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Some assert that Iran is seeking ballistic missiles, and indeed nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capability, exclusively for defense of its borders or strictly for regional objectives. Defense of its homeland against an Iraqi type threat would almost certainly make the Iranian leadership conclude that use of NBC and missiles as their means of delivery (NBC/M) was justified. Yet, beyond responding to an attack, NBC would be an option should its threat or use be perceived as supporting other Iranian national objectives. Iran can and may already be able to use chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles, to intimidate its regional neighbors, but this is not adequate to explain the Iranian NBC/M program.

The United States is also a certain target of the Iranian threat. One point of evidence lies in Iran's exercises and maneuvers, particularly that of its naval forces, as discussed in chapter 5. While some land operations appear to be designed to deter or defend against Iraq, these exercises and maneuvers include a significant number almost certainly designed to prepare Iran to operate against the United States. Iranian deployments in the Gulf increasingly appear to be designed to give it options to strike at U.S. military assets or to threaten such attacks. Another indicator is the Iranian effort to increase the reach of its weapons of mass destruction, currently through acquisition of the longer range Nodong missile. Iran could already use its ballistic missiles to strike against U.S. forces in the Gulf, as well as Iran's nearest neighbors. The addition of the Nodong would enable Iran to threaten U.S. bases in Turkey, which are important for any U.S. military operations against Iran. Saudi Arabia and Israel are also under threat of Iranian missiles. This capability, therefore, poses a real and growing threat to the U.S. ability to defend its interests.

But if Iran were to contemplate war with the United States, what could cause it to undertake such a dangerous course of action? Further, are there indicators that might provide warning that such a course were under consideration? Beyond Iran's hatred for "the Great Satan," its leaders have explicitly urged war against the United States and advocated terrorism as a means of turning their hostile words into action. Iranian leaders routinely make statements before cheering crowds such as "O mankind, don't think the White House will remain forever. No, it will be destroyed!"1 While much of this may be dismissed as hyperbole and Iranian-style mass politics, such statements indicate a genuine hatred and fear of the United States, which could rationalize nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks for retribution and vengeance.

It is important, therefore, to understand the Iranian context within which decisions to enter war will be made. The first question to be considered, given that Iran is ruled by Islamic religious leaders, is whether there are religious imperatives that make war more or less likely or perhaps even necessitate war. Next, the political and religious public justifications that would be deemed necessary by the Iranian leadership prior to initiation of war will be considered to ascertain if warning can be derived.


Nation states have rules, written or unwritten, that provide guidelines as to when war is justified and what behaviors are acceptable in the prosecution of war. The United States has adopted a just war tradition held for centuries that guides Western states. The just war tradition is based on the notion of jus ad bellum, relating to the causes and conditions in which war is justified, and jus in bello, which circumscribes the acceptable boundaries of behavior in war.2 The just war tradition comprises seven criteria that must be satisfied to justify resort to military force: just cause, right authority for the use of such force, right intention, the goal of restoring peace, overall proportionality of good over evil, a reasonable hope of success, and a situation of last resort.3

Iran does not accept the Western just war tradition. Rather, Iran's "just war" doctrine is guided by Shi'ite interpretations of the Koran, particularly as applied by Ayatollah Khomeini. What determines the justification of war, or holy jihad,4 for the Shi'ites? What consequence does the declaration of jihad have for the U.S. ability to deter Iran?

First of all, Shi'ism distinguishes between offensive and defensive jihad. Offensive jihad, that is the Koranic struggle in the path of God, can only be declared by 'the Imam' or his deputy. This Imam is the Hidden Imam who has not yet reappeared after his disappearance ten centuries ago. Since there is no Imam at present, in the context of the Koranic tradition from which the Government of Iran derives its legitimacy, no declaration of offensive jihad can be made: 

For the Shi'ia, the offensive jihad . . . required the presence of the just Imam, not (as the Sunnis argued) just any leader; or, in the absence of the Imam, the person deputized by him could authorize such a struggle. . . . But when the Imam or his specifically designated deputy is absent, as is the case of Shi'ism from the tenth century on, the obligation to engage in offensive jihad lapses, and, according to the Shi'ia jurists, it is not proper to engage in jihad at all.5

Defensive jihad, however, does not require the permission of the Imam. Rather, there is a standing authority and indeed an obligation to use force to defend Islam, and such use of force is not considered to be offensive, because the persecution of believers is qualitatively the same as an attack. Initiating aggression was prohibited, but notions of self-defense are far different from the international law interpretation of self-defense or even anticipatory self defense: 

Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors. And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution [fetna] is worse than slaughter. " To reiterate, the Koran justifies the use of force by believers as a response to actively hostile disbelief. . . . Nonetheless, in the context of the historical development of Islam, the jurists regarded this principle of the Koran as abrogated. They maintained that fighting was obligatory for the Muslims, even when the unbelievers had not begun the hostilities.6

When unbelief takes on an actively hostile dimension, the Koran is interpreted as justifying and even commanding the use of force by the believers. If Iran's leadership believed it could justify a judgment that disbelief had taken on a hostile nature, and particularly if the disbelief constituted "persecution," defensive jihad would be justified and obligated. Even if Iran's enemies did not strike first, Iranian leaders could view war as defensive in nature: acts of war against Iran are not required to justify jihad.

APersecution," from the perspective of the Iranian political leadership, includes the United States economic embargo against Iran. Indeed, as a practical matter, virtually any act contrary to Iran's interests taken by the West could be defined as "persecution." Persecution of the righteous justifies initiation of defensive jihad. The justification for war, so long as the war is between believers (Iran) and non-believers (everyone else), therefore, has a significantly lower threshold than that established by the Western just war theory.

In the Western just war tradition, there is a positive obligation to limit to the greatest degree possible the impact on noncombatants and to wage war in a restrained manner, but once defensive jihad is being waged, there need be little if any restraint in the prosecution of war. One scholar, for example, notes that the rules of treatment for non-Muslims who were vanquished or captured in jihad were based on the notion that non-Muslims had no right to resist Islam, and that "in refusing to submit to Islam, they were doing a wrong that justified harsh treatment."7

Predictions of how Iran will operate in war based on Western perspectives are therefore likely to be dangerously misleading. Iran might make statements to the effect that it would engage only in defensive war, which could be consistent with its own version of just war tradition, but which would not foreclose the use of preemptive strikes against their enemies, even including employing NBC/M. Such dissimulation would be consistent with the Iranian approach. Therefore, assessments that Iran would use NBC weapons strictly in what the West considers a defensive manner or as a weapon of last resort should be re-evaluated.


Traditional warfare generally requires the support and participation of a significant portion of the population, and such wars, if conducted without the consent of the governed, will not be long supportable. The possession of NBC weapons, however, may mean that unlike traditional warfare, war involving NBC use can be initiated by a small centralized group. Thus, even if the Iranian people are not convinced that war, and particularly the use of NBC weapons, is justified, a very destructive war that involved NBC weapons could be initiated by the leadership or the IRGC and conducted by the IRGC.

Because of their ties to radical Shi'ite Islam, however, the Iranian leadership or IRGC would still want to believe that their actions are ideologically justifiable. Furthermore, should the leadership believe that it is necessary to have access to public support, publicly stated justifications for their actions and additional preparation of their public propaganda efforts would be likely and could provide some warning. On the other hand, Iran could have a strong interest in attaining surprise or in creating ambiguity regarding its actions or culpability for the actions of others.

A deterrence strategy must begin with a clear understanding of the conditions under which Iran might believe that war with the United States, with its nuclear weapons and vast conventional superiority, is justified. More than any other point, such understanding requires educated speculation based on analysis of the Iranian perspective. This is difficult for Western strategists to do because, for example, the Iranian perspective views victory itself in a manner far different from their own. This point was crystallized in a statement by the Iranian Army Chief of Staff speaking in September 1995: 

It is also possible that the U.S. military presence [in the Gulf] is itself one of the U.S. objectives. But a military confrontation by these forces with Iran would be counter to U.S. interests in the region and ultimately would be to their disadvantage. . . . This is because . . . only Muslims believe that "Whether we kill or are killed, we are the victors." Others do not think this way.8

His perspective has roots in the writings of Ayatollah Khomeini, who said in a 1988 speech: "We must smash the hands and the teeth of the superpowers, particularly the United States. And we must choose one of two alternativesCeither martyrdom or victory, which we both regard as victory."9

In light of this decidedly non-Western cost-benefit analysis, what circumstances would lead Iran to initiate war? Shahram Chubin has proposed a list of "contingencies" for which Iran seems to be preparing: 

First, a large scale U.S. naval intervention, as in 1987-88 and 1990-91. Second, an attack on Iran similar to the allied attack on Iraq in 1991 or some variant of the punitive cruise missile attack by the United States on Iraq in June 1993. Third, an attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure that is intended to destroy its weapon-making capabilities. (This could be either the United States or Israel).10

Although credible as far as it goes, Chubin's list of contingencies inadequately explains Iran's observed force deployments and helps little with an effort to anticipate Iran's likely actions. This list considers only attacks against Iran by outside states, which leaves the impression that Iran's force deployments are merely defensive and that one need not anticipate pre-emptive strikes or other actions that escalate hostility and destructiveness rapidly. A more robust list would begin with motives. Such motives could include war to divert attention from internal problems or to advance one group's internal situation over a competitor's. Iran could seek to gain sympathy from the international Islamic community by fighting with the United States, a broader grouping of Western states, or Israel, and thereby enhance and export their revolution. Finally, Iran may seek to achieve its regional and expansionist goals at what it considers to be an acceptable level of risk. Any or all of these could be easily rationalized in the context of defensive jihad.

Divert Attention from Internal Problems

Iran is plagued by socioeconomic problems that have led, in recent years, to strikes and riots and, more generally, a growing alienation of the people from their leaders. Yet, while its socioeconomic problems have most of their roots in internal policies by the Iranian leaders, they may be exacerbated by, and are often attributed in the Iranian press to, the impact of U.S. hostile actions, including the economic embargo. High inflation, slower than promised economic development, growing demands of a young population, the flight of the poor and young to large cities with its resultant risk of easily ignited frustrations, and accusations of governmental corruption at the highest levels of Iranian leadership all point to a regime increasingly at risk of collapse. Under these conditions, Iran, and especially the IRGC, could seek to strike out to obscure their own culpability in the problems besetting Iran or to strengthen themselves in the face of internal divisions and weaknesses.

War seems to strengthen the Revolutionary Guard. When internal opposition occurs, there have been a number of examples of the Iranian regime and the Guard seeking outside enemies as a means of consolidating strength: 

As the war (Iran/Iraq) dragged on, it expanded in scope, giving the Guard greater opportunity to assert its independent role. This particularly held true for fast-breaking, crisis situations in which extended debate was not possible and the Guards' internal opponents were less able to constrain the Guard. Such opportunities were afforded the Guard by deepening involvement of foreign (particularly the U.S.) and Arab parties in the war. The Guard Navy was the optimum instrument for striking at some of these outside parties. 11

While the Guard and other Iranian leaders, including Khamene'i and the mullahs themselves, have relied on suppression to reduce the threat of counter-revolution, the effectiveness of internal measures is finite and diminishes each time they are employed. They could well conclude that the diversion of focusing the population on an external enemy is needed.

Regional Intimidation and Expansionism: The Strange Case of Abu Musa

The islands in the Persian Gulf are a continuing source of friction between Iran and her neighbors. The islands of Tunb, Nabi Tunb, and Abu Musa are considered by the international community and the GCC as property of the United Arab Emirates. Iran has taken full possession of Abu Musa (shown on map)and has deployed military forces there, including chemical weapons and perhaps biological or radiological weapons as well. SA-6 missiles are also located at Abu Musa Island and could be used offensively. An Iranian commentary clearly identifies Iran's belief in the strategic importance of Abu Musa: 

From the point of view of the southern littoral states, as well as the United States, the Abu Musa issue is quite meaningful as this island-because of its geographical location and its geostrategic role-can provide the opportunity for them to use their submarines, and it can also be used to control a large part of the Persian Gulf, its waterways, and the routes of their vessels. Another point that should not be ignored is that the United States will need to muster and accumulate forces in the region in order to combat Iran, and this highlights the importance of submarines. These three islands can be used to station nuclear submarines, as well as other military units and vessels.12

The consensus of analysts, however, is that Abu Musa is not necessary to dominate the Strait. Further, Iran's related military deployments are probably not strictly, or even primarily, defensive. One analyst has assessed the situation as being simply an Iranian attempt to intimidate its neighbors: 

If Iran wanted to deny the waterway to the U.S. Navy, missile sites near Bandar Abbas would be more valuable since they are on the Iranian mainland and the USA would be less willing to attack them for both political and military reasons. Hence full control of Abu Musa offered little additional help in controlling the Strait. It does, however, give Iran a base for projecting its power and influence south towards the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).13

This assessment is reportedly shared throughout the GCC. Iran has overtly threatened the UAE to coerce it to lessen its support for a U.S. presence with such statements as "It is up to the Arab states in the Gulf to think about their long-term interests and avoid whatever conflicts with the security of the region."14

Iran has repeatedly and assertively stated that U.S. presence in the Gulf is "illegal" and "illegitimate," warning its regional neighbors that reliance on U.S. forces for security and stability is dangerous. In March 1995, for example, Deputy Navy Commander Admiral Mohtaj warned that the presence of foreign forces in the region "was not in the interest of regional countries and that the Islamic Republic of Iran condemns such an illegal presence. The task of preserving the security of the region rests solely with the countries of the region."15

In June 1995, an Iranian editorial, describing the significance of the IRGC's 'Ashura maneuvers, said: 

The maneuvers impart a message to friends, especially those in the sensitive region of the Persian Gulf, that they can count on Iran as a strong ally capable of defending the interests of the region with their cooperation. The regional countries, therefore, should shake Iran's friendly hand for protecting our common interests.16

Similarly, a Senior Commander of the IRGC and the commander of the second naval area of the IRGC in Bushehr, Hoseyn Kargar, said in December 1995, on the occasion of the "Lightening" naval and missile maneuvers the Navy and IRGC were conducting: 

The illegitimate presence of foreigners in this sensitive and strategic waterway harms regional stability and security . . . as stated by the respected officials of the Islamic Republic on many occasions, true security can be achieved only by the regional nations and governments; what we are doing today is preserving our readiness to defend our Islamic homeland's borders. Therefore, the active presence of the Islamic Republic's combatants throughout . . . the Persian Gulf is needed only in order to confront encroachments by the enemies of Islam and to safeguard our country's borders and is no threat to anyone else.17

Thus, like a gangster in a protection racket, Iran has offered its "friendly hand" in aggressive maneuvers, asserted its rights to provide security in the Gulf and warned its neighbors against supporting the U.S. presence there. The meaning of such warnings concurrent with military exercises and maneuvers has not escaped Iran's neighbors.

Moreover, Iran's military growth, particularly its pursuit of NBC capabilities and missiles has not gone unnoticed by Iran's regional neighbors, and one report notes that the GCC members viewed with apprehension the Iranian arms programs and "Iran's excessive interest in nontraditional weapons."18

Iran's Deputy Navy Commander Mohtaj said in December 1995 that Iran is ready to fight an "80-year war" to defend the three islands.19 Iran is obviously willing to undertake provocative actions with respect to Abu Musa, but it is not clear whether it will be satisfied with control of the islands or actively exploit them for further expansion. Moreover, Iran has sought to destabilize Arab and African states, especially in the eastern part of the African continent.20 Iran may believe that it can exert its power and influence on its neighbors directly and indirectly and may be willing to go to war to do so.

Iran clearly sees itself as the rightful regional hegemon, and because U.S. presence is seen as an illegitimate intrusion on Iran's rightful zone of influence or security, repulsing such presence could also be rationalized by Iran as being legitimate defense.

These motivations are Iranian, rather than Islamic. The combination of the nationalistic goals of Iran and the radical Islamic and anti-Imperialistic perspective of the mullahs and the regime creates a disturbing confluence of factors.

Exporting the Revolution

The supreme religious and military leader of Iran continues to consider Iran to be the vanguard of Islamic resistance to evil and particularly to Western dominance. In December 1995, for example, on the birthday celebration of Imam Hoseyn (the third imam of the household of Prophet Mohammed), which is also, notably, IRGC Day, Ayatollah Khamene'i said, "The Islamic revolution and Iranian Muslim nation constitute the main center of resistance against the U.S. and that is why the American statesmen bear a grudge against the Iranian people."21

A commentary on the speech drew a direct comparison between Khamene'i's description of the life of Ali Hoseyn, "filled with fight and combat against suppression and corruption and a great lesson for the world of Islam," to Iran's fight against the United States: 

The leader-s speech is in fact a reference to the confrontations that exist between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the world arrogant powers. The combat has turned into a model for the freedom-loving states who are involved in the struggle against suppression. The Iranian nation-s fight against America is known all over the world.22

Thus, the fight against the United States and the "defeat of world arrogance" justifies the existence of the Republic of Iran, ties her leaders to their religious heritage, and endows them with a sense of righteousness and purpose. For example, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, Council of Guardians spokesman said on January 22, 1993: 

Today, world arrogance relies on force, on the bayonet, on the spilling of blood. This is the miserable state of the world. But the good tidings that Islam brings to the Islamic society-that such a society will come about-does not mean that Muslims should sit there cross-legged hoping for that day. No, it is based on this principle: O mankind, don't think the White House will remain forever. No, it will be destroyed. (Crowd chants "Islam is victorious, America will be destroyed") God willing!

O Islamic ummah (faithful), you are one-fifth of the people of the world. Arise! The peoples of the world are with you! Fight the powers! The meaning that human society will see a new dawn is that human society must move toward that day. Human society must not tolerate oppression and crime.23

In a manner reminiscent of the Bolshevik conclusion that they were the vanguard of an international revolution and that they would stand against the West to lead the revolution, Iran's leaders have defined themselves by their opposition to the United States. Having defined themselves as rightful leaders of Islam, Iranian leaders see their confrontation with the United States as a key source of respect and support from other Islamic states and Muslim (especially Shiite) opposition groups in other states. In December 1995, Iranian President Rafsanjani said that "the Islamic Republic of Iran has the potential to develop into a motherland for the great Islamic civilization."24 Ratifying this motivation, one analyst noted, "By attacking U.S. interests, the Guard hoped to create greater appeal for the Islamic revolution among those in the Arab, Muslim, and Third World who resented Western domination."25

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