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June 01, 2023

Pivot to Offense: How Iran Is Adapting for Modern Conflict and Warfare

Key Points

  • Iran has embraced an offensive regional strategy to adapt for modern conflict and pursue external objectives more effectively. This shift means more aggressively empowering the so-called Axis of Resistance and expanding Iranian regional influence.
  • Regime officials are responding to their evolving threat perceptions and acting on their growing confidence in their defensive capabilities. They now view their conflict against the US as hybrid in nature, rather than conventional.
  • Iran is building an increasingly capable and cohesive coalition of state security services and foreign militias to execute its rulers’ offensive concepts. This coalition fuses conventional and unconventional means to threaten enemies.
  • The US must develop its Iran policy past just nuclear negotiations. The US needs a comprehensive strategy that contains the growing threat from the Axis of Resistance while maintaining deterrence and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

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Executive Summary

Iran has adopted in recent years an offensive regional strategy that emphasizes strengthening its so-called Axis of Resistance and expanding its regional influence more aggressively than in past decades. Iranian lead­ers assert that going on the offensive is necessary to counter alleged Western hybrid warfare against them. They have also concluded that they have deterred the US conventionally, allowing them to pursue this risk­ier approach against the US and its partners without fear of provoking a serious American response. This pivot toward an offensive strategy is thus fundamen­tally changing how Tehran interacts with the rest of the Middle East and pursues its grand strategic objec­tives (i.e., attaining regional hegemony, destroying the Israeli state, and expelling American influence from the region).

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is optimizing the Axis of Resistance, which includes the Iranian armed forces and its foreign militia network, to support this offensive strategy. Khamenei has firstly ordered the armed forces to improve their capability to conduct expeditionary operations and project force. He has secondly pushed for greater interoperability between the Iranian military services and their proxy militias. This fusion of conventional and unconventional capa­bilities constitutes the Iranian brand of modern war­fare. Examples of this offensive force in action include the Axis of Resistance mobilizing to defend Bashar al Assad beginning in 2011 and the Iran-led campaign against regional energy infrastructure in 2019.

This offensive orientation increases the likelihood of a conflict erupting between the US, Iran, and both sides’ regional partners. Such a conflict would imperil US interests in the Middle East, such as fighting extremist militant groups and protecting the global energy trade. It could also draw crucial resources away from competition with China and Russia.

The nuclear negotiations will not decrease the potential for conflict with Iran, regardless of their outcome. Concluding a nuclear agreement would constrain the Iranian nuclear program but also invigorate the regime with additional resources to stabilize its domestic position and finance military activities and regional aggression. On the other hand, failing to reach a nuclear agreement risks driving an escalation cycle between Iran and Israel, which will inevitably involve the United States. These negotia­tions are not therefore a serious solution to address­ing this challenge—at least not on their own.

The correct approach to dealing with Iran is almost certainly to develop and implement a comprehensive policy that contains the Axis of Resistance, deters its aggression, and prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The hurdles involved in crafting and implementing such a strategy are significant, to be sure. But the alternative—remaining passive to this worsening challenge—is much more dangerous for the United States. Failing to act will inevitably pres­ent Washington with a crisis or series of crises in the region that will threaten US strategic interests and distract from competition with China and Russia. US policymakers can preempt this pitfall by acting now and mitigating future risk by appropriately containing the Iranian threat.

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