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Iran: Contemporary Security Policy
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Military Doctrine > Contemporary Security Policy


The military doctrine that Iran has chosen in the postwar years includes a narrow range of options that focus mainly on deterrence. The emphasis on self-reliance has placed a higher priority on domestic arms production and on a small number of foreign military supply relationships. The quest for international military prestige through conventional and (potential) nuclear missile capability has led to regional and international isolation that contradicts the doctrinal goal of improving relations and security within the Persian Gulf region.

Until the Persian Gulf War, most threats to Iran involved regional territorial disputes or conflicts with neighboring states. The arrival of U.S. troops in the region in 1991 created a new strategic situation in which Iran felt insecure. Although

U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq later that year, during the 1990s the direct and indirect influence of the United States in the region combined with Israel’s maturing missile programs to exacerbate Iran’s insecurity. To the west was the still-hostile Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and, in the second half of the decade, to the east was the hostile, fundamentalist regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Although Iran moderated its public revolutionary stance during this period, the doctrine of protecting Islam came to involve supporting such Islamic organizations as the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hizballah. However, links with these groups had the result of further isolating Iran. At the end of the 1990s, the Iranian government shifted its doctrine to emphasize joint military operations with neighboring countries, with the goal of reducing U.S. influence in the region. This approach met with considerable skepticism among adjacent states, and international events soon overtook Iran’s efforts in that direction.

The terrorist attack on the United States of September 11, 2001, had a strong impact on Iran’s military thinking. After September 11, the United States, which Iran continued to perceive as its principal enemy, received an outpouring of international sympathy, during which it established a military presence in Afghanistan. Against a background of deep internal political divisions, Iran’s sense of encirclement intensified. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 exacerbated Iranian insecurities. Iran responded with increased claims about a U.S. psychological war against the revolutionary government and warnings that it would retaliate for hostile military acts.

In 2001 Iran had taken a conciliatory approach toward the war in Afghanistan led by the United States, offering limited assistance to U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops. On the issue of the threatened U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, Iranian policy makers believed that national security was at stake and a clear position was needed. To ensure international control of Iraq’s ostensible WMD arsenal, Iran advocated a solution involving the United Nations rather than military action. It also opposed a unilateral attack by the United States because such an action might create a precedent for attacking Iran itself. The Iranian government took the position that Iraqi political boundaries should remain intact and that the people should choose their own government. Factors in this position were Iran’s fears that a potential Kurdish state in northern Iraq would arouse internal instability among Iran’s Kurds and that a pro-U.S. government in Iraq would encourage antiregime sentiment in Iran (see Other Indo-Iranian–Speaking Groups, ch. 2).

Realizing that a U.S. invasion of Iraq might be unavoidable, Iran adopted a stance of active neutrality. Under this policy, which temporarily strengthened Iran’s role regionally and internationally, the Iranian government first used diplomatic means to attempt to circumvent the invasion, then rejected the use of force against the invasion once it materialized. Because of the unexpected difficulties experienced by the U.S. occupation, Iran continued to benefit from that complicated situation in subsequent years.

Because of ongoing concerns about a potential preemptive military strike by Israel on its nuclear facilities, Iran accelerated development of its defensive capabilities, despite uncertainties about the range, targeting, and effectiveness of missiles such as the Shihab–3. The Iranian government made unsubstantiated claims about the potential of the Shihab–3 to discourage attack and to otherwise improve Iran’s regional bargaining position. Both the exaggerated claims about its ballistic missiles and the renewal of uranium enrichment had the goal of bolstering Iran’s geopolitical stature by calling attention to its military potential. The advancement of the nuclear program appeared to transcend party ideology within Iran, even as other aspects of military doctrine became subject to heated debate.

In the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran’s military doctrine included three basic objectives: to foster long-term recovery from the Iran–Iraq War by enhancing the stability of the region; to defend Iranian territory and interests against any form of external intrusion or attack; and to safeguard Islamic values and the nation’s right to live in freedom (as defined by Islamic laws) “without resorting to military operation.” Beginning in 2003, increasing alarm about a possible U.S. invasion led to expansion of Iran’s capacity to fight an “asymmetrical war,” in which an invading force would be absorbed into Iran and then subjected to guerrilla warfare, supplemented by attacks against the enemy’s interests overseas. The basic elements of such irregular warfare would be surprise, speed, and security. Presumably to advance its irregular-warfare capability, Iran started to increase recruiting of new Basij personnel in 2004 and incorporated irregular operations into the training of regular military units. In any case, the ground forces’ outmoded armor and artillery support, and their heavy dependence on mobilization of IRGC forces, severely limited Iran’s potential to fight a conventional land war.

The naval phase of Iran’s military doctrine emphasizes utilization of the geographical configuration of the Persian Gulf in asymmetrical warfare. Iran’s limited naval resources are to be used for small-scale attacks on military and oil-related targets and blockades of oil shipping in the gulf. Small attack boats, minisubmarines, and mines are key elements in this strategy. The air phase of the doctrine has two main elements: ballistic missiles and air defense. The missile force is the main element of the air doctrine. Its value is to be enhanced by the intimidation effect of rhetoric hinting at weapons of mass destruction, increased range, and possible targeting of Israel or the capitals of Persian Gulf states. Air defenses have been strengthened only minimally since they were found wanting in the Iran–Iraq War. Iran has sought to maximize its limited air-defense forces by strategic location, hardening, and concealment.

Data as of 2008

Last Updated: January 2008

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iran was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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