This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
In July 2019 President Donald Trump tweeted that "Iran has never won a war but never lost a negotiation". The International Institute for Strategic Studies' (IISS) analysis of Iran’s networks in the Middle East published today suggests a reversal: Tehran has lost faith in negotiations following the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal but has found a way to win in war.
While the conventional military balance remains heavily in favour of the US and its allies, Iran has tipped the balance of effective force in the Middle East to its advantage by developing a sovereign capability to conduct warfare through third parties.
Iran contests and wins wars "fought among the people", not wars between states. It avoids symmetrical state-on-state conflict, knowing that it will be outgunned. Instead, it pursues asymmetrical warfare through non-state partners.
This sovereign capability is of greater strategic value to Tehran than its conventional forces, its ballistic missiles or even its rejuvenating nuclear programme. It is a weapon of choice that is peculiarly suited to today’s regional conflicts.
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These contests are not defined by state-on-state warfare, involving parity of forces subject to international law, but are complex and congested battlespaces involving no rule of law or accountability, low visibility, and multiple players who represent a mosaic of local and regional interests.
Iran has developed this capability to fight and win while maintaining hostilities at a level that minimises the likelihood of retaliation against Iran itself.
In Syria, for example, Iran’s Quds Force directed both foreign and domestic militias to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran is now embedding itself in Syria’s evolving government and informal security structures. While this is affordable, flexible, and deniable for Tehran, it also works to counter any US presence in the country, enhance Iran’s threat to Israel, hedge against Russian policy and ensure a lasting role regardless of the Assad regime’s fate.
Iran’s asymmetric warfare has encountered no effective international response and poses a considerable challenge, as Iran’s adversaries cannot simply rebalance its influence in the region through the application of conventional power. Conventional force has neither deterred, nor limited, the steady development, over 40 years, of Iran’s sovereign capability to conduct this specialised type of warfare.
Its "persistent engagement" in neighbouring jurisdictions is hard for others to match because the country has honed a specialist strategy for building its own support system within fragile states. Its doctrine is rooted in Iranian war-fighting experience and revolutionary ideology. It often exploits the Shia community’s affinity with Iran but also sometimes enrols non-Shia communities that share Iran’s objectives.
The regime counts on this carefully curated ability to attract minorities and the disenfranchised beyond its borders and is unlikely to surrender the influence network it has built to earn "international rehabilitation". Iran’s charisma in the eyes of its partners derives from its survival as an outlaw and alternative.
While inclusion in the international order would have economic benefits for Tehran, it would require constraints to be placed on the remote warfare capability of the Quds Force. Iran and the Quds force cannot be both revolutionary and part of the international order.
Iran may eventually enter into negotiations over the extent of its influence networks but, so far, its reaction to mounting pressure has been to defend its allies, hold fast to its partnerships, and repeat the narrative of resistance.
The Supreme Leader could reverse this strategic choice. However, Iran’s influence networks comprise a sovereign capability that is now part of its strategic personality. Renouncing them would entail not only a loss of influence but of identity. They have become a core strategic asset to the regime. Sanctions alone are unlikely to force the regime to give up a capability that has given it such a vital outer cordon of protection.
Weak states and divided societies are easy prey for Iranian influence. In Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Iran has pursued non-state partnerships opportunistically.
In countries that have been able to develop a measure of good governance, Iran’s influence has been blunted, limiting its ability to create the next Hizbullah. Neighbourhood fragility is good for Iran’s way of warfare; strong institutions that serve a healthy national purpose are a necessary, if not always sufficient, first line of defence against it.
An international debate on how to cope with Iran’s way of warfare, needs to be based on the facts of this uniquely generated strategic capability.
Iran is winning the war for the Middle East, and the West has no convincing response, John Chipman, the International Institute for Strategic Studies