By Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco
As a concept, grand strategy refers to the long-range instrumental mobilisation of a state’s combined resources, vectors of influence and capabilities in order to achieve an advantageous position, satisfy vital national interests, enhance national security, and navigate assertively in an environment in which uncertainty and danger are commonplace. As such, it represents an overall intellectual compass that guides the practice of statecraft in accordance with a multidimensional understanding of national power and as a bridge that connects means with ends. Furthermore, it can respond to defensive purposes if the point is to preserve the status quo and counter threats of significant proportions or to an offensive logic if it serves a revisionist agenda that seeks to remake the prevailing balance of power.
In this regard, Iran offers an enlightening example of how such concept is being implemented by a regional power. Although this reality is fuelling uneasiness amongst those that are concerned about the consequences and implications related to the potential rise of this Middle Eastern country, in the grand scheme of things the latest wave of Iranian expansionism is hardly surprising. After all, the Persian nation ‒ as a great power since antiquity ‒ has developed an imperial tradition that is still a powerful source of pride. The ancient Persians had a sphere of influence whose reach went well beyond the Iranian plateau and they often challenged the Greek city states, the Roman Empire, and the Byzantines. Likewise, the prestige of Persian civilisation is highlighted by artistic, cultural, literary, religious, societal, aesthetic, bureaucratic and political achievements.
However, the history of Iran also contains troublesome episodes of decline, a passive role in the intrigues associated with geopolitical rivalries between clashing powers, and even foreign predation. In the 19th century, it was caught in the chessboard of so-called Great Game played by the British Empire and Tsarist Russia. Over the following century, the secular nationalist government of Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown as a result of a coup d’état masterminded by American and British intelligence agencies. In turn, the regime of the Shah ‒ a right-wing moderniser aligned with the West and Israel ‒ was deposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose revolution established a theocratic Islamic Republic, a tectonic event that shook many Arab capitals and Jerusalem and whose shockwaves were even felt in Washington and Moscow. After that, the bloody Iran-Iraq War ended in an uneasy stalemate. Since then, Iran has faced multiple epicentres of turmoil in its immediate periphery, intermittent tensions with strong rivals such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with a myriad of domestic problems.
Nevertheless, Iran’s grand strategy has evolved thanks to both internal and external factors. At home, the consolidation of the Islamist regime in Teheran, the gradual development of a professional ruling elite that integrates different factions of power brokers ‒ including clerics, hawkish hardliners, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, reformers, and business groups involved in international economic dynamics, amongst others ‒ that participate in the decision-making process and its dominance over local potential challengers have provided a reasonable degree of stability so that an ambitious foreign policy agenda can be pursued. Moreover, the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 ‒ both neighbouring antagonists of the Islamic Republic ‒ by American forces provided a window of opportunity for Tehran to seek regional hegemony. Another relevant element that needs to be taken into account is that high oil prices (particularly in the first decade of the 21st century) have also fuelled Iranian national power and filled the coffers of the Iranian state. These circumstances and turning points have configured an environment that has emboldened Iran ‒ especially under the leadership of nationalist forces ‒ to raise the stakes and aim higher, even if such course of action entails meaningful risks.
The Ideological Roots of Iranian Grand Strategy
Throughout history, Persia has often achieved the status of a great power with a sphere of influence that goes well beyond its immediate periphery. As such, it has confronted ‒ more than once ‒ resourceful and competitive rivals such as the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Turks and the Russians. Moreover, the conquests made by the various incarnations of the Persian Empire have increased its influence on neighbouring peoples in many walks of life. In addition, the nation’s condition as a civilisational pole that has exported its contributions have increased both national pride and the ‘soft power’ of the Persian state, a legacy that has still persists today. Therefore, this historical background has nourished an imperial tradition that echoes in the minds of modern Iranians, who see their country as a stakeholder that seeks a position of leadership in order to play a significant role in international relations.
The second major component of Iranian grand strategy is the revival of Shiite militant Islamism. Ayatollah Khomeini famously claimed that those who deny that Islam is a political religion do not understand neither Islam nor politics. In other words, Shiite Islamism is a powerful societal force that can be harnessed for political purposes related to control, power, conflict and conquest. In this context, even though Shiites are a minority in the Muslim world at large, Shiite communities are present in key regions of the Greater Middle East (the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia). Moreover, since most Shiites have been historically disenfranchised and persecuted, it makes sense for them to secure the protection of a strong defender and this reality has turned Iran into the undisputed global leader of Shia Islam. That explains why even the secular regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria ‒ whose elite belong to the esoteric sect of the Alawites, often seen as heretics by most Sunni and even some Shia Muslims ‒ has courted Iran as a geopolitical patron. In contrast, the Sunni world is much more fragmentary, as it contains several competing epicentres of power: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf petro-monarchies, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia. Likewise, it must be emphasised that Shiite theology teaches concepts that have far-reaching political ramifications, including the outspoken public display of popular religiosity, the quest for legitimacy as a cornerstone of effective governance, closeness between clerics and their communities of followers and the ‘virtuous’ acceptance of martyrdom and suffering under extreme circumstances.
The third ideological ingredient is the theatrical representation of a staunch anti-Imperialist struggle. Ayatollah Khomeini was often referred to as the ‘Che Guevara of the Muslim world’ not because he and his disciples intended to embrace communism but because their movement rejected American influence as an ‘evil’ force. The US was denounced as ‘the Great Satan’ and Washington’s allies ‒ mainly the UK, several Arab states and Israel ‒ were also portrayed as complicit ‘little Satans.’ This antagonistic attitude has to do with the covert and overt involvement of the US in Iranian political affairs and particularly the strong support provided to the regime headed by the Shah. However, there is also a deeper root that underpins this ideological hostility: from the perspective of Shiite clerics, modern Western civilisation and everything it stands for is seen as profoundly ungodly, morally bankrupt, and decadent. Furthermore, acting as the cornerstone of an ‘Axis of Resistance’ amplifies the resonance of Tehran’s voice in places in which it would not normally be heard, especially in the Sunni Arab world, where there are enduring grievances against ruling elites aligned with the West and also a great deal of resentment towards the US and Israel. Nevertheless, its reach goes much further. Such ‘counter-hegemonic’ ideological discourse has enabled Tehran to befriend third world left-wing regimes (such as North Korea and Venezuela) and revolutionary movements that oppose Western interest and even great powers that harbour revisionist geopolitical agendas, including China and Russia. Paradoxically, in this case anti-imperialist rhetoric is in fact concealing an imperialist project and yet Iran presenting itself as a champion of the downtrodden for the sake of utilitarian benefits is a political manoeuvre that Realist thinkers like Machiavelli himself would approve of.
The Nature of Iranian Grand Strategy
Considering their geographic distribution and dispersion, establishing a corridor ‒ either formally or informally controlled by Iran ‒ through the interconnectedness of the Shiite communities in the Greater Middle East would generate a contiguous sphere of influence that goes from the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon to the westernmost corners of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This area roughly corresponds to the traditional territorial projection reached by the successive iterations of the Persian empire but, unlike previous episodes, it does not contemplate the conformation of satrapies under direct Persian administrative or military suzerainty. Instead, the so-called Shiite Crescent involves a quest for Lebensraum through constellation of proxies and satellites directed by Tehran. The materialisation of this project would pretty much mean the attainment of regional hegemony. Iran would then be able to control strategic energy resources, encircle both Israel and the Gulf petro-monarchies and dominate a crucial geoeconomic gateway from the Eastern flank of the Mediterranean to the very heartland of Central Asia. If such scenario ever takes place, both Western and Eurasian powers would have to treat Iran as a key player in the global geopolitical chessboard and, as such, as a force to be reckoned with. It would no longer be seen as an arena of strategic confrontation between competing external powers or, even worse, as a bargaining chip. This explains why Iran is willing to invest a great deal of time, resources and effort to make this happen.
On the other hand, there are several instruments of national power that Teheran is relying on to pursue this project. The key ingredient is the projection of power through covert action in unconventional operational theatres, such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Arabian peninsula and others. In order to shape the course of events in the local conflicts in accordance with Iranian national interests, Iranian agents and pro-Iranian militias have instigated ‘popular’ uprisings, committed terrorist attacks, launched asymmetric strikes, unleashed sectarian carnage, waged psychological warfare, targeted strategic infrastructure for the purpose of sabotage, created facts on the ground and even tested the red lines of rivals. This is precisely why Iran’s behaviour is often seen as incendiary; but playing with fire as a calculated risk can bring substantial benefits, as long as one does not get burned in the process. Consequently, the resulting chaos has been taken advantage to destabilise Iranian rivals and strengthen its influence. Indeed, that is the method behind Iran’s apparent madness. Likewise, Teheran has fuelled the flames of militant agitation by mobilising both Shiite groups (Hezbollah, the Mahdi Army) and even non-Shiite insurgent forces (like Hamas) to threaten its rivals. Although such factions have their own agendas and cannot be seen as tentacles or pseudopods of Teheran, Iran’s ideological encouragement and material support is a powerful driver that has determined their rules of engagement.
Concerning diplomacy, Iran has courted Eurasian great powers in a pragmatic way so that they have no incentive to undermine Teheran’s ambitions. Iran is a supplier of oil for China and India, a prominent buyer of Russian weaponry, and a geoeconomic partner of Beijing. Likewise, Teheran has tried to seek closer collaborative ties with Eurasian multilateral institutional structures that are active in the fields of security, defence and trade. Iranian diplomatic interactions with the West are even more complex, since Teheran has tried to defuse tensions, buy time through negotiations to strengthen its position, diminish the impact of sanctions, and exploit its reputation as a source of disruption in order to obtain concessions. At the same time, Iran has developed close links with ‘rogue states’ like North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. In addition, Teheran has tried to project its ‘soft power’ through propaganda conceived to disseminate its viewpoints amongst foreign audiences, its image as the ultimate guardian of Shiite Islam and as the pious defender of Shiite holy sites and fiery anti-imperialist statements formulated to charm left-wing sympathisers.
Furthermore, it is also important to consider the role of Iran’s nuclear programme. According to American neorealist scholar Kenneth Waltz, a nuclear weapon would represent a formidable deterrent for the protection of Iranian national security from external rivals and it could also provide a military umbrella that would help Teheran achieve a favourable regional balance of power. It could hardly entail the power to directly threaten either the United States or Israel ‒ whose nuclear arsenals are much stronger ‒ in any meaningful way, especially considering that the prospect of a heavy retaliation would lead to utter annihilation. The Ayatollahs might be radical, but it is unlikely that they are suicidal. In other words, despite its fierce rhetoric, Iran could not rationally afford to launch a nuclear first strike because such action would be, to say the least, counterproductive. Another possibility worth taking into account is that Iran could exchange the cancellation of its nuclear programme (an unfinished project) for the tacit diplomatic recognition of its geopolitical sphere of influence (something much more concrete). From the Iranian point of view, such Faustian bargain would be a major strategic victory. After all, as history has demonstrated, in spite of their inherently dangerous nature, nuclear weapons are instruments of realpolitik and not eschatological triggers of Armageddon.
Finally, regarding the relance of economic factors, Iran’s capabilities are limited. The Iranian economy depends mostly on oil exports and the prospects of diversification and development are not particularly promising. Plus, the imposition of heavy commercial and financial sanctions represents an obstacle that cannot be easily overcome. Hence, as countermeasures of ‘economic resistance’ Iran has adopted an eastward geoeconomic orientation, increased its accumulation of gold holdings as hard assets with intrinsic value, and developed alternative international conduits to bypass Western financial arteries. Moreover, Teheran has made an effort to foster the sovereign creation of indigenous advanced sectors whose dual-use activities, products and technologies ‒ including but not limited to drones, aircraft, rockets, ballistic missiles, reactors, spacecraft and satellites ‒ entail a high degree of added value and also a strategic boost for national power, such as aerospace, nuclear energy and an incipient military-industrial complex. In other words, those sectors can upgrade the profile of the Iranian economy through the generation of comparative advantages and also enhance the military power projection capabilities of the Iranian state.
There are internal and external factors that might derail Iranian’s revisionist plans. The country faces complex domestic problems that, if not addressed properly, could lead to stagnancy and maybe even decline. Prolonged economic hardship and a strict theocratic regime could alienate large segments of younger generations who seek rewarding educational, professional and leisurely opportunities. Although Iran has been able to counter expressions of civil unrest and withstand the impact of coercive sanctions through multiple measures (including ‘economic resistance’, crackdowns and the intense cultivation of nationalist fervour), the prospect of civil discontent as a catalyst of a potential ‘colour revolution’ could bring regime change. Although such movement would likely receive the support of external backers, the key ingredient would be the accumulation of a domestic political critical mass.
In addition, centrifugal forces ‒ including dissident militias, separatist groups and transnational networks of Sunni jihadists ‒ lack the firepower and wherewithal to overthrow the regime of the Ayatollahs, but their hostile actions are irritants that create strategic distractions that prompt the diversion of resources that could otherwise be spent on imperial pursuits abroad. Plus, their agents have the political willingness and operational ability to undertake acts of both espionage or sabotage, especially if recruited as assets by hostile foreign intelligence organisations.
Furthermore, the threat of military intervention to depose the Iranian regime or destroy its nuclear programme represents a dangerous sword of Damocles for Teheran. After all, the fulfilment of Iran’s geopolitical ambitions compromises the national security of regional heavyweights like Israel and Saudi Arabia, specifically since it would likely mean their dismantlement as national states. Not surprisingly, Iranian aggressiveness have provided a powerful incentive for Jerusalem and Arab capitals to join forces as strange bedfellows against a common enemy, a realignment that was unconceivable barely 20 years ago. Moreover, with or without nukes, Iranian hegemony in the Greater Middle East is not acceptable for American strategic interests. However, Iran is difficult to invade, conquer or occupy due to its geographical, territorial and demographic characteristics. Surgical strikes against military sites and critical infrastructure would be a more feasible possibility; however, that course of action, rather than weakening the regime, would probably galvanise a strong nationalist backlash. In addition, as the events related to Stuxnet illustrated, cyberattacks can prompt setbacks that keep Iranian power in check in a way in which escalation can be reasonably contained.
Another challenge that needs to be taken into account in the feeble structural profile of the Iranian economy. Iran possesses abundant deposits of energy resources ‒ including oil and natural gas ‒ that provide both influence and profits. Yet, Teheran has no way to control the volatile price fluctuations of said commodities in international markets, so prosperity and development cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, lack of diversification, a constant brain drain and an overall absence of the most promising sectors of the Fourth Industrial Revolution limit the prospects of growth, competitiveness and development. Additional problems that have negative economic ramifications in the long run include falling birth rates and the widespread abuse of illicit psychoactive substances (mainly opiates) whose effects are highly corrosive.
Iran is a case study that provides insightful lessons about how a middle power is crafting a holistic grand strategy that combines conventional and unconventional sources of national strength to achieve regional hegemony. It is also instructive to assess how the weight of overlapping ideologies undergird such project. It is still too soon to tell if this plan will be accomplished, but if Teheran reaches even a partial degree of success it will be tempting for other revisionist states to emulate Teheran’s footsteps, even if that means aggressively challenging powerful rivals through asymmetric engagements. Nevertheless, if this scheme backfires spectacularly, this episode in Persian history will be seen as a cautionary tale that highlights how too much recklessness, even if it can pay off handsomely in the short term, can be a recipe for disaster in the long run.