 2004.
 

[11] Alex Vatanka, “Iran and Russia, Growing Apart,” Foreign Affairs, November 29, 2017.
 

[12] Afshon Ostovar, “Grand Strategy of Militant Clients: Iran’s Way of War,” Security Studies 28, 1 (2019): 159-188.
 

[13] Michael Eisenstadt, “Iran after Sanctions: Military Procurement and Force-Structure Decisions,” in Gulf Security after 2020, 12.
 

[14] Daniel R. Coats, “Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” in United States: Office of the Director of National Intelligence; United States, Congress, Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence (Washington D.C.: U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2019), 30.
 

[16] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance, 2018 (London: Routledge, 2018), 337.
 

[17] Alex Vatanka, “The Trajectory of the Iranian Military,” MES Insights 8, 6 (2017), 2.
 

[18] Matthew McInnis, “The Strategic Foundations of Iran’s Military Doctrine,” in Gulf Security after 2020 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2017), 7.
 

[19] Michael Eisenstadt, “Iran after Sanctions: Military Procurement and Force-Structure Decisions,” in Gulf Security after 2020, 12.
 

[20] Shaharam Akbarzadeh, “Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council sheikhdoms,” in Khalid S. Almezaini and Jean-Marc Rickli, The Small Gulf States: Foreign and Security Policies before and after the Arab Spring (London: Routledge, 2017), 96. 
 

[21] Alex Vatanka, “Iran’s IRGC Has Long Kept Khamenei in Power,” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2019.
 

[22] Ali Khamenei Official Website, “Statements at the 6th Command and Staff Ceremony of Imam Hussein University,” (Persian) October 23, 1989, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=11062.
 

[23] Ali Khamenei Official Website, “Attendance and Speech of Commander-in-Chief at the Graduation Ceremony of the Army Officers,” (Persian), Oct. 30, 2019, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/news-content?id=43852.
 

[24] Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984,” International Security 9, 1 (Summer 1984), 140-141.
 

[25] Ali Alfoneh, “Eternal Rivals? The Artesh and the IRGC,” in The Artesh: Iran’s Marginalized Military, Middle East Viewpoints (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, November 2011), 32-35.
 

[26] Mutasim Abdalla, Military Institutions between Trust and Marginalization: A Comparison between the position of IRGCs and Army in the Iranian Regime Infrastructure,” Journal for Iranian Studies 1, 1 (Dec. 2016), 122.
 

[27] Faraz Safaei, “Mohamed Baqeri: The Iranian Intelligence Boy” (Arabic), Alsharq Al-Awsat, July 28, 2018, 14.
 

[28] Francis Ghiles, “Tehran cracking down on IRGC’s business networks,” The Arab Weekly, January 28, 2018.
 

[29] “Israel no longer a threat to Iran: IRGC Deputy Commander,” MEHR News, September 23, 2012.
 

[30] “IRGC Commander Underlines Need to Produce Radar-Evading Missiles,” FARS News Agency, October 25, 2016.
 

[31] “IRGC Develops Deep Attack Doctrine,” Tasnim, July 9, 2019.
 

[32] Maysam Behravesh, “IRGC change of command signals Tehran’s new offensive approach,” The Atlantic Council, May 2, 2019.
 

[33] Ahmad Samadi, “Iran’s Military Doctrine: Defensive or Aggressive?” Iran International, October 20, 2019.
 

[34] Ahmed S. Hashim, “Civil-Military Relations in Iran: Internal and External Pressures,” Middle East Policy 25, 3 (Fall 2018), 64.