- - Monday, May 20, 2019

Talking about regime change in Iran is an exercise in folly. The Iranian government is as complex as that of the United States without any of the virtues of the American system. A strike on the White House that killed any sitting U.S. president would not fundamentally change the course of American foreign policy. We shouldn’t expect Iran to be different.

In thinking about how to react to Iranian mischief in the present crisis, it might be helpful to put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranian leadership and look at challenges and opportunities from their viewpoint. This does not mean being sympathetic, but it can help us to understand how they may react to American initiatives.

The reality is that Iran — like the United States — has three competing centers of power; but none of them is truly democratic, nor are they equal. None of these centers can act unilaterally without fear of adverse reaction from one or both of the other two. Consequently, Iranian decision-making tends to be a ponderous process of seeking consensus. This makes their turning circle slow. This can be an American advantage in a fast-moving crisis, but it can also be very dangerous if the Iranians panic and overreact.

I teach a class in red-teaming (alternative analysis) at the graduate level, and our capstone exercise is a multi-sided crisis war game in which the three Iranian power centers play against not only against the Americans, but against each other.

First among non-equals is the Guardian Council. Although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the “Supreme Leader,” he is actually the face of the council which is the most powerful of the three Iranian elite power centers. This caste group is hereditary and represents the largest landholders in the country. The survival of the group’s ultimate power is its paramount interest, and nothing — not even the pursuit of nuclear weapons — can be allowed to threaten that prerogative.

The Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) has effective control over the nation’s military and de-facto control of foreign policy; this includes the management of surrogates such as Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis. Its senior leaders were the action arm of the 1979 revolution and led the charge against Iraq in the first Gulf War. Like the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, it is also a “for profit” organization with tentacles deep inside the economy; this includes the nuclear power industry. While the Supreme Leader may have ultimate authority over foreign policy and military decisions, he must be wary of getting too far removed from the position of the IRGC.

The will of the people — such as it is — is represented by the legislature and executive branches of government. This includes the office of the president and the Foreign Ministry. In theory, the president and legislature are popularly elected, but no candidate gets on the ticket without the approval of the Guardian Council; and it is not unusual to see the president and foreign minister slapped down if they get too far head of the ayatollahs. Although the weakest of Iran’s three power centers the executive/legislative complex serves a key purpose. Elections are a gauge of the mood of the populace, and the president can become a scapegoat when things go wrong. No elite group wants to incite a popular uprising such as occurred in 1979.

All three of Iran’s power centers have to consider two major factors that drive the country’s national identity. These are their Shia faith and Persian exceptionalism. Like the Israelis, Iran’s Shiite majority sees itself adrift in a sea of hostile Muslims. The Israelis see all Muslims as a threat, but the Shiites are a minority in a largely hostile Sunni Muslim world.

Second, as Persians, the majority of Iranians see themselves portrayed as bad guys in the West, particularly in movies such as “300.” They have a separate cultural identity from their Arab neighbors and are deeply suspicious of the West — and the United States in particular, not without some justification.

When Americans red team their own potential policies toward Iran, we should consider how our planned action will be perceived by each of their elites which view might impact the Supreme Leader’s final decision. Red-teaming and war gaming will not absolutely predict an Iranian response, but they can be very useful in identifying the issues that will come from our positions. The great Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu advised “to know your enemy as well as you know yourself.” That is still good advice.

• Gary Anderson, who lectures in alternative analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, was a senior member of the Defense Department’s Defense Adaptive Red Team.

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