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Research Report


J. Matthew McInnis
with contributions from Ashton Gilmore
Copyright Date: Dec. 1, 2016
Pages: 60
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-3)

    President Hassan Rouhani likes to boast that the Islamic Republic has not initiated a war against another country since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. There is some truth to this. Iran’s relative conventional weakness and threat perceptions make Tehran a fundamentally defensive state in the standard military sense, as I argued in the first paper in this series, Iranian Strategic Thinking: Origins and Evolution.¹ These drivers also push Iran to pursue its more aggressive, and ultimately revisionist, foreign policies through less conventional means such as proxy forces and asymmetric fighting doctrines.

    However, Iran’s military capabilities and perceptions of its threat...

  2. (pp. 4-11)

    To examine the decision-making process of Iranian leaders during crisis and wartime, a six-hour crisis simulation was conducted. The simulation’s aims, participants, structure, and results are discussed further below.

    The point of the exercise was not necessarily to predict how such events could unfold in real life, but rather to illuminate the Iranian government’s potential or likely behavioral patterns in a similar crisis with the United States.

    The simulation also explored perceptions and misperceptions about Iran’s use, escalation, de-escalation, and termination of overt and clandestine force, as well as how Iran’s consensual decision-making style interacts with more formal processes, such...

  3. (pp. 12-25)

    Iran‘s hesitancy to use its conventional military power across international borders is a defining feature of its strategic behavior. It may be true that Iran has not started a conventional war against its neighbors in almost 300 years. Yet the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has used its ground, naval, and air forces in multiple operations and campaigns since 1979, most notably during the Iran-Iraq War. The IRI has also seriously considered using military force in the region, only to refrain.

    From reviewing the Islamic Republic’s historical record and findings from the crisis simulation, what can be discerned as the...

  4. (pp. 26-42)

    Once Iran begins either a conventional or unconventional campaign, the most important decisions involve how much and what kind of force the military should employ to achieve Tehran’s goals. The calculations of whether or when to intensify or scale back a campaign are tied closely to the importance of the desired military objectives, weighed against the perceived intentions and relative power of the adversary Iran is fighting at the time.

    With a peer regional or substate opponent, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the Syrian opposition, restraints on escalation are necessarily less and appear to be driven largely by relative...

  5. (pp. 43-47)

    Predicting behavior in future crises is far from an exact science, if possible at all. There is no grand theory of redlines for when Iran goes to war, no algorithm to determine how Tehran will decide to use military force.

    Discerning patterns in the historical record and testing concepts of Iranian decision making through simulation are arguably the best methods available for determining effective strategies to deter or fight Tehran when needed. Examining case studies did support most of the key findings observed in the wargame. If there are no clear predictors of Iranian actions in war, there are certainly...

  6. (pp. 48-49)

    Viewing the Islamic Republic’s approach to conflict as a model—if even possible—should never be considered determinative or predictive. Such an exercise is, at most, an analytic tool for better interpreting Tehran’s actions, crafting more effective responses to its operations, and most importantly, deterring Iran from engaging in war or other destabilizing behavior in the first place. Perhaps the most useful method of analysis for policymakers and planners is to ask a series of branching questions about Iran’s intentions, perceptions, and circumstances as the United States attempts to manage emerging crises in the region.

    The questions most crucial for...