Last month, Yemen’s Houthis, the Iranian-supported rebel faction that now dominates the southern Persian Gulf’s most volatile state, fired a ballistic missile that came close to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, before being intercepted by the country’s military. The incident was a clear sign of the deepening sectarian conflict between Tehran and Riyadh now taking place throughout the Middle East. But it was also an accurate reflection of the sort of asymmetric tactics being prioritized by Iran in its strategy for regional dominance.
Such a focus is not new. Iran has a long history of leveraging proxies and paramilitary techniques, dating back to the earliest days of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, when what was then known as “passive defense” was used to secure the realm in the tumultuous early post-revolutionary period. Subsequently, the eight years of the brutal Iran-Iraq war — and the heavy losses incurred by the Iranian state in that conflict — forged a new Iranian strategic doctrine that emphasized indirect action and asymmetric tactics as a way to minimize risk and maximize leverage.
These priorities persist today. Iran’s contemporary doctrine is designed to attack the U.S. and limit American influence in the Middle East, while still stopping short of an all-out military confrontation with U.S. forces, which Iran’s military cannot hope to win. This explains the Islamic Republic’s efforts to expand its strategic depth through substate action in nearby nations (like Iraq and Syria), as well as the significant investments it has made in expanding the range and sophistication of its ballistic missile arsenal.
Simultaneously, Iran is working actively to improve its cyberwarfare capabilities. Not that long ago, cyberspace was largely seen as the purview of just two nations: Russia and China. Increasingly, however, Iran has emerged in recent years as a sophisticated actor in cyberspace — one that has demonstrated the capability of holding a broad range of U.S. and European targets and institutions at risk in the event of political confrontation or outright military conflict. Iran’s regime is also working actively to manipulate international law in its favor, a campaign that has found its expression in territorial claims to parts of the Strait of Hormuz, a key international waterway through which one-fifth of the world’s oil flows.
At the same time, Iran has made significant advancements in recent years on a new generation of offensive technologies, chief among them unmanned aerial vehicles outfitted with sophisticated sensors and electronic warfare capabilities. The result, U.S. officials say, is a “layered capability” that allows Iran “to potentially dominate specific areas” in the Persian Gulf despite the active presence of U.S. forces there.
Today, in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal with the West, Iran’s regional profile and activism is on the rise in the Middle East. So, too, is Tehran’s interest in regions beyond its immediate periphery, including Africa and Latin America. In just the most recent indicator of this new international focus, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, a top military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, recently confirmed that Iran is planning expeditionary maritime missions to the Western Hemisphere.
As it does, the Islamic Republic can be expected to rely heavily on its asymmetric capabilities — ranging from cyberwarfare to next-generation technology to “lawfare” — in order to advance its strategic position, as well as to diminish that of the country it views as its principal adversary: the United States.
• Ladan Yazdian is a visiting scholar at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science. She is the author of the Iran chapter in “The Logic of Irregular War: Asymmetry and America’s Adversaries” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017), from which this article is drawn.
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