Stephen M. Walt

More hype about Iran?

More hype about Iran?

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 of The 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)

Navy:
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.