Iran vs US: A Classic Asymmetrical War in Modern Times

The question that arises is what level of attack Tehran would consider essential for ‘victory’.

6 min read
Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting in Tehran

The heady comparisons are inevitable.

The targeting of General Qasem Soleimani by the United States is being likened in importance to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. However, Soleimani’s death is actually far more vital, as Bin Laden was already sidelined and on the back foot when he was taken out.

General Soleimani, head of the overseas arm of Al Quds, was responsible for a shrewd strategy that combined militant and state power to propel Iran to the front lines in a neighbourhood where there are enemies abound. Killed along with him was his advisor and fellow strategiser, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis — two years older than Soleimani and with more than three decades experience in fighting a formidable enemy.

The US forces are justified in celebrating the kill. This is big.

The strike itself, which occurred somewhere near the Baghdad international airport, was a swift repartee for an attack against the US embassy in Iraq, when protesters scaled the walls and declared Soleimani as their leader in graffiti on the walls. That fire in turn was lit by the US air strike two days earlier that killed a group of Kataeb Hezbollah fighters in Iran, which was The US’ retaliation for the killing of a US defence contractor two days before that. The violence was escalating. In that last attack, which was probably the work of Muhandis, more than 30 rockets were fired against the US personnel.

Overall, there’s no doubt that Iran did up the ante after the US announced its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and a raft of harsher sanctions.

Soleimani’s Steady Rise

Soleimani and his band were revered. These are not men with rows of medals or driving around in limousines, cut off from the populace by a wall of security. On the contrary, both Soleimani and Muhandis were known for their austere lifestyle, mild manners and reputations earned from being in the fight from the 1980’s. Soleimani had been involved in every front of the war with Iraq, earning the respect of the men he commanded. He averted an Iranian war against the Taliban, instead convincing the leadership to support the Northern Alliance, in an action that would have made him well known to Delhi’s spooks. Later, he even decided to cooperate with the US in wiping out the Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the George W Bush administration put a stop to a promising relationship, with his ‘ Axis of Evil’ speech which called out Iran, North Korea and Iraq. Even 9/11 – which had nothing at all to do with Iran – didn’t change the US perspective.

Soleimani then launched his most ambitious major project yet, that of setting up proxies in Syria, and Iraq thereby becoming the real power behind the scenes, working with governments in these states rather than against them. This unique strategy of fusing militias and government power marked his steady rise in the region.

Still later, these were several thousands of militias knit together under an umbrella organisation called the Popular Mobilisation Units. That was headed by special lieutenant Muhandis, an Iraqi who helped found the Kataeb Hezbollah and who, ironically, was also deputy of the Hasdh, an alliance of Shia groups that was locked in a fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. His mentor Soleimani assumed that the Kataeb and others could fill the vacuum once the IS was defeated and the US remained in retreat mode. That assessment was apparent in a recent budget cut by the Iranian government that emphasized internal security rather than its military. That was a costly mistake. Trump, as unpredictable as always, decided to retaliate and risk war, after seeming to avoid it after firing the scourge of the Iranians, John Bolton.

Classic Masterpiece of Asymmetrical War in Modern Conditions

The battle is now fairly joined in what could be termed as a a classic master piece of asymmetrical war in modern conditions. On one side is a super power with a military budget that could swallow up the Iranian budget (rated as $43 billion at a black market rate), a deployable armed force that is three times that of Tehran, and hundreds of notches higher in terms of technology. The US’ GDP defies comparison at a time when the rial has halved in value and foreign exchange reserves stand at less than $86bn, to which it may not have full access.

On the other side is Iran, with a deployable hatred, a functioning army and an air force, a coastal defence system that can put US ships at risk, and lastly, the largest and most diversified range of missiles in the region

That includes cruise and ballistic missiles with the Soumar cruise said to have a range of more than 2,000 km. Its cutting edge is its non-conventional forces that includes some 300,000 recruits in just the PFU’s, some 25,000 in the Hezbollah and an equal number of reservists. Then there are the Houthis in Yemen who are funded by Iran in fighting the Saudis, as well as Shia Pakistani and Afghan recruits called the Fatemiyoun and the Zenabiyoun units, fighting in Syria under Teheran’s tutelage.

Support for Teheran is already evident.

Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah has already called for revenge. The fire-breathing Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr has called upon his Mahdi army to be ready. There are not likely to be any shortage of volunteers. Crucially, as Pakistan has proved over the last two decades, asymmetric war is inexpensive, and relatively easy to fight. Iran has already shown its capability to launch deadly attacks, showcased with the 17 minute operation against Saudi installations using 18 drones and three low flying missiles; all this despite the kingdoms much vaunted security.

Launching a suicide barrage against cargo ships of alliance members in the Gulf is well within its capability, as are attacks against US installations across the region and beyond. As Konstantin Kosachev head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament predicted, Iranian retribution “will not take long.”

But Does Iran Want a War?

The point, however, remains as to whether the regime wants to walk the whole nine yards. Even as cries of revenge reverberate within the country, Tehran’s leaders are more than aware that notwithstanding burning of US flags and passionate speeches, Iranians are also tired of an endless war and the economic decay that goes with it. Any regime that forces it into another debilitating conflict will find it hard to survive. Almost the same can be said of the US president.

Apart from divisions within his own administration, there is the strong opposition from Alliance partners in Europe, evident most recently in the NATO summit 2019 in London, where France, Germany and the UK opted to sidestep sanctions on Iran ‘in a system operating outside the US financial system’.

Would be ‘near allies’ like India will be hit hard by the oil spike already evident, at a time when the global economy is struggling.

Never has it been so hard to be a friend to the US. Teheran has two options.

One, it can launch a series of small assassination programs that it has proved to be reasonably adept at. One instance is the 2012 attempt to target Israeli diplomats in Delhi, and a similar attack in Georgia. This could be expanded considerably, but is unlikely to satisfy a raging public, or national pride. A second option is to go it big and attack.

The question that arises is what level of attack Teheran would consider essential for ‘victory’.

In asymmetric war in modern conditions, victory is in the eye of the beholder on television. A US frigate sinking after an attack by an Iranian mini submarine is a picture worth a thousand words. US forces can easily bomb Teheran into rubble in retaliation. But that’s hardly a great win for a Goliath against tiny David. Besides, if there’s anything that has been proved in the last few decades of US adventurism it is this ; that a smoking and disintegrating rubble will still fight back.

As Soleimani himself raged in 2018 “You may start the war, but we will be the ones to determine its end”. Soleimani may be dead, but his war isn’t likely to end in a hurry.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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