Amid the turmoil that has engulfed the wider Middle East over the course of the past year, Iran has been confronted with numerous challenges and some opportunities. Not surprisingly, the top priority for the Iranian regime remains its own survival. The main threats in this regard stem from external military intervention, internal unrest and increasingly, over the past year, strengthened international sanctions in response to its nuclear program. In order to counter these threats, Iran continues to invest in asymmetric, niche capabilities that play to Iran’s strengths while exploiting the vulnerabilities of its high-tech adversaries. The regime has also embarked on a diplomatic and covert military offensive, the latter spearheaded by the Qods Force, to undermine the U.S. and its allies in the region.
The possibility of widespread internal unrest, orchestrated from abroad, has traditionally been a top concern of the Iranian regime, rendered more acute by the riots that followed the presidential elections in 2009. While the regime’s threat perceptions are unlikely to change in this regard in the short term, the possibility of widespread unrest engulfing the country in 2012 is probably more remote than it has been in previous years. Speculation that the Arab Spring might give rise to a period of renewed unrest in Iran has proved to be unfounded. The reformist Green Movement has been driven underground, and all of its key leaders who have not gone into exile have been arrested or silenced. Iran’s security forces — including its intelligence services, its police force and the paramilitary Basij — have become particularly adept at penetrating opposition networks and disrupting demonstrations before they spread. Ongoing low-level ethnic and sectarian insurgencies in Iranian Kurdistan and Balochistan continue to plague Tehran, but they do not threaten the regime’s existence.
If protests do occur in Iran over the coming year, the cause will most likely stem from economic factors, such as rising consumer prices and falling wages. Recent U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions, mainly stemming from Iran’s nuclear program, have had a significant and detrimental impact on the Iranian economy. Rampant inflation and loss of consumer confidence has encouraged capital flight and caused the price of basic commodities to rise as much as threefold. It was probably in part to address these concerns that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proclaimed that the year 2012-2013 was dedicated to “national production and supporting labor and investment.”
A military strike, either by Israel or the United States, remains a distinct possibility given ongoing tensions over the country’s nuclear program and Tehran’s progress toward uranium enrichment. While the leadership probably calculates that it could weather an Israeli strike and perhaps even benefit from a nationalist “rally around the flag” effect that such a strike is likely to initiate, the possibility of an open-ended war with the United States is likely to be more worrisome to the regime. In order to offset this possibility, Iran has been bolstering its deterrent capabilities by investing heavily in its missile and naval forces.
Iran’s top regional objective continues to be to undermine the U.S. presence in the Middle East and complicate Washington’s relations with its regional allies. In this regard, the results have been mixed for Iran over the past year. Following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, Tehran managed to re-establish relations with Cairo. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution, an Iranian navy flotilla transited the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean. The peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis has remained moribund, bolstering the legitimacy of those countries and groups — of which Iran is a leader — that categorically reject a political settlement with Israel. Iran also appeared to be well-positioned to take advantage of the power vacuum in neighboring Iraq. The Iranians have championed the rights of Bahrain’s disaffected Shiite majority, no doubt spurred on by Washington’s discomfort over having to balance its ideological principles with its interests and equities in backing the Bahraini regime.
However, if the past year has provided the Iranians with various opportunities to expand their influence at Washington’s expense, it has also posed numerous challenges for Tehran, both regionally and internationally. Although the regime had clearly hoped to take advantage of the Arab Spring, even going so far as to describe the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia as an outgrowth of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, one year later it is clear that Iran has had a difficult time capitalizing on the momentous changes that have engulfed the region. Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists have embraced Western-style democracy. The situation in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the region and a vital enabler of Iranian influence in the Levant, appears to be degenerating into a civil war, forcing Tehran into the awkward position of backing the secular Baathist regime against a panoply of Islamist groups.
Compounding these setbacks, from Tehran’s point of view, has been a growing tendency on the part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to close ranks with Saudi Arabia against Iran. Recent GCC ministerial summits have vociferously condemned the Iranian government for its interference in the internal affairs of GCC states, particularly for its perceived contributions to the ongoing unrest in Bahrain, and for its continued occupation of the Abu Musa and Tunbs Islands, jointly claimed by the United Arab Emirates and Iran. The activation, in 2011, of the GCC’s joint Peninsula Shield Force to suppress opposition demonstrations in Bahrain was regarded by many as a shot across Tehran’s bow.
The Iranian Nuclear Program
Iran’s nuclear program continues to be a primary source of contention between it and the international community. While the Iranian government continues to maintain that its program is for peaceful purposes and that it has a right to enrich uranium under the existing framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), U.S. and European officials claim that Iran has exhibited a pattern of deceptive behavior and engaged in activities that are incompatible with a civilian nuclear program. They accept that Iran has a right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but have stated that it must also verifiably demonstrate that its program is only for those purposes.
Iran’s position on its nuclear program has been undercut by the revelation in 2009 that it had constructed a secret underground enrichment plant at Fordo, on the outskirts of Qom. Iran’s position was further undermined in November 2011 by an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report (.pdf) detailing Iran’s apparent efforts to acquire the necessary knowledge to weaponize highly enriched uranium, particularly its work with high explosives, advanced neutron initiators and detonators. After initially refusing to discuss the latest round of allegations with the IAEA, Iran offered to host an IAEA team for discussions on January 29-31. That visit, as well as subsequent meetings with the IAEA, has still not satisfactorily addressed the agency’s concerns that Iran might have pursued a nuclear weapons program. In particular, Iran has not allowed IAEA inspectors to visit a military site at Parchin, where much of the military research is alleged to have taken place.
Iran’s ultimate intentions regarding its nuclear program are still subject to debate. James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, provided an unclassified summary (.pdf) of the latest U.S. national intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear program, which stated, “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” If Iran does cross the nuclear weapons threshold, a key question will be whether the regime decides to advertise its newfound capabilities with a test or whether it will remain content with having developed a latent capability — the so-called bomb in the basement.
If Iran were to develop a weapons capability, it would almost certainly choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivery. Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. It continues to expand the range, accuracy and payload of its missiles, several of which are already capable of ranging Israel and carrying a nuclear payload.
Obtaining sufficient weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) is the most difficult and technically challenging aspect of acquiring a nuclear weapon. Estimates of when Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon vary considerably. Although the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimated in June 2011 that Iran could conceivably produce enough HEU for a weapon at its Natanz facility in six months, it also noted that the required effort would not escape notice and would almost certainly lead to Israeli military strikes or crippling U.N. sanctions. Iran is therefore likely to wait until it has improved its centrifuge capabilities and accumulated a sufficient stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, allowing it to dash more rapidly to the finish line should it choose do so.
Concerns about the potential for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, and the consequences that would entail for regional security, remained topmost in the minds of U.S. and European military planners and force providers in 2012. Reports in the media have linked a recent U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf with tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has also dispatched Patriot missile batteries to four Gulf countries — Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait — and has dispatched to the Gulf several ships capable of shooting down Iranian ballistic missiles, in order to allay the concerns of its GCC allies.
Sanctions and the Iranian Economy
The Islamic Republic has been subjected to — and lived with — various bilateral and multilateral sanctions since the 1980s. In recent years, however, a growing coalition of countries has imposed progressively more onerous sanctions on Iran, mainly over the latter’s nuclear program. These measures threaten to shrink Iran’s economy, increase inflation and further erode its currency. Whether or not they will compel a change in the government’s stance on its nuclear program is debatable.
The latest round of sanctions, the most severe since the Iran-Iraq War, followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. The following year, the U.S. Congress extended and strengthened the provisions of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), originally imposed under the Clinton administration. As a result, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of numerous Iranian officials and firms, many of them associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). At the same time, after years of failed diplomatic efforts to engage with the Iranians over their nuclear program, European officials were gradually coming around to Washington’s point of view that sanctions were necessary to get Iran to comply with its obligations under the NPT.
Shortly afterward, with European help, Washington was able to secure the first U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran’s nuclear program — Resolution 1696 in July 2006, which called on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities and live up to its NPT commitments or face “appropriate measures.” Between 2006 and 2010, the UNSC voted for five more resolutions that included travel bans and asset freezes on Iranian individuals, banks and front companies associated with Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. and the EU have also continued to impose their own sanctions, over and above the Security Council measures, despite the objections of Russia and China. In June 2010, Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA), a measure that tightened U.S. sanctions in several areas and also targeted the supply of refined petroleum products to Iran. Because of its lack of refinery capacity, Iran imports about 30 percent of its own petroleum.
On Jan. 23, the EU decided to wind down its purchases of Iranian oil by July 1, 2012. The EU was reacting to the above-mentioned IAEA report that detailed possible Iranian efforts to design a nuclear warhead as well as to the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran, which took place on Nov. 30, 2011. EU member states currently account for approximately 20 percent of Iranian exports. Additional purchasers of Iranian oil in Asia have also reduced their imports — some, like Japan, because of their alignment with Washington, and others, such as China and India, because their banks were finding it difficult to engage in dollar transactions with their Iranian counterparts without running afoul of U.S. sanctions.
There are multiple indications that sanctions are beginning to bite. Iran has been virtually severed from the world banking system and has increasingly been forced to rely on barter arrangements to conclude transactions. The value of the rial, Iran’s official currency, has dropped precipitously since September 2011, losing as much as 50 percent of its value, according to some estimates. The government has been unable to reverse this decline, despite raising official interest rates. As a result, the price for basic commodities in Iran has doubled or tripled over the space of the past year.
Energy-related sanctions have also slowed outside investment in Iran’s oil and gas sectors, making it difficult for the Iranians to exceed the 4.1 million barrels a day in oil output they have maintained for much of the past decade. The overall result has been a 14 percent reduction in oil exports as of March 2012, well before the EU sanctions on Iran reach their full effect. Oil exports account for around 60-70 percent of the Iranian government’s income.
It remains to be seen whether sanctions will compel the Iranian government to make a U-turn on its nuclear program. Some observers believe that sanctions already caused Iran to return to the P5+1 nuclear talks with renewed seriousness in April 2012. Whether Tehran makes meaningful concessions at future rounds of talks will depend in part on the price of oil, as higher oil prices mitigate some of the effects of sanctions. It will also depend on whether Asian purchasers of Iranian oil maintain their reductions or resume importing Iranian oil at former, or higher, rates.
Defense Posture and Priorities
Iran’s military consists of two parallel armed forces, the regular military (Artesh) and the IRGC, each with its own ground, air and naval forces. While the two forces have overlapping missions and areas of responsibility, they differ in terms of their core functions and ideological underpinnings. The Artesh, which traces its roots to the prerevolutionary armed forces of the Shah, is tasked with defending the territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic from external aggressors. A professional military in the Western sense, the Artesh and its subsidiary branches tend to be larger and heavier than their IRGC counterparts.
The IRGC was created in the postrevolutionary period to harness the power of revolutionary militias and counterbalance the Artesh, which at the time was suspected of harboring residual pro-Shah sentiments. Its primary function, according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, is to “safeguard the Revolution and its achievements.” The IRGC’s mandate to protect the revolution has broadened the scope of its missions to include an internal policing function as well as the responsibility of protecting the regime from foreign aggressors. The IRGC’s control over strategic industries, commercial services and black market enterprises also makes it one of the country’s most influential economic actors.
The IRGC consists of five branches, including the Ground Resistance Force, the navy and the Aerospace Force, which has operational control over Iran’s strategic missile forces. The fourth branch, the Basij, is a large, all-volunteer, paramilitary reserve force, numbering in the several millions. The fifth branch, the Qods (Jerusalem) Force, is an elite unit that is primarily responsible for working with foreign proxies and cultivating the Islamic Revolution abroad. Excluding the Basij, which has a nominal strength of several million reservists, the IRGC is smaller than the Artesh, with approximately 150,000 active personnel compared to an estimated 400,000 for the latter.
True to its revolutionary roots, the IRGC is the Iranian military’s leading proponent of asymmetric tactics. It is generally favored by the regime with better equipment and facilities, a factor that has led to some interservice rivalry. It also exerts a disproportionate influence over key national security decision-making institutions, including the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Supreme National Security Council and the Armed Forces General Staff.
Iranian military doctrine and strategy is based on a hybrid of Western concepts, revolutionary ideology and practical necessity stemming from three decades of sanctions and relative diplomatic isolation. Like most militaries, the Iranian armed forces have a rational strategy for force development that is based on the regime’s threat perceptions. In recent years, Iranian planners have focused their efforts on confronting two perceived challenges: internal unrest and external, high-tech adversaries, such as the United States. The regime’s anxiety about domestic opposition was exacerbated by the extensive rioting that followed the 2009 presidential election and the rise of the so-called Green Movement, which was perceived as a potential fifth column for the West by regime hardliners. In the wake of the post-election riots, the regime relied heavily on the Basij and the Law Enforcement Forces to quell the unrest. Since then, Iran’s security services have become more adept at crowd control, technical surveillance and penetrating opposition networks. As a result, the Green Movement has largely been atomized.
In order to counter the external threat posed by the United States and its allies, the Iranian military has made a virtue of necessity by investing in low-cost, asymmetric capabilities that play to Iran’s strengths, including the country’s large manpower pool, its strategic depth and its rugged terrain, while exploiting the vulnerabilities of its adversaries, who are regarded as risk-averse, casualty-sensitive and overly dependent on technology and regional basing facilities for access. The core tenets of Iranian doctrine, which are derived at least in part from analyzing recent and ongoing U.S. operations, include decentralized command and control, an emphasis on surprise and maintaining the initiative, hit-and-run tactics, guerilla warfare and popular resistance. Tacitly acknowledging that the U.S. is likely to dominate airspace in any future conflict, the Iranian military also places a lot of emphasis on passive defense measures designed to enhance the survivability of its forces, including hardening critical nodes and using camouflage, concealment and deception techniques.
The processes that inform Iran’s acquisition strategies remain opaque, and its military budget is classified. However, most estimates of Iran’s annual military budget range between $7 billion and $9 billion, a relatively high figure in absolute dollar terms by world standards but still significantly lower than several of Iran’s Arab neighbors. Although the Iranian military remains dependent on outside suppliers for many of its acquisitions, the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics places a major emphasis on self-sufficiency, a lesson learned from the Iran-Iraq War when the Iranian war effort was hamstrung by sanctions and arms embargoes. As a result, Iran’s domestic arms industry has become fairly adept at reverse engineering foreign systems acquired on the open market.
In order to deter potential adversaries such as the United States and Israel, the Iranians have been enhancing the capabilities of their strategic missile and naval forces. Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Many of the missiles and long-range rockets in Iran’s inventory are capable of ranging U.S. basing facilities in the Gulf countries, while some of its longer-range ballistic missiles, such as the Ashura and Shehab-3, can range Israel and southeastern Europe. Most are road-mobile, which enhances their survivability by making them difficult to track. However, they are not very accurate, a factor which, when coupled with the fact they are assumed to be armed only with conventional warheads, limits their military utility.
Iran’s naval strategy, which is based on denying its enemies access to the Persian Gulf, relies on a layered defense consisting of mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, small fast-attack craft and submarines. In most of these areas, the IRGC navy has taken the lead, although the regular navy operates all of Iran’s submarines. Prior to 2007, both the IRGC navy and the regular navy operated in the same geographic space, both inside and outside of the Gulf. However, that year witnessed a major realignment of the two services, with the former assuming responsibility for operations inside the Gulf and the latter outside it, in the Sea of Oman. As of 2011, the evolution of the division of effort between the two services was still ongoing.
In order to bolster their deterrence posture and drive a wedge between the United States and its regional allies, the Iranians regularly engage in highly publicized demonstrations of their naval and missile capabilities. Often, their capabilities in this regard are exaggerated. However, in 2011, the Iranians conducted their first test launch of the Khaleej-e Fars (Persian Gulf), an anti-ship ballistic missile based on a Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missile variant. The missile was reported to have successfully hit a stationary target barge. If the Iranians were able to develop a terminal guidance system for the Khaleej-e Fars that was capable of hitting a moving target, such as a carrier, it would pose a significant challenge for the U.S. Navy and its allies. In another highly publicized event, in 2011, Iranian naval vessels transited the Suez Canal for the first time since the Iranian revolution, extending the operational reach of the regular navy to the Mediterranean Sea.
Iranian officials also periodically threaten to impede traffic in the strategically significant Strait of Hormuz, which accounts for 35 percent of the world’s seaborne traded oil. In order to highlight their capabilities in this regard, both the regular navy and IRGC navy staged large-scale exercises in the strait in early 2012. Whether the Iranians would actually carry through with their threats to close the strait, given their own vulnerabilities in terms of oil exports, is questionable.
Iran and the Arab Spring
At first glance, Iran would appear to have benefitted from the events of the Arab Spring. With long-standing U.S. allies either toppled or under increasing pressure from their restive populations to engage in more equitable power-sharing arrangements, Tehran would appear to be closer to achieving its cherished goal of diminishing U.S. influence in the region. Washington’s position has certainly been rendered more complicated as it finds itself walking a tightrope between supporting the democratic aspirations of the protesters while at the same time convincing its traditional allies that it remains committed to regional stability and security. The Arab monarchs in the Gulf were said to be particularly displeased with the Obama administration’s handling of the events in Egypt, claiming that Washington was quick to abandon former President Hosni Mubarak in his time of greatest need. Iran has attempted to play on these insecurities in order to drive a wedge between Washington and its regional allies, suggesting that Washington is unreliable and that its influence is on the wane.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Iran has also attempted to channel the narrative of the Arab Spring by suggesting that it has been inspired by the Iranian Revolution. Khamenei has likened the unrest in the Arab world to a series of “Islamic awakenings” with “Islamic objectives and orientations.” Ahmadinejad, echoing the supreme leader, has claimed that the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia were inspired by “Iran’s defiance against Western powers.” The fact that the secular and liberal youth movements that played such a defining role in the initial stages of the Arab Spring have, to a certain degree, been overshadowed by better-organized, older Islamist parties appears to support this narrative.
Despite the rhetoric from Tehran, however, there is little evidence that Iran has been able to capitalize on the events of the past year. Rather, the revolts in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf appear to have caught the Iranians off-guard and ill-prepared, highlighting the limitations of Tehran’s regional influence. Islamist parties such as Innahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt appear to be committed to democratic and pluralistic principles. Moreover, they have been reticent to embrace Tehran, given the latter’s questionable credentials in these areas, undermining Tehran’s official narrative.
Iran has also had a difficult time bridging the sectarian and ethnic divide that separates Persian, Shiite Iran from most of the Sunni, Arab countries. The unrest in Bahrain, which has pitted the country’s Sunni monarchy and its supporters against a disenfranchised Shiite majority, would appear to offer the greatest opportunity for Iranian adventurism. However, neither al-Haq nor al-Wefaq, the two largest Bahraini Shiite opposition parties, seek to replicate Iran’s form of government in Bahrain. They remain solidly nationalist and democratic in their aspirations. The fact that most of the island’s Shiites draw their spiritual inspiration from senior Iraqi Shiite clerics, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or dissident Arab-Iranian clerics, such as Sadiq al-Shirazi, rather than from Khamenei is another limiting factor for the Iranians.
Although the GCC countries were quick to condemn many of the protesters in Bahrain as agents of Iran, there has been little evidence of Iranian material support or infiltration in the uprisings. While this could change in the future, for the time being, even if Tehran wanted to intervene, its capacity to do so would be limited. To begin with, the Iranians would have a difficult time finding a willing partner. The opposition is loath to reach out to Tehran, for fear of validating the Bahraini government’s accusations that it represents an Iranian fifth column. Moreover, the capability of Bahrain’s security forces to detect and thwart any such activity is considerable.
The unprecedented military intervention by other GCC states to prop up the Bahraini government under the auspices of the group’s Peninsula Shield multilateral force represented a decisive shot across Tehran’s bow, signaling that any intervention by Iran in the internal affairs of the GCC would be met with a tough response. More importantly, it signals that the GCC is in the process of formulating a collective approach to contain Iranian influence, thereby further isolating Tehran from its neighbors in the Gulf.
If the situation in the Gulf has been difficult for the Iranians, the situation in Syria has been even more challenging. Syria is Iran’s closest regional ally and a critical enabler for Iranian influence in the Levant, particularly in terms of its logistical support for Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups, most notably Hamas. In early 2011, what began as a series of low-level demonstrations calling for reform of Syria’s Baathist political system blossomed into a nationwide uprising that threatened to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Hitherto, the Iranians had been vocal in their support for the Arab Spring protesters. In Syria, however, the Iranians performed an ideological about-face and backed the secular Syrian regime against the mainly Islamist-led opposition.
According to various press reports, Iran’s Qods Force has provided Syria’s security services with riot control equipment and technical advice on how to disrupt opposition networks. Opposition fighters of the Free Syrian Army also claim to have captured 29 IRGC operatives, probably belonging to the Qods Force, during the uprising. Iran suffered an embarrassing diplomatic setback in early 2012 when Hamas, which had hitherto been a key beneficiary of Iranian and Syrian support, condemned the Assad regime and voiced its support for the Syrian opposition.
Although Tehran’s support for the Syrian government would seem logical, at least in the short term, the longer the crisis in Syria drags on, the greater the damage will be to Iran’s efforts to win Arab “hearts and minds.” If the situation continues to deteriorate, Tehran may be forced to re-evaluate its relationship with its stalwart ally in Damascus.
The Qods Force Growing More Assertive
The Qods Force is the Iranian regime’s primary mechanism for leveraging nonstate actors and exporting its revolution abroad. In addition to training and equipping foreign, mainly Islamist militant groups — such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Jaysh al-Mahdi in Iraq — the Qods Force is also reported to utilize so-called soft power tools, including humanitarian assistance and propaganda, to bolster Iranian regional influence. As an elite arm of the IRGC responsible for managing covert operations and assistance to the regime’s closest allies, the Qods Force exerts a significant degree of influence over Iran’s foreign and national security policies, particularly regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and the Levant. Its current leader, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, is rumored to report directly to Iran’s supreme leader, bypassing regular IRGC channels.
The scope and tempo of Qods Force activities has expanded and contracted subject to the interests and objectives of the Iranian regime. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Qods Force and its antecedents were responsible for a number of high-profile bombings and assassinations in Europe, the Gulf countries and South Asia, culminating in the Khobar Towers bombing in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. However, as Iran sought to break out of its largely self-imposed isolation in the 1990s, it scaled back on its attempts to export its revolution abroad and mostly restricted the scope of Qods Force activities to the Levant and neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S.-led invasions of the latter two countries following Sept. 11 and the resulting fall of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, respectively, created a power vacuum that Iran was quick to exploit. Building on its existing networks in Iraq, the Qods Force began to provide training and assistance to Shiite militant groups in order to target U.S. and coalition forces. In a move that surprised many Iran analysts, the Iranian government also used the Qods Force to reach out to select elements of the Taliban, hitherto regarded as anathema by Iranian authorities. In both cases, Iran’s objective appears to have been to bog down U.S. troops and diminish its regional influence. In both cases, too, Iran’s support for the insurgents was low-risk and resulted in little blowback for the regime.
Since the Arab Spring, however, Qods Force activities suggest an increasing propensity for risk on Tehran’s part. Arab accusations of Iranian involvement in the unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are exaggerated, as protests would have taken place in both countries with or without Iranian support. But the Qods Force has been expanding its reach in the Horn of Africa region and in sub-Saharan Africa in order to strengthen its influence and undermine the legitimacy of pro-Western governments. In Yemen, for instance, the Qods Force has been providing cash, weapons and training to the Shiite Houthi rebels, who have been engaged in a long-running campaign against not only their own government but also the Saudis.
The assassination attempts in February on Israeli diplomats in Azerbaijan, India and Thailand were likely orchestrated by the Qods Force in response to the recent string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, presumably at the hands of the Israelis. More troubling from an escalation perspective is the alleged foiled Qods Force plot in November 2011 to assassinate Abdel al-Jubair, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in Washington. The failed plot came on the heels of multiple Qods Force attacks on Saudi diplomats around the world, including the successful assassination of a Saudi consular official in Karachi in May 2011. These attacks suggest that Iran’s leaders already believe that they are engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Washington plot also demonstrates a blatant disregard for, or at least misunderstanding of, U.S. redlines.
At the outset of 2012, Iran would appear to be confronting a raft of challenges, ranging from increasingly debilitating sanctions and the possibility of military strikes to its growing diplomatic isolation, both regionally and internationally. Iran’s response, especially the manner in which it has employed the Qods Force, suggests that the regime is becoming less risk-averse and more willing to lash out. Ironically, the regime’s refusal to compromise on its nuclear program is probably driven, at least in part, by the belief that possessing a nuclear weapons capability would be an effective deterrent for external aggression. Seen from that perspective, the Iranian regime is engaged in a race for time.
How the regime weathers the coming year will likely depend on how well it achieves certain goals as well as on several factors outside of its control.
Rolling back, or at least forestalling, the implementation of additional sanctions will be a critical objective for the regime. Iran could do this either by making tactical compromises over its nuclear program or driving wedges between the West and critical enablers of sanctions, such as China, Russia and India. With the latter goal in mind, Iranian diplomats are likely to spend much of the coming year cultivating the BRICS.
High oil prices are likely to mitigate the negative impact of sanctions on the Iranian government. Conversely, if the price of oil drops well below $100 a barrel, the regime, which is heavily dependent on the export of oil for its revenue, is likely to find its options constrained.
If the Assad regime in Syria is overthrown, Iran will have lost its toehold in the Levant. In addition to the logistical complications associated with resupplying Hezbollah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups that such a loss would entail, Iran would also have a more difficult time exploiting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one of its ideological raisons d’être. This means that more Qods Force involvement in Syria and Lebanon is likely.
Finally, while the Iranian regime probably calculates that it could easily endure a limited Israeli strike on its nuclear program, the prospect of an open-ended conflict with the United States, possibly stemming from an Israeli strike, is likely to be more alarming from Tehran’s perspective. In order to limit this possibility, Iranian conventional forces, especially naval and air forces in the Gulf, are likely to operate with more restrictive rules of engagement to avoid provoking a confrontation. The Qods Force, because of the independence with which it operates and the plausible deniability it affords the regime, will continue to be an anomaly in this regard.
Iran’s rivalry with the U.S. and its regional allies will continue to be the driving factor affecting its foreign policy and defense calculus, particularly in regard to its nuclear program. The Arab Spring is likely to be a source of opportunity as well as risk for Iran as it recalibrates its regional policies in light of the ongoing changes in the region that are, at least in part, subject to developments outside of Iran’s control.
Dr. Michael Connell is a member of the research staff at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and the director of CNA’s Iranian Studies Program. While at CNA, he has authored several studies that focus on political, military and security issues related to Iran and the other Persian Gulf countries. Prior to joining CNA, he was an officer in the U.S. Army.