Asymmetric war: Iran and the new normal

The ability of Iran’s military to learn from experience and become adept in irregular warfare echoes that of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also presents the United States with hard choices.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 July 2010

The corrosion of the British military effort in Afghanistan continues with the decision, announced on 6 July 2010, to withdraw the 1,400 troops from the Sangin district of Helmand province by the end of the year. The capacity of the Taliban’s sustained irregular warfare to inflict repeated damage on British forces (of which ninety-one have died there) is an important part of the wider story here.

But the predicament is shared across the national contingents of Nato/International Security Assistance Forces (Isaf) forces. It is evident in the difficulties faced  by US forces around Marjah in the aftermath of Operation Moshtarak. and the delay in launching the much larger planned operation in and around Kandahar (see Dan Murphy, “Why Kandahar locals turn to Taliban”, Christian Science Monitor, 6 July 2010). Large-scale conventional armies are finding it increasingly tough to subdue non-conventional opponents.

The rapid expansion of the Isaf force in Afghanistan - from 5,000 to well over 100,000 in 2003-10 - has been matched by an insurgency that has proved capable of adapting its tactics and becoming increasingly effective - much as did its predecessor against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This discomforting outcome makes it essential that the coalition rethinks its entire approach in Afghanistan - though it cannot happen yet, and even when it does is unlikely to lead to General David H Petraeus admitting failure by committing to a rapid withdrawal (see Godfrey Hodgson, “America’s Afghan dilemma: Goliath as David”, 6 July 2010).

A bitter lesson

The big picture is sobering for the United States and its allies. For most of the decade, around 200,000 of the world’s best armed and trained troops have in Iraq and Afghanistan found themselves unable to defeat - and taking great casualties from - far smaller, lighter and more rudimentary forces (see “Afghanistan: an impossible choice”, 1 July 2010). Off the coast of Somalia, pirates are tying down a powerful naval flotilla. In Lebanon In July-August 2006, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF)  failed in its attempt to cripple Hizbollah; any new confrontation does not promise a different outcome (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “Hizbollah: last war, next war”, 13 August 2009).

These trends highlight a crucial and still under-appreciated feature of emerging strategic realities: that ostensibly weaker elements in a military stand-off - states as well as non-state actors - are increasing their capacity to wage effective “asymmetric” or “irregular” warfare.

A key aspect of this process is that both states and insurgents are learning from experience, acquiring new expertise, and in some cases developing highly versatile variants of conventional military forces. A case in point is the naval force that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has prepared for operations in the Persian Gulf (see Thomas Erdbrink, “In responding to West, Iran stresses its naval abilities in the Persian Gulf”, Washington Post, 6 July 2010).

The context of the IRGC’s plans is Tehran’s assessment of the military threats it faces: in particular, that increasing tensions with Israel could lead to an Israeli air-strike against Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities - and that the United States could in turn turn the Gulf into an arena of combat (see “Israel vs Iran: the risk of war”, 11 June 2010).

In 2007, Tehran decided to upgrade the IRGC’s military responsibilities:  the corps would be allowed to take control of Iran’s naval forces in the Gulf, while the conventional navy was tasked with wider tasks beyond the Straits of Hormuz. Since then the IGRC has evolved tactics that build directly on  lessons learned during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), when the US navy intervened to destroy some of the the Iranian navy’s most modern warships.

The US action - Operation Praying Mantis, conducted on 14 April 1988 - was decisive: in a single day, powerful US naval units sunk an Iranian frigate and a gunboat, crippled a second frigate and damaged two oil-platforms. The timing was important: the intervention came at the very end of the “tanker war”, and when Iran after eight years of bitter conflict was forcing back the Iraqi army (see Elizabeth Gamlen & Paul Rogers, “U.S. Reflagging of Kuwaiti Tankers”, in Farhang Rajaee ed., The Iran-Iraq War: the Politics of Aggression [University Press of Florida, 1993]).

The political meaning of the action was also vital: at heart it denoted explicit support for the Saddam Hussein regime’s combat with revolutionary Iran, and made a forceful statement to Tehran that the US would not allow it to win the war. All this, moreover, came just a month after the notorious Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja (see Joost R Hiltermann, “Halabja: the politics of memory”, 16 March 2010).

Iran soon afterwards agreed to a ceasefire, a decision likened by Ayatollah Khomeini as drinking from a poisoned cup. But amid the painful outcome, Iran’s elite understood that facing the world’s most powerful navy with but a small force of conventional warships is a recipe for defeat - and that a creative mix of naval tactics (including unconventional ones) in any later confrontation could offer it a better chance.

A tactical shift

The possible advantages for Iran of such a course are augmented by China’s quiet sale to Tehran of a range of sophisticated anti-ship cruise-missiles. China may have virtually no military forces in the region, save its apart contribution to the international anti-piracy force off the Somali coast, but its provision of these missiles to Iran gives it useful political leverage. For Iran, they are potentially a great asset: many of the missiles are on land-based mobile-launchers which can range far out over the Gulf yet can be moved rapidly out of bunkers and camouflaged sites.

But an even more potent weapon in Iran’s hands is, according to United States naval intelligence (and cited in Thomas Erdbrink’s report) “an ever-growing fleet of small high-speed vessels armed with missiles and torpedoes and capable of laying mines and even semi-submerging”.

The US navy, alert to the danger, has developed its own systems to counter Iran’s new forces, including powerful point-defence systems and cluster-munitions. This type of response, however, suggests that the Pentagon may still be behind the curve: for it assumes that in the event of a conflict the Revolutionary Guards would be aiming to damage or sink large US warships. This is by no means certain (just as insurgents in Afghanistan rarely engage in frontal attacks on Isaf units); instead, it is much more likely that the Iranians would target supply-ships, including tankers, and even stage attacks on US naval facilities in Bahrain.  

The reference-point for a tactical shift of this kind is Iraq and Afghanistan, where sub-state actors very quickly learned from experience and adapted their approach - at great cost to foreign forces. A conflict with Iran could see IRGC units, operating mainly in home waters, exacting a similarly high price. In turn this raises the question of whether the United States too is capable of learning from experience and taking steps to avoid yet another destructive war.


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