Recent warnings about the possibility of striking Iran’s military and nuclear facilities as a consequence of its failure to make concessions on the nuclear issue—most notably by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner who said that France needed to prepare for the prospect of war—seem to fuel concerted efforts on the part of the Iranian leadership to prepare for a potential conflict. At the anniversary ceremony that launched Iran’s “Sacred Defense Week,” the speaker of the Revolutionary Guard stated that the “Iranian nation will stand up to any aggression which may be launched by the global arrogance [USA] and the hegemonic powers” (IRNA, September 19). Most Iranians believe that prospects of military confrontation are part of psychological warfare on the part of the United States, Europe and Israel and, as Jomhuri-ye Islami put it on September 17, “Iranians are deeply aware of the fact that America is so busy in Iraq and Afghanistan that it cannot do anything against Iran.” Recent developments in the military, however, seem to indicate that at least the leadership is preparing for a possible showdown.
On September 1, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced a change in the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), promoting Mohammad Ali Jafari from brigadier to general and making him the new chief commander of the Guard (IRNA, September 1). Although the move may be because of Khamenei’s penchant for replacing top military positions every 10 years, Ali Jafari, an architect by training, is known in the country for his strategic aptitude and military planning. Like many of the country’s top military officials, his military credentials and combat experience were acquired on the battlefield of the Iran-Iraq war. Unable to initially match Iraq’s superiority in military hardware, the Iranian military soon developed alternative innovative battle tactics that were ideologically driven by the spirit of the revolution and nationalism, and they proved to be effective against the Iraqi enemy.
It is this experience that shaped an entire military mindset among the country’s top brass of how to conduct efficient and “low-tech” asymmetrical warfare. Jafari himself spent most of his career in strategic planning and, after serving as the commander of the regular armed forces, had been in charge of the Pasdaran’s Center for Applied Strategies, where he reportedly developed various new defense strategies. In an interview with Aftab News Agency, Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, former deputy of the Inspection Organization of the Military Forces, predicted that under Jafari the Pasdaran is likely to witness more innovations and an intake of a younger generation of officers. It can also be expected that there will be changes in the military and operational units of the Revolutionary Guard, making them tactically more efficient and lightweight. By all accounts, the leadership in Tehran seems to expect the Guard to acquire more efficient military and defense capabilities under the new leadership (E’temad, September 3).
Jafari already announced that the Guard will forge a closer link with the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group in the country, which for years served as the hardliner camp’s vigilante groups, assaulting and detaining intellectuals, dissident clerics, minorities and reformists and which have gained enormous political momentum under Ahmadinejad (Iran TV News, September 11). Given Khamenei’s expressive wish to reform the Revolutionary Guard and improve their capabilities, it can be expected that the reshuffling of the leadership will impact both command-structure and the strategic planning of the Revolutionary Guard. By and large, these developments indicate that the Iranian leadership, while ridiculing threats of military attack, seems better prepared and more confident about its retaliatory potential. As the Iranian defense minister put it in a response to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ comment on the means available to the United States to force Iran to halt enrichment activities: “Iran has various options to respond to the U.S. threats and will use them according to the situation” (ISNA, September 19).
With regard to military technology, Iran has been trying to embark on limited conventional arms proliferation as far as the multilateral sanctions regime allows. Repeated large-scale military maneuvers during the last 12 months revealed various new Iranian produced missiles, drones, torpedoes and Russian imported missile defense systems. The most recent presentation of two new fighter planes from the second generation of Azarakhsh fighters produced in the country seem to underline the government’s preparedness for possible military attacks (IRNA, September 20). Soon after Jafari took over command, the Pasdaran also announced the launch of a new monitoring system designed to screen all movements in the Strait of Hormuz. The system called “Hod-Hod” (Hoopoe) is described by Pasdaran engineers as a highly advanced video monitoring system capable of detecting the “slightest movements on the surface or in the air” (IRNA, September 29).
To what extent Jafari’s new strategic visions for the defense of Iran will manifest themselves remains to be seen. Much depends on how the so-called “proxy war” between the U.S. and Iran in neighboring Iraq develops and “spills over” to the nuclear issue, providing a pretext for military confrontation. The declaration of the elite al-Quds force of the Pasdaran by the U.S. government as a “foreign terrorist organization” in August this year, the continuous detainment of Revolutionary Guard operatives in Iraq by U.S. forces and the most recent arrest of an Iranian officer in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya by the U.S. military on charges of providing IEDs certainly provides for plenty of conflict potential. Retaliatory acts by the Iranian government are so far confined to border closures with northern Iraq near the border towns of Banjiwin, Haj Omran, Halabja and Khanaqin, a move which is bound to have detrimental effects on the Kurdish economy which is highly dependant on imports from Iran. The detentions and Iran’s “trade-boycott” against northern Iraq does little to deescalate tensions between Tehran and Washington. It appears that both sides are preparing for the worst.