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Iran: Hyping the Threat from Tehran (Walt)

Stephen Walt writes for Foreign Policy:

Back when I started writing this blog, I warned that the idea of preventive war against Iran wasn't going to go away just because Barack Obama was president. The topic got another little burst of oxygen over the past few days, in response to what seems to have been an over-hyped memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and some remarks by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, following a speech at Columbia University. In particular, Mullen noted that military action against Iran could "go a long way" toward delaying Iran's acquisition of a weapons capability, though he also noted this could only be a "last resort" and made it clear it was not an option he favored.

One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm about Iran is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran's actual capabilities, and rests on all sorts of worst case assumptions about Iranian behavior. Consider the following facts, most of them courtesy of the 2010 edition ofThe Military Balance, published annually by the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London:

GDP: United States -- 13.8 trillion
Iran --$ 359 billion  (U.S. GDP is roughly 38 times greater than Iran's)

Defense spending (2008):
U.S. -- $692 billion
Iran -- $9.6 billion (U.S. defense budget is over 70 times larger than Iran)

Military personnel:
U.S.--1,580,255 active; 864,547 reserves (very well trained)
Iran--   525,000 active; 350,000 reserves (poorly trained)

Combat aircraft:
U.S. -- 4,090 (includes USAF, USN, USMC and reserves)
Iran -- 312 (serviceability questionable)

Main battle tanks:
U.S. -- 6,251 (Army + Marine Corps)
Iran -- 1,613 (serviceability questionable)

U.S. -- 11 aircraft carriers, 99 principal surface combatants, 71 submarines, 160 patrol boats, plus large auxiliary fleet
Iran -- 6 principal surface combatants, 10 submarines, 146 patrol boats

Nuclear weapons:
U.S. -- 2,702 deployed, >6,000 in reserve
Iran -- Zero

One might add that Iran hasn't invaded anyone since the Islamic revolution, although it has supported a number of terrorist organizations and engaged in various forms of covert action.  The United States has also backed terrorist groups and conducted covert ops during this same period, and attacked a number of other countries, including Panama, Grenada, Serbia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

By any objective measure, therefore, Iran isn't even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them. Indeed, Iran is significantly weaker than Israel, which has roughly the same toal of regular plus reserve military personnel and vastly superior training. Israel also has more numerous and modern armored and air capabilities and a sizeable nuclear weapons stockpile of its own. Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone.

The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears. It's a pretty unloveable regime, to be sure, but given Iran's actual capabilities, why do U.S. leaders devote so much time and effort trying to corral support for more economic sanctions (which aren't going to work) or devising strategies to "contain" an Iran that shows no sign of being able to expand in any meaningful way? Even the danger that a future Iranian bomb might set off some sort of regional arms race seems exaggerated, according to an unpublished dissertation by Philipp Bleek of Georgetown University. Bleek's thesis examines the history of nuclear acquisition since 1945 and finds little evidence for so-called "reactive proliferation." If he's right, it suggests that Iran's neighbors might not follow suit even if Iran did "go nuclear" at some point in the future).

Obviously, simple bean counts like the one presented above do not tell you everything about the two countries, or the political challenges that Iran might pose to its neighbors. Iran has engaged in a number of actions that are cause for concern (such as its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon), and it has some capacity to influence events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, as we have learned in both of these countries, objectively weaker adversaries can still mount serious counterinsurgency operations against a foreign occupier. And if attacked, Iran does have various retaliatory options that we would find unpleasant, such as attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. So Iran's present weakness does not imply that the United States can go ahead and bomb it with impunity.

What it does mean is that we ought to keep this relatively minor "threat" in perspective, and not allow the usual threat-inflators to stampede us into another unnecessary war. My impression is that Admiral Mullen and SecDef Gates understand this. I hope I'm right. But I'm still puzzled as to why the Obama administration hasn't tried the one strategy that might actually get somewhere: take the threat of force off the table, tell Tehran that we are willing to talk seriously about the issues that bother them (as well as the items that bother us), and try to cut a deal whereby Iran ratifies and implements the NPT Additional Protocol and is then permitted to enrich uranium for legitimate purposes (but not to weapons-grade levels). It might not work, of course, but neither will our present course of action or the "last resort" that Mullen referred to last weekend.

Reader Comments (13)

Walt asks the really big question: "I’m still puzzled as to why the Obama administration hasn’t tried the one strategy that might actually get somewhere: take the threat of force off the table...."

Indeed. For a moment back last year, it appeared that a new course really had been taken.

There are times when it seems parts of the Obama Administration (Dennis, Gary, Hillary, etc.) have consciously taken the US down a path of appearing to negotiate, but not really intending to do so. The idea being that unlike 2003, this time the US has the veneer of having tried, and thus has greater "international legitimacy" to do what certain advocates have been itching to do -- take Iran "down."

Of course, some former insiders have decried such a notion as "preposterous."


April 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterescot

Good article - thanks Scott for posting. I can only repeat what I said in a previous thread, post 4:

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Gareth Porter looks at the revised the NPR and argues that it broadens the range of contingencies in which nuclear weapons might play a role so as to include an Iranian military response to an Israeli attack:

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

"Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone."

Mr. Walt,

I beg to differ. Though I agree with your statement in general, I should like to point to several statements of self re-elected president Ahmadinejad on Israel during the past years, constantly demanding her to be wiped 'off the map':
Although compliant commentators have tried to put it as a "wrong translation", this is exactly what Ahmadinejad said in Persian already in 2005.

In his last statement from April 19 2010 he says that Israel was on its way to collapse and that regional powers wanted it 'uprooted'.

If you do not interpret such statements as a call to destroy Israel, I certainly do. Nothing in the world, even not Israel's intolerable settlement policy, justifies such a hostile announcement by the Iranian 'president', actively supporting terrorist organisations like Hamas and Hezbullah.

If you advocate a non-military solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis (which I support), the same should apply to Israel, constantly threatened by the IR.

Not in my name!


April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

I think the reason the US is obsessing over Iran is because of the politico-military power vacuum that will open up if Iraq doesn't pull itself together. Iran's nuclear trump card/wild card will make the country into a force to be reckoned with. There is a reason why the US aided BOTH Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. It didn't want any side to have a clear victory. Enduring America has mentioned this in past alalyses. Today, Iraq is one step from the title of 'failed state'. The Iraq war was perhaps the biggest US strategic miscalculation of the 2000s and the US is now facing the consequences in a big way. And Walt doesn't mention the massive political clout Iran has in Iraq. Mesopotamia is of major strategic importance, and has been for thousands of years. It is also the Sunni-Shi'a fault line. Other players in the region are involved and they're all jockeying for position (political influence) in Iraq, which was also noted and discussed here on EA. But Iran will emerge as a regional hegemon.

The US is simply applying the same policy in the Middle East as it does with Europe and Asia. It's all about the balance of power. US strategic alliances with Taiwan, South Korea, Mongolia and Japan exist for this reason. They want to contain the Chinese. Of course the Chinese may not be as powerful as the US makes them out to be. They can't really challenge Russian influence in Central Asia/Transcaucasia. The Himilayas make up a huge a barrier there. But there are no natural barriers of that scale to block/contain Iran.

So, yes... I do think Walt is underestimating Iran's capabilities and regional ambitions. Iran was aggressive even before the Revolution. We saw the way it manuevered in the early 1970s, when the British gave up their strategic real estate. The Iranians were out for an island power grab which didn't sit well with the Saudis at all. And there was nothing the Saudis could do about it.

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

It's true. The Shah was out to take advantage of any strategic power vacuum. He wanted the British out of the area ASAP.

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

I think the distinction between intent and capability needs to be re-emphasised, as the above comments demonstrate it wasn't properly explained.

Ahmadinijad may well have the anti-Semitic, expansionist, imperial, reactionary and nationalistic rhetoric down to a t. But that does not make him in any way remotely close to the threat the Nazis posed. Germany in 1938 was under complete control, with a bureacracy of intellectuals under highly competent Lieutenants shaping every aspect of their society in order to expand and improve the country. Iran, conversely, is rather unthreatening. Intentions, ambitions and determination aren't enough to turn a nation whose technological infrastructure is made up of pity donations over the years.. The one piece of threatening technology the Iranians is its Russian Kilo subs, but as with the other foreign-produced weaponry, it doesnt have the supplies or the infrastructure to keep more than 1 in service at a time, perhaps not at all in an active conflict.

As stated above, an American strike against Iran would be like watching Optimus Prime kicking a puppy.

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I agree with Dave & Arshama on this. It is not the military power that matters in this equation, it is the influence that Iran has with Hamas and Hezbullah and also their influence in Iraq and Afghanestan with the fanatics, and because of that the regin can not see peace unless Iran is contained in this regards. In my opinion any military action against Iran is not acceptable and will not make it any better for U.S. and region. The peace in the region goes through two state solution between Israel and Palestinians, peace between Israel and Syria and Iran's containment by supporting oppostion in Iran.

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkamran

From article -- "Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal."


They have allies in the Arab and Muslim Diaspora in the West. These are jihadists, Salafists and Khomeinists. They also happen to be the loudest voices in the West. Western governments have also been seeking the expert advice of an academia that happens to be sympathetic to the Islamists. These forces want to break any joint activity between the free world and the suppressed liberal and democratic elements/forces in the region. This strengthen Iran's hand since the regime sympathizes with jihadist ideologies and wants to secure its authoritarian character.

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave


I agree with your position on US support for the Green Movement, and I think such a policy should be implemented across the region. The West should bypass the authoritarian regimes and engage with the democratic/civil society movements. US engagement with the Iranian (and Syrian) regime will bring about devastating consequences for these democratic reform movements in the region. Democracy (PLURALISM) can help to marginalize and even eradicate Islamism, thereby removing threats to Israel's security and creating the right kind of social and political landscape in the region; one that can foster peace between the Israel and its neighbors.

Question is -- How do we get there??

April 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave


I am not a politician, but I think it is possible through the followings:

1- Targeted sanctions on Iranian regime to put economic pressure on them and the same time support human rights and democracy movement in Iran. This will put pressure on this regime both internally and externally. May be I am too optimistic, but in 1979 uprising nobody would even think that Shah’s regime is going to collapse (until six months before it happened). Iranian people will overthrow this regime because they have been insulted, repressed, tortured and executed routinely and constantly. They will do it faster if they have international support on their back.
2- Actively get involved with Israel/Syrian peace accord (the basis for this agreement has been negotiated since Clinton era and almost 95% of it is done and agreed upon), this will isolate Iran from Syria for most part and will weaken Hamas and Hezbullah with reducing Syrian support for them. Iran Isolation from Syria will also affect their and reduce their influence with all the fanatic groups in the region.
3- Pressure Israel to stop the settlements and actively get involved with the peace negotiation with Palestinian for two state solution (again 95% of this is done and the agreement is almost there).
4- Peace between Israel and Palestinian will be slap in the face of those that are using religion to empower themselves (on both sides) and will basically eliminate almost all the Iran’s influence on fenatics.

Am I dreaming?

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkamran

Dave -- that's quite a broad-brush of western academics. (e.g. that anybody who endeavors to explain Islamists grievances and/or Iran's ambitions and political culture is somehow a stooge/ally for one, the other or both -- and worse, that we're somehow opposed to democratic reform movements.... ) Ah, and then you seem to invoke the ole Condi Rice line about spreading democracy as the ticket to good results for the region. Were you around when that was tried for Gaza and Lebanon? (and imagine if Egypt would actually for once permit free elections?) But perhaps I misread you.

Kamran -- I'm mostly with you on your points 2-4, but on point 1, alas, I'm afraid you are "dreaming." While the Iranian reformists may appreciate nuanced forms of international sympathy and support, I sincerely doubt that western sanctions or pressures are going to work -- and may well backfire. (e.g., as we've discussed here many times, gas sanctions, even if they would work, would hurt ordinary Iranians disproportionately -- and the regime might well use them as excuse to lift subsidies further -- and blame it on the west)

I've yet to discern significant real evidence that any reformist actually favors "crippling sanctions." (which ought to cause pause before repeating the chant about "getting on the side of history.")

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterescot


I realize that the social and political culture is in need of an overhaul. Heck, the reasons for Stalinism may lie deep within Russian political culture and that could explain why the road to building robust Western-style democratic institutions hasn't been easy for Russia.

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

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