Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
AGSIW's publications are also available in Arabic. Help AGSIW expand its Arabic-language analysis.Donate
The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by Iran’s morality police sparked countrywide protests in Iran. Iranian security forces violently suppressed the predominantly peaceful demonstrations, killing hundreds of protesters, according to estimates from human rights groups, and arresting thousands. At the same time, two military developments have attracted attention.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced a series of military strikes against armed Kurdish opposition groups in 42 locations across Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The strikes started September 24, and the commander in chief of the IRGC ground forces, Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, claimed that 73 ballistic missiles and dozens of drones have been used to hit key command centers and shelters of Kurdish opposition groups in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Just a week later, the IRGC ground forces started a three-day drill in a large zone covering two northwestern provinces bordering Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Tehran regularly conducts strikes against Kurdish groups and has conducted previous drills in response to Nagorno-Karabakh tensions, however the recent drills came during a lull in clashes and an Armenia-Azerbaijan political dialogue, so the timing raises questions regarding the rationale for these military developments.
For two key reasons Iran’s military activities seem linked more to the widespread domestic unrest. First, fearing a convergence of internal and external threats, the Islamic Republic seeks to restore deterrence and show of force. It is a signal of the regime’s growing perception of vulnerability amid domestic unrest. And second, the Islamic Republic’s suppression strategy benefits from a military operation outside Iran’s borders that it can use to overstate the separatist threats.
What Iran’s Military Doctrine Explains About Domestic Unrest
An important dimension of recent military operations is the leadership’s concerns regarding external threats amid domestic crises. At least since early 2000, Iran’s military doctrine has identified one of its future war scenarios as a hybrid war in which widespread national protests may coincide with an external military attack. There is a strong sense among military elites that enemies, such as Israel and the United States, may see an opportunity to launch a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and critical military structures in the middle of a domestic crisis. As such, Iran’s military leaders worry domestic unrest could be a pretext for striking Iran.
Such fears about the risk of war in the middle of periods of internal instability stem, in particular, from Saddam Hussein’s 1980 attack on Iran. Top Iranian military strategist and historian General Mohammad Doroudian, who was once responsible for drafting Iran’s military doctrine, said, the “Iraqi dictator’s decision was influenced by his assessments of the scale of internal instability and state weakness after the Islamic Revolution.” Doroudian, expressing a common belief in the Iranian military, argued, “Saddam was unhappy with the 1975 Algiers treaty and with a green light of external powers assessed that it was the right time for a military resolution of its disputes.” Indeed, Iranian military leaders fear the risk of similar military opportunism in the current circumstances.
According to this view, Iran’s enemies may assume that a major domestic crisis can lead to defections among armed forces and negatively impact the willingness and decisiveness of the Iranian response. Also, unrest signals a weaker Islamic Republic, which may affect adversaries’ calculus about the armed forces’ aggregate power. Consequently, those promoting this argument claim that miscalculations about Iran’s power can increase, elevating the risks of military confrontation amid internal crisis.
Under this logic, the military operation outside Iranian borders and military drills in the northwestern border region signal the readiness and decisiveness of the armed forces, notwithstanding unrest in the country. The strategic goal is to reduce the possibility of a scenario in which an external military threat and domestic threats rise simultaneously, which could be fatal for the Islamic Republic.
So, the leadership seeks to persuade its adversaries that while Iran seeks to control the domestic turmoil, its military capabilities will not be negatively affected. The same line of thinking could explain why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chose to appear in a military officer graduation ceremony alongside senior military commanders on October 3, after a period of absence from public meetings. IRGC-affiliated media outlets are also seeking to propagate an image of Iranian military power by describing recent activities as “practicing a new combined missile and drone operation tactic.”
Military Operations as Part of a Suppression Strategy
On September 30, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence released a statement claiming 77 members of Kurdish separatist groups had been arrested. The ministry accused those arrested of leading the protests and fueling violence in Iran. In at least two ways the military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan has become a complementary part of the regime’s suppression strategy.
First, the authorities’ goal is to take advantage of and manipulate Iranians’ feelings of nationalism and stoke fears of separatism to try to create cracks in public support for the uprising. For the security establishment, the threat of separatism, or specter of civil war, is a tool to persuade the middle class to abandon street-level protests. Speaking with two prominent experts on ethnic and Kurdish issues in Tehran, both confirmed that Iranian intelligence services covertly facilitate activities of opposition groups. Giving these groups space to operate seems to help the Islamic Republic in times of crisis to instrumentalize fear of separatism as a public perception management tool.
Second, Iranian authorities are using the threat of separatism as a justification for the harsh crackdowns and use of force under the rubric of preserving national security. Authorities can build a legal basis for maximum suppression on the foundation of the state’s responsibility to protect Iran’s territorial integrity. An essential part of the Islamic Republic’s disinformation campaign is to convey the message to the public that the security forces are fighting against externally funded separatist elements that have hijacked protests, while no government use of force is directed toward the broader Iranian public. Constructing an arguably legal basis for the suppression further helps, internally, to shore up regime legitimacy.
What Lies Ahead?
It is unlikely that Tehran will seek to spark a regional escalation as part of the externalization of its domestic issues. Tehran’s strategy follows a complex model of rational adjustment to the evolving threat environment. It might be misleading to draw a linear historical analogy with the 2019 and 2020 escalations when Tehran decided to raise the threat level toward regional actors in response to the “maximum pressure” campaign of the administration of former President Donald J. Trump.
Now, Tehran’s top priority seems to be prevention of possible convergence between internal and external threats. Contrary to claims that Iran may decide to launch a military strike against Saudi interests and pressure regional actors in hotspots like Yemen, Tehran is likely to remain focused on strengthening its deterrence posture and pursue maximum suppression inside Iran.
Possible options include resuming military operations inside Iraq (confident that neither the government of Iraq nor the Kurdistan Regional Government will respond, if at all, in any way that could lead to escalation). The chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Major General Hossein Bagheri, warned authorities in Kurdistan about the resumption of operations if actions are not taken to limit the activities of separatist groups. Other options like tough rhetoric from military leaders about the costs of foreign meddling, such as the warning of the IRGC’s commander in chief, Major General Hossein Salami, regarding Saudi Arabia’s meddling in Iranian affairs through media outlets, and new military drills might be on the table, too.
As the Iranian leadership’s existential fear is potentially rising in the face of continuing unrest, it may be unpredictable in its reactions to regional military developments like new reinforcements in U.S. bases in the region or international conversations about military options against Iran’s nuclear program.
is an expert on Iran’s foreign and defense policy. He is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and a visiting professor at the Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan.
With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More