Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts

According to a September 23, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Netanyahu Is Said to View Iran Deal as a Possible Trap,” Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu intended to step up his effort to blunt a diplomatic offensive by Iran, and planned to warn the UN that a nuclear deal with Iran could be a trap similar to the one set by North Korea eight years ago.  The White House reportedly sought to allay the fears of Israeli officials, assuring them that US President Barack Obama will judge Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by his actions, not his words, and that the US is not planning to prematurely ease the economic sanctions against Iran that have hurt Iran’s economy.  However, Rouhani’s words and actions may not be the key ones for the Obama administration to watch in Iran.  Attention certainly must be given to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the source of Rouhani’s authority to act.  Khamenei’s decisions, often presented in public statements, determine the course of Iran’s foreign and defense policy.  Yet, the official, whose position and history of engaging in security activities of great consequence to Iran makes him certainly worthy of attention from the US and its Western partners, is Iran’s new Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan.

Although Rouhani served as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Dehghan, until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as Secretary of the Political, Defense, and Security Committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  The  Expediency Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  The Expediency Council is often called the “voice” of the Iranian Revolution.  Given the power and prominence the Council’s members have in Iran’s government, it seemed a rather peculiar for an official to leave such a venerable post to accept a cabinet position.

Rouhani has expressed the desire to engage in a dialogue with the US and its Western partners, hoping to tackle issues that have led to Iran’s international isolation and economic pressure, and especially reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. To some degree, it has already been initiated with US through an exchange of messages between Obama and Rouhani.  Washington and Western capitals have been eager to accept the opportunity to revolve the nuclear issue might be at hand and an acceptable entreaty could be drawn.  Yet, Rouhani’s role may only be one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders may very likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, under the auspices of Dehghan and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), away from Rouhani’s purview, they would secretly continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. Turning back now, after getting so close may very likely be viewed by Iran’s leaders as counterproductive and counterintuitive.   If this is truly the case, rather than focus on Rouhani’s words and deeds, Dehghan, now in full control of the daily activities of Iran’s military forces, would be the one to watch as a better way to discern how Iran is actually proceeding on the nuclear issue.

Dehghan’s Reputation For Handling Iran’s Most Difficult Tasks

Dehghan was first discussed by greatcharlie.com in the August 23, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles.”  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran and former acting IRGC commander of Isfahan.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives, along with their leader, Imad Mughniyah, the commander of Hezbollah’s military-wing, to engage in martyrdom operations against the US Marine Corps barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  Later Dehghan would become commander of District 1 of Sarallah and Sarallah Operations Headquarters, commander of the IRGC Air Force, commander of the IRGC Air Force, acting chairman of the joint headquarters of the IRGC, and general manager of the Cooperatives Foundation of the IRGC.  As an IRGC commander, Dehghan was a fearless, devout and dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic.  What he undoubtedly did best on the Expediency Council was to advise Khamenei on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military as a means to accomplish its political goals in the face of US and Western opposition.  Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his skills as an administrator were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was most likely selected in order to take command of the day to day activities of Iran’s fighting forces and to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone with his experience, capabilities, and reliability could be counted upon to direct.

“Heroic Flexibility” and Dehghan’s Likely Marching Orders on the Nuclear Issue

Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC,  is inextricably tied to that organization.  In one of the earliest photos of Dehghan while Defense Minister, he is appears in his IRGC uniform, sitting with other cabinet members in a meeting with Khamenei.  Dehghan has been a conspicuously quiet member of Rouhani’s cabinet, virtually absent in the media and rarely providing public statements or holding press conferences.  This is rather unusual particularly since he is responsible for Iran’s military forces.  In Iran, top commanders typically are highly visible, very often making very passionate declarations of their determination to defend Iran’s interests.  Such avowals by military officials are an accepted way to assure the Iranian people that the country can promote and protect its interests, and deter opponents from attacks against it.  During his confirmation process for defense minister, Dehghan explained to the Parliament that he wanted to engage in soft power enhancement, by means of increased visibility and promote the image of the armed forces.  Dehghan apparently did not mean to include himself in that effort.  The reticent Dehghan even has a lower profile than Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s secretive, elite IRGC unit, the Quds Force.

Given his decades of devotion to the IRGC, there can be no doubt that precious little difference between Dehghan’s views and those espoused by the organization.  To that extent, Dehghan would most likely agree with an IRGC statement (translated into English in a September 22, 2013 article in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News), which explained the IRGC “would support initiatives that were in line with national interests and strategies set forth by the theocratic leader and highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”  According to this, Dehghan and the commanders of the 125,000 IRGC force who are hand-picked by Khamenei, will act only under the concept and intent proffered by Supreme Leader.

A key concept recently proclaimed by Khamenei on the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy is “heroic flexibility.”  The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan.  As is characteristic of Dehghan, but perhaps unusual for a Defense Minister, he has not offered his own interpretation of heroic flexibility and how it would guide his ministry’s activities.  Yet, as understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western partners, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, translated into English and published by Arash Karami on the blog, Iran Pulse, “heroic inflexibility is an exalted and invaluable concept fully within the goals of the Islamic Republic.”  He further explained the concept meant “in no way would Iran retreat from fundamental lines and national and vital interests and this right is something that without [sic] concessions can be exchanged.”  That essentially means that only on issues in which Iran had an interest but no rights, could Iranian concessions be negotiated.  He went on to state: “Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced.”  Specifically on the nuclear issue, Salami explained: “For instance, the right to have peaceful nuclear energy according to the criteria that has been secured for us, and this right cannot be modified and there is no flexibility on it, however, within this framework a political flexibility as a tactic is acceptable because we do not want to create a dead end in solving the political issue.”  Therefore, for the IRGC on the nuclear issue, there is no possibility of Iranian concessions, however, given the possibility that the US and its Western partners, themselves, might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise, talks must take place to give them a chance to do so.

An appraisal to this using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility may be that Iran needs to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners. Under that approach, Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take the path of diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Dehghan and elements of the IRGC would take a path to accomplish the goals set for Iran’s nuclear energy program.  Placing the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program in Dehghan’s purview is reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities include promoting Iran’s defense industry capabilities in meeting strategic requirements, placing an emphasis on passive defense in compliance with the requirements of development projects and land use planning, and linking knowledge, power, and strategy in industry and Defense Ministry missions.  Assuredly, Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots are currently guided by Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, under the IRGC’s interpretation of it.  That being the case, it is very likely they are presently engaged in a dual-track approach.  A statement provided by the IRGC appears to provide a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declares: “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of WH officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction.”  This quote would indicate that IRGC thinking is influenced by what its commanders view were past negative interactions with the West, and a dual-track approach will assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

What Would Convince the IRGC That a Dual-Track Approach Would Work?

When Dehghan was a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, he was already part of the process by which Iran developed a way to quietly take steps in opposition to the US in order to reach its goals.  Long before Khamenei’s declaration of his heroic flexibility concept, approaches and methods, derived from ideas very similar to his idea, were already being on Syria and on the nuclear issue.  As discussed in the August 3, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in the West, But Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” initially, the Iranians consider in advance how its opponents might attempt to defeat or disrupt US efforts.  Plans are rapidly implemented to avoid detection and a possible response.  Every moment of time is viewed in itself as an opportunity to shape a situation.  This is how the initial Quds Force commander in Syria, IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shateri, operated with all Iranian forces from 2011 until his death there in 2013.  He managed the rapid deployment of Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and Iraqi shi’a militiamen into Syria, and shaped-up Syrian Armed Forces as needed, quickly trained, and armed the Syrian shabiha or paramilitaries and organized them into a fighting force, the National Defense Front.  IRGC Major General Qassem Suleimani, who took over for Shateri as Iran’s commander in Syria, has taken the same tact.  Political leaders and policymakers in the US are perceived in Tehran as willing to make the assumption that every situation in foreign policy can be favorably altered with money or the application of military force later.  Delays in proposed and threatened military action would usually be due to some domestic political consideration such as presidential elections and mid-term Congressional elections  Concerning the nuclear issue, the same success using this approach can be observed.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, progress continued to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iran is aware that once a sufficient level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle, and a new situation immediately exists.  At that point, Iran may calculate that further sanctions or threats of action against Iran, except among some of its neighbors, would unlikely be viewed as constructive or acceptable internationally.  Further, Iran, again, would know that it would be less likely to face any consequences if that type of achievement occurs when for example, mid-term elections next year, have greater meaning to US political leaders.

Events surrounding the US response to the Assad regime’s August 21, 2013, use of chemical weapons provide the latest yardstick by which Iran can measure the prospect for attaining its goals under Khamenei’s heroic flexibility concept.  US delays left the door open for Assad to secure his interests.  Obama appeared to agonize over the decision to take military action and delayed doing so.  The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, indicated he was reluctant to take action, uncertain as to its possible impact upon the Syrian civil war’s outcome.  The majority of the US Congress prepared to withhold their support for military action, concerned mostly by the possibility that as a consequence, rogue Islamic militants would be in a better position on the ground.  While that transpired, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad managed, through a Russian proposal, to avoid military action for the time being, by declaring its chemical stockpiles, surrendering them for destruction to the UN, and becoming a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Assad even managed to acquire the spotlight on the world stage.  He even received praise from some states for coming clean about chemical stockpile, while never confessing to carrying out the gas attacks.

Assessment

Iran is still a long way from getting the US and its Western partners to compromise.  For Iran, such demands would mean more than just modifying its program, but keeping it intact.  For Iran, compromise may actually equate to an act of surrender.  Iran would most likely be required to: cease all enrichment of uranium and agree to the removal of all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.  The request itself would come to Khamenei and other with seniority in the Iranian government as an effort to humiliate the Islamic Republic.

The US and its Western partners have been impressed and inspired by Rouhani’s words and his deeds so far.  Small steps have been taken by the US and Iran to build confidence and trust.  However, the relationship between the two sides has been less than congenial for some time.  The ease at which Rouhani has approached the entire matter perhaps should have been cause for immediate pause. Focusing on his efforts avoids the need for officials in Washington and other Western capitals to look more in-depth at what the Iranians are doing despite claims of being vigilant.  Yet, as discussed here, whether Rouhani very efficiently and effectively pursues a peaceful solution, or falters, may not be relevant in the long run.  Potentially, his efforts may be overcome by Dehghan’s effort to reach the goals of the nuclear energy program.  Iran is so close to breakout capacity at this point that it perhaps would make little sense to turn back.  If not careful, the US and its Western partners may find the next step will not require deciding whether Iran’s nuclear program can continue.  Instead, the next step might actually require deciding on whether a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran is something that they can accept.

The Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hossein Dehghan

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