As students of history know, war is too serious a matter to be left to generals. Generals are always ready to fight the last war, not the next.
The Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Muhammad-Ali Aziz-Jaafari is no exception. This week, he presided over one of the biggest military exercises that IRGC has run on land.
Code-named Al-Fajr (The Dawn), the exercise was aimed at testing Iran’s military capacities against an invading army. The exercise complements naval manoeuvres conducted last month with the aim of demonstrating Iran’s ability to close the Strait of Hormuz.
The successive sea and land exercises depict the outline of war plans imagined by General Jaafari.
“We are preparing for defence along the coasts of the Persian Gulf where aggression by enemies of the Islamic Republic is most probable,” Jaafari told reporters last Sunday. “We believe that war is a possibility and want to be prepared.”
Although Jaafari did not name the United States as the probable “invader”, he said that his strategy took into account “lessons learned from America’s experience in neighbouring countries.”
“We have studied what the Americans did and have prepared to counter their actions,” he asserted.
The general also said that the IRGC was preparing for “defence in depth”. According to him, the feared invasion would affect four southern provinces: Khuzestan, Fars, Hormozgan and Kerman. He also added the central province of Yazd for no specified reasons.
It is difficult to see how Jaafari’s plan reflects “the American experience in neighbouring countries.”
The American interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 differed sharply in conception and execution.
In Afghanistan, the US and allies concentrated on air attacks, leaving the fighting on land, including the liberation of Kabul, to Afghan forces under the Northern Alliance. In contrast, in Iraq the US directly intervened on land with an expeditionary force that skirted major population areas and drove straight to Baghdad.
One can be certain that if the US decides to invade Iran, which few think it will, its war-plan would be different from what we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq.
US war planners know that Iran is a highly centralised state in which what matters is who controls the capital Tehran. In the 19th century, the Qajar Shahs lost over 650,000 square kilometres of territory, the size of France, to Russia but ruled for a further 100 years because they managed to hang on to Tehran.
The US would have no interest in conquering five Iranian provinces if the regime that causes the trouble remains intact in Tehran. The aim of the US could not be the dismantlement of Iran as a nation-state but the destruction of a regime that casts itself as challenger to Pax-Americana in the region and beyond.
In any case, no US leader is likely to launch a war if it means massive commitment on land for months if not years.
The guerrilla war that Jaafari promises belongs to another scenario.
Ironically, that scenario was scripted by Iranian and American military planners in 1974 as part of a strategy to deal with a possible invasion of Iran by the Soviet Union.
The idea was that, in case the Soviets invaded, Iran’s best forces would withdraw to the south of the Zagross, one of the three mountain ranges that together form the Iranian Plateau, where four of the five provinces featured in Jaafari’s plan are located. Once there, Iranian forces would fight to halt Soviet advances until American and other allies came to the rescue.
One objective of the move south of Zagross was to secure Iran’s oilfields of which almost 90 per cent are located in Khuzestan and Fars provinces. (For military purposes the province of Bushehr is regarded as part of Fars and the province of Kohkiluyeh as part of Khuzestan.)
Another objective was to keep the Strait of Hormuz open so that oil exports to the Free World continued unhindered.
The plan was taught at the Iranian National Defence College as one of several scenarios for war with the Soviet Union. It is quite possible that Jaafari found a copy in military archives in Tehran and decided to rehash it. If he did that, he would not be the first general to plan a future war in terms of a previous one that, in this case, didn’t even happen.
However, Jaafari has made a number of errors.
First, the original “south of the Zagross” plan might have made sense in the context of a Third World War. It would make no sense in a regional war aimed at forcing Iran to change its behavior or, failing that, regime change in Tehran.
Secondly, in the original scenario the invasion was to come from the north, with the southern provinces cast as safe havens for Iranian forces. In Jaafari’s version the invasion is supposed to come from the south, putting the four provinces on the frontline. Logically, Jaafari should prepare for movement in the opposite direction, withdrawing from the south to suck the invader deep into Iran, and then fight him along a shorter line north of Zagross.
Finally, in the original plan Iran was assigned a tactical delaying role in the context of a global war. It was obvious that, alone, Iran could not stop a Soviet invasion let alone defeat the nuclear-armed aggressor. In Jaafari’s version, however, Iran would be alone with no cavalry rushing to the rescue. Jaafari is intelligent enough not to expect his mercenaries from Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad to play that role.
To sum up, the IRGC chief has taken an old plan, turned it upside down, and is presenting it as Iran’s insurance policy.
Jaafari may be a slick salesman. But, let’s hope that the ruling elite in Tehran are not naïve enough to lead the country to war on the basis of Jaafari’s plan.