NATO Defence College reviews CAST's book on Iran
Russian Studies Series 4/20
by Ray Finch
“Russian Views of Iran”
Review ofPersidskij bastion [Persian Bastion], edited by R. N. Pukhov and Yu. Yu. Lyamin, Moscow, CAST, 2019, 320pp.
In late 2019 and early 2020, Iran dominated the international headlines. The attack on Saudi energy facilities, followed by the killing of General Soleimani in a US airstrike generated much concern about Iranian retaliation against the US and its allies, even the possibility of war. Following an extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO stated the Alliance’s concern about Iranian missile tests and Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the wider Middle East and support for terrorist groups. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Tehran to “refrain from further violence and provocations”.
During this tense time, Russia conducted a major naval exercise with Iran and China in the Gulf of Oman. Tehran touted this as seeking to improve the security of maritime trade, to exchange operational and tactical experience, and to signal the world that relations between Tehran, Moscow and Beijing have reached a new level. The exercise also highlighted Russia’s growing presence in the region, and once again raised the question of the nature of Russia’s relations with Iran.
The recently published book Persidskij bastion [Persian Bastion] sheds interesting light on this question in terms of the view from Russia. Edited by R. Pukhov and Y. Lyamin, eleven experts associated with the Center of Strategic Analysis and Technologies (CAST), a well-established Moscow-based defence consultancy, offer a detailed study of Iran’s history, government structure, economy, military and security forces, nuclear program, cyber capabilities, current military operations, as well as Iran’s relations with Russia. Two appendices look at the structure of relations between Iran and Hezbollah and the most important transport routes from Iran to Syria.
The publication is intended for “specialists in the field of international relations, regional studies and a wide range of readers interested in the modern political situation in the Middle East”. It is noteworthy that the front page also includes a statement to the effect that Rosoboronexport sponsored this publication, reminding readers that it is a leader in the world arms market and “ the only state-owned organization in the Russian Federation for the export of the entire range of products, services and technologies for defense and dual-use… The company accounts for over 85 percent of the export of Russian arms and military equipment”. Understanding your customers makes for good business, and presumably, once sanctions expire, Rosoboronexport will seek to re-engage with Iran on the sale of advanced weapon systems.
The book offers much interesting background on and insight into Iran’s political and economic organization, emphasizing Iran’s geographic and agro-climatic conditions which required a centralized state with a powerful monarch-Shah (pp.24-25), and Western attempts to influence and gain control of Iran’s fossil fuels (while largely omitting Soviet efforts). The chapters on Iran’s nuclear programme state that aggressive US actions since 1979 towards Iran and other states are largely responsible for Tehran’s persistent efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. The authors argue that Washington’s recent activity could “push the Iranian leadership” to decide to transform potential into real nuclear munitions and that “it is only a matter of time” once that decision is taken to proceed with producing a weapon. (p.180) The book’s strength, though, resides in the sections which offer detailed examinations of Iran’s extensive security arsenal and the history of Russian-Iranian relations.
Russian views of Iran’s military and security forces
Chapters five (“Guarding the Revolution – the Military Establishment and the Other Power Structures of Iran”) and six (“The Military Industrial Potential of Iran”) offer a thorough history of the modern Iranian military and security landscape. Two key features stand out. The first is about internal security. Under the last Shah, Iran boasted a large (400,000+), well-trained and equipped military (much of it sold by the US-and still being used today). But the form of the modern Iranian security structure was developed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution: as the text points out, “the new authorities initially had well-founded fears regarding the loyalty of some of the military”. (p.100) The text refers to “the events of July 1980, when a large-scale conspiracy was discovered in the army, the participants of which wanted to carry out a military coup”. (p.100). Such fears prompted the creation of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), to protect the revolution and watch the military; the IRGC is now Iran’s most powerful force. Iran’s war with Iraq (1980-88) was the second feature: the new supreme leader quickly rediscovered the importance of traditional military forces. Regular Iranian military units fought hand-in-hand with IRGC forces to defend against Iraqi aggression.
To ensure that all of the security structures remain loyal to the Islamic teachings of the Iranian government, “great importance is attached to religious, political and ideological work with [security] personnel”. (p.104) As the text emphasizes, “the Political and Ideological Organization of the Armed Forces operates under the office of the Supreme Commander, to which secondary political and ideological organizations of the armed forces of Iran are subordinate”.
Today, “the Iranian Armed Forces consist of three components: the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the IRGC and the Law Enforcement Forces”. (p.102) Every element of this structure has its own intelligence operation, but as this chapter points out, “the Ministry of Information remains the main intelligence and counterintelligence…which is also the central coordinating unit of the intelligence community”. (pp.139-40) The text breaks down each of these three forces, highlighting how they are equipped, manned and trained, the command structure and location of major units, including naval, air force and air defense assets. While the regular Iranian Army is designed to defend against foreign threats, the IRGC, which is the best equipped and manned, focuses on both foreign and domestic enemies.
Law enforcement is responsible for maintaining internal order but may also be used in defense against a foreign enemy. The police force has a wide mandate: the “establishment of order and security, the fight against terrorism, rebellion, sabotage, the safety of rallies, demonstrations, the suppression of unauthorized actions and riots, the collection of information within the powers, the protection of important objects (except those protected by the IRGC), border protection, crime prevention and disclosure, and much more”. (pp.137-38) Given their border control and domestic protest suppression duties, the Iranian police are armed with everything from “special police armored vehicles” to “grenade launchers, mortars, 106-mm recoilless guns, 107-mm MLRS”. (p.138)
The exact overall size of Iran’s security structure remains unclear, “since Iran does not officially disclose data on the size of the armed forces”. The authors suggest that “the total number of regular troops of the army and the IRGC can be approximately estimated in the region of 700,000”, though this does not include huge potential reserves from the Basij militia. (pp.104-06) This militia, the more complete name for which is “the organization of the mobilization of the disadvantaged” (p.135) is a huge organization, which, according to the estimates in the text, can field “up to 1.4 million members”. According to the text, there are “50,000 resistance bases throughout Iran”, (p.136) and, in the event of a conflict, units would be “fully integrated into the command structure of the provincial command of the IRGC”. (p.136)
Given Iran’s economic difficulties, the leadership in Tehran must judiciously allocate defense funding. The authors note, for instance, in the draft budget for the Iranian calendar year March 2017 – March 2018, total defense expenditures were about USD14-15 billion, though it was not clear from the text whether funding for Iran’s extensive militia/civil defense forces (Basij) was included in defense expenditures.
Since Iran cannot afford to wage a conventional fight with its primary rival (the US), “the leadership of Iran made a clear emphasis on the concept of asymmetric warfare”. (p.109) This is one of the reasons why the IRGC is better funded than regular military units, which, as the authors point out, “judging by the exercises, the Iranian military (especially from the IRGC) is actively practicing defense tactics against an enemy with air supremacy”. (p.110) According to the text, a key element of the Iranian defense strategy is “the ability of various formations and units to take the initiative and autonomously conduct hostilities even in conditions of complete loss of communication with a higher command”. (p.110) The authors refer to this as “the doctrine of the so-called mosaic defense”, whereby if the country is attacked by the US and its allies, “priority is given to the decentralization of the command structure, an increase in the powers of local commanders and the close integration of the Basij militia into the IRGC regular troops”. (p.126)
Worth noting too is the overview of Iran’s defence industry. The war with Iraq (1980-88) provided impetus “to prioritize the reorganization and restoration of the potential of the military-industrial complex, as well as the search for new foreign partners”. (pp.142-43) Since then, except for the most advanced forms of modern weaponry, Iran has become capable of producing most of the requisite arms and equipment for its extensive security structure. As the chapter points out, for more advanced systems, leaders in Tehran initially looked to China and North Korea for advanced weapons, and increasingly turn to Russia.
Iran’s cyber capabilities
The authors contend that Iran is on the cutting edge in the field of cybersecurity. The chapter devoted to this topic provides background and general information regarding Iran’s cyber capabilities. They quote a high-level Iranian general who asserts that Iran is fourth in the world in terms of cybersecurity potential, and the goal of the IRGC is to “maintain cyber competence at a level that ensures the maintenance of a strategic balance with the USA and Israel”. (p.197) Conversely, they state that “certain foreign sources note the limited competence of Iran in conducting large-scale cyber operations, which is significantly inferior to the capabilities of the United States, Russia and China, due to a significant lag in technical equipment”. (p.198)
The chapter describes the many Iranian initiatives to incorporate cybersecurity to “prevent cyberattack threats to critical facilities (nuclear facilities, power plants, data centers, banks)”. (p.201) It reviews Iran’s system for training personnel, claiming that “Iran is making systematic and targeted efforts to build a professional community in the field of information and cybersecurity”. (p.207) They describe the “Basij Militia Cyber Security Council”, positing that “if necessary, about 120,000 hackers can be mobilized”. (p.207) They also cite a 2011 report from the Iranian media which asserted that “about two million specialists graduated from Iranian universities in IT specialties”. (p.208)
Iran’s current military operations
The chapter dealing with Iran’s current military operations provides a thorough description of where various Iranian forces and proxies are engaged, though it includes only basic information on the Quds force, which “assist in organizing, financing, training and arming pro-Iranian forces, parties and movements and assistance to Iran-friendly countries”. (p.133) The authors suggest that such assistance is legal since “Art. 154 of the constitution, which states that Iran, refraining from any interference in the internal affairs of other countries, supports the just struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors throughout the world”. (p.134)
It describes Iran’s continued involvement in Iraq, and in Syria, noting that its close ties with Damascus stretch back to the 1979 revolution, which serve as “a way for Iran to break out of isolation”. (p.209) According to the author, the Arab Spring catalyzed greater military involvement, citing a prominent Iranian source who claimed that “if we lose Syria, we will not hold Tehran either”. (p.209) As the text points out, “almost all military specialists sent to Syria are recruited from the ranks of the IRGC. The participation of the Iranian army remains minimal”. (p.209)
The authors assert that “it was Iranian military assistance at a critical moment in Syria’s existence that largely contributed to the survival of the legitimate government”. (p.210) The conflict has been expensive for Iran. Exact figures are classified, but the authors indicate losses of “thousands of troops and over USD 10 billion in war related expenses”. (p.215) Nevertheless, the authors maintain that “the all-pervading Iranian presence in Syria will now remain for a long time, and participation in the economy will only increase”, concluding that “the presence in Syria is priceless for Iran”. (p.215)
The examination of Iranian-Russian relations is presented in a long arc from the past through to today, and is divided into three time periods: “ the development of bilateral ties and geopolitical rivalry (1552-1917); ideological confrontation and peaceful coexistence (1918-1991); counteracting common threats and cooperation (1992 to the present). Within each time period, the authors describe the key events and the subsequent consequences which went on to form the prominent narrative.
In the current period , the author suggests, Moscow’s relations with Tehran have grown robust: in reality, both countries see US dominance and aggression as the major danger and chief unifying factor. This section begins by describing how after 1991, when the new, post-Soviet Russian economy was collapsing, the new Russian government continued to fulfill weapon deliveries to Iran which had been contracted prior to the collapse of the USSR. Equally, the author suggests that ties weakened in 1995 because the Kremlin, “yielding to US pressure”, promised not to sell advanced weapons to Iran after 1999. (p.286) Tehran no doubt viewed this Kremlin decision with consternation, since they had worked with Russia to resolve conflicts in Tajikistan and Nagorno-Karabakh, and refrained from exacerbating Russia’s conflict with Chechnya.
Moscow reached out to restore relations in the early 2000s. Both countries agreed “not to use force or threat of force in mutual relations, not to use their territory to commit aggression, subversive and separatist actions against the other side, and in case of aggression against one of the parties, the second side undertakes not to provide the aggressor with any military or other assistance”. President Putin also directed “Rosoboronexport to negotiate with Iran on the possibility of new supplies of military products”. (p.287)
Another hiccup in the Russian-Iran relationship occurred in 2010, though, when then-President Dmitry Medvedev cancelled the sale of already purchased S-300 Air Defense systems to Iran, as “proof” that the Kremlin was serious about the US-Russia reset. The Iranian leadership objected to what they regarded as a breach of contract. The relationship warmed again in 2015: five months prior to Russia intervening militarily in Syria, Putin signed a decree “lifting the ban on the supply of S-300PM anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran”. (p.288)
The author argues that since 2015, the “interaction of Moscow and Tehran in Syria … has become ... allied”, (p.289) though quickly qualifies this, suggesting that their “multifaceted cooperation will apparently be long-term, albeit limited”, and that “the formation of a full-fledged … military-political union of Russia and Iran should not be expected in the foreseeable future, although such a possibility in the long term, subject to the further evolution of the political system of Iran, is not ruled out”. (p.291)
The book offers an interesting double lens, a detailed view of Iran through Russian eyes. Certainly, this Russian perspective of Iran differs from the standard Western approach: it is much more sympathetic to the official narrative propagated by the Iranian leadership. Criticism of Iran’s political repression, poor human rights record, endemic corruption, and proclivity to sponsor groups which advocate terrorist methods is largely absent, as is a sense of any popular discontent. One cannot help but suspect that this sanguine assessment is predicated on either the hope that such “objectivity” might translate into future weapon sales, or more likely, given Russia’s current trajectory, Moscow holds out the possibility of even closer relations.
Ray Finch is a Eurasian Military Analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Finch spent 20 years in the US Army and has spent the past 20 working in business, academia, and as a contractor for the US government. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NATO Defense College or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.