Strategy of Asymmetric War
Iran’s Mixed Signals to the West
7 April 2006
While the count-down of the remaining 30 days for Iran to comply with the demand of the United Nations Security Council to halt its nuclear activities has started, the Islamic regime has been giving mixed signals to the international community. On the one hand Iranians took a conciliatory and cooperative stance urging the Western powers to continue their negotiating efforts within the IAEA for the benefit of world peace and order, and on the other hand they embarked on a bold and confrontational venture in the Persian Gulf.
A major naval exercise was carried in this strategic region, including the Straits of Hormoz and the Sea of Oman, where an assortment of new weapon were brought into play. Among these, a new version of ballistic missiles (Shehab III) with multiple warhead or MIRV (Multiple Independently targeted Reentry Vehicle) capability and a very high speed torpedo, both of which claimed to have radar and sonar hidden ability. A number of other new weapons and platforms of rather offensive character were also demonstrated in the week-long maneuver.
The media coverage of the exercise was rather unprecedented, leaving the impression that the Islamic hawks intended to send a strong message to the West, especially the United States, that they must think twice before deciding to pass a harsh resolution against Iran in the Security Council or threaten the survival of the revolutionary regime. In fact, the defense doctrine of the Islamic Republic is based on a Qur’anic verse that commands the Moslems to acquire all sorts of weapons and equipments they can afford in order to deter and scare their opponents and the enemies God. Not surprisingly, this canon is coined as the symbol of the Revolutionary Guards and appears as an emblem on their flag and as a badge on their military uniform.
One important aspect of this exercise which eventually escaped the eyes of observers was the almost total absence of the regular Iranian navy whose functions are normally limited to classical tasks of sea denial and power projection ashore in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormoz. We know by experience that in a purely classical naval engagement the Iranian navy would not be able to sustain combat capability and will soon be out of effective operation. That was the case in the late 1980s where Iranian navy lost some of its warships in an unequal interface with the American units.
That experience led the defense planners to devise new tactics with limited but effective light and fast units to hit and run, which was initially termed as “guerilla warfare at sea.” In fact, like operations on land, when two unequal opponents face each other, the best way for the weak side is to recourse to war of attrition and guerilla operations. In an enclosed narrow and rather shallow region such as the Persian Gulf, this tactic can be very decisive against large units and can deny the enemy from effective deployment, sea lines of communication and power projection.
Thus, the rationale behind the April 2006 Iranian joint forces maneuver in the Persian Gulf should be found in the strategy of “asymmetric warfare” carried by the Revolutionary Guards with the objective to deter the Americans from risking any adventurous plan to ultimately topple the Islamic regime as they did in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time Iran is taking up other long-term strategy in the region which relates to confidence building and gradual rapprochement with the Persian Gulf littoral states pursing the following objectives:
- Inhibiting more and more the U.S. presence in the region of the Persian Gulf;
- Making the future American interventions in the region much more difficult and costly;
- Building an anti-American shield against the United States policy of “forceful democratization” in the region;
- Narrowing down the gap between the Iranian regime and the conservative Arab States;
- Encouraging the Persian Gulf States toward Asian markets and other world great powers, such as Russia, China, India and Japan, while limiting economic interaction with the U.S.;
- Making the strategic environment much more difficult for the United States force deployment in crisis situations.
All these would suggest that it would indeed be hard for the United States to bear the consequences of a serious entanglement with Iran in the near future, unless the American policy with respect to Iran and the Persian Gulf changes its contents and context. That is to say, the American objectives and therefore ways and means to reach them should be adapted to the new emerging environment. The new environment is not necessarily in favor of the American military presence in the region. It is not however quite certain that Iran’s hostile signals during the April 2006 exercise would deter in any way the neo-conservative hawks in Washington who are leaning toward the use of hard power to achieve their objectives.
However, we should recognize that there is a major difference between “force” and “power.” A nation may have one but not the other, since for example, sea force is only one of the many composing elements of sea power. Geographic position, indigenous technological base, industrial productive capacity, scientific potentialities, strong communication and economy, wisdom of leadership and above all domestic and international supports are among other prerequisites of power. Failure to comprehend these principles together may lead a nation to the “illusion of power” and consequently to risky situations which could jeopardize the vital interests of a nation.
Whether the Islamic regime will surrender to the demand of the U.N. Security Council in order to avoid further escalation of the nuclear issue, is a matter of threat perception of the Iranian decision makers and their capacity to manage the crisis. Indeed, if they realize that the risks of defying the U. N. demands are much too high and beyond their endurance, they will surely come to their sense and do whatever necessary to avoid the worst to happen./