Why the mullahs need a war with America
Aug. 22, 2003
Conventional European wisdom holds that Washington's nonconservatives are itching for war against Iran, but little attention is paid to Teheran's hawks, who wish to provoke conflict as an excuse for suppressing democracy at home.
Although some mullahs, including President Muhammad Khatami, argue that a clash with the US should be avoided, others, notably Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, are actively preparing for it. Last April Khamenei convened a meeting of senior military commanders, the largest in almost 10 years, ostensibly to review the consequences of the war in Iraq.
According to Teheran sources, Khamenei ordered commanders to prepare "a strategic plan" to face military action by the US. Ahmad Vahidi, a two-star general and adviser to the supreme guide was put in charge of preparing the plan.
Last week, what is described as the first draft of the plan was presented to Khamenei. Elements of it have been revealed in public statements by Maj.-Gen. Rahim Safavi, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Vice-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the defense minister.
"We expect aggression [from the US]" Safavi told a rally of volunteers about to join the guard in Sabalan, western Iran, on August 11. "Our strategy is to prepare for an unequal battle." Safavi claimed that the "unequal battle" nabard namotoqaren worked both ways. As far as modern weapons and military technology were concerned, that inequality favored the US. But when it came to manpower and "readiness to sustain large numbers of casualties," Iran had the advantage.
The Iranian commander also revealed that "the strategic plan" was based on the assumption that the US and its allies would attack from four directions: Iraq in the west, Azerbaijan in the north, Afghanistan in the east and the Persian Gulf in the south.
At the same time the US may try to air-drop troops close to big cities such as Shiraz and Isfahan in the hope that the local population will rise against the mullahs. Safavi said that Iran's traditional war plans had been based on the assumption of attacks by "enemy forces" from the border areas, especially in the west and north. "Now we must be prepared for attacks coming from all directions," he said. "We must treat our entire nation as frontier land."
The general spelled out what he called "the doctrine of defense in depth" difaa omghi. This consists of creating thousands of small units capable of engaging the American "invaders" in countless localities, thus depriving the US of a chance to deliver a knockout blow.
According to Safavi, the new strategy provides for a dispersion of arms and materiel as a means of limiting losses likely to be caused by heavy American bombing raids. Mountain hideouts have been designated as secret arms depots.
ARE IRAN'S armed forces large enough to cover a territory three times bigger than Iraq? The Revolutionary Guard consists of two corps and four independent units, totalling 300,000 men. The regular army, used mostly as a technical backup, has 180,000 men and the lightly armed gendarmerie 120,000.
There are also a number of paramilitary organizations, of which the largest, Baseej Mustazafin Mobilization of the Dispossessed has 200,000 fighters, at least on paper. Safavi claims that the Baseej has a reserve force of over eight million. Next fiscal year, the Iranian budget will allocate an additional $1.2 billion to retraining and arming a million Baseej reservists.
Some experts, however, believe that most of the forces Safavi counts on exist only on paper. "A good part of those numbers represent the civilian personnel and the bureaucracy that runs numerous enterprises on behalf of the Revolutionary Guard," says Hamid Zomorrodi, a former army captain. "In any case Iran has few units that are trained and equipped for guerrilla warfare of the kind Safavi envisages."
Defense Minister Shamkhani, for his part, has shed more light on the current thinking in military circles. In recent interviews and speeches, he has expressed confidence that if attacked by the US, Iran would be able to resist beyond "the American capacity for endurance." That capacity is believed to be limited to a maximum of 20 weeks of fighting and 5,000 American killed.
Shamkhani believes that had the Iraqis continued to fight the US to the limits of that capacity American public opinion would have forced the Bush administration to seek a cease-fire with Saddam Hussein.
"The key question is never to admit defeat," Shamkhani said in a recent speech. "No war is won until one side admits to being the loser."
The strategy is, in part, based on Iran's experience during the 1980-88 war against Iraq. At that time Iran used its geographical and demographic superiority to wear out the outnumbered Iraqis, who also lacked territorial depth.
Iran suffered almost two million casualties, including 750,000 deaths, but managed to halt the initial Iraqi advance and then take the war into Iraqi territory.
The new strategy reflects the influence of North Korean military doctrines on Iranian commanders. Safavi, Shamkhani and almost all other senior Iranian military leaders have received part of their training in North Korea, which has been Iran's principal military ally since the mid-1980s.
FORMER FOREIGN minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Khamenei, says that Iran should welcome a direct clash with the US because it would create "an earthquake" in the Middle East and, possibly, throughout the Muslim world.
In the 1980-88 war Iran also tried to spread the war to the whole region. It launched air raids on Saudi Arabia and briefly stopped the flow of Kuwaiti oil by firing at Kuwaiti tankers. This time Iranian commanders believe they have a better chance of applying the strategy of kondeh-suz bonfire and widening the war to the whole of the Middle East.
In a recent paper, partly leaked in Teheran, Velayati said that, if attacked, Iran would open "a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth front."
The Iranian-controlled branch of the Hizbullah in Lebanon would immediately open a new front against Israel, using thousands of medium-range Fajr IV missiles it has received from Teheran. Various Palestinian militant groups now heavily dependent on Iranian finance, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would move onto the offensive against Israel.
The Islamic Republic also has allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that could raise a few fires against the US and its allies there. The Arab oilfields of the Persian Gulf, and similar installations in the Caspian Sea, could be targeted by Iran's massive arsenal of missiles, one of the largest in Asia.
THE WHOLE strategy is based on the assumption that once Iran has developed its own nuclear deterrent it would be immune to any US attack. This is why Iran's quest for nuclear weapons has been put in high gear, emerging as one of the few issues on which all factions are in agreement.
"The next 18 months to two years will be the most dangerous in the history of our revolution," former president Hashemi Rafsanjani said in a recent sermon in Teheran. "Once we have passed through that danger zone we shall be in a position that will discourage attacks [by the US]."
Some commentators take those remarks to mean Iran is confident of having a nuclear deterrent before 2005.
Khamenei, Vahidi, Safavi, Shamkhani, and Velayati are only a few of the "bitter-enders" who think they can take on the US and defeat it.
In 1980 the Khomeinist regime was saved from a popular revolt because of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran. Khomeini's successors hope story will repeat itself with a US attack producing a patriotic reflex that would stifle democratic aspirations.
Anyone familiar with Iran's realities, however, knows that what was true in 1980 will not necessarily be true today. A military conflict with the US could, in fact, accelerate the downfall of what is now an unpopular, deeply divided and corrupt regime.
Paradoxically, a diplomatic settlement with the US may prolong the life of the regime. Libya's Colonel Mu'ammar Gaddafi seems to have understood what the Khomeinists refuse to acknowledge.
The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/A/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1061438429434