Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Research Report


J. Matthew McInnis
Copyright Date: Feb. 1, 2017
Pages: 32
  • Cite this Item

Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-3)

    How does the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) think about using military power to achieve its security objectives? Is there one school or rather many schools of Iranian military thought? Why is Iran’s military structured as it currently is? Why and how could that change, especially given the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran’s deepening role in the regional wars in Syria and Iraq?

    These are fundamentally questions of doctrine that are important to defense policymakers and military planners. Understanding how the Iranian leadership looks at military power and strategy is crucial to designing a...

  2. (pp. 4-9)

    The United States has a system of strategy development and doctrine formation that begins with the president’s National Security Strategy. This document informs the national defense and military strategies and subsequent joint planning processes, which guide doctrinal development, contingency planning, and defense acquisition across the Department of Defense.

    In a similar way, the IRI develops its strategies and doctrines from an overarching conceptualization that the supreme leader lays out in his 20-Year Vision. From this document, Iran creates five-year cyclical development plans, which, at least in the past three iterations, not only direct Iran’s budget and economic policies but also...

  3. (pp. 10-14)

    In the prerevolutionary period, the Iranian state developed from the Persian Empire through the Islamic conquest, the Shia conversion during the Safavid dynasty, and the humiliation and weakness of the Qajar dynasty, which produced a military under the Pahlavi shahs in the 20th century that struggled with its relationship to modernity and its religious and political nature. Most of these insecurities and unresolved issues carried over into postrevolutionary era, even as new ideological concerns became dominant and Iran faced two external existential threats—Iraq and the United States. The IRI’s unique structure and current military thinking are arguably reactions to...

  4. (pp. 15-16)

    Based on these key historical influences and formal processes, as well as a review of available IRI doctrinal materials, relevant senior leader statements, and major Iranian military exercises over the past five years, some broad conclusions can be made about the characteristics of Iranian doctrine.

    IRI doctrine does not generally descend from revolutionary ideology and Islamic morality. The Iranian approach is largely pragmatic, with most doctrine developed from lessons learned in previous conflicts or observation of successful military operations by other countries. One cannot simply study the Quran or Ayatollah Khomeini’s writings to discern how the Iranian military will fight...

  5. (pp. 17-20)

    Based on these assessed and observed characteristics in Iran’s strategic and military thinking, a general conceptual model for Iranian doctrine can be built. The most important distinction between most Western doctrines and the IRI’s is that the division between internal and external operations is more fluid or permeable.

    Because Iran sees warfare in 360 degrees, the front lines of the conflict are expected to open almost anywhere. Tehran anticipates its adversaries may attempt to undermine the government or its hold over the population when engaged in conflict with Iran or its proxy forces. Similarly, Iranian leaders suspect instability at home...

  6. (pp. 21-25)

    As UN sanctions on Iran’s military imports expire over the next decade, US defense planners and policymakers are faced with key questions: Will Iran’s approach to the development and use of its military change as the IRGC and Artesh begin modernizing? Will Iran become a more balanced or conventional military, like its neighbors Turkey and Pakistan, and revive a focus on its offensive capabilities and doctrines?

    To answer these questions requires understanding how many of the drivers and internal tensions that form IRI’s doctrines also shape its decision making about its future force. Four factors will likely dominate the Iranian...