As Western nations impose yet more sanctions on Iran in the wake of the latest
International Atomic Energy Agency report, the psychological warfare between
the two sides continues to escalate.
This psychological warfare has two dimensions; one visible and rhetorical and
conducted through official and unofficial media and the other secret and
centered on sabotage. In so far as the former is concerned Iran has risen to
the challenge by superseding tough American and Israeli rhetoric with even
However, it is on the sabotage front - where Iran appears to be under attack
from several directions - that the Islamic Republic is raising eyebrows even
amongst its hardcore supporters by
displaying remarkable tolerance in the face of intolerable provocations.
More broadly, the Iranians are not paying sufficient attention to the long-term
consequences of military confrontation with the United States and her allies.
While Iranian leaders and commentators readily recognize the ultimate aim of
the United States as the destruction of the revolutionary Islamic regime in
Tehran, they haven't given sufficient thought to the probability of this
outcome being attained in a longer time frame (by American standards) with a
limited military assault on Iran designed to direct all relevant political,
economic and strategic variables toward that trajectory.
Tehrani-Moghadam: latest victim of sabotage?
The explosion at the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Al-Ghadir base
in Bigdaneh (near Tehran) on November 12 which killed the architect of Iran's
ballistic missile programme has added fuel to widespread suspicions that Iran
is under concerted sabotage attacks by Western and Israeli special forces and
Even though the Iranian government was quick to rule out sabotage and insisted
the explosions were an accident, the steady leaking of Brigadier General Hassan
Tehrani-Moghaddam's hugely sensitive role in developing Iran's ballistic
missile programme, lends credence to the theory that the country's enemies had
a hand in the "accident" that killed at least 16 other IRGC personnel.
Reports on Iranian media - directly attributed to members of
Tehrani-Moghaddam's family or senior IRGC commanders - have speculated widely
on the context and cause of the "accident", with some reports suggesting that
the pioneering IRGC commander was supervising the testing of an
inter-continental ballistic missile, while others suggest he was testing a new
ballistic surface to sea missile, presumably designed to attack American
warships in the event of a war.
The explosion at the Al-Ghadir base - believed to be a depot for medium-range
Shahab-3 ballistic missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers - comes on
the heel of the assassination of key Iranian scientists and a ferocious cyber
warfare programme directed at Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and the
wider nuclear establishment.
The Israeli government was quick to hint at possible involvement in the
explosion with defense minister Ehud Barak cheerfully proclaiming "I don't know
the extent of the explosion. But it would be desirable if they multiply".
Iran's enemies have a clear interest in staking a claim to these incidents with
a view to sabotaging Iranian morale. For their part Iranian officials were
quick to rule out an Israeli or American hand in the explosion in a concerted
effort to calm widespread fears that the enemy could have attained such
extensive access to the country's most sensitive military programs.
Mischievous Israeli posturing notwithstanding, there is no evidence or credible
information at this stage to suggest that the explosion at the Al-Ghadir base
was anything but an accident caused by an important experiment involving
ballistic missiles and high explosives.
But assuming the explosion was the result of sabotage, senior Iranian officials
have two overriding reasons to insist on an accidental cause. In the very short
term an admission that sabotage is the cause runs the risk of inflaming Iranian
public opinion with the resulting overwhelming demand for immediate
retaliation. For various reasons - not least the desire to avoid escalation -
Iranian leaders are not overly keen to respond to Israeli and American
provocations which they view as a trap.
At a deeper level, this remarkable forbearance in the face of seemingly
intolerable provocations is the result of Iranian leaders' strategic calculus.
Iran's leaders long ago concluded that enormous pressures - including sabotage
operations - would be directed against the country to coerce the leadership to
discontinue the nuclear programme. By refusing to retaliate against the
country's enemies, Iranian leaders are sending yet another signal that they are
committed to staying on the same strategic trajectory regardless of the costs.
Psychological warfare vs real warfare
On the psychological warfare front Iranian leaders and senior IRGC commanders
have risen to the challenge and thrown down the gauntlet at the United States.
The leader of the Islamic Revolution dramatically raised the stakes earlier in
the month when he warned potential aggressors that any military attack on Iran
would be met with "iron fists".
This was followed by harsh warnings by the commander of the Basij paramilitary
force, Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, who proclaimed on the eve of "Basij week" that the
United States wouldn't be able to "withstand an Iranian attack".
Widely viewed as the most hardline personality at the higher reaches of the
Islamic regime, Naghdi is making speeches at cultural and commemorative events
on practically a daily basis, a clear indication of the Iranian leaders'
growing concern about the threat of military conflict with the United States.
In recent days senior IRGC commanders have ratcheted up the rhetoric even
further. Commenting on Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities,
General Amir Ali Haji-Zadeh, commander of the IRGC's aerospace division,
claimed that this is "a great wish on our part for them [Israelis] to undertake
this action as that would release our unspent energies toward the direction of
destroying the enemies of Islam and the Muslims once and for all".
Addressing the death of Tehrani-Moghaddam and the growing threat of
American-led military action, the Iranian defense minister (and former IRGC
commander) Ahmad Vahidi claimed that new anti-ship missiles would be delivered
to Iranian forces in the coming days.
The regular Iranian military also weighed in on the defensive capacity-building
rhetoric, with the commander of the Khattam-ol-Anbia air defense center,
Brigadier-General Farzad Esmaili, vowing to turn Iranian airspace into an
"inferno" for invading enemy warplanes.
In keeping with the Islamic Republic's conceptualization of the Arab
revolutions as an "Islamic Awakening", the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian
armed forces (and former IRGC commander) Major-General Mostafa Izadi, claimed
that the regionwide political changes were the product of "Basiji" thinking.
Addressing a commemorative event during "Basij week", Izadi emphasized the
growing role of cyber warfare and claimed that the Islamic Republic's
"combatants" are fighting the enemy on Israel's borders.
Most recently Hamid Reza Moghadam-Far, the head of the IRGC's socio-cultural
programs and the former managing director of the semi-official Fars news
agency, told the same media outlet (which is close to the IRGC), that the
"enemies" cannot even effectively threaten Iran anymore "because they know that
any threat will be met by an even greater threat ... and that any military
assault will result in their [the enemies] destruction".
In combination, this type of deadly serious rhetoric is probably effective in
complicating American planning, if not deterring an imminent attack altogether.
Furthermore, while the scenarios set out by senior IRGC commanders are
plausible, little regard is given to potential US responses to ferocious
In fact, in their public rhetoric at least, IRGC commanders appear to be
unperturbed by the long-term political and strategic consequences of a military
clash with the world's sole superpower.
The only serious effort at tacking these difficult issues in the public domain
is an extended essay by Amir Mohebian, former political editor at the
conservative Resalat newspaper, and arguably the country's most clear-sighted
and shrewd political analyst. Unusually the essay is published on the official
website of Ayatollah Khamenei, thus giving added weight to its contents. 
Mohebian divides the US military threat into three potential scenarios; 1) a
full-scale air and ground campaign designed to capture Tehran and overthrow the
Islamic Republic; 2) a limited war designed to achieve specific political
objectives, namely to force Iran to the negotiating table; 3) a smart war
designed to cripple Iran's offensive capability, specifically Iran's ability to
strike at Israel.
Mohebian rules out the first two scenarios largely on account of the nature of
the Islamic Republic and the scale and quality of its supporters. Indeed, by
all credible accounts a full-scale land campaign designed to occupy Iran runs
the risk of either humiliating failure or an unprecedented human catastrophe.
In order to occupy Tehran and overthrow the Islamic Republic, the US armed
forces would not only have to fight the regular Iranian armed forces and the
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (and its Basij paramilitary force), but they
would also have to contend with millions of unaffiliated Islamic Republic
loyalists, who are expected to mobilize and fight to the death.
In this scenario, the US armed forces are faced with the very real risk of
defeat unless they contemplate the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which could
potentially result in the deaths of millions of Iranians.
While Mohebian identifies the third scenario (smart warfare) as the most likely
in a conflict situation, he downplays the likelihood of military conflict
altogether and concludes that US sabre-rattling is ultimately reducible to
psychological warfare designed foremost to weaken or remove Iran's trump cards
in any future negotiations process.
Despite his trenchant analysis, Mohebian appears to underestimate US time
lines, specifically the use of conflict by the US as the starting point of a
very long-term strategy of weakening and ultimately altering Iran's strategic
In conclusion, the confidence of Iranian leaders and analysts on the Islamic
Republic's ability to withstand and benefit from what they see as an unlikely
military conflict with the US is predicated upon their prioritizing of
short-term political dividends (in terms of mass mobilization behind the
Islamic Republic both nationally and regionally) over long-term strategic