Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A response to Michael Eisenstadt's 'The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran' (Part 1)

by Mark Pyruz

Michael Eisenstadt's monograph published by the Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University attempts to establish that:

"The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is an unconventional adversary that requires unconventional approaches in planning, strategy and policy. These approaches must take into account the country’s sophisticated culture, the regime’s religious-ideological orientation, and the country’s modern military history. And they must account for its unique approach to statecraft, strategy, and the use of force."

This response seeks to demonstrate that Iran's approaches are better studied through the more familiar context generally associated within a Cold War dynamic, albeit with Iran as the lessor power engaged by a superpower, the United States, over the span of 32 years and counting. We'll respond to Mr. Eiasenstadt's monograph by selecting contentions laid out in "The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran" and addressing them in a point-by-point manner. We'll conclude by advocating an alternate approach, historically in line with the success of the U.S.-China relationship established as it were by a U.S. initiated rapprochement effort begun by President Nixon in 1972. This response will be uploaded in installments, this being part I.

The monograph "The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran" can be accessed by clicking HERE.

A reading of this monograph is strongly recommended before proceeding with the following examination of specidic contentions made by Mr. Eisenstadt (highlighted in red). Let us begin:

"Nothing in Iran is as it seems; things are often to the contrary. Certainty regarding intentions, power relationships, and decision making processes and outputs is often elusive"

Much is made of this in the typical Western narrative, but this is often not the case. Iran is actually straightforward in its regional policies toward the Palestine issue, its nuclear program, its defense doctrine and its relationship with its neighbors. In fact, one could even say that Iran's posture is more certain and less open to variables than the U.S. (The Iranians, for their part, contend that it is the United States where "certainty regarding intentions, power relationships, and decision making processes and outputs is often elusive, and have in the past provided example of such in its media outlets pertaining to what they see as President Obama's unfulfilled or insincere outreach to Iran, earlier in his presidency.)

"Nothing in Iran is black and white; ambiguity and shades of grey rule. This is both a defining characteristic of Iranian culture, and a reflection of the fact that ambiguity is used by the regime as a stratagem to confound its enemies"

The previous point applies to this contention but a further comment is required in the context of U.S. assertions concerning Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It is unreasonable to assume that any country engaged by a Cold War adversary, particularly one as powerful as the United States, would offer up details so essential to its defense and national security, without some level of detente or rapprochement process in effect. Historically, during the Cold War against the USSR and PRC, the United States considered its own sense of ambiguities as military secrets, in certain cases vital to its defense of the country. In this regard, the same should be expected of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even more so, as Iran is the far less powerful element in this Cold War.

"[A Nation of Martyrs] This impression has been reinforced by Iran’s use of costly human-wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq War, its unnecessary prolongation of the war with Iraq in pursuit of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and its support for groups that pioneered the tactic of the suicide bombing—such as the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."

Although on the face of it, Mr. Eissenstadt is attempting to dispel the myth of "A Nation of Martyr's", his manner of doing so (by mention) actually serves to reinforce Western narratives of such. Concerning the costly human-wave attacks, such tactics are in no way historically peculiar to the Islamic Republic of Iran. One finds their employment in the the Korean War (by massed Chinese infantry), the Second World War (used extensively by Soviet commanders) and even the Union Army of General Grant's (which COL Glantz, USA (Ret.) in his studies of the Russo-German conflict compares with Gen, Zhukov's war strategy). However, unlike the Soviet's need in many instances for troops covering such mass attacks with armed forces at the rear forcing the mass attack by threat of shooting the unwilling, the Iranians voluntarily engaged in such charges through religious inspiration. Still, this does not make the tactic in itself peculiar to 20th century warfare.

The narrative that Iran engaged in an unnecessary prolongation of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) is for the most part an externally sourced argument established in hindsight. True there was debate in Iran on whether or not to conclude the war upon the successful liberation of Khuzestan province, however the Iranians did have reason to believe that they could overpower Saddam's military forces, and rid the region of an unpredictable aggressor. From the Iranian perspective, instead of invading Kuwait a few years later, Saddam could just as well as re-invaded Iran. Moreover, the removal of Saddam in the 1980's could have relieved the region's suffering through two additional wars, involving many more hundreds of thousands of casualties (Gulf War I, the period of sanctions and OIF), as well as millions of war-related refugees (during OIF).

The actual source for the "invention" of suicide bombing as a tactic is debatable. Perhaps it is better understood in its application as part of a campaign by Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, rather than simply that of a tactic. It should be pointed out that such a campaign had been utilized as a solution to the far greater military strength employed by their adversaries, and in the case of Hezbollah it was subsequently dropped with a commensurate strengthening of relative military power, as best exemplified by the stunning success in its small unit raid on the Israeli border which directly preceded the largely unsuccessful Israeli offensive in 2006. The success of Hezbollah's application of light infantry tactics can be traced to its relationship with military elements of Iran's IRGC and Basij forces that made up an expeditionary force into Lebanon during the 1980's, initiated after the kidnapping of Iranian diplomats in Beirut by Israeli proxy forces.

"...the regime had to abandon its slogan of 'war, war until victory,' and Ayatollah Khomeini had to agree to “drink the cup of poison” in accepting the cease-fire with Iraq in July 1988. As it turned out, Iran was not—as Ayatollah Khomeini was fond of saying— 'a nation of martyrs.”

This is a gross simplification of the military situation confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran had to contend with the combined strength of Iraq, the U.S., the U.S.S.R., France, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It simply did not have a military solution to such a powerful grouping of adversaries, added to which was the belligerent intervention of the USN in the Persian Gulf that effectively knocked out Iran's merchant convoy escort fleet in 1988.

"Since then, within the context of a relatively activist foreign policy, Iranian decision-makers have generally shunned direct confrontation, and have acted through surrogates..."

Confrontations by proxy are typical of Cold War confrontations. Historical examples from the 20th century abound, such as proxy forces supported by the U.S.S.R. in the form of the NVA and NLF during the US-Vietnam conflict, as well as American support for the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen (precursors to Al-Qaeda) during the Russo-Afghan conflict, just to name a few from which there are many.

End of Part I


Anonymous said...

The fact that you got the first name of the author you're criticizing wrong doesn't really speak highly of your critical reading skills.

Anonymous said...

"merchant convoy escort fleet" smacks of complete revisionist history- Iran and Iraq both attacked civilian merchant shipping. That is a fact.

Iran did not have to "contend with the combined strength of Iraq, the U.S., the U.S.S.R., France, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait". Iran wouldn't have lasted if the US and USSR were serious about committing to challenging the regime- the US goals were much more limited. If you do not recognize that how do you explain why the US terminated the naval conflict? It wasn't because of US losses- it was because the US goals were limited.

Really curious as to how you figure Iran is straightforward on its regional policies and nuclear program- you later imply that Iran cannot be open for strategic reasons- but you cannot call that straightforward, with a straight face that is.

This has been an interesting blog, but recently the reporting has turned to advocacy instead of interesting coverage of military issues. You should stick with that history is not your strong point.

Mark Pyruz said...

Anon 10:48:

That tears it, I have to start wearing reading glasses! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Anon 8:18

The Iran-Iraq conflict saw the USSR providing weapons to Iraq. The US provided diplomatic cover at the UN, intelligence, equipment (limited), the militarization of the PG, incidents of ground attack on Iranian forces, military liaisons to Baghdad and the knocking out of Iran's escort fleet. France supplied weapons systems. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provided massive sums of cash. True, it was may have been non-coordinated, and in certain respects limited, but this combined effort served to deny Iran victory.

Iraq started the war in the PG (even attacking the USS Stark, with impunity due to the expedient nature of the American position). Like the SSM campaign against Iranian cities, the Iranians were forced into retaliating.

Straightforward in its policies:

Iran says it does not intend to build a nuclear weapon. US intelligence sources effectively state Iran does not possess a nuclear weapons program.

Iran states it supports the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government in Baghdad maintains good relations with Tehran.

Iraq states it supports the Afghan government. The Afghan government maintains good relations with Tehran.

Iran states it wants extra-regional powers out of the region and supports efforts against the occupation of Palestine. This is obvious.

(I think you see my point.)

As for military secrets, you can't expect the Iranians to divulge technical aspects of their nuclear program, ballistic missiles, (Iranian considered) strategic weapon strength, etc. And you can't expect the Iranians to divulge details beyond what they have agreed to, as a member of the NPT (such as voluntarily observing the AP, again, without receiving in full its nuclear rights). I mean, is this your expectation? If so, you haven't been listening to the Iranians for the past ten or so years.

Any other historical issues?

There's plenty more history to come, tomorrow and the next day.

Anonymous said...

nope you still have addressed "straightforward." Do you really believe the rhetoric out of Tehran?

Maybe you don't believe Iran is giving weapons to groups that kill US, Iraqi and Afghanistan forces?

Stating what some members of the Iraqi and Afghan government say about Iran publicly is NOT answering the question as to how honest and forthright about their actions.

Iran denies virtually everything and the apoligists state there is no proof, though an objective researcher can find ample on all accounts- my goodness they still deny they arm hizballah.

On the nuclear issue do you think they have done work the is inconsistent with their obligations to the NPT and the IAEA? I have been watching. For many years.

Mark Pyruz said...


"Maybe you don't believe Iran is giving weapons to groups that kill US, Iraqi and Afghanistan forces? "

This is actually referred to by Mr. Eisenstadt later in the monograph, and my response to proxy forces under conditions of Cold War will be uploaded tomorrow.

(Sorry for the use of installments. The monograph is lengthy, as is the response.)

"my goodness they still deny they arm hizballah."

That's partly due to expediency (due to UNSC sanction), as well as being a military secret. Again, the history of Iran's effort in Lebanon and the use of proxy forces is referred to in the upcoming installment. However, I will point out that the course of this relationship is predictable. While they may be coy towards the military dimension (who isn't? during a Cold War), they certainly aren't in their vocal support.

"On the nuclear issue do you think they have done work the is inconsistent with their obligations to the NPT and the IAEA? I have been watching. For many years."

A very contentious issue. There were a number of issues put forward by the IAEA, however Iran answered a number of them; the ones that remain appear largely to revolve around the "alleged studies," thereby keeping the Iran file open.

In a forthcoming installment, I'll very briefly refer to the so-called "Japan option."

Oh, and let me just say that I apologize for misspelling Michael Eisenstadt's name in the title of this post. I meant no disrespect.

Mark Pyruz said...

Concerning the "alleged studies," I would just like to add that this was much less an issue for pro-NAM, ElBaradei (publicly claiming to take a neutral approach), than it is for Pro-U.S. Amano