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Iran’s Military Strategy: Stick or Twist?

The recent outbreak of open conflict between Iran and Israel has upended the notional strategic stability of the ‘shadow war’ between the two, and it is possible that a return to the status quo will be harder to achieve than expected.

In the driving seat: the more aggressive elements of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are increasingly in the ascendancy

The scale of the recent Iranian attack on Israel raises questions about Iran’s military strategy. Iran held back in terms of the range and volume of weapons that it used, and it could also have encouraged a larger and simultaneous set of attacks from its proxies and partners, such as Lebanese Hizbullah, to stretch and overwhelm Israeli defences. Some of the attacks seem to have been launched by Iranian partners in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, but Hizbullah, for example, has a potential stock of tens of thousands of missiles and rockets which remains unused. A significant part of the strikes, involving obvious and relatively slow-moving drones crossing such a long distance, can be seen as more performative rather than intended to cause serious damage. This might lead one to the conclusion that the attack can be dismissed as Iranian signalling.

However, the size of the ballistic missile salvo launched was considerable: over a hundred at once is more than five times the size of the attack against Coalition forces at Al Asad Airbase in 2020, and considerably larger than any single attack conducted during the ‘battle of the cities’ in the Iran–Iraq War. This was the element of the operation intended to inflict damage, and even though it appears to have targeted a military facility, there were still risks to Israeli civilians inherent in the scale of the attack. Nor can Iran claim too much credit for ‘signalling’ when the first details of the attack seem to have come from US intelligence-based ‘pre-bunking’.

Having tried and failed to reset the rules about targeting its ‘interests’, Iran faces the dilemma of having invited a direct comparison and thus exposed its military weakness

In that respect, the relatively limited overall impact highlights the advantages Israel enjoys when it comes to conventional military capabilities. Claims about the performance of Israel’s missile defences need to be caveated by the recognition that US air power alone seems to have shot down roughly a quarter of the incoming weapons, with further contributions by the UK, France and Jordan. We also don’t know what weapons had to be expended to achieve this impressive defence, and some estimates put the financial cost at over $1 billion. Nonetheless, the incident highlights the extent to which Israel has partners on whom to draw, at least for defence purposes. Conversely, at the time of writing, while Israel’s response appears small, it was extremely focused. A precision strike on a military base near Esfahan, apparently destroying one of Iran’s more modern air-defence systems, provides a pointed reminder that it can achieve the same impact with a fraction of the offensive weapons, as well as subtly threatening Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran’s Failed Bluff

The exchange illustrates precisely why Iran has invested in terrorism, proxies and unconventional operations, including those very close to Israel, because when a direct comparison is made between the offensive power of its conventional forces and those of Israel, Iran is inferior. This poses the question of why Iran took the risk of launching an overt strike on such a scale. Iran’s conventional deterrence has been undermined to some degree, not least by the presumptive declaration – before its missiles had even arrived – that it ‘deemed the matter concluded’, and its subsequent, almost plaintive statements that it would not seek to respond, even denying that Israeli retaliation had taken place or issuing statements dismissing mini ‘toy-drones’ as the method of attack. Additionally, even if we accepted the analysis that the attack was entirely symbolic and aimed to cause no damage, it will be rather embarrassing for the Iranians that a reported half of all the ballistic missiles fired failed during launch or crashed before reaching their target, according to US officials. If this was a game of military poker, then Iran’s bluff has been called.

This would suggest that a return to the existing strategy of offsetting conventional inferiority with proxy attacks is a better bet. But having tried and failed to reset the rules about targeting its ‘interests’, and doing so in a manner which cast off the protection of ‘implausible deniability’, Iran faces the dilemma of having invited a direct comparison and thus exposed its military weakness. This may be something that Tehran now regrets, having spurned the alternative of responding entirely through Iraqi allies and the Houthis. The results of its attack and Israel’s subsequent more successful retaliation may leave many in Tehran wondering why decision makers gave Israel a chance to prove its direct military superiority so publicly. Israel’s intelligence services will also have had an opportunity to gather information about Iranian launch sites and mechanisms. Observers might draw two conclusions. The first is that proxies remain both a threat and a buffer for ensuring that the Iranian and Israeli militaries do not go head-to-head. The second – and more dangerous – conclusion is that Iran is at an inherent military disadvantage versus Israel and will remain vulnerable until it has produced nuclear weapons.

Khamenei’s High-Stakes Game

What can this tell us about an Iranian regime that is increasingly opaque and difficult to predict? After 35 years as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains his tight grip on power, even at the age of 85. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has held sway for most of the last 20 years, it appears that its more aggressive elements are now firmly in the ascendancy. This process has accelerated significantly over the past few years, as evidenced by the fact that Iran has directly struck the territory of two nuclear states, Pakistan and Israel, in the past four months. With the IRGC and its allies in the driving seat, it is perhaps natural that the regime has become more risk-tolerant. This trend is likely to continue as Khamenei ages further and the IRGC expands its networks of patronage within Iran.

The danger is that Khamenei’s regime increasingly identifies the taking of greater risks as a necessary condition for the status quo to be maintained

Khamenei has repeatedly proven that he is a status quo leader. Indeed, the staple of Iran’s regional influence has been the meticulous establishment of a network of allies. The danger is that Khamenei’s regime increasingly identifies the taking of greater risks as a necessary condition for the status quo to be maintained. While the international community might once have been able to constrain this, a new age of international competition makes it increasingly difficult to exert pressure on authoritarian regimes such as Iran. Russia and China, for example, may increasingly view Iran, its nuclear programme and its deliberate efforts to capture states in the Middle East as part of a zero-sum game against the US and its Western allies. By this logic, if Iran opposes the US and its allies and consumes resources that Russia and China can instead deploy against Ukraine or Taiwan, it suits them to back Tehran.

Meanwhile, Israel is still digesting its apparent miscalculation of Iran’s reaction to the first Israeli attack on 1 April. Indeed, the immediate Israeli response to Iran’s retaliation has been successful but limited, and provides no answer to the problems of Gaza, Lebanese Hizbullah’s arsenal, or the Iranian nuclear programme. Therefore, another regional development that may expand Iran’s risk appetite is Israel’s attempts to dismantle Tehran’s so-called Axis of Resistance in the region over the next two to five years. Namely, as Israel hits more IRGC targets in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, Iran is likely to reinforce its public commitment to respond to such attacks with direct strikes on Israel – with increased room for state-on-state confrontation. As such, while tensions appear to have eased for now, the risk of an expanded regional conflict in the medium term remains high.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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