22 February 2017

Iranian Concepts of Warfare: Understanding Tehran’s Evolving Military Doctrines

By J. Matthew McInnis

Key Points 
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The year 2016 appears to be an inflection point at which Iran recognized its need to move toward a more conventionally offensive and expansionist concept of warfare. This could include foreign bases and air, land, and sea power projection capabilities. 

Despite this shift, Iran still primarily focuses military doctrine on defense, deterrence, and asymmetric warfare because they remain both hindered by weak offensive military capability and driven by high perceptions of threat from the US and regional adversaries. 

New resources from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and future United Nations weapons sanctions relaxation may encourage further expansion into conventional offensive capabilities. However, threat perceptions, particularly from potential clashes with regional rivals or direct conflict with the US, will be the more dominant factor in the extent to which Iran reorients toward offensive warfare. 

Executive Summary 

This study lays out how formal and informal structures in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) create strategy and doctrine, which institutions or individuals matter in shaping doctrinal ideas, and which historical and ideological factors drive IRI thinking about military power. The analytic framework provides a way to model the nature of IRI defensive and offensive doctrines, and it aims to explain how and why Iranian strategy and force posture may evolve as restrictions on resources and conventional weapon acquisitions are relaxed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rather than attempting to provide Tehran’s military operational manual, this study attempts to demonstrate how to conceptualize and study IRI military doctrine.

The IRI’s doctrine-formation process is promulgated through a series of policy documents, with input from IRI military planners at each stage in the process. As with the US planning process, the development, interpretation, and implementation of Iranian strategy and doctrine do not always follow in a clear and linear sequence. However, the IRI’s system has several distinctive elements related to both the unique consultative decision-making structures in the government and the Marxist-influenced approach toward planned economy. Understanding the writings of the informal thought oligarchy of military leaders and the most influential authors in the IRI’s extensive system of think tanks and staff colleges is also crucial to comprehending modern Iranian doctrinal trends.

Historical experience, religious ideals, and ideological concerns shape the IRI’s approach to war and military doctrine, but they do not determine it. Across many historical periods, from the Persian Empire, through the Islamic conquest, the Safavid dynasty, the 19th-century Qajar dynasty, the Pahlavi shahs in the 20th century, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian state struggled with its relationship to modernity and its religious and political nature. Many of these unresolved issues carried over into postrevolutionary era, even as new ideological concepts became dominant and Iran faced two external existential threats—Iraq and the United States. The IRI’s split military structure, which is divided between the conventional Artesh and the ideologically driven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its current military thinking centered on defensive and asymmetric warfare against the United States are arguably reactions to these overlapping factors.

Several broad conclusions can be made about the characteristics of modern IRI doctrine, 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. IRI military doctrine does not descend from Islamic revolutionary thought per se. IRI doctrines instead appear to draw mostly on military lessons learned to find effective, pragmatic solutions for Tehran’s security challenges in the framework of the state’s ideological and geostrategic objectives. Most doctrines are ad hoc, despite the overall increasing formality and complexity of the IRI’s system for strategy development. There is explicit incorporation of foreign military thinking and capabilities, especially US doctrines, although ex post facto ideological and Islamic moral justification from the supreme leader for any doctrine is still required. The Artesh and the IRGC’s competing military structures will remain an inherent feature of Iranian doctrine and strategy, even as the IRI leadership engages in stronger efforts to improve interoperability.

As a revolutionary state constantly worried about potential instability and counterrevolution triggered by its adversaries during conflict, the IRI sees war in 360 degrees. Iranian doctrines reflect this porousness across the spectrum of offensive and defensive operations, when an external Artesh campaign may need to quickly transition into an internal one, or when IRGC actions may move from regime defense to deterrence to power projection then back to deterrence or attempt to achieve all three objectives simultaneously.

Together these concepts can be used to form a working model of the IRI’s existing doctrines, showing how they align against Tehran’s defensive and offensive objectives, indicating areas of particular doctrinal strengths and weakness, and pointing to potential future directions for the Iranian military. The IRI military is still dominated by defensive doctrines oriented around four primary objectives: regime security, territorial defense, demonstrative deterrence (or shows of force), and retaliatory deterrence.

The IRI’s offensive doctrines are designed primarily around exporting the revolution and Iranian influence abroad while ensuring the creation and maintenance of proxy forces that can employ retaliatory deterrence against opponents, such as Lebanese Hezbollah. These doctrines have notably remained almost entirely unconventional. The IRI generally continues to lack classic offensive doctrines to project conventional military power aiming to coerce an opponent; seize ground, air, or maritime space; or defeat or destroy an enemy’s forces. However, the IRGC has increasingly integrated conventional capabilities and war-fighting concepts into its unconventional campaigns in the current Syria and Iraq conflicts.

The degree to which the IRI will become a more balanced or conventional military as the JCPOA allows for greater access to weapons and technology will be determined by the increase of defense budgetary resources, the level of the military leadership’s trust and integration of the Artesh, the relaxation of the regime’s ideological hesitation of appearing imperialistic through offensive conventional warfare, and perhaps most importantly, a shift in threat perception away from a dominant focus on asymmetric defense against the United States toward competition and confrontation with regional rivals and threats.


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 better US force posture in the region, improving security cooperation with our allies, and communicating more effective responses to Tehran’s behavior in the Middle East and globally.

A state’s written doctrine, such as it may exist, is essential to understanding its leadership’s approach to employing armed force. However, the realities of military structure, deployments, operations, or goals do not always reflect what is officially published. What has happened or would likely happen on the battlefield is what really matters for commanders and planners on both sides.

Although doctrine can establish parameters for training, preparation, and initial campaign designs in conflict, it inevitably evolves to address the specifics of individual military challenges. In the heat of combat, sometimes this evolution can be quite rapid. Evaluating the decision-making processes, historical factors and trends, bodies of writing, and observed military behaviors related to the development of doctrine arguably provides the optimal approach for assessing how a state prepares for and will likely conduct war.

This study draws from numerous Iranian strategy and doctrinal writings, statements and interviews from key leadership figures, observation of military exercises from the past five years, and observed military behavior in crisis and conflicts since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The report attempts to build an analytic framework for examining the IRI’s war-fighting concepts. It explores doctrine at the strategic level—that is, how a state’s military power is designed and employed to achieve its security objectives. It does not look deeply at the more operational or tactical levels of conflict. There will be no discussion of how many missiles Iran would theoretically launch in its first salvos against US, Gulf Arab, or Israeli forces in a regional war. Neither will it focus on the latest siege tactics used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies in Syria.

Instead, this study lays out how formal and informal structures in Iran create strategy and doctrine, which institutions or individuals matter in shaping doctrinal ideas, and the historical and ideological factors that drive IRI thinking about military power. This model conceptualizes the nature of IRI defensive and offensive doctrines and aims to explain how and why Iranian strategy and force posture may evolve as restrictions on resources and conventional weapon acquisitions are relaxed under the JCPOA. Rather than attempting to provide Tehran’s operational manual, this study demonstrates how to conceptualize and study IRI military doctrine.

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