Iran has been a source of international concern for decades. Its general hostility to the international system disturbs the regional order. Tehran’s initial aim of exporting the 1979 revolution, supplanted later by exporting its revolutionary model, has caused anxiety in smaller, traditional regimes. And the view that it is a belligerent state all too ready to resort to force feeds concern about its nuclear ambitions. This perspective, largely shared by Israel and some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is plausible but incomplete. I will argue that by orthodox standards Iran is militarily weak, and cautious, defensive and prudent in resorting to force. This is due as much to experience as to realism about its own limits. The country does not see itself as a military power or aspire to become one, even if some of its utterances and behaviour leave room for scepticism on this point.
Iran’s approach to military power and strategy should be seen in the context of its recent history and its goals. The country has little experience of war in modern times. In fact, Iranian history over the past century and a half had been free of war, until the 1980–88 conflict with Iraq, which Iranians call the ‘imposed war’. Iran has been the victim of invasions and occupations, but is itself rather passive. The CIA’s clandestine history called this Iran’s ‘modern tradition of defeat’.
Iran established a national army only recently, under the Pahlavis. The country has no martial tradition, and does not share neighbouring Turkey’s high esteem for the profession of arms. Iran did much to provoke the war with Iraq, but did not start or expect it. Tehran has avoided direct military conflict ever since, and its military expenditure is slight compared to that of its smaller Gulf neighbours.
Unlike these smaller states, Iran’s imports are limited and basic rather than modern or high-tech. Although isolated, sanctioned, contained and depicted as a military threat by some, the country has rarely threatened to use force or seen its own security in military terms. Instead, it has steadily focused on the maintenance of domestic stability and security.
Tehran does not overestimate its military power. A recent statement by Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif reflects a widespread view within Iran: ‘do you think the US, which can destroy all our military systems with one bomb, is scared of our military system?’ This view holds that the country’s military power is deficient, and that diplomacy and commitment, or stubbornness, have allowed Tehran to run quite far on an empty tank....