For the past four years, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gone around reassuring people that his provocative foreign policy would not lead to military confrontation with adversaries in the region and beyond.
Earlier this week, Ahmadinejad recalled Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictum ‘ America cannot do a damn thing!’ and promised that the US would be ‘ thrown out of this region with a kick on its back.’
The president’s riposte came in response to remarks by the United States Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that a contingency plans had been drawn up for military action against the Khomeinist regime.
But do Iran’s military, who would have to deal with any conflict, share the president’s optimism?
The short answer is: no.
Last month, commanders of the regular army used routine official ceremonies to drop hints that they believed that the possibility of an attack on the Islamic Republic could not be ruled out. They also made it clear that their forces, under-equipped as they are, would not be able to face a superior enemy using advanced weapons.
Those musings led to press reports that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and not the regular army, had been assigned the task of dealing with any possible attack.
This week, it became clear that the IRGC, too, does not share Ahmadinejad’s illusions.
‘Those who rule out an attack are wrong,’ General Hussein Hamadani, IRGC Commander for Tehran, said in an interview. ‘We think that an attack is possible.’
In thinly veiled criticism of Ahmadinejad’s penchant for provocative remarks, the general warned against ‘ adventurism’ and insisted that no adversary should be underestimated.
Judging by Hamadani’s remarks and statements by other commanders as reported in the official media in Tehran, the IRGC which originally sponsored Ahmadinejad and propelled him into the presidency may be cooling towards its protégé.
The IRGC’s support for Ahmadinejad is now described as a matter of necessity not choice.
‘We would have to protect the system even if Bani-Sadr were president,’ Hamdani said.
In the current Khomeinist discourse, comparing Ahmadinejad to Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a protégé of the ayatollah who briefly acted as President of the Islamic Republic before felling into exile, is no compliment.
How do IRGC commanders envisage a military conflict and how do they hope to deal with it?
Judging by their public statements, they do not believe that the United States would go for a full-scale invasion as it did in Iraq or Afghanistan.
They see the crisis coming in five stages.
The first stage would consist of internal riots possibly triggered by the nation’s worsening economic situation. This is called ‘ economic fitna’. Coming in the wake of last year’s uprising against Ahmadinejad’s re-election, riots by the poorest sections of society could further undermine the regime’s legitimacy.
In the second stage, the IRGC would have to spread its forces across the country to protect the regime. With a total of 125,000 men, plus 300,000 Bassij ( Mobilisation) paramilitary, the IRGC would be hard put to protect a vast country such as Iran.
In the third stage, the IRGC’s resources would be further stretched to cope with armed uprisings by some of Iran’s ethnic minorities.
In the fourth stage, the US would use its superior air power to destroy the IRGC’s command and control systems and knocking out its elite units, especially the Quds Brigade located close to the Iraq border.
In the fifth stage, the internal opposition would try to seize power in Tehran by promising to stop the conflict and avert a full-scale war. The regular army which has been carefully spared in American attacks would enter the stage to back a provisional government led by former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi and former President Muhammad Khatami.
But how does the IRGC hope to deal with the situation?
The answer coming from the commanders is simple: asymmetric warfare outside Iran’s frontier, presumably designed to discourage the US from expanding initial attacks on Iranian installations.
But how would this be done?
The commanders’ answer is hazy.
They claim that Tehran’s assets abroad, especially the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza,, would be ordered to open new fronts, presumably by attacking Israel with rockets. Under a contingency plan, IRGC officers would assume full command of Hezbollah units in Lebanon for the duration of the crisis.
The IRGC also controls the Badr Brigade and the Army of Mahdi in Iraq which boast a combined force of 15,000 men. In Afghanistan, the IRGC counts on a 5000-strong force of Hazara Shi’ite fighters a day’s march from Kabul.
The Tehran media have also evoked he possibility of ‘ emergency cooperation’ with non-Shi’ite groups in the region. The IRGC has been financing Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s Hizb Islami, an Afghan Sunni outfit, for years and could presumably count on it to take some action against NATO forces. Since Hekmatyar is in contact with the Taliban, he could also act as a bridge between the IRGC and Mullah Omar’s forces in Afghanistan.
The IRGC’s analysis suffers from several defects.
It assumes that the conflict would take long enough for the effects of asymmetric warfare to impact public opinion in the United States. However, the conflict could be shortened if Iran’s internal situation changes to the detriment of the IRGC and its political façade.
It is also far from certain that the Lebanese Hezbollah would risk committing suicide in the forlorn hope of saving a doomed regime in Tehran. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is ready to take orders from Tehran as long as the ‘ Supreme Guide’ is in place and capable of signing fat cheques.
The Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army may also prove to have been fair weather friends. In any case, their ability to take on the new Iraqi army and its American allies remains in doubt. Though commanded by IRGC officers at the time, the Mahdi Army was roundly defeated in the Battle of Basra by Iraq’s new military units led by Prime Minster Nuri Ali-Maliki.
As for the Hazara force, its leader Abdul-Karim Khalili is now Vice-President of Afghanistan thanks to American support.
President Ahmadinejad is wrong in ruling out any possibility of an attack on Iran. And the IRGC commanders are wrong in counting on others to help the regime out of a tight spot when, and if, there is an attack.
The wisest policy for Iran is to take measures needed to avoid a conflict.
For Iran has no interest in provoking a war for which it is far from prepared.