July 2, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 451

Iran in Preparations, Deployment to Withstand Possible Attack by West

July 2, 2008 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 451


Despite confident pronouncements by Iranian leaders that the West will not dare to attack Iran's nuclear facilities,[1] the Iranian regime has, on orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, been preparing for this eventuality by means of a comprehensive emergency plan called "Passive Defense."[2] Examination of the plan reveals that the regime's main fear is of an attack on Iran's vital infrastructures, which would ultimately lead to its downfall. Therefore, alongside a defense doctrine based on preemptive attack, long-range ballistic missiles, and asymmetric guerilla warfare,[3] it has formulated a doctrine of "passive defense," based mainly on cooperation between regional Passive Defense Councils and the regime's popular militia, the Basij.

In fact, analysis of the plan reveals that the Basij plays a central role in it. Gholam Reza Jalali, chairman of the Passive Defense Organization and former IRGC commander, stated that "in essence, the Basij is indirectly responsible for running the country in times of war," and that in the wake of a possible attack, the way to handle the crisis would be "to rely exclusively upon the abilities of the Basij."[4] A similar point was made by former interior minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, who was appointed in May 2007 as Ahmadinejad's special representative for the Passive Defense plan. At a November 2007 Basij conference, he stressed the pivotal role of the Basij in this plan, adding that "today, the Basij is the [force] defending the country."[5]

IRGC commanders likewise emphasized the importance of the Basij in time of war, stating that it would operate both on the battlefield alongside the IRGC, and on the home front. IRGC top commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said: "The Basij is a loyal and highly motivated force, which plays a central, fundamental, and decisive role in [Iran's] asymmetrical warfare."[6] Former IRGC intelligence chief Majid Mir-Ahmadi stated that "the Basij is willing to carry out any martyrdom operation for the sake of the [Islamic] Revolution."[7]

It should be stressed that, upon his appointment as IRGC commander, Jafari strengthened the Basij and made it subordinate to the IRGC, as part of a general reorganization of the Basij.[8] On December 2007, Jafari said that the Basij comprises some 12.5 million volunteers, with about 5.5. million of them women, and stated that the target figure is 20 million, as specified by the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.[9]

Iran's Passive Defense Plan

According to Passive Defense Organization Chairman Gholam Reza Jalali, the plan aims to utilize all nonmilitary strategies that could minimize the danger to the regime and its stability.[10] One method, he said, is to "conceal and protect the country's important and sensitive facilities, [which] would minimize their vulnerability [to attack] and allow the continued administration of the country in times of crisis."[11] Jalali explained that at such times, it was crucial to maintain contact between the leadership and the people, and to ensure the continuation of vital state services to the people. Another role of the Passive Defense Organization, he said, was to "provide information and handle public opinion in times of crisis."[12] He added: "We must familiarize ourselves with the threats posed by the enemy – [for instance with his ability] to use his technological superiority in various domains such as economy, society, medicine, biology and so on. [This will enable us] to protect ourselves effectively [against these threats] or at least to minimize our vulnerability as much as possible."[13]

Jalali further stated that, according to assessments, the attack on Iran could be prolonged, so Iran had to minimize its chances of succeeding: "It is clear that the [war] on Iran cannot end with a [single] surprise attack, and the aim of passive defense is to make sure that this [does not happen]."[14]

The Effect of the 2003 Iraq War on Iran's Defense Doctrine

Statements by Iranian leaders reveal that Iran's defense doctrine has been profoundly affected by the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the nature of the war there. Jalali stated, "In 2003, on [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei's orders, [Iran] began to establish [Passive] Defense Councils in all [the state's] facilities, in order to coordinate [the activity of] the armed and the popular forces."[15] In a 2006 interview, he said, "Khamenei instructed the armed forces general headquarters to identify Iran's vulnerabilities in various domains, and to suggest ways of minimizing these vulnerabilities, in full coordination with the government – [tailoring the solutions] in each domain to the nature of its activities."[16]

Jafari pointed to the necessity of adapting Iran's defense doctrine to the profound change brought about by the Iraq war: "The Passive Defense Plan," he said, "is [necessitated] by the new circumstances in which Iran has found itself since 2003." Jafari added, "Though the enemy lacks the courage to stage a ground attack against Iran, and such a possibility seems very remote, this does not mean that [the enemy] will not carry out some [other] operation against Iran... The threat [faced by Iran] is not identical to the threat [that was faced by] Iraq or Afghanistan. In the present circumstances, [a ground attack] seems unlikely, but there is no knowing what circumstances will hold in the future... The enemy pays attention to [Iran's] vulnerabilities, and the Passive Defense Plan has a direct bearing on this. Since matters of defense are handled directly by [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, there is constant and comprehensive activity in this domain."[17]

IRGC commander Jafari explained the importance attributed by the regime to this plan, saying: "One of the effective ways to deal with the America's asymmetrical threat against Iran, [which has existed] for the past six or seven years, is through basic operations of 'Passive Defense'...[18] Passive Defense is [also] one of the ways to deal with the pressure exerted on the people in times of war. The goal is to involve them [in defense efforts], and this is even more important than our military readiness."[19]

The Aims of War Have Changed – From Occupying Land to Regime Change

The 2003 Iraq war has also changed the Iranian regime's view of the nature of future wars. In an interview with the Mehr news agency, Jalali stated, "Today, the style of warfare has changed. The primary aim of the enemy is no longer to occupy the country but to change its regime – and this must be brought to the attention of all of society."[20]

Jalali made a similar point in an interview with Sobh-e Sadeq, Khamenei's mouthpiece in the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij. He said: "The [nature of] war has changed, and today wars are classified into four generations. The third generation was the Iran-Iraq war, which took place on the battlefield using conventional weapons and ammunition. After that, we witnessed some changes. Thus, for example, in its first attack on Iraq in 1992, America used 85 percent conventional ammunition and 15% smart bombs. In contrast, during the 2003 Iraq war, [the ratio] was 15% conventional ammunition and 85% smart bombs. In a future war of the fourth generation, only smart and guided bombs will be used, [i.e.] specific types of bomb, depending on the type of attack.

"...In [the era of] new wars, the Americans are using warfare as a means of changing political regimes. In other words, the ultimate goal is no longer to occupy land but to change the political regime...

"It follows that we must first of all know the enemy, and [find out] how he plans to confront us and what his tactics are. America is focusing on [tactics of] attack from a distance... as [used] in the 2006 Lebanon war, for example. According to this tactic, the enemy strikes from far away, so that we cannot confront him directly. The main threat is from the air or sea, and there is no ground warfare."[21]

The Nature of a Possible U.S. Attack

Jalali expressed Iran's concern that the West would attack Iran from the sea and air with the aim of destroying vital infrastructure, ultimately bringing about the downfall of the regime. He said:

"With military bases and forces around [Iran], America has access to the entire territory of the country. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a political regime that relies upon the [Iranian] people... If the enemy aims to change the regime, it can achieve this by disrupting the [regime's ability] to administer the population. To this end, the enemy will attempt to paralyze infrastructures and the vital institutions of the regime, in order to sow dissatisfaction among the people.

"Under these circumstances, the war and the administration of the population are inseparably linked. That is, the enemy will try to destroy the infrastructures [vital to] people's lives, and we must protect the people while providing necessary services. According to some analyses, the [2006] Lebanon war was 'a war of bridges,' because Israel destroyed all bridges in Lebanon, large and small, in order to cut off all land routes. In other words, in that war, the immediate aim was to [destroy] the infrastructures [that permit] administering the population, but the ultimate aim was to render such administration impossible.

"Asked in an interview about the nature of a possible attack on Iran, and [in particular] on Tehran, a U.S. colonel said that... [U.S. forces] would be deployed around the city, would strike its infrastructures from the air, and would, with the help of elements affiliated with [the U.S.], sow dissatisfaction among people. In other words, using these two methods – destruction of infrastructure and psychological warfare – [they] will instigate a popular uprising against the government. To confront this kind of threat, we must employ all [our] defense strategies and abilities. This is asymmetrical warfare, since our military capabilities are not on par with those of the U.S. Hence, if we want to stand up [to the U.S.], we must employ 'passive defense' along with 'active defense' [i.e. military warfare], striving to achieve a 'combined defense' [strategy]."[22]

Regime Preparations for a Possible Attack

Statements by Jalali in various interviews attest to the serious consideration that has gone into the Passive Defense Plan. According to Jalali, the plan involves the following: Ranking the various government ministries and vital institutions, including oil installations[23] and nuclear facilities,[24] according to their importance – [e.g.] 'vital,' 'sensitive,' 'important' – and according to the likelihood of their being hit;[25] forming regional committees in the central districts, with plans to form such committees in the rest of the country as well;[26] establishing procedures for implementing emergency mechanisms; establishing training workshops;[27] conducting passive defense courses at universities;[28] and holding drills to increase public readiness. Jalali reported, "Last year, [Iran] readied 45,000 schools [for the eventuality of an attack], and carried out several drills; this year [it] will carry out several [additional] drills and programs."[29]

Jalali added that Iran could guarantee the safety of its energy installations by establishing common energy interests with neighboring countries: "We can minimize our vulnerability by establishing common interests and creating mutual dependence with our neighbors, for instance by means of pipelines such as the Peace Pipeline [i.e. the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline]... For security reasons, I cannot discuss the main activities carried out by the [Passive Defense] Organization; the results of its activities will [only] be evident in special circumstances."[30]

The Regional Passive Defense Councils

In a Sobh-e Sadeq article titled "The Role of the Basij in the Passive Defense [Plan]," Jalali described the preparations being carried out as part of this plan, and stressed the pivotal and vital role of the Basij in its implementation:

"Iran's passive defense [doctrine encompasses] all measures that [can] minimize the danger to the country and its stability, and do not involve the use of arms. In light of the threat to [our] political regime, we must reinforce the stability of this regime through effective [measures of] passive defense. [In fact], there are four elements whose vulnerability to an enemy [attack] must be minimized: the regime, the government, the people, and the defense [i.e. the armed forces]. The regime is the main [authority] that has the ability to administer [the country], provide the [citizens'] needs, and [maintain] the contact between the top leaders, the government and the people. The government [maintains] the infrastructures [and provides services] like sanitation, health care, energy, food, information, security etc... [And] the people are the target of the enemy's [psychological warfare]... The defense [i.e., the armed forces] is not part of this discussion...

"Managing the crisis resulting from war – i.e., administering the country's [home front], provinces, cities, neighborhoods, apparatuses and organizations... – is considered an extremely difficult [task]. We believe that the solution to this problem lies in relying exclusively on the abilities of the Basij. In fact, the Basij is indirectly responsible for the management [of the home front] in time of war, and this is its vital role. Luckily, Iran is one the few countries that has an organized Basij force. In order to enable the Basij to manage [the home front] on a national level, in coordination with the Interior Ministry and with the authorization of the President's Office, a region-based apparatus has been established, known as the regional Passive Defense councils. These [councils] are under the authority of the province governor, and of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij [forces, which are likewise under his authority] and which aid him in matters of passive defense.

"As part of these councils, eight work groups have been formed in several provinces, dealing with threats, intelligence, crisis management, sanitation, health care, etc... and efforts are underway [to form similar councils] in other provinces as well... Another step that has been taken is to familiarize the various government ministries and their apparatuses with the Passive Defense Organization...

"The first task of this organization is to gain professional knowledge of the enemy and of the threats he poses. Threats exist in every domain, and this must be taken into consideration. In every [passive defense council], there must be a team that is responsible for identifying potential threats and dangers, and this team must consist of experts.

"The [organization's] second task is to work in coordination... with the Basij. In other words, they must enter the scene and take part [in operations].

"The third task is crisis management, [because] the various mechanisms and organizations [must continue] to function in times of war. Maintaining contact between the leader [Khamenei] and people – [which is crucial] to the people's sense of security – is carried out by means of the [Iranian] broadcasting service, so technical [measures must be taken] to minimize the vulnerability of this establishment. Other apparatuses and ministries must maintain the same level of readiness, [so that] Basij [members] can replace [absent employees] and do the [necessary] work. This does not require a [special] decree – the Basij will act spontaneously [as needed].

"The fourth task is information management. The responsibility for guiding the public rests with the Broadcasting Agency, the universities, the Culture and Education Ministry and with other relevant organizations.

"The fifth task is maintaining security and protecting [sensitive information]. This is carried out independently at the city level, and is the responsibility of the police and other relevant apparatuses. The [ultimate] responsibility rests with the government ministries and agencies, but the Basij must also help [with this task]. And [since] the enemy places special emphasis on the use of a 'fifth column' and agents, the Basij must be alert. If a certain facility is [attacked], the Basij must immediately take control of it and prevent people from entering it."[31]

Passive Defense Strategy

A September 3, 2007 article in Sobh-e Sadeq revealed the importance attached by the regime to protecting digital data in times of war. The article suggested protecting data by transfering it to microfilm, as part of the Passive Defense Plan:

"A new method of destroying data is [deploying] electromagnetic bombs, which have been used several times in battles in Yoguslavia and Iraq. [These bombs emit] a bright flash or light, [and then] everything is plunged into darkness. The smell of burning electronic parts fills the air. Wire insulation burns away, delicate phone lines are severed, and, most importantly, every single byte of electronic data is erased from computer [memory banks]. At the same time, no harm at all is caused to human beings. This means the loss of all data [pertaining to] command, [and all] digitally stored maps and technical data...

"The answer to this threat is to store data in microfilm databanks, which can keep large amounts of information far from these threats, and can be used by those in charge to restore [digital] data [that has been erased]... Such microfilm banks are an important component of the Passive Defense Plan..."[32]

* Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] For example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said recently at a military ceremony in Fars province: "Everyone knows that the enemies of the Iranians do not have the courage to stage a military attack on this great and ancient nation." Hamshahri (Iran), May 1, 2008. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said recently that "Bush's time is over... and he is unable to harm even one centimeter of Iran's sacred land." ISNA (Iran), June 11, 2008. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 1800, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: U.S. Military Commanders Stopped President Bush from Attacking Iran," June 11, 2008,; MEMRI TV Clip No. 1486, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Volunteers to Serve as Human Shield in Natanz Nuclear Facilities," May 27, 2007,

[2] The chairman of the defense subcommittee of Iran's Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy, Gholam Reza Karami, explained that, owing to its importance, this plan has been allocated a separate budget of 1,660 billion riyals. Aftab (Iran), May 16, 2008; Mehr (Iran), March 14, 2007.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 407, "Iran's Response to Western Warnings: ‘First Strike,' ‘Preemptive Attack,' Long-Range Ballistic Missiles, 'Asymmetric [Guerilla] Warfare,'" November 28, 2007, Iran's Response to Western Warnings: "First Strike," "Preemptive Attack," Long-Range Ballistic Missiles, "Asymmetric [Guerilla] Warfare" .

[4] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), May 19, 2008.

[5] Iribnews (Iran), November 27, 2007.

[6] Fars (Iran), October 10, 2008.

[7] Fars (Iran), November 27, 2008.

[8] Rooz (Iran), September 30, 2007.

[9] Fars (Iran), December 10, 2007.

[10] In a May 6, 2008 article, Fars defined the plan as "the sum total of non-military measures that can minimize the danger to [Iran's] forces, facilities and [transportation] arteries in times of military conflict."

[11] Iranian TV, September 24, 2007.

[12] Mehr (Iran), November 8, 2007.

[13] Mehr (Iran), August 24, 2007.

[14] Fars (Iran), November 8, 2005.

[15] Mehr (Iran), May 14, 2008.

[16] Fars November 8, 2005.

[17] Aftab (Iran), November 27, 2007.

[18] Jam-e Jam (Iran), June 28, 2008.

[19] Aftab, November 27, 2007

[20] Mehr (Iran), May 15, 2008.

[21] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), May 19, 2008.

[22] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), May 19, 2008.

[23] In late May 2007, Jalali stated at a conference of Iranian gas industries heads that "employing 'passive defense'... especially in [protecting] the oil and gas infrastructures, will be an important factor in minimizing the damage [that might be caused them]... in times of war." Shana, May 23, 2007. In an August 24, 2007 interview for Mehr, he stated that among the steps that will be taken are fortifying oil storage facilities with steel, building facilities out of concrete, and fortifying various storage facilities against bombs.

[24]Jalali stated that a nuclear installation monitored by IAEA is included in the Passive Defense Plan. Mehr (Iran), August 24, 2007.

[25] Mehr (Iran), August 24, 2007.

[26] In a recent interview, Jalali stated that "local committees of the Passive Defense Organization were formed last year in the central provinces, as well as in Esfahan and Khuzestan, and this year such committees will be formed in the rest of the country." Mehr (Iran), May 14, 2008.

[27] One such workshop was opened in January 2008. See Mehr report with photos:, January 29, 2008.

[28] According to Jalali, Malik Ashtar University of Technology and Imam Hussein University are offering courses on passive defense, dealing, inter alia, with fortifying and camouflaging [facilities]. Fars (Iran), November 8, 2005.

[29] Mehr (Iran), May 15, 2008. During Ja'afari's June 2008 visit to the IRGC navy headquaarters in the Persian Gulf, a drill was carried out to practice implementing various stages in the Passive Defense Plan. Mehr (Iran), June 19, 2008.

[30] Mehr (Iran), August 24, 2007.

[31] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), September 5, 2008.

[32] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), September 3, 2007.

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