Our Imaginary Foe

April 25, 2008 Topic: Security Tags: Assembly Of ExpertsDiplomacy

Our Imaginary Foe

Mini Teaser: Finding monsters under the bed and bogeymen in the closet. Why exaggerating the Iranian threat is bad for U.S. foreign policy.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Kemp

IRAN'S THEOCRATIC leaders are not an attractive group of men. Their behavior and their public statements provide much ammunition for those who are convinced their regime should be toppled. Iran is a dangerous country.

But Iran does not pose an existential threat to the United States analogous to imperial Japan, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It is not a rising superpower that threatens to dominate the globe-a regional troublemaker, yes. But "confronting Iran" should not become the guiding focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Rhetoric about Iran's malign propensities has received much attention. A worst-case analysis, most vigorously argued by Norman Podhoretz, an advisor to former-presidential-candidate Rudolph Guiliani, would suggest that once Iran gets hold of nuclear weapons, its messianic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be inclined to use them, especially against Israel. Ahmadinejad and his coterie believe in scenarios that call for a bloody battle between true believers and infidels as the precursor for the return of the Hidden Imam and the establishment of a world government. This is why Iran, unlike other nuclear powers-including the Soviet Union and China during the cold war-may not be susceptible to the logic of deterrence. For this reason they must be stopped from getting the bomb. In the absence of any diplomatic solution this simply calls for a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities.1

While such apocalyptic visions are frightening, to infer, as Podhoretz does, that Ahmadinejad is another Adolf Hitler does not take into account the reality of Iran's strengths and weaknesses. Iran is an important regional power that wants to be taken seriously and have an influence on Middle East geopolitics. Yes, it has energy reserves, a talented, educated population, and a unique geographical position that strides both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea-and it may even soon have the capacity to build nuclear weapons. But its ability to act as a regional hegemon is constrained by political, economic and military limitations. For all the rhetoric about Iran as a new Mideast colossus, the reality is that Iranians are not a martial people.

Iran is an authoritarian theocracy on the political level, but within its own parameters it has a lively and active political culture. The balance of political power in Tehran is adjudicated by the conservative supreme leader, Ali Khameini. He has been successful in reducing the power and influence of the reformists who thrived during the first years of President Mohammad Khatami's terms in office from 1997-2005. Khameini played a complicit role in the surprise election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, but since that time he has kept the new president in check by allowing the pragmatic conservatives, including former-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to wield influence in the National Security Council and other high-level institutions. In 2007, Rafsanjani was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a body that legally has the authority to supervise, choose or dismiss the supreme leader.

As expected, the outcome of Iran's parliamentary elections on March 14 assured that the conservatives retained their overall majority in the parliament. But let us be clear, the hard-line Council of Guardians disqualified many of the reformists' candidates, making it impossible for them to compete in a number of districts. Ahmadinejad can boast that the votes point to popular approval of his nuclear policies. However, the conservatives as a group are disunited and a significant number of pragmatic conservatives will be in the new parliament, including the former-nuclear-negotiator Ali Larijani and the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. They are likely to challenge the president on a number of issues, especially those relating to the poor performance of the Iranian economy, which is in the doldrums and is not attracting the level of foreign investment it needs to modernize its infrastructure and upgrade its oil and natural-gas industries. Thanks to high oil prices, Iran has a cushion of financial reserves, but oil production is down from the high of 6 million barrels per day in 1974 to 3.8 million barrels per day in 2006. Unemployment and inflation remain high. Ahmadinejad has fulfilled very few of the promises for economic relief he made during his election campaign in 2005. Frequent shortages of staple items, such as fuel and food, have led to rationing and subsequent price increases.

One clear indicator of Iran's comparative economic weakness is to contrast it with the growth and investment in massive infrastructure projects that are flourishing across the Gulf in the Arab countries. The emergence of super-rich city-states, flush with unprecedented oil wealth while still militarily weak and dependent upon Asian labor and American military power for prosperity and survival, is an extraordinary development. These city-states are attracting much foreign investment and having a veritable one-upmanship contest; each trying to create more high-rise buildings, resort facilities, duty-free shopping malls and luxury airlines equipped with the most-advanced planes on the market. Dubai is the poster child for this phenomenon, but it has competition in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama and Kuwait City. With the exception of Kuwait, the lifestyle for visitors and expatriates in the other Gulf cities is determinedly secular and open. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, wants to make Dubai an international hub, a financial and tourist center comparable to Hong Kong and Singapore. He plans to make Emirates Airlines the biggest in the world and Dubai the busiest airline hub, surpassing London, New York and Singapore. The airline is currently the world's fastest growing, receiving a delivery of one new Boeing or Airbus plane each month for the next five years. Dubai also plans to build a $33 billion Dubai World Central Airport with six runways-making it the world's largest airport.

Despite their wealth, the small Gulf states know they are vulnerable. Any number of events could bring the whole dreamworld down in ruins in a very short period of time. Everyone in the region remembers what happened to Kuwait in the early days of August 1990 when one of the most prosperous countries in the world was overrun, occupied and trashed by Saddam Hussein's invading army. For this reason the Gulf states are determined to continue close military cooperation with the United States as their protector of last resort. They will provide necessary access and base rights, no matter how nervous they are about U.S. policy in the region, a fact the Iranians well understand.

In terms of defense spending, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are investing far-more money than the mullahs in their military establishments and are upgrading with the most-modern weapons the United States, Europe and Russia can provide. Although the ability of their armed forces to fight in combat can be doubted, as long as they are allied with the United States, their assets are valuable. For example, given the importance of airpower in modern warfare, especially in the Middle East, consider the inventories of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as compared to that of Iran. According to the latest estimate by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the three Arab countries have 512 modern combat aircraft in service, including U.S. F-?15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-18 Hornets, and European Tornados and Mirages. Saudi Arabia has placed an order for 72 Eurofighter Typhoons. In contrast, Iran's total for combat aircraft is 319, which includes large numbers of obsolescent U.S. aircraft, such as the first-generation F-14 Tomcat and Vietnam-vintage F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tigers. Since 1980 the United States has had an embargo on all military supplies to Iran, so they face spare-parts difficulties in attempting to maintain their American-built fleet. Iran is upgrading with new Russian aircraft including Su-24s and MiG-29s, but this modernization is far from complete.

If we add to the power equation U.S. air assets both in the Gulf and Iraq as well as its strategic-bomber fleets that can reach Iran from the continental United States, it is difficult to see how Iran could anytime soon seriously challenge the combined power of the United States and its Arab allies in any major military confrontation in the Gulf. No matter what happens in Iraq, the United States military, especially the U.S. fleet, is not going to leave the Gulf anytime soon. It will be decades before any other external power can replace it as custodian of the vital sea-lanes of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The Asian powers, especially China, India, Japan and South Korea, have growing stakes in the economic prosperity of the Gulf and the secure supply of oil and natural gas. They do not want the United States to leave or draw down its naval assets. As the recently retired head of CENTCOM, Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, concluded in an interview with Esquire when asked about war with Iran, "Get serious. These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."2

Iran's ability to project power to its east is even less impressive. Pakistan and India have deployed nuclear forces in their inventories and are not subject to Iranian hegemony. For many years Iranian security analysts worried about the close ties between Pakistan and the Taliban and spoke of the nightmare of a "Talibanized Pakistan." They may still have reason to be concerned about that scenario. Iran does play an important role in Afghanistan given its geographic and historical relationship with its neighbor. Iran was helpful in establishing the Karzai provisional government in 2001 when its diplomats worked with their U.S. counterparts at the Bonn Conference in December following the defeat of the Taliban by American-led forces. Today it has considerable influence especially in Herat, which was once part of the Persian Empire. But any further encroachment of Iranian influence to the east would be challenged by Pakistan and India.

Essay Types: Essay