The commander of the Revolutionary Guards has announced that Iran must adopt a more offensive stance, signaling a dramatic shift in Iranian policy — as well as an intention to apply its tactics against civil society to a broader military sphere.
“Until now the strategy of the Islamic Republic has been defensive. But it seems that from now on we must be ready to take the offensive and go after the enemy,” announced Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, Commander of the IRGC Ground Forces, endorsed the shift in policy, saying on the same day: “the best defense is offense.” [Persian links]
The two senior commanders were referring to “preemptive war,” a policy adopted by President George W. Bush in 2003 when the United States and its allies invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein and the Preemptive War
Preemptive war is a military endeavor against a target that is perceived to present an imminent danger of attack and which requires military action to neutralize or defeat the target before the danger materializes. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in 2001, the United States under President George W. Bush set out to fight terrorism. Bush announced that the first step in the war against terrorism must be to prevent terrorist attacks from taking place. In other words, the terrorists must be attacked before they can attack.
The US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was an application of the preemptive war policy. Bush administration officials repeatedly said that Saddam’s government had failed to cooperate with UN observers and the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and this could only mean that Saddam wanted to hide Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons. The George W. Bush administration argued that the danger must averted by invading Iraq before Saddam could use these weapons.
Apart from the United Kingdom and a few others, most other countries referred to this policy as “unilateralism” and declared that the invasion of Iraq based on the policy of preemptive strike violated Iraq’s sovereignty and independence — and the UN charter that prohibits such attacks.
Nevertheless, in 2006 the White House published a new “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” [PDF], declaring that the US will not entertain any doubts when planning to attack regimes that it believes have hostile intentions or possess weapons of mass destruction. This new strategy, articulated and signed by President Bush, was the theoretical text for the Bush Doctrine’s preemptive war. Before the 9/11 attacks, the US strategy had mainly been based on deterrence and the containment of unfriendly countries such as Iran and Iraq through sanctions. But after September 2001, Bush’s government adopted the policy of preemptive war to counter serious threats including weapons of mass destruction.
George W. Bush had put the idea of preemptive war into action even before the theory was codified. The US invasion of Iraq took place based on evidence that was not accepted by either UN observers or International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Despite opposition from a large section of the international community and from the public, the US and Britain launched the invasion of Iraq.
Iran was Officially Against Preemptive War
Iran, Iraq’s neighbor with which it had fought an eight-year war in the 1980s, opposed the preemptive war, believing that it would spread unilateralism and would pose a danger to international peace and security. This position continued well into the presidency of Donald Trump and his limited military strikes on Syria.
On the whole, the world community does not accept preemptive war as a legitimate theory, and international laws and conventions do not recognize its legitimacy without the approval of the United Nations. Not only has Iran been against preemptive war, it has always expressed worry that if military actions such as preemptive wars gain legitimacy, Iran could become a target.
As part of its opposition to preemptive war for any reason, Iran can take pride in the fact that it has never attacked another country and when it has entered a war, it has only been in defense and to drive out an aggressor from its land. But now, during the recent military maneuvers on Qeshm Island, comments from senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, including that Iran “must invade [even if] the enemy [only] has any intention against our country,” give a strong indication of an embrace of preemptive war.
But in one sense, this stance is not entirely new. In fact, the Revolutionary Guards have been pursuing this policy within the borders of Iran and against Iranian citizens. The most prominent example was the disputed 2009 presidential election, when the Guards arrested and harassed political and civil activists, justifying their actions by arguing that activists had “intentions” against the regime and wanted to “bring the regime down through [the] election.” In other words, “intent” was the only thing needed and individuals did not have to do anything to become targets of oppression.
Now it would appear that the Revolutionary Guards are keen to extend this practice outside the borders of Iran as well. Of course, it is possible that the two IRGC top commanders’ statements are simply talk and that officials at the highest level of the Islamic Republic regime have so far not taken any such decision. How the international community would react if the Revolutionary Guards actually did put the doctrine of preemptive war into action is certainly one consideration. But putting this aside, even from the viewpoint of international laws and conventions, the mere expression of such ideas can be interpreted to mean that Iran has plans or the intention of taking illegal military action against another country.
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Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Commander Threatens Trump, July 26, 2018
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Guards Sell Missile Program to the Iranian Public, June 22, 2018
Revolutionary Guards Respond to Pompeo’s “Empty Bluff”, May 23, 2018
Why Rouhani is Silent on US Sanctions Against Revolutionary Guards, October 15, 2017
Revolutionary Guards Commander Threatens the US Military, October 8, 2017
Has Israel Infiltrated the Revolutionary Guards?, July 14, 2017
Iran's Armed Diplomacy in the Middle East, July 12, 2017
Iran's Revolutionary Guards vs Rouhani, June 26, 2017
Did Revolutionary Guards Rig the 2009 Election?, June 3, 2014