Iran deploys its war machine By Iason Athanasiadis
TEHRAN - For Hossein Shariatzadeh, a veteran of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in
the 1980s, now navigating Tehran's traffic-choked streets as a taxi driver, the
issue of whether the United States will strike Iraq is hardly a frightening
"This is Iran," he roared. "It is fire. It is a nuclear bomb. Don't look at my
sitting behind the wheel of this car. I would get up in a second and head off
to the front to fight."
During his 18 months of service at the front, Shariatzadeh claims to have
fought in several flashpoint events. Before being evacuated to Tehran after
taking a bullet in the stomach, he participated in the 18th Mah, Fath-ul Mubin
and Fajrs 1, 2 and 4 offensives, some of the most horrific campaigns of a
characterized by trench warfare and tens of thousands of dead in return for
Despite Shariatzadeh's lust to head to the front and defend his
homeland, Iran's strategic planners are acutely aware that a military
confrontation with the technologically more advanced US Army would be as rapid
and multi-fronted as the Iran-Iraq War was static and slow-paced. Quite simply,
there would not be a single front.
Neither the US nor Israel has ruled out taking military action against
nuclear-related targets in Iran if ongoing diplomatic efforts to freeze
Tehran's nuclear program do not prove successful.
Accordingly, Iran has been quietly restructuring its military, while carrying
out a series of military exercises testing its new military dogma. In December,
more than 15,000 members of the regular armed forces participated in war games
in northwestern Iran's strategically sensitive East Azerbaijan and West
Azerbaijan border provinces that focused on irregular warfare carried out by
highly mobile and speedy army units.
In another telling development, a second exercise was launched in the
majority-Arab province of Khuzestan, reportedly aimed at quelling insurgencies
in areas subject to ethnic unrest and prone to foreign influence. Involving
100,000 troops, the exercise provided a taste of how the Islamic Republic would
respond to further disturbances in the strategic, oil-rich province.
The exercise came on the heels of news that the irregular Basij forces that led
Iran's offensives against Iraq were being bolstered by so-called Ashura
battalions with riot-control training.
It is all part of a fundamental transition that Iran's Revolutionary Guard (RG)
is undergoing as it moves away from focusing on waging its defense of the
country on the borders - unrealistic in view of the vast territory that
requires securing and the gulf separating Iranian and US military capabilities
- and toward drawing the enemy into the heartland and defeating it with
At the same time, the RG is moving away from a joint command with the ordinary
army and taking a more prominent role in controlling Iran's often porous
borders, even as it makes each of Iran's border provinces autonomous in the
event of war. Iranian military planners know that the first step taken by an
invading force would be to occupy oil-rich Khuzestan province, secure the
sensitive Strait of Hormuz and cut off the Iranian military's oil supply,
forcing it to depend on its limited stocks.
Foreign diplomats who monitor Iran's army make it clear that Iran's leadership
has acknowledged it stands little chance of defeating the US Army with
conventional military doctrine. The shift in focus to guerrilla warfare against
an occupying army in the aftermath of a successful invasion mirrors
developments in Iraq, where a triumphant US campaign has been followed by three
years of slow hemorrhaging at the hands of insurgents.
Tehran argues that it is at a high level of preparedness and points to a number
of war games carried out in recent months along its coastal zones, from Bandar
Abbas and the Strait of Hormuz in January to the Persian Gulf theater in April
and the Khorramshahr naval base and the northwestern parts of the Persian Gulf
as of Sunday.
From several interviews with Iranian officials, researchers and foreign
diplomats, it is clear that the Iranian army considers itself ready to repel a
US land offensive and increasingly sees itself as the main regional power.
In line with the new feeling of invulnerability sweeping through Iran's
military elite, RG commander-in-chief Yehya Rahim Safavi warned last month that
"the Americans should accept Iran as a great regional power, and they should
know that sanctions and military threats are not going to benefit them but are
going to be against their interests and against the interests of some European
Iran's new asymmetrical-warfare plan appears to be aimed at neutralizing
possible US-led offensives across the Mandali-Ilam (central Iraq-central Iran)
axis. The Iranian Zagros mountain range offers a natural first line of defense.
It has been reported that the RG is constructing new bases at Khorramabad,
Pessyan, Borujerd, Zagheh and Malayer in the province of Lorestan, which would
assure the logistics of a quarter of a million troops and provide temporary
shelter for half a million refugees from the border. These bases are supposedly
complementing older ones further west at Sahneh and Kangavar.
"We know for a fact that no two Western wars are similar," said Hossein, a
member of the RG, "and we know there are at least three possible scenarios of
attacking these [nuclear] sites, including using their submarines in the
Persian Gulf, commandos from the sea, or Mujahideen-e-Khalq trained in Israel
and Azerbaijan to destroy the Bushehr nuclear power plant from the inside."
Even while Iran's military is choosing to go low-tech, the country's leadership
is continuing to apply advanced technology to military uses. Tehran is
continuing with development of its long-range missiles and is forging ahead on
its indigenous satellite program that centers on Russian-supplied technology.
In addition, Tehran's aging air-defense system will be boosted by
Russian-supplied land-to-air rockets. Also, Iran has aging Chinese missiles
that it upgraded and could deploy on coastal batteries, fast attack boats or
even warplanes. Finally, were Iran to possess the fearsome Russian-made 3M-82
Moskit anti-ship missiles, it could turn the Persian Gulf into a death trap for
the US fleet.
"While Iranian air power is somewhat limited, it has much in terms of
land-to-air weaponry and has improvised much as well," Abdurrahman Shayyal, a
Saudi Middle East and North Africa analyst, told Asia Times Online.
"Furthermore, Iran has proved rather hard to infiltrate, and its military
installations and bases are very well protected."
With the confrontation between Washington and Tehran escalating, a new,
US-inspired plan to establish an anti-Iranian security regime has further
raised tension in the Persian Gulf region. Aside from running covert operations
inside Iran's ethnically mixed border provinces, the US administration is
marshaling an alliance of Iran's Arab neighbors in the intensifying face-off.
The US media reported last weekend that the United States was trying to create
a regional missile-defense system for the Gulf that would be integrated with
real-time intelligence using sophisticated US Navy Aegis cruisers.
"Any security regime for the Persian Gulf that doesn't include Iran will not
succeed," said Muhammad Reza Saedabadi, an assistant professor at the Institute
of North American and European Studies at the University of Tehran. "It's
splitting the region. It's good for the arms race and for arms sales to Persian
Gulf states, but not for regional security."
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued ratcheting up the
tension by refusing to offer Iran a guarantee that the United States would not
attack it. "Iran is a troublemaker in the international system, a central
banker of terrorism. Security assurances are not on the table," she said.
While seen as potentially threatening by several Gulf Arab governments, Iran
commands significant popularity among indigenous Shi'ite Arab populations in
Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. To a lesser extend, Sunni Arabs in the Gulf
region and the wider Middle East applaud Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
for his strident anti-Western rhetoric, which emphasizes his country's
independence and echoes the anti-imperialist liberation ideology of 1960s
Reflecting this mood, the English-language Gulf News published an editorial on
Tuesday titled "An American offer we must refuse". It said, "As if the region
was not volatile enough, the US now wants to install an advanced missile system
in GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council ] states.
"Gulf countries have enough problems trying to walk a narrow path between the
various positions ... so there is no need to exacerbate things further by
introducing into the region such controversial measures as heightened security
controls and advanced missile systems," the newspaper said.
At a "consultative summit" in Riyadh on May 6, the GCC countries indicated that
they did not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but were also opposed to the
use of force against it. Their position with regard to Iran, so far, bears
greater similarity with the stance taken by Russia and China than the one
adopted by the US and its European allies.
The GCC is a regional organization comprising the six Persian Gulf Arab states.
Created on May 25, 1981, the council's members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman,
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"The US is being completely ridiculous. While it wishes to police the region,
it is dealing with a country that is significantly more powerful than Iraq,
Afghanistan, Sudan, Vietnam, and every other country bar Germany that it has
ever fought," said Abdurrahman Shayyal.
Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.