My report in Erudite.com Iranian Way of War

DeAtkine: The Iranian Way of War: The Father of Hybrid Warfare 

By Norvell “Tex” DeAtkine, for Erudite.report. May, 2020. 

for the article with graphics go to http://www.erudite.report/reports/report.006.pdf

The academic and media angst at the early January killing of Qassem Al-Soleimani, the head of the Iranian state-sponsored terror organization al Quds, by an American missile, exposed the long history of American ignorance, at every level of foreign policymaking by successive administrations. 

Many saw the event as portending a spiral of violence leading inexorably to all-out war. However, the unpalatable truth is that Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979, a fact well documented by David Crist in his book, The Twilight War. The Iranians have mostly used surrogates to perpetrate a litany of terror attacks and provocations, which, until the killing of Soleimani, mainly were met with angry denunciations but little action. In a region of the world where strength must be constantly demonstrated, the U.S. influence has declined precipitously. We have been unable to contend with an Iranian way of war that is ignored or submerged in a morass of academic wishful thinking. The fundamental problem is a prevalent one. Americans lack interest in history, and tend to view other peoples’ actions through the lens of our own culture. The manner in which different cultures fight should be the starting point in understanding our adversaries, especially one as crafty and intractable as Iran. 

The manner in which peoples fight, like every other aspect of their way of life, is determined by their culture. Military historian John Keegan (the author of History of Warfare) wrote, “Culture is nevertheless a prime determinant of the nature of warfare, as the history of its development in Asia clearly demonstrates.” Martin Van Creveld (The Culture of War) was even more emphatic, writing that in warfare, “some very basic things stay the same in spite of all the changes in weapons, tactics, and so on.” Equally renowned military historian Victor David Hanson (The Western Way of War) defined the Western way of war, as opposed to the Eastern way of war, of which Persians are the most definitive example in western Asia. It would do well for those responsible for the safety of our soldiers and national interests in the Middle East to study Iranian history, and pay less attention to the daily pontifications of columnists and academics reacting to every event as epochal.

The Greco-Persian wars lasted for a half-century with Greek city-states successfully defending their culture against two Persian invasions, but only narrowly. According to a preeminent scholar of Persian history, A.T. Olmstead (History of Persia), the Persians were particularly noted for their ability to set Greek city-states against one another, bribing notables, and priests to favor Persian prophecies, and using Greek class divisions within city-states to create dissension. Today we should see the Iranian hand in dividing Western nations by their approach to Iranian provocations, as well as using ethnic and religious cleavages within the individual countries to weaken any unified approach to Iranian irredentism. Persian use of intelligence to ferret out adversaries’ weaknesses in the Greco-Persian wars was creative and very effective, as it is today.

The Persians conducted war by subversion, manipulation, evasion, and indirection, largely eschewing close- in combat on the fields of battle. As today in Syria and Iraq, where the weapons of choice are missiles and mines, the Persians depended on standoff weapons such as archers, and lances. 

As Herodotus wrote,

“In courage and strength, the Persians are not inferior to others. But they were without defensive armor and moreover were unversed in warfare and unequal to their opponents in skill, and would dart out one at a time or in groups of about ten…..and fall upon the Spartans and perish.”

 

The Persians fielded vast armies, mostly composed of peasant part-time soldiers gathered from allies, using them as cannon fodder, much as they use surrogate militia groups today. The size of the army was most effective for intimidation, as many Greek city states surrendered without a fight. While contemptuous of alien cultures, they were convinced, as they are today, of their superiority, but were generally tolerant and attentive to the needs of their many non-Persian peoples. They remained in constant alert to public sentiments among allied and opposing states. Their propaganda machine has historically been a Persian specialty

It was so in the Persian wars and remains so today. In Iraq and other parts of the Arab world, Iranian media has convinced many people that the United States is on the verge of a civil war due to the COVID-19 virus. Likewise, we see well-funded “think tanks” in western Capitols insistently urging “more understanding and empathy” toward the regime in Tehran, currently demanding the lifting of sanctions as a “humanitarian gesture.”

The Byzantine emperor Maurice depicts the Persians as “wicked, dissembling, and servile,” in his treatise Strategikon. At the same time, he pictured them as brave, patriotic, obedient, prosecuting war with precision and persistence inducing a war-weariness on their opponents. It is significant that the historical opponents of the Persians, such as Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Westerners have described Persian warfare in similar terms. A contrarian view was written by Kaveh Farrokh in two very sympathetic and well-executed histories of Persian warfare, Shadowsin the Desert, and Iran at War. The overwhelming weight of evidence, however, is too much to dismiss. 

Feeling safe behind their vast expanse of waterless desert and an overwhelming hubris, well described by Graham E. Fuller (Center of the Universe) and Edward G. Brown (A Year among the Persians), the Iranian theocratic rulers feel safe to use their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and especially the elitist al Quds force, in which all the superb Iranian warfighting qualities have been distilled and sharpened. Afshon Ostovar (Vanguard of the Imam), wrote that the “Quds [forces] has become the pillar of Iran’s strategic and foreign policy.” Armed with a well-founded knowledge of Western indecision, denial, and lack of will, the al Quds forces apparatchiks are free to prosecute their way of war, using surrogates, constant pinprick attacks, cautious retreats when necessary, and synchronizing well-developed propaganda and subtle intrigue with pinpoint military force, to undermine the influence of the United States in the Middle East.

In summary, perhaps the best amplification of the Iranian way of war is found in J.J. Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Morier wrote of his long experience in Iran about the same time Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about the American character, and both remain incredibly prescient. Morier, putting his words in the mouth of an old Kurd, wrote, “You have never had any dealings with them, (Persians) and therefore you permit yourselves to be lulled into security by their flattering expressions and their winning and amiable manners. But I have lived long with them and have learned the value of what they say. Their weapons are not such as you have accustomed to meet in the bold encounter and the open attack; Instead of a spear and sword theirs are treachery, deceit, falsehood.” 

A Contemporary Parenthesis

As an example of the operational methods of the Iranian way of war, the Iranian intervention in Iraq is instructive. The overall strategic aims of the Iranian regime in Iraq dictates two alternatives; the primary one being the complete domination and control of Iraq through its political ties, manipulating religious Shi’a infrastructure, providing some economic support, and embedding Iranian influence in the military sector, including, most critically, Iranian funded Shi’a militia organizations. The fallback position, failing the first one, is to ensure that Iraq remains weak and divided. Iraq is essential to the Iranian maintenance of a bridge to the Mediterranean, securing ties with the Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah of Lebanon.

 

Since the killing of Qassem Suliemani, It appears that Iran has acquiesced to the Iraqi premiership of Mustafa al-Kadimi, who has formed a cabinet of officials considered by many of the more militant Shi’a organizations of the PMU as allies of the United States. More temperate political statements of the Iranian leadership, probably based on their realization of the growing anti-Iranian sentiment among the Iraqis indicates the Iranian regime has calculated that a step back is required. Therefore, they will move away from the first option, to instead rely on the finely-honed warfighting skills of the al Quds and security organizations to keep Iraq in a state of tension and constant political infighting. But there can be no mistake. This is warfare, in a historical Eastern manner, not diplomacy.

In keeping Iraq divided, the al Quds organization will ensure that the remnants of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are kept alive with financial aid, intelligence, and limiting, when necessary, Iraqi military operations against them. Stoking the fires of the sectarian divide is essential for the continued Iranian presence in Iraq. Iranian ties to Sunni organizations ostensibly opposed to Shi’ism has never been a problem, as indicated by their support of Hamas in Gaza. The dichotomy of Iranian efforts in assisting Iraqi military forces to continue operations against ISIS, while at the same time supporting efforts of ISIS to continue operations in Iraq, will be no problem to a traditionally delicately nuanced Iranian culture of intricate social and political relations. 

The al Quds force will conduct surgical terror acts to keep the pot boiling. Their history of indirection, dissimulation, and intrigue often bewilders the western mind. It is the Iranian version of Orwellian doublethink, holding two contradictory beliefs in mind simultaneously. The Iranians did this skillfully with the al Qaeda organization. Meanwhile, the removal of American forces in Iraq will be a significant Iranian objective, primarily accomplished by their propaganda apparatus in the United States as well as Iraq. The Iranians can use the “tar baby” effect that the American public now sees in all Middle Eastern operations. 

The current COVID -19 crisis has given the Iranians an additional propaganda lever to play the “humanitarian aid“-card, slowly filling the void of the exiting Americans.

 

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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