Using asymmetric warfare power capabilities is a fashion in which Iran projects its power in the Middle Eastern region in the eyes of the world. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, with the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), conventional and unconventional warfare is dealt with by and under the auspices of this special revolutionary force. Tehran basically practices asymmetric warfare power as a ‘’peripheral strategy’’ in pursuit of forwarding defense by training and supporting non-state actors in its peripheral countries. The biggest rival of Iran is the United States in the region, countering Iran with its allies mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East. In Iran’s perspective, it adopts such a strategy intending and seeking defense of its homeland from its adversaries. It is even resorting to force as according to ‘former IRGC commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi’ describes it as an “offensive strategy with devastating effects.” The primacy of this strategy is based on the ‘counter-invasion of U.S. and allies’. Although, Iran reiterated that the U.S.’ intention of invasion does not exist anymore and its entanglement in Iraq was enough yet behind the curtains it is preparing its armed forces altogether ready to counter U.S. invasion in the region not directly but through using proxies just as U.S.’ ally KSA uses against Iran to challenge its regional rival. Also, U.S. military bases are proof of U.S. involvement and keeping an eye on Iran’s activities. Therefore, Iran would seek to protect key targets and complicate an adversary’s efforts by using asymmetric means to threaten or strike its forces and interests.
Iran’s strategic goals are more than acquiring territory in the region, rather it prioritizes seeking prestige, influence, and status among Middle Eastern states and projects its power through its proxy allies. Iran has been countering U.S. influence while assisting its proxies by exporting arms and munitions to Hezbollah, Venezuela, various North African nations. International Institute of Strategic Studies has published a report last year in July 2019 titled, Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East which clearly describes Iran’s strategic interests and intentions, triumph in creating such militias that are furthering Iran’s interests in the Middle East. This strategic report published by IISS gives first-hand proof of Iran’s establishment, creation, operating non-state actors in the peripheries by making use of asymmetric power capability. This successful series of non-state actors give Tehran an upper hand in projecting power influence in the region and thus, it got a strategic advantage over its adversaries in the region. Iran is using its lower conflict power capability by assisting, aiding, and training Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kataib Hizbullah (Shiite militia) in Iraq, Hamas in Palestine, Liwa al-Baqir in Syria, Al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, Houthi faction in Yemen, and Liwa Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan. The report said, while the U.S. and its allies are operating with conventional military forces, Iran’s strength lies in its influence within non-state militias and insurgent groups in several nations. However, the conventional balance is still in favor of the U.S. certainly the mightiest and advanced in the world, yet Tehran’s capability in the so-called “gray zone” has tilted the balance of effective force towards Tehran.
Before 2001, Iran’s overall defense expenditure outlook was approximately $6.6billion however, U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan hastened the military capacity, personnel and doubled the defense budget i.e., 3% of its GDP, according to an IISS report. In mere 2018, Iran’s defense budget was $13 billion yet Iran lags far behind its adversaries in the Middle East as KSA’s spent $70 billion, Israel $18.5 billion and the U.S. has been unmatchable spent $700 billion was as per the report published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute SIPRI. Iran has been paying the cost, not in terms of billions of dollars in this regional intervention but also lost millions of lives even facing harsh international pressure and negative sanctions. Tehran’s investment in its asymmetric network “has consistently delivered Iran advantage without the cost or risk of direct confrontation with adversaries and allows the nation to launch attacks on enemies with some level of deniability.”
This secret network comprises of approx. 200,000 fighters in each country where Iran feels to counter influence either U.S. or its allies KSA and Israel in the region. Iran provides all the support it can to its proxies in terms of economic funding, arms, and munitions, training, intelligence information etc. Iranian backed Hezbollah receives the patronage of almost $700 million annually according to US officials.] As mentioned in the Washington Post in 2006, Hezbollah also receives financial and political assistance, as well as weapons and training, from Iran. Hezbollah network is not only operating in Lebanon but also in Iraq, Syria, North America, and Africa as well. Hezbollah by far has been and still considered the most deadly, lethal, and most successful partner of Iran as it aims to create an Iranian replicated government in Lebanon as well.
In Iraq, besides Iranian-backed Shitte militants, Hezbollah also receives political, financial, and military support from Iran to counter U.S. intervention to follow its counter-invasion strategy and increasing its sphere of influence in the region.
In Syria, Hezbollah got more than $200 million just during the Syrian Civil War for preserving Bashar-al-Assad regime and against U.S. Hanin Ghaddar, “a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National that the social servicing of Hezbollah decreased in the past 6 years” due to increase covers Hezbollah’s “mission in recruiting, training, advancing its weaponry and leading the Shi’a Militias – mainly in Syria.”
Iran backs Houthis in Yemen with all its currency notes and hard power capable instruments. In Yemen, besides sending ballistic missiles to the Houthis, Ms. Mandalker, a former prosecutor at the Department of Justice said Quds printed “counterfeit Yemeni bank notes, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to support Iran’s destabilizing activities”. Iran provides the Yemeni Houthi faction not only with ballistic missiles but also with intelligence and advisory services as well. It was confessed publicly by the Iranian Chief of Staff last year who denied to deliver missiles in Yemen War. ‘Iranian Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammed Bagheri, admitted providing this kind of support to Houthis, in an interview with Phoenix Chinese TV Channel.’Likewise, in Qatar, Iranian backed and built militants Al-Ashtar brigades are serving Iran’s interests, can attack Saudi Arabia and keeping an eye over it.
Lastly, In Afghanistan, Iran historically did not have good relations with the Taliban and supported against the Taliban regime in the late 1990s Northern alliance and non-Pashtun Afghan population, Uzbeks, Tajik, and Hazara community in Central Afghanistan. Taliban and Tehran did not have amicable relations in the past during the Taliban regime because the Taliban were backed by, supported, recruited, and trained by the Saudi government, the arch-rival of Iran since 1979. In 2014, Liwa Fatemiyoun, the Afghan Shi’ite militia was created by Iran in the pretext of protecting and securing religious places in Iraq and Syria. This militia comprised of Afghan refugees in Iran and was created under the direct supervision of former Commander Major General Qasim Solaimani. There have been confirmed reports of Tehran dispatching young Hazaras to fight on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun Division, motivated by promises of money and permanent residency in Iran.
An Afghan political analyst named Qadir Kamel told the daily Al Ain that the Liwa Fatemiyoun militia represents a “great threat to the security of Afghanistan”.Currently, the situation is taking a shift as Iran is now using its soft power by investing in developmental projects in Afghanistan, infrastructure roads, etc. A new splinter faction, Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami (Party of Islamic Guardianship) from the Taliban group stands against a peace deal with the United States. After the elimination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), in January, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of undermining the Afghan peace process by using militant groups in the country and also asked the Taliban to disengage from Tehran.
Hence, this strategy of using non-state actors and proxy allies through ground forces has enabled Iran to avoid face-to-face confrontation with its adversaries, particularly with U.S. and allies. Tehran knowingly using asymmetric power, as for symmetric power it will run out and outgunned its military capacity on the battlefield.
Asymmetric Naval Warfare:
Iran uses a particular tactical strategy in naval unconventional warfare using asymmetric warfare power capabilities. Tehran basically tries to balance and compensate its symmetric weaknesses with that of developing and using asymmetric warfare power for gaining maximum influence and advance its interests and minimize its adversaries’ influence in the region. This extraterritorial strategy for gaining influence, prestige, and status requires Guerilla Warfare tactics in the case of Iran. The unclassified executive summary of the 2014 Defense Department report on Iran’s military capability says that “Iran continues to develop anti-access and area denial capabilities to control the Strait of Hormuz and its approaches.” This strategy becomes workable with the help of advance and lethal newly developed naval mines, submarines, coastal defense, and anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, and attack craft, etc. The purpose behind blocking one of the busiest trade routes, the Strait of Hormuz could be to project its power by threatening the world economy as it provides a transit route to 17 million barrels of oil to pass through and more than 35% of seaborne trade and approximately 20% of world’s oil trade. “The Strait is identified by the Energy Information Administration as a key potential “chokepoint” for the world economy.” A third deterrence strategy by Iran is to block significant chokepoints of paramount importance to threaten the world economy such as the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman, Persian Gulf, Bab-al-Mandeb strait, etc. This unconventional warfare (Asymmetric warfare) is done through mines and using asymmetric and unconventional naval tactics against enemy warships, such as swarming enemy warships with small, low-cost watercraft and speedboats armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.
Asymmetric airspace warfare:
Although, Iran lags behind in airspace force yet leads in missile capability and air defense system. “Iran has an extensive missile development program, and the size and sophistication of its missile force continue to grow despite decades of counter-proliferation efforts aimed at curbing its advancement,” according to Defense Intelligence Agency Report 2019. This another plank of strategy tools short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that have the potential of hitting U.S. bases in the region, its Gulf allies, Israel, and some European countries. As per the DIA report, “the missiles give Iran the ability to strike almost anywhere in the region, and even into south-eastern Europe, acting as “a critical strategic deterrent and a key tool of Iranian power projection.” From the Iranian perspective, the use of ballistic missiles is a part of forwarding defense strategy however, enemies portray it as an offensive measure to counter its adversaries. “Missile development in the country has seen increases in range and accuracy, alongside an expansion of forces giving Iran the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East”. “The report also says that Iran’s missile force, under the control of the country’s Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force (IRGCASF), is a key part of Tehran’s regional power projection alongside unconventional warfare and continued cyberspace projection.” Iran provides these ballistic missiles to the Houthi faction in Yemen War to use in retaliatory action against Saudis and Hezbollah in Lebanon which Tehran denies to deliver them. The report further added that “one of Iran’s furthest-flying missiles, the Shahab 3, is capable of striking as far as central India, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine, up to 2,000km from Iran’s borders.” Nonetheless, Iran still strives to improve accuracy, destructive capability, lethality, and production of ballistic and cruise missiles.
In the concluding paragraph, despite Iran’s proxy allies and non-state militia factions are giving leverage Iran over damaging U.S. interests and influence in the region along with its allies yet Iran stands far beyond in terms of symmetric power and battlefield. Moreover, Iran is using its soft power along with its asymmetric power to increase its sphere of influence, particularly in Afghanistan. Iran must be cautiously determining its defense expenditure and such strategies keeping in view international pressure and sanctions as the U.S. uses the language of money to halt Iran’s activities.