Why Is Iran's Military Doctrine Defensive?

06/16/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

The political capital invested by the Obama administration and the Rouhani government gives us good reasons to be not only "cautiously optimistic" but "optimistic" regarding the Iranian nuclear crisis. Though Iran and the world powers may go beyond the June 30 deadline to sign a comprehensive agreement, both sides have already made concessions well beyond what anyone would have thought at that period in time. In other words, we have reached the point of no return and failure is not an option since there is no viable alternative.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been personally involved in the process. Three key points of his speech delivered after the Lausanne political framework agreement should be bore in mind. First, he has reassured the different power structures in Iran, explaining that the negotiators did not cross any red lines and that they preserved the Iranian interests and dignity. Second, despite his deep mistrust towards the West, he has reaffirmed his support to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who is the chief negotiator. And third, he has expressed for the first time -- something barely seen in the headlines -- a key element of President Rouhani's political platform: the possibility of an engagement with the United States beyond the nuclear issue (if the experience of the nuclear talk ends up positively).

The success of the deal is creating a political space that will allow Washington and Tehran to unlock the talks on regional security matters and open the door to a pragmatic cooperation on the U.S. and Iran's common threats in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Lebanon: Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other Sunni terrorist groups worldwide chiefly sponsored by Saudi donors. This pragmatic cooperation is still difficult before a final deal on the nuclear issue is agreed.

With the exception of few fruitful instances (see U.S. Iran cooperation on Afghanistan), the Islamic Republic has been excluded from the negotiating table to solve the numerous conflicts surrounding Iran and the result is crystal clear: it has failed. The conservatives who oppose including Iran argue that it is a "state sponsor of terrorism" which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq, the government of Bachar al-Assad in Syria and therefore Iran cannot be part of the solution. Let's unpack this and analyze Iran's military doctrine in the region.

Two main schools of thought dominate when it comes to shaping Iran's foreign policy. The first one is the hard line which firmly believes that the goal of the United States is "regime change". Hardliners believe that giving in to the West will pave the way to attacks against the nation or attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic. According to this school of thought, a strong Iranian influence on its neighbors allows Iran to protect itself from foreign aggressions and military attacks.

These are not illegitimate fears and Barack Obama has recently explained in an interview with the New York Times something important that should have made the headlines:

"Part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy [reference to the 1953 coup that has overthrown the democratically elected Prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh] and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war."

These words are unprecedented and important. Indeed, no Iranian -- conservative or reformist -- ignores what very few Americans or Westerners know. As a reminder, the Iranians remember that it is Iraq that has invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. They have in mind that the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have funded the invader (50 to 100 billion dollars according to estimates). And the Iranians, mistrustful of U.S. foreign policy, know that the West has also supported the Arab aggressor.
Obama continues:

"So part of what I've told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past."

Indeed, after fighting what the Iranians call the eight-year "imposed war" (jang-e tahmili) or the "sacred defense" (defaa'e moghadas) triggered by the Arab neighbors, Iran has adopted a regional military strategy which is defensive. The Iran-Iraq war has killed or injured almost one million Iranians -- tens of thousands killed by chemical weapons with help from the West -- and more than $600 billion of damages. As a result, Iran has built strong ties in the region to make sure that such a disaster never happens again.

According to a classified Pentagon assessment submitted to Congress on July 7, 2014 and obtained by Bloomberg News "Iran's military strategy is defensive" and designed to "deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor and force a diplomatic solution" while avoiding major concessions. The hard line chosen by former president Ahmadinejad but also by many Revolutionary Guards was to advance Iran's influence without ever retreating one iota. This has led to a cycle of escalation of tensions that was paving the way to a military confrontation since the United States and the European Union also refused to give in to Iran.

But the second school of the thought of Iran's foreign policy is the one implemented by Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif: engagement through diplomacy with the West and the Sunni Arab neighbors. The Supreme Leader, who supervises these two approaches, supports the policy of engagement of the government. As a result, an agreement on the nuclear issue is a unique opportunity that will benefit both the Americans and the Iranians. It will move U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in a different direction and the implementation of the nuclear agreement will probably lead to indispensable talks between the Obama administration and Iran on regional issues. However, a Republican president in 2017 would most probably put an end to this dynamic.