U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition

Iranian Views of How Iran’s Asymmetric Warfare Developments Affect Competition with the US and the Gulf, Sept. 2010 – Feb. 2011

On Jan. 12, 2011, the Fars News Agency released a report in which the commander-in-chief of Iran’s army, Brigadier General Attaollah Salehi, made revealing statements regarding the role of asymmetric warfare in his country’s military doctrine. General Salehi was extensively quoted, stating that,

“All divisions of the Islamic Republic’s military pay close attention to events in neighboring states and incorporate these into their asymmetric warfare training. For Example, if we train pilots in aerial combat, we actively link those lessons with asymmetric warfare.”1

Furthermore, General Salehi was quoted as stating that an example of Iran’s asymmetric doctrine was the country’s decision to dispatch military vessels to the Gulf of Aden.2 General Salehi also noted that Iran’s military views the ongoing conflict wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “lessons,” and that the country “adjusts its manuals according to these lessons.” 3 Such statements are useful in assessing Iran’s perception of its strategic competition with the US. They provide valuable insight regarding Iran’s disposition toward the US military presence in the region, its responses to that presence, and ultimately how it intends to confront the US strategically. In the case of Iran’s asymmetric developments, however, actions often speak louder than words; Iran usually remains silent regarding its support and use of paramilitary proxies.

As a key element of Iran’s military doctrine, these developments cannot be ignored. Furthermore, as Iran’s fluid perceptions regarding its competition with the US have not been previously explored in-depth, such an analysis is vital if Iran’s strategic goals and intentions are to be properly understood in context. With the assistance of Adam Seitz of the Marine Corps University, the Burke Chair has compiled a series of chronological news articles from both Western and Iranian sources that seek to illuminate this perception and assess Iran’s intentions concerning its competition with the US. A link to these sources can be found here

Faced with overwhelming US military power in the Persian Gulf region and arms embargoes that have crippled the Iran’s ability to import and develop modern arms and military technology, the country’s military establishment has sought to compensate for its conventional shortcomings by developing a strong asymmetric warfare capability. The Islamic Republic sees itself as under siege by vastly superior US conventional forces in the Persian Gulf region; there are American bases in neighboring Arab countries, and the US maintains large military forces on Iran’s borders with Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has thus developed an asymmetric doctrine to strike not only at these forces, but also at US bases in neighboring countries as well as US allies and economic interests in the Middle East.

Iran’s asymmetric opposition to the US manifests itself in the following three ways: a) the development and mass production of low-tech, low-cost weapons systems to offset modern US military technology, b) Iranian-supplied and trained paramilitary proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and “special groups” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and c) a doctrine of striking at US economic interests in the Persian Gulf, such as oil platforms and tankers.

Iran’s military establishment is not shy about its efforts to build and maintain a strong asymmetric capability to counter the superior technology and firepower of its opponents. According to a Jan. 12, 2010 report by the Fars News Agency, the commander-in-chief of the Iranian Army, Brigadier General Attaollah Salehi, stressed the importance of asymmetrical warfare in the country’s warfighting doctrine, stating that, “if we train pilots in aerial combat, we actively link those lessons with asymmetric warfare.”4 Additionally, he added that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “lessons” for the Islamic Republic, and that Iran adjusts its forces’ training manuals according to these lessons. 5 Finally, Salehi made it clear that Iran’s focus on asymmetric strategy and warfare was key behind the navy’s decision to send military vessels to the Gulf of Aden. 6 Given the strategic importance of the waterway and the vital role it plays in world commerce and petroleum shipping, General Salehi’s remarks can be interpreted as a veiled threat to attack US or other economic interests in the event that Iran is attacked or feels threatened. The general’s comments also reflect the degree of importance Iran’s military places on studying and learning from its asymmetric engagement with US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan via its paramilitary proxies in these countries. These comments also provide a strong and unmistakable indication that Iran’s strategy for confronting the US emphasizes asymmetric doctrine.

The Islamic Republic has made deft use of proxies to meddle in the internal politics of neighboring states and further its own regional foreign policy interests. Iranian proxies include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Shia militant groups in Iraq, and, most recently, insurgents in Afghanistan. In Lebanon, Iran’s strategy of using paramilitary proxies has been successful: Hezbollah has come to dominate Lebanese politics, and the recent pullout led by the group and its allies in Lebanon’s cabinet caused the country’s pro-Western coalition government to collapse in mid-January 2010.7 Additionally, the recently released WikiLeaks cables reveal that Hezbollah has established its own infrastructure within Lebanon using Iran’s help. In a classified cable sent in 2008, Lebanon’s Telecommunications Minister, Marwan Hamadeh, told US diplomats that “Iran Telecom is taking over the country,” and that “Hezbollah now has an army and weapons; a television station; an education system; hospitals; social services; a financial system; and a telecommunications system.”8 According to Hamadeh, the Iranian Fund for the Reconstruction of Lebanon installed fiber optic telecommunications lines in the country while rebuilding roads and bridges in the country following the Second Lebanon War, and Hezbollah threatened to “take action” against the government if the cables were cut.9

This threat proved to be credible in May 2008 when Hezbollah took over segments of West Beirut for several hours in response to the Hariri government’s attempts to exercise control over its fiber optic network. 10 Hezbollah’s maturation from an armed militant group to a potent and domineering political force in Lebanon with all the trappings of a government shows the great effect to which Iran has been able to intervene in the internal politics of the country. By engineering the collapse of Lebanon’s pro-Western government led by Saad Hariri, Hezbollah (and Iran, by proxy) has revealed itself as a kingmaker in the country’s politics: the implosion of Lebanon’s government has allowed Hezbollah to display its ability to legitimize or delegitimize the government at will, and greatly reduced Western and US influence in Lebanon.

Evidence of Iranian involvement in training and equipping militants in Afghanistan has become increasingly common. Arms originating in Iran as well as militants linked to Iran’s IRGC and alleged Quds Force operatives themselves have recently been captured in Afghanistan. In Dec. 2010 and Jan. 2011, ISAF forces captured or targeted several commanders associated with the IRGC Quds Force. These individuals have allegedly received funds, arms, and training from the Quds Force’s Ansar Corps, which is tasked with supporting and directing Iran’s proxies in western Afghanistan. During the course of 13 raids since March 10, 2010, ISAF forces have killed three al-Qaeda commanders linked to the Ansar Corps; Mullah Aktar, Sabayer Saheb, and Mullah Janan, and captured three more that have not been named.11 Lastly, as recently as May 30, 2010, former ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal stated that many militants destined to fight in Afghanistan are both trained and equipped in eastern Iran.12

This trend reflects an increasing Iranian interest in waging asymmetric war against the Western military presence in Afghanistan, which was previously overshadowed by its operations in Iraq. Although the Islamic Republic’s Shia ideology is deemed anathema by Sunni extremists and militants in Afghanistan, both share the same goals: a Taliban commander recently told The Sunday Times that, “our religions and our histories are different, but our target is the same – we both want to kill Americans.”13 This is not the first instance of the Islamic Republic bridging the religious gap between itself and allies, as Tehran supports Hamas, a Sunni organization, and is allied with Alawite-controlled Syria. Tehran’s unlikely alliances and support to groups with antithetical religious ideologies reveal that the Islamic Republic is often willing to put its ideology aside to undermine the US in the region.        

Recent trends in Iranian arms development and procurement highlight the asymmetric priorities of the country’s military establishment. Iran has recently invested in numerous systems to undermine the US presence in the Persian Gulf, including shore-to-ship missile systems, speedboats, long-range UCAVs, flying boats, and lightly-armed all-terrain vehicles. According the hard-line Mashregh News Agency, Iran’s navy has decided to install a “Coastal Defense Missile” system along the country’s 1,500 mile coastline, a move deemed the “appropriate strategy” to protect the country from attack. 14 The emplacements of this system are allegedly able to operate independently of one another, and are not reliant on a main radar system in the event of hostilities. Other naval developments intended to challenge the US naval presence in the region include the development of the Zolfaqhar and Seraj-1 high-speed combat boats, both of which are slated for mass-production and are capable of launching torpedoes and missiles.15

Iran’s foray into the use of armed drones include the unveiling of the Karrar and R’ad UCAVs in early 2010, both of which have a range in excess of 1000 km and can destroy targets with guided munitions. 16

Lastly, the Iranian Army has recently unveiled an additional three weapons systems intended for asymmetric warfare: the Bavar-2 flying boat, the Kaviran all-terrain vehicle, and the Chinese-manufactured ATV-500 Jaguar. The Bavar-2 flying boat is an aircraft designed for reconnaissance and surveillance missions with night vision and the potential to be armed with machine guns, rockets, and missiles.17 The Kaviran all-terrain vehicle is another indigenous design, and is armed with a 7.62 mm Gatling gun. According to Ahmad-Reza Purdastan, the commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army Ground Force, the weapon system was produced to “meet our needs in asymmetrical warfare” with a “high rate of fire that could enhance our ability to confront helicopters and low-level planes.” 18 Tehran’s military forces will soon put the Chinese ATV-500 Jaguar into service. The Jaguar is stable in rough terrain, and can carry light machine guns in addition to light rocket launchers, SAMs, and, grenade launchers, and RPGs.19 Like the Seraj-1 and Zolfaqhar combat boats, these weapon systems, while low-tech and lightly-armed, are not capital-intensive and are intended to offset superior US military technology through sheer numbers and high mobility.

Iran’s military establishment understands that it cannot possibly defeat the US military in a conventional conflict or push the US presence out of the region through sheer force alone. As such, it employs asymmetric doctrines, technology, and strategy that are low-tech and cheap to implement. Iranian military officials openly boast of their inventiveness in adapting asymmetric tactics and doctrine to counter technologically superior and more heavily-armed foreign forces. Indeed, Tehran has resorted to the asymmetric use of proxies to harass and whittle away at US forces in war zones and destabilize countries where the US seeks to build influence. The development of lightly armed, low-tech, cost-effective weapons systems such as armed speed boats and seaplanes are intended to counter US hard power in the waters surrounding Iran using swarm tactics, and could very well be used to strike at US economic interests in the Persian Gulf, such as unarmed oil tankers and other commercial shipping. 


1 The Fars News Agency, 12 Jan. ‘11.

2 The Fars News Agency, 12 Jan. ‘11.

3 The Fars News Agency, 12 Jan. ‘11.

4 The Fars News Agency, 12 Jan. ‘11.

5 The Fars News Agency, 12 Jan. ‘11.

6 The Fars News Agency, 12 Jan. ‘11.

7 Blanford, Nicholas. “Hezbollah-led Pullout Brings Down Lebanon’s Government.” The Christian Science Monitor, 12 Jan. ‘10.

8 Ravid, Barak. “WikiLeaks Cable Exposes Iran Hand in Hezbollah Communication Network.” Haaretz, 06 Dec. ‘10.

9 Ravid, Barak. “WikiLeaks Cable Exposes Iran Hand in Hezbollah Communication Network.” Haaretz, 06 Dec. ‘10.

10 Nerguizian, Aram. “The Lebanese Armed Forces: Challenges and Opportunities in Post-Syria Lebanon.” 10 Feb. ‘09 http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/090210_lafsecurity.pdf

11 Roggio, Bill. “ISAF Captures Qods Force-linked Taliban Leader in Afghan West.” The Long War Journal, 10 Jan. ’11.

12 Roggio, Bill. “ISAF Captures Qods Force-linked Taliban Leader in Afghan West.” The Long War Journal, 10 Jan. ’11.

13 Roggio, Bill. “ISAF Captures Qods Force-linked Taliban Leader in Afghan West.” The Long War Journal, 10 Jan. ’11.

14 Mashregh News Agency, 03 Jan. ’11.

15 PressTV, 10 Aug. ’10.

16 “Hizballah Possesses Advanced Iranian-Controlled Air Drone System.” Al-Siyasah Online, 06 Nov. ’10.

17 Ministry of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 28 Sept. ‘10

18 Tehran Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), 23 Sept. ‘10

19 Internet Mashregh News, 31 Dec. ‘10

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy