Understanding Iran’s military strategy

Contrary to what many seem to be speculating, Iran probably will not retaliate against Israel through a direct military strike.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks on a red carpet in Tehran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks on a red carpet in Tehran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is reportedly preparing for a direct military attack by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). These preparations come in light of the rising tensions between the two countries in Syria. It began in February when an Iranian drone flew into Israeli airspace and Israeli jets responded by attacking Iran’s T-4 airbase near Homs in central Syria that were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. The most recent incident occurred on April 9 when Israel struck the T-4 airbase again, which led to the deaths of seven members of the IRGC.
In reference to the latter incident, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader, stated that Israel “should be waiting for a powerful response.” However, in order to determine how Iran might retaliate against Israel, it is important consider Iran’s military strategy throughout the broader region.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was a defining moment for Iran’s military doctrine and continues to influence Iran’s geopolitical and national security priorities today. The devastation of the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq pushed the Iranian government to scale back on expanding the Islamic revolution and implement a more defensive foreign policy.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Islamic Republic’s defense spending has been significantly lower than other actors within the region, such as Israel and the Arab Sunni Gulf states, since the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War. This is because the traumatic experiences of the eight-year war influenced the Islamic Republic to refrain from direct military combat. In today’s case, Iran knows that it would stand little chance in direct conventional warfare with Israel and or the Arab Sunni Gulf states, who have more advanced military capabilities, with American support. Thus, Iran tends to use an alternative military tactic against its adversaries.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic Republic developed the use of attrition warfare. That means, Iran uses a numerical advantage by sending large numbers of troops and proxies into the battlefield to overwhelm and maximize the pain of their opponents to discourage them from future attacks. As Michael Connell from the United States Institute of Peace writes, “Tacitly acknowledging it has little chance of winning a conventional force-on-force conflict, Iran...
opted for a deterrence-based model of attrition warfare that raises an opponent’s risks and costs... The goal is to inflict a psychological defeat that inhibits an enemy’s willingness to fight.”
Iran has carried over this strategy into the Syrian civil war. For instance, rather than depending solely on its own military forces, Iran has recruited thousands of Shi’ites from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and within Syria to do much of the dirty work in fighting Syrian rebel groups to keep Bashar Assad in power. These recruits may not even be well suited to be soldiers, as many of them are actually refugees in poverty desperate to receive the benefits the Iranian government provides them for participating in the Syrian war.
Hence, Iran does not seek to defeat its adversaries through military might, but through a numerical advantage to exhaust its opponents and discourage them from continuing to fight. Iran’s allies have signaled that they are prepared to use a similar strategy in the event of a future war against Israel.
Back in June 2017, Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel that any attack against Lebanon “would open the door for hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate in this fight – from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, [and] Pakistan.” In addition, in December, two Shi’ite military commanders from Iraq and Syria paid visit to southern Lebanon where one of them was seen overlooking northern Israel and swore allegiance to Hezbollah in any future war with Israel.
With these preparations, Iran could retaliate by placing a large number of its foreign fighters near the Golan Heights to fire at Israel.
However, Hezbollah may not participate in such a fight due to the upcoming Lebanese elections in May. Hezbollah knows that provoking a war with Israel has not boded well for its image in Lebanon, but Iran could still send in Shi’ite militias from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Israeli-Syrian border, as they may have less to lose in a fight against Israel.
Moreover, though Iran has expanded its military infrastructure within Syria, it will probably leave its air force capabilities as a last resort against Israel. Since the US, Britain and France’s raids on Syria, Iran has seen many of its bases attacked, including the destruction of one its largest weapons depots near Aleppo, and thus is currently in the process of rehabilitation. The Iranians know Israel possesses advanced military capabilities that would only make the situation more painful for Iran if it were to provoke a war with Israel, and they are pragmatic enough to avoid such a scenario.
In sum, contrary to what many seem to be speculating, Iran probably will not retaliate through a direct military strike. It is neither in a position to conduct a direct attack nor is it how Iran typically responds to its adversaries. Rather, if Iran does retaliate, it will likely place its foreign fighters near the Golan border to create a chaotic situation for Israel, in an attempt to decrease Israel’s willingness for future attacks on Iranian bases within Syria. Israel should be mindful of this and prepare itself accordingly if it wants to ensure its security by its border with Syria.
The author double-majored in psychology and Middle Eastern studies at Clark University and is currently a contributing author for the Israel Policy Forum.