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August 1, 2011

Invading Iran: Lessons from Iraq

Before the battles, what the U.S. must know

The initial military successes in Iraq and Afghanistan were overcome by protracted insurgencies and political instability, resulting in tenuous gains in democratic development that came at an enormous cost. The United States is fast approaching a decade at war.

In these current conditions of political and military fatigue, a U.S. invasion of Iran seems unlikely; however, the Iranian regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its fierce anti-Americanism create the imperative to consider a future where diplomatic and economic coercion is exhausted, and no options remain other than military action. Should a war become necessary, lessons learned during the Coalition occupation of Iraq can be instructional for conjecture on a post-invasion Iran. The similarities are many: repressive leadership, a brutal security apparatus, and a society in search of opportunity, social mobility, and political inclusion. Ethnicity and sectarianism play key roles both in public and in private life. And although Iraqi Baathism differs drastically from Islamism, parallels exist in their use of oppression and state control. These key similarities and distinctions between government, society, and security in Iraq and Iran, in light of Iraq’s immediate pre- and post-war environment, can illuminate the major challenges of shaping the peace in a post-war Iran.

Government, society, and security in Iraq

Coalition efforts to establish a democratic Iraqi government encountered societal challenges from the beginning. The Bush administration operated under the impression that after Coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqis would welcome the liberators. This theory was only partly true, and the part that was true was fleeting. Of the 27 million Iraqis, 18.5 percent are Sunni Arabs and 55 percent are Shia — or, in the words of Hassan al-Alawi, the country is divided between the “sect of the rulers” (the former) and the “sect of the ruled.” The fall of Saddam Hussein brought an end to Sunni Arab glory, and for them, there was no liberation in that. A sense of liberation did sweep over the Shia, and the Kurds as well, who comprise nearly 20 percent of the population, but it was short-lived. The envisioned embrace of democracy, freedom, and equality was supplanted by the distrust and suspicion that many Iraqis had for foreign occupiers and for indigenous rival sects and ethnicities. The Coalition that swept away the regime could do nothing to assuage the pain caused by the mass graves filled with victims of Saddam’s brutality — a malice that left over 150,000 Shia dead, an estimated 3,000 Kurdish villages destroyed, 1.5 million people displaced, and up to 180,000 Kurds killed under orders of Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid. As summer replaced spring in 2003, retribution among separate Iraqi social classes emerged, and internecine violence increased as Iraqis settled old scores in the absence of law and order. Without ample military forces or a coherent plan to protect the population, security in Iraq disintegrated, and the liberators morphed into occupiers, rekindling memories of the British occupation after World War I during the formation of the modern Iraqi state.

A study of this period reveals a historical Iraqi loathing for occupation and a proclivity for heightened sectarian animosity relative to other Islamic societies. In April >1920, the League of Nations mandated that Britain prepare Iraq for self-rule. Having endured British occupation since 1914, most Iraqis were not receptive to an indefinite extension of colonial administration, and in defiance, on June 30, 1920, Iraq embarked upon a six-month, Shia-inspired insurrection against the British. The British, reports William Roe Polk in his book Understanding Iraq, lost 1,654 men and spent six times what they had spent during their entire World War I Middle East campaign. Horrified by the losses and the financial drain, the British taste for a presence in Iraq soured. They put in motion a series of measures that would grant Iraq a shaky independence in 1932. They established a Sunni-led monarchy and filled key posts with Sunnis; this alienated the Shia community from the new Iraqi government, a trend that endured until 2003. These early years of state development were characterized by Sunni cronyism, patronage, and volatility, culminating in the overthrow of the British-installed monarchy in 1958. A decade of immense political and social instability ensued, ending as the Iraqi Baath party seized power in 1968. Saddam soon emerged as its leader, and his ruthless consolidation of Sunni power hidden under a veneer of Baathist ideology capped 82 years of authoritarian government littered with war, repression, corruption, and intrigue. Placed against this backdrop, the power shift associated with the Shia political ascendancy after the fall of Saddam made building trust, democracy, and stability in Iraq extremely problematic.

As the invasion of Iraq loomed, exiled Iraqi opposition groups began to jockey for power.

The historical relevance of this social and political turmoil was misunderstood, and this led to an environment where planning for post-war Iraq was largely overlooked. In sheer numbers, the “several hundred thousand soldiers” that General Shinseki, then Army chief of staff, recommended to Congress to establish security in postwar Iraq was rebuffed on the Hill two days later by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who stated that such numbers were “widely off the mark.” From a planning perspective, occupying a country, dismantling its government, and rebuilding its institutions are clearly challenges that require extensive integration between civilian and military branches, but the opposite happened. A holistic approach between the Departments of Defense and State was never defined. In his book Fiasco, Thomas Ricks points out that the first and only time the entire interagency convened, at the operator level, to discuss in detail integration of postwar activities was not until February 21, 2003, just four weeks before combat commenced with a force of 145,000 troops, well below General Shinseki’s recommended level. In lieu of exhaustive postwar planning, a higher than warranted reliance was placed upon the advice of various Iraqi exiles, all of whom were divided in their individual views and interests.

With the invasion looming, exiled Iraqi opposition groups in America, Europe, and Iran, as well as Kurds living in northern Iraq, ramped up their efforts to jockey for power in postwar Iraq. Each had its own idea for the future political framework, and it soon became clear that visions of the new Iraq differed greatly among exiles. From this disunited exiled front, the Bush administration selected a 65-person committee that would, according to Ali Allawi, a former exile who served in the Iraqi government early during the occupation, “place a mantle of legitimacy” on the opposition. A six-man leadership council was also formed, composed of Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani, Ahmed Chalabi, Abdul el-Aziz al-Hakim, Ayad Allawi, and Adnan Pachachi. Subsequently, these six men served on the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which was established by and served under the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (cpa). But as the Governing Council began to overhaul the Sunni-dominated system under the gaze of the cpa, the legitimacy of the exiles proved weaker than expected.

CPA Order 1 removed the four top echelons of the membership of the Baath Party from all government posts.

Many of these cpa-backed exiles suffered from the skepticism aroused by their extended absence and triumphant return, riding into Iraq on the heels of an American conquest. While serving in Iraq in late 2003 to help its transition to democracy, Larry Diamond observed this frustration during a public session in Balad when a man in the crowd declared, “The members of the Governing Council do not represent the Iraqi people,” and his remark brought the loudest ovation of the day. To hardcore Iraqi nationalists, the former exile groups with cpa endorsement evoked the historical memory of British occupation; hence, the Governing Council’s legitimacy was inherently stained. The exiles carried weight in the Green Zone, however, and their influence there prompted three key decisions, which evoked sharp criticism for their contribution to the breakdown in security and intensification of the insurgency: de-Baathification, disbanding the military, and institutionalizing an ethno-sectarian quota system for power-sharing in the new government.

cpa Order 1, entitled “De-Ba’athification of Iraqi Society,” removed the four top echelons of the membership of the party from all government posts and banned their future employment in the public sector. To Sunni Arabs, this signaled that Shia and Kurdish exile groups had the ear of the cpa and that a Shia power grab was in motion, with full American support. Although dismantling the party and its political institutions was a necessity, the impartiality of its application toward members regardless of party loyalty prompted a wave of Iraqi middle-class migration, which was unfortunate since not all of them were die-hard Saddam loyalists. Many of the newly disenfranchised Sunni technocrats, professionals, government officials, and bureaucrats joined the Baath Party to gain perks and create a better life, in some cases to survive, and they could have played key roles in the new Iraq. Instead, they migrated to neighboring countries amid the Shia political ascendency and the emerging sectarian crisis. The more extreme elements went underground to join the Sunni insurgency.

cpa Order 2 unilaterally disbanded the armed forces, the Republican Guard units, the intelligence and security services, and their associated ministries. This decision represented a misunderstanding of the society and the security apparatus in Iraq. Aside from the security services and the 25,000-strong Special Republican Guard forces loyal to Saddam, most of the 400,000 military rank-and-file were Shia and Sunnis loyal to Iraq. And although the army predominantly consisted of conscripts and officers whose professional abilities and privileges had suffered under the sanctions regime, it was still a respected institution and vital to the Iraqi identity. Loss of self and dignity accompanied the loss of livelihood when the army was dissolved. True, a large portion of this military disappeared as the invasion commenced, but when the dust settled, they were not called back. Rather than attempting to employ Iraq’s army, or portions of it, to help the Coalition protect the population against Salafists, hardcore Baathists, and Iraqi nationalists, it was disbanded. The Coalition thus could not initially check the influx of foreign jihadists or discern the evil from the innocent in a way that native Iraqis might have. The Coalition remained the sole security guarantor while undermanned for the postwar chaos. This resource deficiency and cultural divide prompted heavy-handed treatment of Iraqi civilians, which, according to Ahmed Hashim, author of Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency, exacerbated and perpetuated the Sunni rebellion.

Violence swept across Iraq as the CPA and the former exiles controlled the government formation inside the Green Zone.

As violence swept across Iraq, the cpa and the former exiles controlled the nascent government formation inside the Green Zone. In light of the supreme complexity of the postwar environment, and considering that Iraq had no prior experience of democracy, the pace was aggressive. In less than two years, an interim constitution would be written and adopted, an interim government would be chosen through a complex system of caucuses, a constitutional assembly would be directly elected, a permanent constitution would be drafted and approved by assembly and ratified by popular referendum, and a permanent government would be elected for a four-year term. An early handoff of sovereignty to an Iraqi body helped the Shia-based former exile groups solidify their power gains, but in the rush to form a government, Shia and Kurdish leaders influenced the cpa to institutionalize identity politics and adopt a quota system of government, which divided Iraq permanently along ethnic and sectarian lines.

This development exacerbated the previously muted sectarian discord inherent to Iraqi society. No longer repressed by Baathist secularism, a religious-based political awakening began to spread across Arab Iraq. When combined with Kurdish demands to codify protection against future abuses of central power, political discourse in Baghdad fragmented. Although the ethno-religious schisms along Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish lines were predictable, the further fracturing within sects along disparate political ideologies was surprising, the most notable of which emerged among, but was not restricted to, the followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the younger cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

After twelve years of house arrest under Saddam Hussein, the prominence of Grand Ayatollah Sistani in the political arena signaled that the Shia, after thirteen centuries of political repression, would demand the lion’s share of power in the new Iraq. As the most respected Shia religious scholar and jurist in the country, he commanded unparalleled religious authority and political influence. Unlike the dominant religious thread in neighboring Iran, however, Sistani endorsed representative democracy; consequently, many of the Shia-led exile groups sought Sistani’s endorsement to bolster their legitimacy.

The emergence of Muqtada al-Sadr signaled something altogether different. A young cleric lacking the religious clout of Sistani, he rallied support of the urban poor around the banners of Shia Islamism and fierce opposition to foreign occupation. Next to Sistani’s quietism and support of representative democracy, his fiery activism and Islamist ideology stood in stark contrast. Discord between these Shia rivals and their followers played out politically during Iraqi elections and violently on the streets of Iraq. Sunni cohesion initially suffered a similar fate. Unorganized in the new political disorder and deeply suspicious of the Shia revival, Sunnis lacked strong leadership, and they began to splinter along Baathist, Islamist, nationalist, and tribal lines.

As inter- and intra-sectarian tensions deepened, the security environment declined. To make matters substantially worse, the horrific violence levied on Shia communities by Sunni Salifi Jihadists, best-characterized by Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, sparked an explosion of sectarian bloodshed. In the midst of an escalating Sunni-Shia civil war, Iraqis were voting along these same sectarian schisms, deepening the divide. Thus, the predominant Sunni-Shia division worsened as a result of holding democratic elections before political consolidation was achieved. Seven years after the fall of Saddam, the effects were still visible in the wake of the March 2010 parliamentary elections, where this institutionalized identity-based political system paralyzed the Iraqi government formation for over eight months, and its future remains fragile and uncertain.

Government, society, and security in Iran

In 1979, ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that swept Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi from power. Khomeini mobilized a radical religious movement against the Shah by depicting his Western-leaning secular domestic and foreign policies as anathema to Iran’s traditional culture and Shia identity. To strengthen the movement, he convinced more moderate elements to join the revolutionary vanguard by promising to replace autocratic leadership with representative government. In the years that followed, however, Khomeini ignored his democratic promises. Instead, he marginalized, purged, or executed his opposition, and he established a Shia theocracy with himself at the head. Once he controlled the levers of military force, Khomeini secured the survival of clerical rule, and he consolidated power within it. Real political power is wielded through a system of clerical councils which collectively rule above the fray of electoral politics. Even though a president and parliament are popularly elected, the candidates, their platforms, and the laws they pass must meet the approval of these powerful mullahs. In the end, Khomeini did not deliver democracy, but the hope for it survived in many Iranians, quietly, beyond the reach of the regime’s oppression. Over the years, inflation, unemployment, and recession resulting from a chronic crisis of efficiency have led to a steady decline in the political legitimacy of Iran’s clerical elite. Popular dissatisfaction to this effect boiled over in the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.

In June 2009 the world witnessed the largest mass mobilization of opposition in Iran since 1979.

In June 2009 the world witnessed the largest mass mobilization of opposition in Iran since the 1979 Islamic ReJvolution. President Ahmadinejad, the incumbent hardliner, prevailed over the reformist front-runner Mir Hossein Moussavi amid widespread accusations of voter fraud. When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei prematurely endorsed the election results, millions of people flooded the streets to protest the election rigging. According to one of post-revolutionary Iran’s key political thinkers, Hossein Bashiriyeh, the apparent collusion of the supreme leader irreversibly undermined the religious legitimacy of the Islamic government, and it validated the political frustration felt predominantly by the urban middle classes, who consider their vote to be of no consequence in the political system. In order to silence the popular unrest, in typical fashion the regime unleashed a brutal wave of repression. It succeeded in quelling the uprising, but it escalated the enmity between the ruler and the ruled, and many Iranians who dream of regime change longed for the world to show its support. Here a valuable lesson can be drawn from the Iraq experience. Iran’s popular desperation should not be construed as an invitation for outside military intervention. American forces should not expect a liberator’s adoration. Like Iraq, Iran’s similar experiences with foreign control during modern state formation gave birth to an enduring sense of nationalism that could render foreign armies unwelcome and likewise undermine an extended modern-day occupation.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, British and Russian interests in Iran revolved around its strategic location, trade, and oil. Repeatedly throughout this time period, the ruling monarch entered into treaties and granted concessions to foreign powers that engendered an increased foreign presence and filled the royal coffers, yet penalized Iranian citizens’ individual economic interests. As a result, the merchant class aligned with the religious ulama to protest on the grounds of economic distress and Islamic principle. This marked the emergence of religious politics in modern Iran as well as nationalism predicated on anti-British and anti-Russian encroachment. War and strategic interests provoked a Western presence until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and throughout this period a strong sense of Iranian nationalism fueled a popular discontent. Similar to the Iraq experience, against the historical backdrop of ardent opposition to foreign domination, any consent to a modern-day occupation would be short-lived. The occupation unfortunately would not. Drawing further conclusions from Iraq, invading forces would need to be prepared for a deeply embedded and enduring insurgency, due to extreme challenges presented by terrain, resolve, and the security apparatus present in Iran.

Iran has triple the population and four times the land mass of Iraq; it has vast mountain ranges and deserts and formidable guerrilla forces.

Admittedly, an American-led invasion of Iran is unlikely. During a speech at West Point in February 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the claim that any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined. Should tensions over nuclear ambitions rise to the point of military intervention, an air campaign seems a more likely course of action. Military airstrikes provide a stand-off capability that could severely hamper or delay Iran’s march towards weapon production without bearing the cost of occupation and reconstruction, but not without a price of its own. Targeting the key nuclear infrastructure sites like the Bushehr Research Reactor, the Arak Heavy-Water Reactor/Plutonium Separation Facility, the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Plant, and the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center would certainly be a major setback to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the regime has devoted considerable effort to hide, diversify, and protect its nuclear assets, and the regime’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons actually may well increase after such a strike. Furthermore, the regime would remain in place and likely benefit from a nationalistic reaction that would strengthen domestic political support. Proponents of a more comprehensive military intervention will argue that a full-scale invasion is the only means by which to crush the regime and its military apparatus, guarantee total elimination of the Iranian nuclear enterprise, and create a window for democratic change. But the price of invasion would be astronomical, and the nationalistic reaction would be fierce; thus, the projected cost in life and treasure must be weighed against the envisioned, yet unpredictable, advantages of a new regime in Tehran.

In his book >The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack makes a strong case against invading Iran by way of comparison to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iran has triple the population, four times the land mass, vast mountain ranges and deserts, large cities, formidable guerrilla forces, all of which combine to produce an ideal landscape for a highly effective and protracted insurgency. Trained Iranian guerillas could inflict heavy damage on occupation forces along lengthy supply lines through harsh terrain and as they move through crowded city streets. Pollack also points out that required troop levels in this occupation scenario, using the equation of one soldier per 50 inhabitants that General Shinseki utilized in his Iraq pre-war assessment, rise above 1.4 million troops, nearly double the current end-strength of the active duty U.S. Army and Marines combined. Even if this number is halved, absent a provocation of Desert Storm proportions prompting a massive Coalition and full-scale activation of U.S. Guard and Reserve forces, providing the troop levels required to completely dominate the security environment is improbable, creating a high risk of insurgent effectiveness. This risk can be mitigated by anticipating an insurgency this time around, allowing civilian and military planners to apply a counterinsurgency doctrine from the onset of hostilities. But understanding what spawns insurgency and predicting its players are vital to successful planning.

Occupation forces in Iran could expect fierce resistance from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In the wake of a foreign invasion, the religious sectarianism that ripped Iraq apart would occur on a far lesser scale. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority ruthlessly held power over a Shia majority, but in Iran, the Shia represent 89 percent of the population, and this majority sect rules. Further, foreign Islamic extremists that of the kind that poisoned Iraq are ill-positioned to create another sectarian battleground, since the wave of radical Salafists that came from neighboring Sunni Arab states would find no refuge across Iran’s Persian-Shia landscape. Repressed ethnic grievances, however, do create a concern. Aside from the Persian majority, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Baluchis, and Lors make up half of Iran’s 70 million people, and their sense of discrimination and deprivation vis-à-vis the regime in Tehran is widespread, giving cause for some of the most severe ethnic violence in Iran’s modern history. Separatist movements could arise from an implosion of the central government, and violent reprisals avenging longstanding state-sanctioned abuses are likely. Occupation forces must consider these ethnic enclaves as highly volatile and move swiftly to establish security to prevent a repeat of the ethnic and sectarian redressing that occurred in Iraq’s lawless days after Saddam’s demise. These disputes over sect and ethnicity will not monopolize the conflict, however, as blood will shed most readily over the Revolutionary ideology, between those willing to abandon it and those resolved to defend it at all costs.

Occupation forces in Iran would experience the greatest resistance from those with the most to lose — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (irgc) loyal to the ruling clerics, and its force multiplier in societal intimidation, the Basij militia. The 120,000 strong irgc was originally established by Ayatollah Khomeini as an independent military wing to counterbalance the conventional military and defend the regime against internal threats to the Revolution. Since then, it has evolved into a ruthless and effective machine of domestic repression. They are well-equipped, and preparations for a U.S. invasion would involve an elaborate dispersal of substantial military arsenals. Seamlessly blending into society, transitioning with ease between the roles of citizen and insurgent, well-versed in paramilitary activity and domestic intimidation, the irgc would present considerable challenges to an occupying force, both directly and indirectly by way of internecine violence. According to a 2010 rand report, the Basij claim active numbers near 300,000 and a mobilization capability of five million or more, and they have proven extremely loyal to the Islamic government throughout its tenure. At Khomeini’s urging, the Basij demonstrated unyielding allegiance to the Revolution during the Iran-Iraq war, clearing minefields ahead of military forces in human sacrificial waves. Today, they are everywhere, and they possess a notorious ability to intimidate the population into submission. In the present age of suicide bombers, a tiny fraction of Basij militiamen with like resolve could produce a highly potent operational effect.

At Khomeini’s urging, the Basij demonstrated unyielding allegiance to the Revolution during fighting between Iran and Iraq.

A foreign invasion would most likely prompt the irgc and Basij to commence insurgent activities from the onset of military engagement. Falling back behind an advancing army and attacking logistics and communication lines is representative of Iran’s national defense strategy of drawing out a campaign, inflicting high costs, and wearing out the invading forces by attrition. The likelihood of co-opting the irgc to assist with security in a postwar environment where regime change and democracy replace the revolutionary order is low. However, blunting or bifurcating an irgc-led insurgency should be attempted by exploiting existing factionalism, appealing to pragmatism, and applying another valuable lesson learned in Iraq.

The irgc has evolved over time. Once exclusively security-minded, it has now made extensive inroads into the political and economic fabric of Iranian society. It oversees or owns important interests in oil and gas, mining, transportation, defense, agriculture, and construction, with net worth well into the billions of dollars. In the 2008 parliamentary elections the irgc captured about a third of the seats. President Ahmadinejad himself was at one time a commander in the irgc. According to rand, the resulting reality is that the irgc is now a factionalized entity, consisting of an older, more security-conscious generation intent on preserving the regime, and a group of younger, business-oriented members, rising in power and influence, open to a less-confrontational worldview. Regime change would create winners and losers, and exploiting personal interest and factionalism during a period of upheaval might sway key irgc figures, prominent in business and politics, to abandon the Revolutionary order and invest in a new republic. Therefore, a blanket repeat of “de-Baathification” applied to the irgc should be avoided if possible. Disbanding the irgc as a paramilitary force is critical, but banning government officials affiliated with the irgc, past or present, would ostracize key players in important public and private institutions. It could stimulate a migration of professionals and technocrats and drive a significant number of them underground, leaving no option but armed resistance. Unfortunately, the extent to which irgc members would choose political reconciliation over armed resistance is uncertain. More likely is the likely rejection by many ordinary Iranians of such an arrangement. After decades of irgc cruelty and corruption, reconciliation may prove incomprehensible, but until the irgc lays down arms, peace will be untenable.

Unlike in Iraq, the 350,000- member Iranian conventional force should be expected, initially at least, to resist a foreign invasion.

As for the Basij, when planning the counterinsurgency, they should not be underestimated; yet, according to Abbas Milani, head of Iranian studies at Stanford University, they should not be overestimated either. Like the irgc, even among this resolute stratum there is potential for fracture. For some, the revolutionary fire of Khomeini’s era has extinguished. Now the material world, as much as heaven’s promise, motivates Basij involvement. Much like Baath party membership brought access to higher pay and certain other perks, Basij training is an avenue to obtain loans, scholarships, subsidies, and other advantages. In the face of overwhelming American firepower, their resolve could fade, and economic incentives could prove effective in motivating counterinsurgent behavior among the Basij. Providing these incentives and disincentives to the irgc and Basij are important lessons from cpa Order 1, but persuading Iran’s conventional military, the Artesh, to assist in post-war security is a lesson learned from cpa Order 2, and would be a course of action worth pursuing.

Unlike Iraqi conventional forces, many of whom disappeared as the war commenced, the 350,000-member Iranian conventional force should be expected, initially at least, to resist a foreign invasion. But the army, the Artesh, is significantly outclassed by Coalition firepower, so conventional resistance against heavily armed forces would be brief. Dissuading the members of the Artesh from joining an underground insurgency should be the top priority. It is worth noting that the professional army mounted several coup attempts in 1980, but they ended in failure, and high-ranking officers and opposition forces were purged from its ranks shortly after the Islamic Revolution. Since that time, the Artesh has largely retained an apolitical allegiance to the state, a characteristic defined under the Shah and continued under Ayatollah Khomeini. During the uprising in June 2009, there were even reports that members of the Artesh refused their orders to violently repress the demonstration, leaving the dirty work to the irgc. Therefore, once Coalition military forces inevitably overcome the Artesh, take Tehran, and unseat the clerical regime, an attempt to co-opt the Artesh is in order. Gradually marginalized since the Revolution by the rise of the irgc, underpaid and under-resourced by comparison, they are neither revered nor detested in Iran, making them a prime target for co-opting. Their assistance in establishing security might be acquired by providing higher pay and institutional survival, and promising a return to military preeminence in the new Iran. Driving these wedges between the conventional and paramilitary security forces is essential to securing the people and establishing enough space for political maneuvering.

In an invasion of Iran, driving wedges between the conventional and paramilitary security forces would be essential.

Crossing into the political arena, a bifurcating strategy that targets the ruling clerical establishment is just as critical, for it too is a house divided. For over a century, Iran’s ulama, have debated the proper role of religion in politics. Some Iranian ayatollahs, similar to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, subscribe to “Quietism,” where religion rules the spiritual realm, and clerics merely guide temporal leaders in their quest to rule justly in accordance to Islam. For them, democracy best facilitates this pact. Others, like Khamenei, and Khomeini before him, hold fast to the idea of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), where a government with supreme power in the hands of Islamic jurists is mandated. Ayatollah Khamenei knows this rift between religious thought is paramount to Iran’s political future. Beginning in October 2010, he travelled four times from Tehran to Qom, the center of Islamic learning in Iran, where according to Alamal Hoda, a close associate of Khamenei, he tried to put down an insurrection in the seminaries 100 times more serious than the insurrection in the streets. Attempting to eliminate clerics from the political discourse would demonstrate a gross misunderstanding of this religious schism and the opportunities it presents. It’s vital to differentiate between the religious legitimacy that many of these ulama still possess, akin to that of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, from the waning political legitimacy, due to ineffective and repressive government, of those currently in power. Allowing top quietist and reformist ayatollahs, who, like Sistani, support democracy, to enter a new political discourse is fundamental to the legitimization of government in the post-Revolutionary era.

There is a true silver lining, and it exists in the strong constitutional legacy in Iran and the democratic undercurrent present in society since the Constitutional Revolution roughly a hundred years ago. During this period, a powerful alliance between merchants, clerics, and the intelligentsia forced constitutional limitations on a ruling monarch, heretofore unprecedented in the Middle East. The intent of the movement was to codify a true constitutional monarchy, requiring legislative approval on important matters of state such as foreign loans and treaties, and to guarantee personal rights and freedoms. Initial success was short-lived, however, as absolute power migrated back to the Shah, but the Constitution and the Parliament, or the Majles, have survived, and they symbolize to the politically disenfranchised the lost promise of genuine democracy. Akin to America’s reverence for its Constitution, many Iranians romanticize the constitutional revolutionary period and aspire to revitalize this vision if freed from the suffocating oppression of the ruling clerics and the revolutionary guards. Furthermore, the democratic veneer in Iran, preserved in legislative and presidential elections since 1979 — albeit restricted, but largely free from corruption until 2009 — opens the possibility that democratic institutions, legitimate popular sovereignty, and the passage of a new constitution could go more smoothly in Iran once proper security is established to create the necessary political space. Here lies the role of the opposition.

The uprisings after the 2009 presidential elections demonstrated the legitimate existence in Iran of a political opposition willing to work within a democratic framework yet frustrated by the complete absence of a social contract between the rulers and the ruled. This should encourage would-be interventionists to avoid picking a winner from the vast Persian diaspora as planning for a postwar political solution unfolds. For those willing, Iranian exiles can provide great value in terms of cultural knowledge, language assistance, institution building, and the strengthening of civil society. Some could offer important links to current members in government and security, providing avenues to communicate and encourage participation in a new order. There will be ample opportunity for exiles to return and participate in government, but any political capital they wield must be self-acquired. Lessons from Iraq suggest that legitimacy of political figures dependent on foreign backing will come under pressure as parties compete for power in the emerging system. However democracy materializes as a byproduct of regime change, it must be left up to the Iranian opposition to shape it.

Learning lessons

As the sun set on Saddam’s Iraq, the high hopes for peace, freedom, and democracy evaporated as the Coalition faced an altogether different reality in the postwar environment. Insufficient planning and integration between the State Department and the Department of Defense led to uninformed decision-making, reversing the momentum gained by the military success. Paying closer attention to Iraq’s relevant history of occupation and repression, its political, social, and military cultures, and the inherent ethno-religious schisms would have revealed the promise of ethnic and sectarian violence in the absence of Baathist tyranny and the perils of building democracy in a land devoid of a democratic heritage. In a race to dismantle the institutions of the old guard, many Sunnis willing and able to share in Iraq’s rebirth were marginalized or demonized. The cpa’s reliance on Iraqi exiles in government formation at the expense of resident actors put a Coalition stamp on an unfamiliar Governing Council that harkened back to the British occupation and detracted from its popular support. An overly sanguine strategy to expeditiously transfer sovereignty ignored the adequate troop levels and timeline necessary to establish comprehensive security first, grass roots legitimacy next, and democratic institutions third, once the political climate was adequately set.

Understanding what happened after the U.S. invasion of Iraq could be instructive in a postwar Iran.

Should America embark upon regime change in Tehran, shaping the peace will be every bit as gruesome, but understanding how miscalculations with respect to government, society, and security led to increased violence and instability in Iraq could be instructive in a postwar Iran. Like Saddam, the Supreme Leader has sacrificed his political legitimacy, yet he still commands the monopoly of force, and his will to use it repressively keeps a lid on the opposition. Mass uprisings following the 2009 presidential elections demonstrated the growing popular frustration, but this should not be interpreted as a national call for foreign intervention. An ephemeral sense of liberation would fade in the face of a violent insurgency, powered by a militarized irgc and Basij militia with numbers conceivably reaching into the millions. Like Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, motivation for resistance would stem from the eclipse of power. It would be heightened by the strong religious element embodied by the Islamic Revolution, which presents the potential for suicide bombers to excite chaos on a massive scale. The extent to which the irgc and the Basij have infiltrated the fabric of Iranian society requires enormous troop levels to protect those Iranians willing to work with an emerging government, necessitating large-scale activation of reserve forces and the existence of a strong Coalition.

While clearly resistance would be robust, it could possibly fracture along factional lines most prevalent in religious ideology, debates over the role of Islam in politics, conflicting economic interest, and the vision of Iran’s proper place in the international community. Preserving the integrity of the Artesh, co-opting their allegiance to an emerging government, and ensuring their return to prominence in the new Iran could be the most significant factor in securing the landscape, protecting the population, and curbing the effects of the irgc. Ensuring open political participation for all in favor of representative government, including irgc politicians and businessmen, will make armed resistance more costly for them, and such a measure could expedite reconciliation and buy-in to the new order. On the other hand, it might stimulate wide-scale resentment among a population long terrorized by the irgc, and reconciliation may not come easy. The existence of a constitutional heritage in Iran and a democratic framework for popular presidential and legislative elections puts the starting point for an Iranian transition to democracy well ahead of where the Iraqi Governing Council stood in 2003. This advantage is aided further by the existence of opposition leaders on the ground in Iran who can put an immediate stamp of legitimacy on the new government that the former Iraqi exiles originally lacked.

Even so, optimism is not a prudent policy. Because of the opacity of Iranian society, it is impossible to assess the true nature of factionalism and the extent to which regime insiders will desert the Revolution for a new future. If there is one essential takeaway from Iraq, America should comprehensively integrate preparations between civilian and military agencies to lay out a host of different outcomes, and then plan for the worst.


Lieutenant Colonel Leif Eckholm, USAF, works in the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J5) for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon, where he focuses on issues pertinent to the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to this, he served as a national defense fellow at the Hoover Institution.