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A nation must think before it acts.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been at war for almost its entire existence, beginning with the Iraqi invasion of the country in 1980 and, then, in an asymmetric way in support of regional clients, often working against American allies and partners in the Middle East. As Ariane Tabatabai wrote recently for Foreign Affairs, the Islamic Republic’s operations in Syria is the first, large-scale and acknowledged operation in a foreign country since the country’s founding. After eight years of conflict in Syria, Iran is most certainly trying to incorporate lessons-learned about its experience in the conflict to help shape planning for the future. To discuss what the Iranians may be thinking, the Foreign Policy Research Institute convened an online discussion, led by Dr. Aaron Stein, along with Dr. Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist at RAND, and Dr. Afshon Ostovar, a Senior Fellow at FPRI and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Aaron Stein: I often make the point that media narratives in the United States often point only to the United States and its struggles and failures (and sometimes successes) in shaping outcomes in third party conflicts. In Syria, we have multiple actors operating inside the country, and each unable to decisively “win” or even to shape how the conflict will end. I don’t see Iran as being all that different. It has committed forces, but has it won? And if not, what is Iran doing in Syria, and what lessons has it learned from combat?
Ariane Tabatabai: Let’s be good political scientists and define our terms. What do we mean by “winning?” If we mean that the country has reached the objectives it set out for itself, then I think it’s safe to say that Iran has won. Iran’s objective in Syria was to stabilize Bashar al-Assad and prevent the collapse of his regime, which—as the Iranians saw it—could lead to Damascus changing hands and the advent of a new government which wouldn’t be aligned with Tehran. So, ultimately, Iran’s goal was to make sure it didn’t lose a critical ally (one of the only Arab states that had stood by its side during the Iran-Iraq War and through thick and thin) and to ensure a favorable balance of power in the region. Iran has achieved all these objectives. Assad is seemingly there to stay and so the balance of power doesn’t tilt against Iran. Now, to be clear, the war isn’t over yet, and we keep seeing reports about ISIS resurgence, so things may change. But as of August 2019, Iran is doing pretty well for itself.
Obviously, this has come at a cost. The literal cost hasn’t been insignificant: By some estimates, the country has spent some $15 billion a year in Syria—although a range of numbers have been floated around and they’re disputed. Iran has lost a number of forces too—including experienced commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). And then there’s a reputational cost: Iran intervened to support an ally who committed war crimes, brutalized his people, and used chemical weapons to secure his grip on power. The conflict has resulted in roughly half a million casualties and a significant displaced population. And Iranian officials have found themselves in the awkward position of having to deny the facts, gaslight, and defend the brutal dictator internationally. At home, too, Iran’s intervention in Syria has been divisive to say the least. It’s generated pushback within the populace and also in the regime due to the resources committed to the conflict and the ethical issues surrounding the war effort.
Afshon Ostovar: I have a slightly different take. I certainly agree that the basic objective Iran had when it first intervened on Assad’s behalf has been largely met. Assad’s place seems mostly secure, and the rebellion appears to be on its last legs. Assad’s regime therefore has been saved, and more importantly, the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran connection has been preserved. On that metric, Iran’s intervention has been successful.
However, if we look at it another way, the picture becomes less definitive. Iran’s objectives expanded significantly as its intervention in Syria widened to include Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and other foreign fighters. With a greater military presence and deeper influence in Syria, the country’s strategic potential increased. The potential for Iran to use Syria as a staging ground to pressure Israel by proxy or directly was becoming a reality. There was a belief in the IRGC that Syria would become effectively an Iran-dominated front against Israel. Although Assad was an enemy of Israel before the rebellion, Iran’s military influence in that country was tightly controlled by the Assad regime. Iran’s intervention changed that, which fundamentally transformed the strategic potential of Syria for Iran and its clients.
But this where Iran has failed to retain its gains. Iran moved too quickly in building-up assets in Syria, and its clients were too overt about their intentions regarding Israel. Israel responded with aggressive strikes on IRGC and Hezbollah arms depots in Syria, and has now begun to target similar installations in Iraq. Israel is effectively at war with Iran in Syria and Iraq, and Iran has shown no ability to counter Israeli aggression. So, when you step back and look at Iran’s gains in Syria, I think they are muddied by the conflict they ignited with Israel. Israel now feels unconstrained in acting against Iran regionally, which it did not before. Israel striking Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq with impunity is not a good development for Iran, the IRGC, or its proxies. It’s also, I would submit, not what winning looks like by any definition.
Stein: I think defining “winning” is super important. I think what often happens is that we mirror-image and assume that because Iran has not met the classical definition of how the U.S. would define victory that, somehow, it doesn’t also view it as a victory. It drives the assumptions that Iran can be mired in a quagmire if the U.S. doesn’t leave Syria, for example. Thoughts?
Tabatabai: I think that’s right. We tend to project our own views onto other countries and to assume that the same concepts and goals that would drive a U.S. policymaker or military planner are also factors shaping other governments’ decisions.
I didn’t support the U.S. withdrawal from Syria (at least as announced by President Trump in 2018) because I thought it was sending the wrong signals to Iran in a conflict where it’s played a largely negative (in fact, devastating) role (unlike in Iraq, for example, where it’s had more of a mixed track record). But I also don’t think the current approach isn’t helpful: The assumption that if the U.S. just stays in Syria for the foreseeable future, it’ll force Iran out. Let’s give a shoutout to another awesome FPRI dude, Colin Clarke. He and I wrote a couple of pieces arguing for a middle ground a while ago.
Ostovar: I agree. On the one hand, I don’t think the U.S. presence in Syria, as currently composed, is very meaningful in terms of countering Iran. It’s obviously meaningful in support of the Kurds and combatting the remnants of ISIS, but its priority is not and never has been Iran. On the other hand, Syria is central to Iran’s regional strategy. I’ve written in the past about the importance of Syria to Iran strategically and about the potential for Iran’s build-up to trigger escalation with Israel. Well, we’re at that point now. I don’t know where the conflict with Israel will go, but it appears to be expanding. Iran is already mired in a conflict it can’t control. I don’t know how much the American presence in Syria contributes to that, but of Iran’s 99 problems, Israel is by far the bigger near-term threat.
Tabatabai: Israel is certainly growing into Iran’s bigger problem (and not just in Syria anymore). But let’s talk a bit more about where the U.S. sits in all this. I agree that the U.S. presence in Syria is meaningful mostly in terms of supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and combatting ISIS. That’s because that’s what it was designed to do. The administration has clearly made countering Iran another political objective in Syria, but the military mandate hasn’t been adjusted accordingly. So, there’s a discrepancy between what the U.S. hopes to achieve in Syria today and what its forces are able to do.
Stein: I do think there is a middle ground in Syria, but it requires the U.S. to recognize that it cannot “scare” Iran out of the country. I think this lesson is applicable for the broader region, where the IRGC is quite active, as you noted, in Iraq, but also in Yemen. What has the IRGC learned from near continuous war since, say, 2005, when things in Iraq began to ramp up, and continuing after the collapse of Assad’s control over the country and then the start of the war in Yemen?
Ostovar: Iran is above all adaptive. It has greater ability to pivot than general observers might realize, and at least in terms of its regional military activities, it’s fairly deft at navigating shifting dynamics. Its grand strategy has allowed it to be flexible, and when your adversaries are more rigid in their capabilities and behavior, that flexibility can be an advantage. In practice, this adaptivity drives Iran in the direction of emergent strategy, meaning it doesn’t always stick with a fixed end point, and doesn’t always know where it’s headed, even though its efforts may be guided by a few general principals (e.g., countering adversaries, increasing its strategic footprint, pushing redlines without sparking unwanted escalation, etc.). To that extent, I don’t see Iran learning fixed lessons as much as gaining experience in acting and reacting to certain stimuli. It has probably learned, for the time being at least, that its build up in Syria crossed Israel’s red line, and it’s now dealing with the blowback of that. But I don’t think Iran has settled on what to do about that challenge. It has tried using Iraq as an “Option B” for forward-staging missiles and drones, but that seems to have triggered an Israeli response as well. Iran probably understands that Israel is playing whack-a-mole and that all it needs to do to gain the upper hand is to successfully deploy or hide more moles than Israel can whack. To what extent that has become Iran’s strategy, I don’t know, but I suspect it is part of the conversation.
Tabatabai: I think Afshon hit the nail on the head: Experience is the single most important thing Iran has gained from these wars, particularly Syria. Let’s take a step back and look at Iran before 2005 or even 2001. A new Iranian leadership and military were thrown into a war that required significant resources. The leadership had come into power after years in opposition and didn’t really have a coherent policy roadmap, strategy, or experience with governance and national security. So, much of the Iran-Iraq War was spent learning on the job with the Artesh [the Islamic Republic of Iran Army] and the IRGC trying to cohabitate and win a war. The war allowed the two forces to learn to live with each other and the IRGC to cement its place within the Iranian armed forces. The 1990s saw virtually no troop deployment outside of Iran, and to the extent that Iran was engaged in military operations outside its borders, it was mostly shooting at the positions of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MeK) and the Kurds in Iraq. So, by the 2000s, the Iranian armed forces had evolved, but hadn’t really been put to the test as they had been during the Iran-Iraq War. The conflicts of the past couple of decades have allowed it to do that. Iranian troops have been exposed to combat in Syria, the Iranian armed forces have gained more cohesion, and Iran has perfected its advise-and-assist models and expanded its network of proxies and partners. All in all, the country has been able to gain experience, and experience underpins doctrine.
Stein: So where is this going? Do Iranians see the country as a regional power capable of using advise-and-assist to advance its interests? And what does this portend for U.S. policy in the Middle East?
Tabatabai: Well, Iran has a track record of using advise and assist missions as its go-to. I suspect that’ll continue to constitute the bulk of Iranian activity in the region. The Syrian model has been fairly costly and isn’t one that Iran would be inclined to implement everywhere. But if it needs to do a Syria redux, it now certainly has the experience.
Ostovar: I don’t know where it’s going, but I suspect that Iran has already reached its zenith in terms of regional military influence. Iran’s footprint is being contested by Israel, and its gains in Syria are beginning to ebb. Iran is likely to retain significant influence in Syria and Lebanon for the foreseeable future, but it no longer looks like it’ll be able to achieve the type of extended deterrence that forward-deployed missiles would have afforded it. Russia is also an x-factor. It has more to provide the Syrians through loans, military sales, industrial development, and economic investment than Iran does. How far Russia will push its interests in Syria over time, however, is unclear.
I also see Syria as unique. Iran can’t replicate what it did in Syria anywhere else. Iraq is the closest case to Syria, but Iran’s role in that country is different in many ways, and constrained by a number of different factors not present in Syria. Likewise, Iran’s role in Lebanon and in Yemen are very different cases. The one aspect that unites all of these efforts is that Iran’s primary (but not sole) means for advancing its interests is through client organizations (e.g., Hezbollah, Houthis, Shia militias, etc.). But those clients have their own interests, and their own agency in determining their relationships with Iran. So broadly speaking, sure Iran can deploy military operatives to help train, fund, arm, and assist militant groups in foreign countries; but there are only so many groups that want Iran’s help, and only so many countries where Iran’s assistance could be viable.
Stein: Finally, what do you recommend the Trump administration “do,” or, perhaps phrased more accurately, understand about Iran and how it will react to American efforts to push back against it?
Tabatabai: Current U.S. Iran policy is singularly focused on disrupting the flow of money fueling Iranian activities in the region. The maximum pressure campaign is almost designed with sanctions as an end in themselves rather than the means by which the U.S. accomplishes broader objectives. But this myopic emphasis on sanctions has made it hard to consider other tools and see the bigger picture. Iran is expanding its toolkit, while the U.S. is essentially doing the opposite.
Ostovar: I completely agree with Ariane. The administration has boxed itself into a corner. It has applied the maximum amount of pressure the president seems willing to apply. Iran and the United States have reached an impasse. The only ways to move beyond this stalemate are through open conflict or compromise. Neither side seems keen with either option. Iran will continue to escalate by drips and drabs, probing red lines, hoping the Trump administration will flinch. The Trump administration will continue to find new ways and new entities to sanction, looking to expand Iran’s economic starvation in the hopes that somehow that will compel Iran’s leaders into talks or coerce them into capitulation. I suspect some also hope gradual economic strangulation will goad Iran into igniting war. Yet, at the end of the day, everyone is looking toward the 2020 election. That element is a wild card, and one I suspect has played a constraining role in the behavior of both sides.