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Iran's options in the Middle East scenario

Gabriel Cortina 

The Middle East is one of the scenarios where the game dynamics of the global geopolitical reality take place, and Iran is today in a position to make a move. Bearing in mind the historical affirmation that "Tehran always responds", the attack against General Qasem Soleimani, which took place in the early hours of January 3, keeps a region in a situation of permanent conflict, and the United States in particular, on tenterhooks. Moreover, Soleimani died together with the 'number two' of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the coalition of pro-government Iraqi militias supported by Tehran. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is responsible for consolidating Iran's influence in the region, and is the militarized embodiment of an expansionist ideology - the guardians of the 1979 revolution - the new leadership could imply changes in the political and diplomatic agenda.

After the attack, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that "the region no longer tolerates the presence of the US" and Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif indicated that "the real revenge will be consummated when the Americans have withdrawn their troops from the region". By region we must understand that he is referring to Iraq, the scene of the operation against the commander of the elite Al Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard, since it was also the terrain chosen by the Iranian artillery when it launched, in retaliation, dozens of Fateh-313 ballistic missiles against the Ain Al Asad area base and against the headquarters of the international coalition in Erbil. From the point of view of the fragile results obtained, this type of armed response has been called into question -confirmed over time-, as the Iranian deterrence capability is objectively much greater and lethal. The 80 US soldiers killed and 200 wounded, announced on Iranian television channels, have not appeared, and the message has been accompanied by the insistent affirmation that "revenge has been consummated". Despite the media impact and the fact that it has been baptized Operation Martyr Soleimani, the facts show that something is happening in the political and military decision-making spheres. A response that could have been given, but has not yet been effective, is a wake-up call. But in the case of Iran, it can be assumed that it is a symptom that the intelligence approach, in an exercise of realism, is betting on other types of alternatives, where the short term is not the determining factor that drives the reaction of revenge against the United States, but to take note of the lessons learned and focus on the strategic objectives, on its desired situation.

The downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 three days later, after takeoff from the airport in southwest Tehran, was publicly acknowledged as a serious mistake by the authorities, but it is not relevant from the point of view of this analysis. What is significant is the following: an apparently unsuccessful ballistic missile offensive against US bases, in the context of a country mobilized and mourning the loss of the all-powerful general in charge of foreign operations, is a message - or a double message - sent to the adversary that must be interpreted. For some, it means that the time has come to consider an operational or tactical change, to gain time and to calmly study new possibilities of action; for others, it implies an opportunity that helps to initiate changes within the Regime, and therefore in its international policy.

The line between soft and hard power involves raising an escalation of tension and proportionate deterrence measures. The Iraqi president fears that his country will become a battlefield, but there is little he can do, because since Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011), almost two decades of conventional or insurgent conflict have made it impossible to achieve a minimum stability that would allow political order and social and economic development. On Washington's side, it should be recalled that just six months earlier, in June 2019, the Revolutionary Guard shot down a US Triton MQ-4C spy drone that entered the country's airspace. Beyond President Trump's statements, the reaction was the announcement of the dispatch of 1,000 additional troops to the region. The head of the Pashtun revolutionary militias himself, General Hossein Salami, stated that the downing of the drone was a serious warning to the United States: "The only way for our enemies to be safe is to respect our sovereignty, security and national interests; Iran does not want war with any country, but we are fully prepared for war". The answer came to him, precisely, from a Hellfire missile launched by an MQ-9 Reaper drone, eliminating the one who was the architect of Iranian intelligence and military force for the last two decades. With this gesture, Trump moved a piece on the game board and sent a message to the next successor of the guardians of the revolution. That same day, his Twitter account read: "Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!". Here is the bottom line, the negotiation for the development of nuclear weapons capability.

In parallel to the language of the missiles, in order to understand Iran's options, it is worth taking into account the content of the speech delivered on January 17, at the Friday collective prayer at the Mosalla Mosque in Tehran. This is highly significant, because it is not an intervention of Ali Khamenei in the plenary session of Parliament, which is a political-governmental environment, but in a religious event very important for the identity of the country, and in the main sermon, as Ayatollah. In addition, this is an intervention that he has not made for eight years and that comes at a time of great tension in the country and in the region. Precisely, the last time he did so was in January 2012, when he addressed the regional situation in the wake of the so-called 'Arab Spring', whose consequences and ripple effects changed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and the Mediterranean-North Africa region.

From his entire intervention I highlight three ideas: first, that Iran emerges as the only nation that is capable of being strong, facing its enemies, especially the United States, on a path of bitter and victorious deeds: "The fact that Iran has "The power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God. The Islamic world must open a new page, a new path; the way to save itself is not to be afraid of the enemy." Second, in reference to the Quds Force , referred to the Revolutionary Guard as "combatants without borders who form a humanitarian organization with human values that serve all the people of the region." Finally, regarding the nuclear pact, he stated that the three cannot be trusted. European signatory states of the agreement (Germany, the United Kingdom and France) and that their actions to pressure Iran will not work: "We have no qualms about negotiating; not with the United States, but with others; but not from a position of weakness, but from a position of strength.”

A regional influence needs credible deterrence capacity and a muscle that allows it to ensure results in the area of operations, which implies the development of its armed forces. Iran, in addition to the ground, air and navy armies, has the powerful Pasdaran Guard, units that total 130,000 troops. It would be false to believe that Iran is isolated. We must not lose sight of the dominance it maintains over the Strait of Hormuz, a space where 20% of the world's oil circulates, with a high percentage of it heading towards China and Japan, which allows it enormous negotiating power for fear of zero sum. Its navy, in addition to submarine weapons, has a large number of small fast and artillery boats, and a fleet with the capacity to mine routes and accesses. Despite the limitations on imports of materials and technology, due to the trade embargo, it has good know-how in missiles, sophisticated ground-to-air systems, and sufficient means of force projection, which allows it to participate in scenarios proxy. The embargo requires it to develop its own capabilities, with appropriate evolution, and implies taking into account the possibilities offered by technological cooperation and the supply of equipment and systems from China and Russia.

The set of gestures and statements show that Iran is consolidating itself on the regional stage and that its attitude is not one of withdrawal, but rather one of perseverance and resistance. He is an incisive and ambitious asset, who knows how to get out of conflicts unscathed, at least to date. From a historical point of view, after the Revolution and the War against Iraq, he has known how to overcome adverse scenarios, developing skills and procedures. After these decades, he has known how to reform the armed forces and has managed to maintain the spirit of the revolution. Foreign policy has run parallel to domestic policy and there will be no significant changes to the regime. From a geopolitical point of view, its presence on the axis that runs from the Strait of Hormuz (Persian Gulf) to the Bab-el Mandeb Strait (Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean) allows it privileged influence on maritime routes and accesses.

In conclusion, it can be stated that, from a strategic point of view, Iran has known how to maintain itself in both the regular conflict and the hybrid one (in the case of Hezbollah), and has known how to take advantage of the Palestine-Israel peace agreements, through its influence in Hamas. Today this influence is manifested in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, it exceeds the limits of the Middle East and reaches Algeria, Senegal, the Sahel region, and even Venezuela. What is important is that it disseminates ideas and methodology. In moments of weakness or confusion, Occidental has known how to take advantage to advance the project of developing nuclear capacity. In this context, for Iran the statement that “if there is confusion, there is opportunity” is valid.



Gabriel Cortina, a graduate in Higher National Defense Studies, is part of the team of researchers at the Center for International Security of the Institute of International Policy.

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