A CONTRARY POINT OF VIEW
There has emerged in the last nine months or so, an emerging, if not necessarily at this stage a dominant point of view, among Anglo-American commentators, that with the American debacle in Iraq, and, the Israeli defeat in the Lebanon over the summer, Persia is the emerging Near Eastern hegemon. According to the American analyst, Ray Takeyh, with its ties to its Shiite confreres around the region, but,principally in the Lebanon, Iraq of course, and, to a lesser extent in some of theGulf States, Persia will in the future be 'uncontainable' by any American attempt to construct an American-led, Sunni cordon sanitaire (for his thinking see: "Why American must throw its lot in with the Shia", co-authored with Nikolas Gvosdev",in www.ft.com). Similarly, the ultra-prestigious, Royal Institute of International Affairs, in the summer of 2006, made a major policy statement in which they proclaimed that:
"There is little doubt that Iran [Persia] has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East....Consequently, Iran [Persia] has moved to fill the regional void with an apparent ease that has disturbed both regional players and the United States and its European allies. Iran is one of the most significant and powerful states in the region and its influence spreads well beyond its critical location at the nexus of the Middle East, Turkey, the Central Asia and South Asia"
(see: "Iran,its Neighours and the Regional Crises", in www.chathamhous.org.uk).
I myself have always, as any reader of this journal must have noticed, been highly skeptical of this point of view. Which of course is not to gainsay the fact that in the nuclear weapons negotiations with Persia, the USA, and its allies in the contact group, should in fact, attempt to reach some acceptable type of modus vivendi with Persia, and, not attempt to impose a diktat using sanctions and the threat of the more and greater ones by the UN Security Council. However, unlike Messieurs Takeyh & Gvosdev, et. al., I do not view Persia and its religious confreres as being an unstoppable force in the region. Persia is in purely structural terms, a highly unstable country, with minorities constituting up to forty percent of its population, and, having a weak and unbalanced economy. The best argument for the contrary point of view however, has just been offered up by Mr. Anthony Cordesman, the noted Near Eastern military specialist. In his new report, Cordesman argues that Persia is not the coming regional hegemon, but, a containable state, provided that the USA and its regional Sunni Allies employ the right mix of policies in the future. It is with the hope of bringing some great intelligence and insight into an important issue that I offer up parts of Cordesman's valuable report to the readers of this journal. So please by all means read and enjoy:
"Iran is a state that must be assessed largely in terms of its capabilities, not its intentions. Its political structure is too unstable to predict, and its choice of defensive or offensive options is more likely to be determined by its perceptions of future opportunities and risks than its current policies and strategy. Seen from this perspective, Iran is not a “weakling,” but neither is it capable of major aggression or becoming a regional “hegemon” if it meets effective resistance from its neighbors and the US.
Viewed from the perspective of its capabilities, rather than its intentions, Iran presents five major kinds of current and potential threats:
• The first is as a conventional military power. Iran has limited capabilities today but could become a much more threatening power if it modernized key elements of its forces and its neighbors did not react.
• The second is as an asymmetric threat that can seek to intimidate or attack using unconventional forces. Iran has established a large mix of unconventional forces that can challenge its neighbors in a wide variety of asymmetric wars, including low-level war of attrition.
• The third is to some extent an extension of the second. Iran’s asymmetric and unconventional capabilities give it the ability to use proxies and partners in the form of both state and non-state actors. Iran’s support of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, ties to elements in the Iraqi government, partnership with Syria, and ties to the Hezbollah in Lebanon are all practical examples of such activities.
• The fourth is a potential nuclear power armed with long-range missiles. Iran is a declared chemical weapons power. Its biological weapons efforts are unknown but it seems unlikely that it remained passive in reaction to Iraq’s efforts. It has openly made the acquisition of long-range missile a major objective, and its nuclear research and production programs almost certainly are intended to produce nuclear weapons.
• Finally, Iran presents a potential religious and ideological threat in a region and Islamic world polarized along sectarian lines. For all of the talk about a clash between civilizations, the potential clash within Islam seems far more dangerous.The risk that Sunni and Shi’ite extremists can provoke a broader split between sects and nations could push Iran into a more aggressive religious and ideological struggle.
These are potential threats, not predictions of Iranian actions. They all can be contained with the right choice of policies and military actions. Barring major shifts in its regime, Iran not only is deterrable, but a nation that will probably respond to the proper security incentives over time. The real question may well be whether Iran’s neighbors and the US provide the right mix of deterrence and incentives, and not Iran’s current and potential strength. Given Iran and the region’s recent history, however, there are several steps that Iran’s Arab neighbors need to take to structure the best the mix of deterrence and incentives for Iran and do so in the context of a broader effort to bring regional security:
• Rely on actions not words. If the Arab world has not yet succeeded in talking itself to death, it is not for the want of trying. The Gulf states far too often call for the right actions without really taking them. In contrast, Iran’s rhetoric, particularly that of its president, has been extreme and threatening in ways than often seem far more a matter of posturing than a reflection of Iran’s true intentions. The US has overstated the Iranian threat, and referred to a non-existent “axis of evil,” without developing real world plans for collective action. Presidential and Congressional rhetorical excess and empty gestures have provoked Iran without changing or containing it in ways that have become a self-inflicted wound. Israel has done almost as good a job in provoking Iran while exaggerating its importance in the Arab and Islamic world. Demonstrating a serious mix of deterrent capabilities, tied to a clear pattern of actions that do not threaten Iran or its regime if it is not aggressively opportunistic, is far better than provocative rhetoric or empty promises on any side.
• Abandon efforts at active Iranian regime change without abandoning efforts to influence evolutionary change: The Gulf and Islamic world do not need another example of the dangers of attempting regime change from the outside, and empowering incapable exile groups. Iran’s political and economic structure badly need modernization, liberalization, and reform for the good of the Iranian people, but this should be encouraged peacefully and by quietly supporting internal Iranian reformers.
• Create truly effective deterrent forces with a strong, integrated, and truly interoperable local component: It may well be a decade or more before the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) can provide a strong mix of regional security and deterrent capabilities on its own. There is, however, a serious danger in simply going on with separate Gulf national efforts, many of which have limited real-world mission capability and deterrent value. There is no reason for the GCC state not to rely on the US, but the more they do for themselves, the less direct and provocative that reliance will be.
• Resolve strategically unimportant disputes and seek clearly defined mutual agreements. Many of the current tensions between Iran and its neighbors are over border, riverine, island, and dividing line issues that either have no strategic importance or where both sides would benefit from arbitration, mediation, or turning the issue over to the World Court. As Bahrain and Qatar have shown, persistent efforts to resolve issues on this basis may take years to initiate and complete, but can ultimately be successful.
• Support negotiating efforts to have Iraq comply with the IAEA and UN, and peaceful solutions to the nuclear issue. However, make it unambiguously clear to Iran that seeking nuclear armed missile forces will trigger a major defensive reaction, and the risk of retaliation and/or preemption far more dangerous than the exercise is worth. It may be years before Iran can develop a serious nuclear threat to its neighbors or one that could trigger a regional conflict, but it should be made clear to Iran now that the most dangerous military action it can take will steadily endanger its security, if not its existence.
• Understand that the failure to deal with regional disputes and equity for Shi’ites in the Arab world empowers Iran. Iran is only as strong in its ability to manipulate most state and non-state actors are partners and proxies as the Arab world is weak or indifferent in resolving its own internal disputes. One key to success is a collective effort to aid Bahrain’s “post-oil” economy and its Shi’ites, another is social and economic equity for Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites and broad-based aid to the development of Lebanon.
• Do not give up on Iraq: The most important single key to offering Iran security in return for a halt to any adventurism and opportunism will be creating a stable, independent Iraq. It is doubtful that outside powers can produce Iraqi conciliation but they may well be able to offer aid and incentives that will limited forced migration, help bridge over ethnic and sectarian differences, and keep a Shi’ite dominated Iraq from tilting towards Iran. There will be a competition for influence, and if Arab Sunni states take the side of Iraqi Sunnis, they will play into Iranian hands.
• Persist in the Arab League Effort to Reach a Full Arab Israeli peace and implement King Abdullah’s Peace Plan. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli Lebanese/Syrian conflicts are additional keys to Iran’s ability to create regional problems. This is only one reason to persist in current Arab peace efforts in spite of the frustrations in dealing with Israel, the United States, and the Palestinians. The cause is simply too important to abandon.
• Talk to Turkey, Syria, and Pakistan; seek Influence in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan; Do not ignore Russia. This is a regional game in terms of influence, not a Gulf game. It needs to be played as such. The Gulf states need to talk to Iran’s neighbors outside the Gulf, as well as Iraq’s, in an effort to create a broader mix of containment and incentives.
• Redefine GCC relations with the US to create a true Gulf security partnership: The US needs to pay far more attention to its regional friends and allies in shaping its polices towards Iran and its overall security posture in the Gulf, particularly in light of the uncertainties surrounding Iraq and the need for consensus in dealing with Iraq. Gulf states, however, need to both take more responsibility and stop acting in a fragmented and sometimes divisive way. Iran is only one of the catalysts that should make the US and GCC states seriously think out the need to develop a coordinated approach to seeking Gulf security, and one based on pragmatism and military realities.
• Accept the seriousness of the danger posed by both Shi’ite and Sunni religious extremists. The moderate Arab states, and religious and intellectual leaders of the Arab world, need to work together to meet the challenge posed by extremists in both sects. A clash between civilizations has always been more of a myth than a reality, but allowing Islam to become the scene of a steadily accelerating struggle between Sunni and Shi’ite, dragging in both state and non-state actors, poses a threat than goes far beyond Iran, the Gulf and the risk of some “Shi’ite crescent.”
There is always a debate among national security experts as to the extent a country should be judged by its intentions or by its capabilities. Both intentions and capabilities are always uncertain, even in the short term. They become progressively more uncertain with time. Domestic politics change perceptions and strategy, reality intervenes with plans, and external factors reshape both intentions and capabilities over time. States may or may not behave as they say, they plan, or as rational actors. In practice, crises sometimes lead to radical changes in intentions that can escalate or mutate as a given crisis develops. Iran is no different in this respect from any other state. It is, however, politically more volatile than many of its neighbors, and more driven by ideology and religion. The tension between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei is only one example of how difficult it is to be sure of Iran’s current intentions, much less its future ones. Its security structure is still divided between its regular forces, the Revolutionary Guards, and its intelligence services. Its economy is weak and chronically mismanaged, and population pressure continues to be a problem in spite of a diminished birth rate.
It is unclear just how divided the various factions in its national security community really are. There are some claims that the Iranian National Security Council, or some structure within the Iranian government, exercises relative tight control over Iran’s strategy, plans, and actions. At the same time, others claim that Iran now has an adventurist President and more cautious supreme leader that the Revolutionary Guards sometimes act upon their own, and that groups like the al Quds force take covert action or use proxies without full consultation or agreement within the central government. There are indicators to support all of these positions and there is firm evidence to support none. Iran’s intentions are further complicated by its dependence on imports for advanced hightechnology weapons, its uncertain ability to fund major arms purchases, its difficulties in obtaining parts and upgrades for its existing systems, and its uncertain ability to execute its plans to develop its own military industrial base. Anyone can draft ambitious plans and goals, and Iran often does. Its ability to execute them, however, has proven consistently limited and many of its claims as to weapons buys, weapons development and production. Moreover, the claimed size and nature of its military exercises and other military activities are often more matters of propaganda that a measure of either its intentions or capabilities.
As for the uncertainties caused by Iran’s domestic politics, calling any state a “semipluralistic, semi-populist, oligarchic theocracy” should be enough to explain both today’s internal divisions and the future uncertainties surrounding Iran’s regime and intentions. Iran will probably never again change its leadership because of outside efforts at regime change, but its political structure is simply too contradictory, divided, and inherently unstable for some form of internal regime change not to be inevitable. That change may well be evolutionary rather than radical, but it will occur.
Many aspects of Iran’s current and future capabilities, however, are as uncertain as its current and future intentions. On the one hand, Iran is surrounded by strong external powers, many of whose intentions are equally unpredictable. These include a strong US military presence in the Gulf, a nuclear-armed Pakistan, Turkey with some of the most capable military forces in the region, an Iraq in the middle of a civil war, southern Gulf states that are individually weak but could become collectively strong, Russia, unstable central Asian powers, peripheral Sunni powers like Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; and peripheral threats like Israel.
Seen from this perspective, Iran has at least as much reason to think defensively as it does offensively. It may have offensive opportunities for regional political reasons and choose to exploit them if they occur. At the same time, it is “weak” as an offensive military power compared to most of its neighbors and any combination of the US and the Southern Gulf states. Iran certainly has the strength to play a spoiler role, but very limited capacity to finish any offensive major conflict that it starts on favorable terms. As for becoming a regional “hegemon,” this can only happen if Iraq’s neighbors so weaken themselves as to become a virtual power vacuum. Iraq is the only state that currently has such potential weakness, it is far from clear that Iran could dominate even a Shi’ite controlled Iraq. Being Arab may well be more important than being Shi’ite. More important, few elites share power gracefully and for long. It seems useful in this context to point out what the definition of hegemon really is. The word “hegemon” is the Greek word for “leader,” and the dictionary definition of hegemony is the ability to exert, “preponderant influence or authority over others.” Iran may sometimes be able to do this, but only if another nation chooses to find this to be to its advantage or is temporarily too weak or too badly led to resist. It lacks the current force to do more and can only shift the balance in its favor if other states fail to react. Using the other party for self-advantage, and competing with the other party to see who can do the best job of using whom, is not “hegemony.” It is “opportunism,” and the difference between offensive and defensive opportunism is as unreal as the difference between offensive and defensive bullets. While no one can predict Iran’s intentions, it is probably as pointless to demonize it as it is to sanctify it. Iran does what it must when it must, and seeks to get away with what it can when it can. Iran’s leaders may be an awkward cross between the characters in a play by Samuel Beckett and one by Pirandello, but they all probably broadly understand the limits of Iran’s position in spite of their theocratic character, as do most or all of Iran’s neighbors. If there are gaps in this aspect of regional realpolitik, they probably occur only in Israel and the United States.
At the same time, Iran’s limited offensive capabilities do not make it any kind of military weakling. Saddam Hussein’s horrible miscalculations about Iran’s weakness and internal divisions at the start of the Iran-Iraq War should be a warning as to what can happen if Iran is invaded or forced into anything approaching total war. Its strengths in overt conflict are more defensive than offensive, but Iran has already shown its has great capability to resist outside pressure and any form of invasion and done so under far more adverse and divisive conditions than exist in Iran today. Moreover, the US-led invasion of Iraq is a warning that even when outside efforts to depose a regime are successful, they can trigger forces that become virtually uncontrollable unless an immediate successor regime can command both popular support and the ability to govern. In practice, the law of unintended consequences should be as much a deterrent as Iran’s military strength.
Accordingly, when it comes to analyzing Iranian capabilities, is seems most functional to focus on Iran’s current and future opportunities for opportunism, and not whether Iran is part of an “axis of evil” or simply acting in its own defense. Here too, however, there is a need for caution and perspective. US, Israeli, and some Arab rhetoric have often exaggerated such capabilities as much as it has exaggerated Iran’s hostile intentions and ambitions. At the same time, some of Iran’s defenders have described a benign multicultural martyr to external misunderstanding in ways that border on the theater of the absurd....
Iran has limited capabilities today but could become a much more threatening power if it modernized key elements of its forces and its neighbors did not react. Iranian training and doctrine has slowly improved over time, although Iran has little practical experience with advanced command and control, targeting, IS&R, and electronic warfare capability; and its efforts to improve its capability in joint operations and sustainability have had only limited success.
It does have a large, if divided force structure. It currently has some 545,000 actives and 350,000 army reserves, not counting Basij. Its army has an active strength of around 350,000 men, although 220,000 are low-grade conscripts and its corps of technicians and non-commissioned officers is poorly trained and given limited initiative....
This force mix scarcely makes Iran any kind of regional military “hegemon,” and the region would have years of warning before Iranian forces could acquire and absorb major numbers of new weapons. It can certainly improve its defensive capabilities and the attrition it can impose on an attacker, but it would virtually require the US to abandon the Gulf for Iran to be able to win a regional arms race that would give it the air and naval capabilities to gain serious offensive capabilities in conventional war, and even then, a cohesive response by the GCC would seriously challenge any capability that Iran could develop.
Geography is also a critical factor. Iran would virtually have to be invited in to cross the Gulf with significant forces. It has little or no foreseeable incentive to strike at most of its other neighbors, and many of the border areas it might advance into present other geographic problems as well as offer little or no strategic advantage. Iran certainly has the ability to wage war, but it does not have the capability to win most wars in ways that give it any advantage.The two exceptions that must be kept clearly in mind are the defense of its own territory and Iraq. Iran is a highly populated country of over 65 million people with centrally located cities, and its forces are strong enough to make it anything but a defensive “weakling.” As the Iran-Iraq War and Gulf Wars show, much depends on popular support, but any invasion of Iran that produced a strong nationalist response, rather than a broad-based uprising against the regime, would almost certainly turn into a bloody and pointless war of attrition.
This would be the kind of war where even major tactical victories against Iran did not offer lasting strategic advantage and would tie the attacker down in exposed positions. As will be discussed shortly, the defeat or large-scale destruction of Iran’s conventional forces also would not deprive it of the ability to retaliate using unconventional forces, proxies, or partners. It also might drive Iran to respond over time with far larger efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
It is also important to point out that Iran does have the ability to rapidly deploy a large mix of conventional and unconventional forces into Iraq. Iraq’s current military forces are divided and extremely weak and Shi’ite and Kurdish dominated. If Iran was invited in following a US and British withdrawal by a Shi’ite dominated government, and had popular support from most of Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs, it could quickly dominate most areas with a Shi’ite majority, defeat insurgent or Sunni resistance in most areas outside Anbar and Mosul, and defeat Kurdish forces in any clash over Kirkuk.
Iraq is largely a power vacuum. If Iran and Iraq cooperated to secure a Shi’ite dominated “federation,” Iran could play a major offensive role with only limited warning and preparation. Much would depend on Iraqi government and Iraq Arab Shi’ite support in such a scenario, however, and on the willingness of the US to permit the movement of Iranian conventional forces.
It should also be noted, however, that no Sunni Arab state is now organized to project large ground force contingents into most of the populated areas of Iraq, although Jordan and Syria could project significant ground forces into the West. Turkey could project a corps-sized force into Northern Iraq (and did so at the time of Saddam Hussein), but its fears of the Kurds are unlikely to make it intervene on the part of the Arabs even if invited....
Iran has built up a large mix of unconventional forces in the Gulf that can challenge its neighbors in a wide variety of asymmetric wars, including low-level wars of attrition. These include a wide range of elements in the regular forces and IRGC as well as some elements in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), or Vezarat-e Ettela’ at va Aminat-e Keshvar (VEVAK), which was installed following the revolution to replace the now-disbanded National Organization for Intelligence and Security (SAVAK). In 2006, the MOIS employed about 15,000 civilian staff. Its major tasks included intelligence collection and operations in the Middle East and Central Asia as well as domestic intelligence and monitoring of clerical and government officials, as well as work on preventing conspiracies against the Islamic Republic.
Its air forces remain vulnerable in any form of mission, but are less vulnerable near Iranian bases, sensor coverage, and SAM coverage. Its naval forces include its three Kiloclass submarines, which can harass or seek to interdict ships moving in an out of the Gulf, a wide range of mines and vessels that can be used as mine layers or to release free floating mines. They also include roughly 140 light patrol and coastal combatants, including 11 French-designed Kaman-class missile patrol boats with 2-4 CSS-N-4/YJ-1/“Sardine” anti-ship missiles each. These are sea skimming, solid fueled missiles with a 42 to 50-kilometer range, 165 kilogram warheads, INS and active radar similar to the Exocet, and can be used to harass civil shipping and tankers, and offshore facilities, as well as attack naval vessels. Iran may well have far more advanced Russian and Chinese supplied missiles as well and claims to be developing advanced anti-ship and anti-fixed target missiles of its own.Iran made claims in the spring of 2006 that it was testing more advanced weapons for such forces. These included a sonar-evading anti-ship missile that can be fired from
submarines as well as surface combatants that IRGC Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi claimed no enemy warship could detect, and “no warship could escape because of its high velocity.”
Iran also claimed to be testing a new missile called the Kowsar with a very large warhead and extremely high speed to attack “big ships and submarines” that it claimed could evade radar and antimissile missiles. While such tests may have been real, Iran has made so many grossly exaggerated claims about its weapons developments in the past, that it seems they were designed more to try to deter US military action and/or reassure the Iranian public than truly being serious real world capabilities. It followed these actions up in the late summer of 2006 by testing new submarine launched anti-ship missiles.
It has a 20,000 man naval branch in the IRGC that includes some 5,000 marines. This branch of the IRGC has 10 Houdong missile patrol boasts with CSS-N-8/C-802/YJ-2 missiles with 165-kilogram warheads, active and inertial guidance, and maximum ranges of 120 kilometers. It operates mobile land-based CSS-C-3/HY-2/Sea Eagle/Seersucker anti-ship missiles that can be rapidly emplaced on the Iranian coast or islands in the Gulf shipping channel. These systems have ranges of 95-100 kilometers, very large warheads, and autocontrol and radar homing guidance. They can be targeted by a remote air link, and the exact level of upgrading of these missiles since their initial delivery during the Iran-Iraq War is unknown.
The IRGC has large numbers of Boghammar and other patrol boats are with recoilless rifles, rocket launchers, manportable surface-to-air missiles, and anti-armor guided weapons. The IRGC routinely uses small civilian ships and vessels in unconventional operations in various exercises, including mine laying and raids on offshore facilities. This force has facilities at Bandar-e-Abbas, Khorramshar, and on the islands of Larak, Abu Musa, Al Farsiyah, Sirrir and the Halul oil platform. It can make use of additional facilities at Iran’s main naval bases at Bander e-abbas, Bushehr, Kharg Island, Bandar e-Anzelli, Bandar e-Khomeini, Bandar e-Mahshahr, and Chah Bahar. These forces can rapidly disperse, and shelter in caves and hardened sites. Small ships can be very hard to detect with most radars even in a normal sea state, and civilian ships can easily change flags and meld in with commercial traffic.
These light naval forces have special importance because of their potential ability to threaten oil and shipping traffic in the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, raid key offshore facilities, and conduct raids on targets on the Gulf coast. Many Gulf energy facilities are extremely vulnerable, and the GCC states are extremely vulnerable to any form of attack on their desalination and coastal power facilities, and precision strikes on critical highcapacity, long-lead time replacement items in energy facilities and power grids. This vulnerability might also allow Iran to carry out very successful air attacks in a surprise raid with precision weapons, using IRGC “suicide” aircraft, and future UAVs and precision cruise missiles. It is also possible that Iran could conduct coastal raids with IRGC and/or Special Forces that went deeper into Southern Gulf territory.
Iran could not “close the Gulf” for more than a few days to two weeks even if it was willing to sacrifice all of these assets, suffer massive retaliation, and potentially lose many of its own oil facilities and export revenues. Its chronic economic mismanagement has made it extremely dependent on a few refineries, product imports, and food imports" www.csis.org).