Mostafameraji, Wikimedia Commons

This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire

By Carlo J.V. Caro
Real Clear Wire

By prioritizing crisis management in response to escalating tensions, President Biden and his national security team risk inadvertently paving the way for a war between Iran and Israel. The Sullivan doctrine, which appears to avoid taking decisive measures against Iranian aggression, heightens the possibility of a war that could lead to the first-ever use of a nuclear strike in the Middle East.

Historically, Israel has been proactive in preventing its adversaries from acquiring nuclear capabilities, as evidenced by military strikes in Iraq in 1981 (Operation Opera) and Syria in 2007 (Operation Orchard). However, the challenge posed by Iran is notably different in terms of geography and strategy, complicating the application of the Begin Doctrine—Israel’s preemptive strategy to neutralize existential threats.

Iran’s vast geographic expanse, covering approximately 648,195 square miles, significantly surpasses both Iraq (169,235 square miles) and Syria (71,498 square miles). This extensive area allows for the dispersion of nuclear facilities across a broad territory, thereby complicating any potential preemptive strikes. This challenge is intensified by Iran’s daunting terrain, which features significant mountain ranges such as the Elburz, Central and Eastern ranges, and the Zagros Mountains. Many of Iran’s nuclear facilities have been strategically placed to exploit these rugged landscapes for natural fortification. For instance, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is notably entrenched within a mountain near Qom, rendering it a formidable target for aerial attacks. Likewise, the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, although not situated in as mountainous an area, is heavily fortified and partially underground, increasing the complexity of targeting. The Arak Heavy Water Reactor, while not as deeply fortified as Fordow, benefits from a strategic location that utilizes both natural and man-made defenses, enhancing its security.

The logistical challenge posed by the distance from Israel to key Iranian locations significantly complicates potential military operations. Israeli fighter jets, such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, and the F-35 Lightning II, necessitate in-flight refueling for round-trip missions to Iran—a stark contrast to the shorter distances involved in operations against Iraq and Syria. The need for in-flight refueling, together with the need to secure overflight permissions through the airspace of several countries, some of which do not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Israel, introduces diplomatic and logistical hurdles not present in the operations against Iraq and Syria.

Given the historical context of the Jewish people and the establishment of the state of Israel, the nation perceives every armed conflict as a fight for its very existence. This perspective leads Israel to approach potential or actual conflicts as if it were engaged in total war. Due to Israel’s narrow geographical dimensions, it faces unique strategic limitations in any potential military conflict. For instance, in a scenario involving Iran, the latter could potentially use Syrian territory to retreat and reorganize, trading space for time. This strategy, leveraging the geography to its advantage, is not viable for Israel given its limited size and close proximity to conflict zones. Consequently, Iran’s ability to utilize additional space for military maneuvers presents a strategic advantage that Israel does not possess.

Consequently, Israel has sought to secure buffer zones free from Iranian or its proxies presence, enhancing the effectiveness of its air defense capabilities. Israel has also tried to disrupt the border crossings between Syria and Lebanon, and Syria and Iraq. The success of these objectives is partially contingent upon Russia refraining from extending its anti-aircraft defense coverage. Russia’s deployment of the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems significantly constrained Israel’s freedom of movement in Syrian airspace, effectively undermining its air superiority. This shift became starkly apparent when the Syrian government, utilizing the S-300 system supplied by Russia, downed an Israeli fighter-bomber back in February 2018.

The Biden administration’s adherence to the Sullivan doctrine led to an inadequate response following the killing of three US troops and the missile attacks on ships navigating through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This American inaction has forced Israel to adopt more assertive measures. Nonetheless, Israel’s approach to countering Iranian aggression, mainly by targeting key figures within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as the US’s focus on striking Shiite militia proxies in Iraq and Syria, does not address the broader strategic challenges posed by Iran effectively. This strategy overlooks the pivotal roles of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), which are instrumental in executing Iran’s broader strategic objectives of regime stabilization and regional hegemony.

The IRIN, as the conventional naval arm of Iran’s armed forces under Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, operates under the framework of traditional naval doctrine. Conversely, the IRGCN, led by Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, leverages unconventional naval warfare, especially in the geopolitically crucial Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. This oversight in not directly countering the capabilities and operations of the IRIN and IRGCN, results in the United States and Israel’s measures falling short, thereby permitting Iran to further its regional dominance ambitions with reduced contention.

A major reorganization of these forces occurred under Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, as the IRGCN began receiving more political and resource support than the IRIN. This support facilitated the IRGCN’s acquisition of advanced weapons and equipment, bolstering its capabilities in asymmetric warfare. While the IRIN enhanced its capabilities with the acquisition of three Russian Kilo-class submarines in 1991, it still lacks the comprehensive capabilities of a blue-water navy, largely due to budgetary constraints. In contrast, the IRGCN has achieved significant advancements, most recently with anti-ship Khalij Fars ballistic missiles.

The IRGCN has conducted significant naval exercises, demonstrating its operational capabilities in the Persian Gulf. These activities included a simulated attack on U.S. aircraft carriers and the detention of the MV Maersk Tigris merchant ship in the Strait of Hormuz demonstrating its operational reach. Additionally, the IRGCN has provided extensive support to the Houthis in Yemen. Despite international sanctions, Iran continues to modernize its naval forces, posing a strategic deterrent in key maritime zones. Considering that approximately a quarter of the global oil supply is sourced from the Persian Gulf, Iran’s dominance in this region can have significant impacts on the worldwide economy.

Iran’s maritime defense strategy extends its operational reach to include the Gulf of Aden and Yemeni waters. A strategic reorganization has optimized force deployment by assigning distinct Areas of Responsibility to each naval component: the IRGCN is tasked with operations within the Persian Gulf, while the IRIN assumes command over the Gulf of Oman and the Caspian Sea. Both forces maintain shared operational authority in the Strait of Hormuz. This tactical segmentation has led to differentiated strategic directives, mission profiles, and force compositions for each naval body.

Iran’s naval doctrine has been refined through lessons learned from the Tanker War, during which commercial oil tankers belonging to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—both key allies of Iraq—were targeted. These attacks aimed to cripple the economic infrastructure that supported Iraq’s war effort. In April 1988, a pivotal moment unfolded when the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine, suffering significant damage. This incident led to the launch of Operation Praying Mantis by the U.S. Navy, marking the largest naval battle since World War II. The operation saw significant destruction or damage to Iranian naval assets, with American forces experiencing no losses of their vessels.

In World War II, the German navy used U-boat wolf packs to conduct devastating attacks on Allied shipping convoys across the Atlantic Ocean. These tactics relied on the element of surprise, coordination among submarines, and the ability to launch concentrated attacks under cover of darkness. Conversely, Iran’s IRGCN employs swarming tactics using fast, agile boats equipped with missiles, torpedoes, and sometimes explosives for suicide attacks. Unlike the German strategy of aiming for outright destruction, Iran’s tactics are more about asserting control over its nearby waters, harassment and disruption of enemy naval presence, and controlling vital maritime choke points. As Iran acquires missiles with longer ranges and greater precision, its strategic reach could expand to include the Gulf of Oman.

The IRGCN is unlikely to attempt a complete shutdown of the Strait, as such an action would not only severely harm Iran’s economy but also undermine its capability to sustain a prolonged military conflict with the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Gulf Arab states. Instead, Iran would likely employ naval mines and utilize the speed, maneuverability, and stealth of its fast boats in the shallow and narrow waters to challenge and overwhelm the larger and heavier vessels deployed by the United States and its allies in the region. The IRGCN’s approach to asymmetric warfare heavily emphasizes the concepts of jihad and martyrdom, highlighting the strategic depth and ideological commitment behind their tactics.

The IRGCN uniquely merges ideological beliefs with military operations. The foundation of this commitment is deeply rooted in ideological indoctrination that draws inspiration from religious texts, notably Surah Al-Anfal 8:65. This verse instills the belief that a small contingent of devout believers can outmatch a larger force of non-believers, underscoring the power of faith and conviction over sheer numbers and technologically superior adversaries.

At the heart of Iranian military doctrine is a pivotal lesson from history: the defeat of Ali ibn Abu Talib, the first Shiite Imam, at the Battle of Siffin, attributed to a lack of unwavering loyalty among his followers. Similarly, the martyrdom of Hussein, the third Shiite Imam, at the Battle of Karbala, stands as a profound symbol of defiance against tyranny, irrespective of the circumstances. These historical episodes highlight the doctrine’s focus on complete obedience to leadership and the willingness to fight under challenging conditions. As a result, the military depends on fighters who are not only thoroughly indoctrinated with these principles but are also prepared to lay down their lives for their convictions.

The philosophy of seeking martyrdom, deeply rooted in certain beliefs, was vividly demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq War by thousands of Iranian volunteers through suicide attacks. They were motivated by the conviction that dying for their faith was a sacred duty. These same tactics have been witnessed in Palestinian suicide bombings and Al Qaeda. Alongside, Iran has launched significant public recruitment efforts, calling on volunteers ready to embrace martyrdom.

After Hamas’s terrorist attack in October 2023, Iran intensified these recruitment campaigns, aiming to rally its citizens against Israel. The Iranian regime broadcasted appeals on national television, urging viewers to register their willingness to fight in Palestine and introduced an online platform for volunteer registration, showcasing a methodical recruitment strategy. In 2005, more than two hundred individuals volunteered for suicide missions targeting American and Israeli interests, motivated by organizations that honor martyrs of the global Islamic movement.

Carlo J.V. Caro is a political and military analyst. He has a graduate degree from Columbia University.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

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