America has the big guns: but Iran is a master of unconventional warfare. Could Tehran repeat the many successes of its asymmetric, proxy-based warfare if conflict with the U.S. escalates?
Iranian mourners carry a symbolic coffin wrapped in a U.S. flag during the funeral procession of General Qasem Soleimani in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. Photo AFP
If open conflict breaks out between the U.S. and Iran, precipitated by the Qassem Soleimani killing and retaliation, or the long ramping up of tensions between the two countries, the array of techniques, manpower and equipment available to each side differs wildly. No less significant will be the tactics each side would prefer would dominate the fight.
America has the big guns: but Iran is a master of unconventional warfare. In this asymmetrical contest, who would be best placed to gain the upper hand?
The U.S. would clearly want to depend on its overwhelming conventional military advantage; in President Donald Trump's words:
"The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!"
But its modern history – and contemporary geopolitics – offers Iran only one clear lesson: Tehran can't win a conventional war.
A woman walks past an anti U.S. mural on the former U.S. Embassy's wall in Tehran, Iran January 7, 2020. Photo WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS
The Iran-Iraq War was one of the formative experiences for the newborn Islamic Republic of Iran. Largely fought using conventional tactics reminiscent of WWI, it was the 20th century’s longest conflict – and by the ceasefire of 1988, it was inconclusive. Neither side had made any real strategic progress in eight years of bitter fighting.
Iraqi forces didn't conquer Khuzestan (the oil-rich, ethnically Arab southern Iranian province of Iran that Baghdad had invaded in 1980, triggering the war), and didn't decisively rout Iran, despite support from much of the international community. Iraq had also effectively been bankrupted, leading to its ill-informed decision to invade Kuwait (and its oilfields) in 1990. Nevertheless, at no point during the conflict had Iraq’s regime survival been in question.
In contrast, contemporary Iranian discourse paints the Iran-Iraq War as an existential struggle – and that is certainly a credible argument. In 1980, the Islamic Republic of Iran was barely a year old, internationally isolated, and in politically uncertain straits. Surviving Iraq’s aggressions was a form of post-revolution national validation, but it came at a tremendous cost.
Iran’s conventional armed forces were ill-prepared for such a significant campaign of regime survival. Its professional military expertise having been purged in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, Iran held the line by resorting to tactics like deploying swarms of very young conscripts for the most dangerous operations, clearing minefields and overrunning well-defended Iraqi positions.
The enormous casualty count, both in the military and on the home front, was framed in terms of an existential-spiritual struggle - "the Holy Defense" - accompanied by a discourse of martyrdom. The experience of that war, and consequent aversion to relying on conventional military operations, are strong features of Iran’s current defense doctrine and the necessity of the projection of power.
Iran started acting on those lessons while it was still fighting Iraq, when it launched a policy of mentoring and developing the capabilities of Lebanese Shia insurgent groups.
The most notable was, and is, Hezbollah, which was trained and its capabilities greatly upgraded by an elite component of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps - the Qods Force, whose most recent commander, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by last week’s U.S. drone strike.
Even with a relatively light footprint, this initiative produced outsized results, felt most acutely by American, French and Israeli troops stationed in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s biggest terrorist "coup" was the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, which led to those forces and international peacekeepers retreating from Lebanon. Iran’s mentoring of Hezbollah’s insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s forced Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.
Iran has developed both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad into substantive adversaries for Israel, and created a network of sympathetic militias in Iraq whose power and influence now supersedes the country’s government.
Iran has been most successful in the Islamic world’s more asymmetric conflicts: mentoring and training Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad against Israel, Yemen’s Houthis against Saudi Arabia, and a large number of Iraqi Shia militias against coalition forces (and subsequently ISIS)have all fared well against stronger conventional enemies.
Their success integrates into Iran’s larger strategic goals: partially derailing the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords, hobbling Israeli normalization with the Arab world in the 1990s, drawing Saudi Arabia into a costly counterinsurgency campaign in Yemen, and hampering America’s nation-building efforts in post-invasion Iraq. Iranian expertise has also been integral to the survival of the Bashar Assad regime in the face of a popular uprising and widescale civil war few predicted it would weather.
So, while conventional warfare may have failed, Iran has enjoyed far more success with unconventional warfare - indeed, it can be considered an area of Iranian strategic mastery. Deploying elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force across the Middle East, Iran has achieved outsized strategic outcomes with less investment of resources and relatively low casualties.
But Iran doesn’t have a monopoly on raising, training, and deploying successful militias and insurgent forces - or of using their tactics in support of conventional military operations. America has a long record in this field too.
Unconventional warfare is the primary mission of the U.S. Army Special Forces, more commonly known as the Green Berets. Their secondary mission is to aid with foreign internal defense, U.S. military assistance to allies to protect them from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, violent extremism, terrorism, and other threats to their security.
President Trump’s more bellicose recent tweets suggest the boundaries of conventional warfare are not high on his priorities, form targeting Iranian cultural sites (a crime against international law) to a promise that the American response to any Iranian retaliation would be "disproportionate."
America often cites its support for the various Afghan militias who helped topple the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 as examples of its prowess in unconventional warfare, but these case studies are somewhat anomalous. Tactically, objectives were unquestionably achieved, but strategically, this was not the case. The Taliban remain strong, and Islamic State has a growing presence in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. hopes and efforts, political and military stability for Afghanistan remains far from having been achieved.
U.S. special operations forces are seen in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa on May 25, 2016. Note the YPG insignia on the uniform of the soldier on the right. Photo Delil Souleiman, AFP
While the Green Berets also achieved tactical success working alongside SDF forces against ISIS in northern Syria. The level of both cover within and identification with the Kurdish fighters were evident when photos emerged of American soldiers operating in the area wearing SDF insignia, and also the patches of one the constituent Kurdish forces, the YPG. The U.S. head of the anti-ISIS coalition called them a regular "sign of partnership"), and a Pentagon spokesman noted that U.S. special forces do what they can to blend in with their environment to enhance their own security.
But a combination of President Trump’s impulsivity and Turkish expansionism have largely negated the strategic goals they accomplished. Indeed, the abrupt way Trump ended the partnership with Kurdish forces highlighted that, at least for the president, there was no meta-political "covenant of fate" between the U.S. and the Kurds, of the kind that Iran so carefully cultivates among its allies and proxies.
This is one of the keys to why Iran’s unconventional warfare efforts have been more successful than America’s. For the most part, America’s ventures into unconventional warfare have been to advance specific policy goals – such as overthrowing the Taliban - while Iran’s have entailed genuine ideological affinity with partner forces. Most commonly, this has been opposition to the impact of America and its allies’ influence (notably Israel and Saudi Arabia).
Ideological affinity has allowed longer-term and more meaningful relationships between Iran and its unconventional warfare partners than America’s, whose allyships in post-conflict environments mostly transition from being military allies to being political "friends," a relationship far more exposed to pressures for autonomy and expediency.
While American forces would almost certainly be able to cause Iran the most damage in an unconstrained conflict between the two states in Iraq, this is not a likely scenario. A historic aversion to conventional warfare would almost certainly prevent Iran from committing troops to such a conflict, especially when the country controls so many highly capable proxy forces. And President Trump, despite his current bellicosity, is still inherently opposed to further entrenching the U.S. military in the Middle East.
A more likely scenario, and perhaps the one we are seeing playing out now, is Iran’s proxies creating conditions so unfavorable to America that it will be forced into a withdrawal from Iraq and the dilution of its influence in the region – and a concomitant empowerment of Iran’s influence. That would be another success for Iran’s asymmetric, proxy-based warfare over the U.S.
Any American government-sponsored attempt at regime change in Tehran or military intervention within Iran’s borders is highly unlikely. The Iranian regime may be increasingly squeezed by sanctions and by military strikes on its assets abroad, but it has slowly worked to dislodge American influence from what Iran sees as its natural geopolitical sphere of influence. In many ways, that is already a victory.