Iran seems on a roll. A nuclear weapons deal has removed sanctions, releasing embargoed funds, its military forces appear winning in Syria and Iraq, new long-range ballistic rockets are being tested, and small Iranian naval craft are harassing passing American and British warships. These successes though may prove short-lived. Iranian actions are exacerbating sectarian tensions across the Middle East creating new adversaries and reinforcing old prejudices, so exit from Syria may prove impossible, and certain United Nations sanctions remain in force.
The real wildcard for Iran however might be blowback from its long campaign against America. President Trump has appointed three Generals: James Mattis to Secretary of Defense, John Kelly to Secretary of Homeland Defense, and still-serving H.R. McMasters to National Security Adviser. All three served in Iraq when Iran was covertly supporting anti-coalition militias, providing them with distinctive improvised explosive devices that killed some 500 soldiers, mostly Americans, and wounded thousands more.
For ex-Marines, Mattis and Kelly, their Iraq experience overlays an enduring Marine Corps dislike of Iran, emanating from Iranian involvement in the 1983 suicide bombing in Lebanon that killed 220 Marines. In 2012, when asked what were the three gravest threats facing America, Mattis answered “Iran, Iran, Iran.” In 2016 Mattis declared: “the Iranian regime is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East nothing, I believe, is as serious in the long term.”
Iranian Strategic Principles
The Iranian threat is both a complicated and a novel one. Iran’s military strategies are not directly derived from the theocratic regime’s ideological views, instead stemming mainly from perceived lessons of earlier wars. Even so, just like for other nations, Iranian military doctrines are often ad hoc and influenced by the national strategic culture.
Five major principles drive Iranian strategic thinking, two derived from the 1979 Iranian revolution. The first was that the revolution confirmed the need to have twin militaries to solve divided loyalty problems historically common in Iran. An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) loyal to the revolution was created while the regular armed forces were retained for national defence from external attack. Today, there is an IRGC Ground Force, IRGC Navy and IRGC Aerospace Force together with a regular Army, Navy and Air Force.