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Research Report

Iran’s Strategic Thinking: Origins and Evolution

J. Matthew McInnis
Copyright Date: May. 1, 2015
Pages: 31
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-6)

    An understanding of Iran’s strategic calculus has long eluded Western analysts. What drives a state to go to war? When does a state sue for peace? What shapes a government’s decision to prioritize investment in ballistic missiles over fixed-wing air power? Why would a navy prefer to fight with small vessels in swarms? Why would a state build proxy forces to fight in conflicts that pose an existential threat rather than directly intervene? Why would the most important mission of a nation’s ground forces be controlling their own population rather than fighting and winning wars against foreign enemies? Why would...

  2. (pp. 7-12)

    In addition to learning about historical legacies, shared beliefs, and collective experiences, understanding the modes of decision making within a state is key to constructing a model for strategic culture. The Iranian regime’s decision making on security and strategic issues is best described as a consensual process among the key political and military leaders. This consensual decision-making process can seem opaque and unwieldy, but in practice the regime can make decisions very efficiently.

    Iran’s leadership and security organizations have evolved and professionalized over time. As Iran’s senior leadership becomes more closely knit, Iran’s consensual decision-making style is becoming more efficient...

  3. (pp. 13-18)

    In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s security decision making was dominated by the war with Iraq, neutralizing the revolution’s internal enemies, and defending against US or Soviet intervention. In the 1990s, the IRGC and Artesh developed defensive strategies to deter the superior US conventional power displayed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and expanded Iran’s covert and clandestine proxy wars against Israeli, Saudi Arabian, and Western interests. After the al Qaeda terrorist attacks in 2001 and the US-led campaign that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran attempted to neutralize the American threat on its doorstep through a...

  4. (pp. 19-20)

    There is no ready-made algorithm for how any state—including Iran—makes decisions on national security policy and the use of military force. This does not mean, however, that such decisions are incomprehensible or inherently unpredictable. Analyzing patterns of historical behavior, the evolution of worldview and threat perceptions, and the key personalities and processes compromising state decision making can provide reasonable parameters for anticipating a state’s policies and actions. I have argued in this paper that Iran’s historical legacies, geographical realities, religious and ideological tenets, and national interests shape the Islamic Republic’s threat perceptions and its leadership’s worldview. Understanding these elements of...