Monday, September 06, 2004

PINR - Iran's Bid for Regional Power: Assets and Liabilities

PINR - Iran's Bid for Regional Power: Assets and Liabilities: "''Iran's Bid for Regional Power: Assets and Liabilities''
ensions between Iran and the United States have recently heated up to the point that some analysts, particularly in the Arab world, surmise that the struggle between the Iraqi transitional government and the Shi'a resistance led by Moqtada al-Sadr is essentially a proxy war between the two countries.

Iran has been the instigator of the present surge in tensions, taking advantage of the military and diplomatic vulnerabilities of the United States that were revealed by Washington's campaign for regime change in Iraq. Despite deep internal divisions in Iran over the vision of its future (Western or Islamic), all of its significant political forces are nationalist, uniting on the premise that any foreign attempts to change the Iranian regime and forfeit the revolution (however its meaning is interpreted) are unwelcome, indeed, intolerable, and are to be firmly resisted.

Political forces in Iran are also at one in the belief that the country should pursue a policy of enhancing its military machine to make it an effective deterrent against external attack, and expanding its influence as a regional power in all directions. Tehran's bid to alter the regional balance of power in its favor is evidenced by its increasing defiance of international controls over its nuclear program and its financial and probably military support of a wide spectrum of Shi'a movements and factions in southern Iraq.

Iran's actions have sparked a strong reaction from the United States, which has made it clear, through National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, that the United States will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. Rice's threat was answered by Iranian Defense Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhari with the comment that there were established political circles in Iran recommending preemptive military "replies" against any entity that "decides to inflict harm" on the country. Despite the bellicose rhetoric from both sides, there is no direct war between the two adversaries in the immediate works. The rhetoric is an indicator of Iran's push for power and America's attempts to resist that push.

Iran's Strategic Scenarios

That Iran is the protagonist and the United States the antagonist in the current tensions means that the Iranian regime senses the opportunity to enhance its power position. Several strategic scenarios dominate Iranian thinking, reflecting the possibilities that policymakers perceive in the current situation.

The best-case scenario for Iran is that the U.S. military is forced to withdraw from Iraq, leaving Iran with a dominant sphere of influence over a Shi'a-dominated Iraq or a breakaway Shi'a mini-state in the south, and that Iran is able to achieve nuclear weapons capability. Were this outcome to occur, Iran would be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, displacing the United States.

The worst-case scenario is that the United States or Israel launches a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear complex, possibly associated with American military efforts at regime change.

In between the two extreme cases is a gamut of more realistic scenarios. On the favorable side, Iran would exhaust the United States in southern Iraq through its support of resistance and would drag out negotiations on its nuclear program by exploiting divisions among external powers working through international agencies. On the unfavorable side, Iran would be excluded from influence in Iraq by an American-oriented regime, would suffer economic sanctions for failing to submit its nuclear program to international supervision or would feel constrained to give up that program, and would be diplomatically isolated.

The recent assertive behavior of Iran suggests that it is determined to resist any concessions on its perceived vital interests, risking the worst-case and other unfavorable scenarios in order to realize as many of its ambitions as possible.

Iran's Strategic Situation

The scenarios projected by Iranian policymakers are relative to Iran's strategic situation. That situation is marked by threats to and opportunities for Iran's vital interests, giving rise to the range of possibilities from best-case to worst-case scenarios. In seeking to ward off threats and exploit opportunities, policymakers are constrained to play a hand that has assets and liabilities.


The most important obstacle to Iran's drive for regional power is the presence of U.S. ground forces in its eastern neighbor Afghanistan and its western neighbor Iraq, and U.S. naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf. Iran is partially encircled by the United States, whose explicit best-case scenario is Iranian regime change. The immediate proximity of American military forces results in a bias among policymakers towards building up military security above any other priority.

Iran's nuclear program, which it insists is only for peaceful purposes, but is likely for weapons capability, is only one part of an ongoing Iranian program for military self-dependence in the face of sanctions. Iran recently successfully tested a new version of its Shahab-3 missile with a range of 810 miles and a capability of striking Israel. Iran also produces tanks, armored personnel carriers and a fighter plane. Yet, Iran would still be no match for a full-scale American attack -- its only effective deterrent would be nuclear weapons. Iranian policymakers are aware that the American threat is ever present, even if it has receded for the moment.

Iran also faces a military threat from Israel, which might launch a preemptive strike against Iran's Bushehr reactor and is reportedly working with Iraqi Kurds to destabilize the Iranian regime. Iran has recently threatened to bomb Israel's nuclear complex at Dimona if Israel attacks Bushehr. As the country that feels most threatened by Iran, Israel has a vital interest in eliminating Iran's nuclear program or at least setting it back seriously. Iranian policymakers can do very little about the Israeli threat and have begun a program to install technologies and procedures to minimize the effects of the release of radiation that would follow a successful strike on Bushehr.

Iranian ambitions to create a sphere of influence in Iraq are not only checked by the American military presence, but also by divisions in Iraq's Shi'a population and leadership, a large proportion of which are nursing the prospect of Shi'a dominance over Iraq following scheduled elections in January of 2005. At present they are not seeking Iranian protection, although they are willing to accept Iranian aid.

Internally, Iran is socially divided by the familiar split that has marked countries on the borders of the West, such as Russia and Turkey, between Westernizers and traditionalists. In Iran's complex post-revolutionary political institutions, the executive is currently controlled by the reformists, and the parliament, judiciary and supreme religious authorities by the theocrats. Outside the state institutions, the increasingly youthful population generally favors a loosening of theocratic rule and a more Western lifestyle. With the successful suppression of reformists in the last parliamentary elections, the theocrats have engineered a short-term victory at the cost of intensifying social polarization.

Washington's strategy towards Iran makes the division between Westernizers and traditionalists the centerpiece of plans for regime change. Iranian exile groups and American neo-conservatives argue that an aggressive policy of weakening the Iranian regime, if not an invasion of the country, would unleash the forces of Westernization and bring Iran into the circle of American-led capitalist globalization. Iranian policymakers, increasingly dominated by the traditionalists, have responded to the social and political divide by appealing to the need to defend the country's integrity above any other interest.


Counterbalancing the negatives in Iran's strategic environment are a number of assets that give it the room for maneuver necessary to pursue its ambitions. Most importantly, the U.S. military is overextended from its Iraq and Afghanistan missions, and its continuing needs and commitments to maintain Asian and European presences. It is unlikely at present that the United States is militarily ready or politically capable of mounting an operation against Iran similar to the one that it undertook in Iraq.

Iran is also a much more formidable adversary than was Ba'athist Iraq. Its population of 70 million dwarfs Iraq's 26 million and, unlike Iraq, Iran is not a construction of colonial rule combining diverse ethnic and religious groups without a common history, but an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society with a long history of independence and a strong sense of nationalism. Iran's military is also more capable than Iraq's was, and it is a center of post-revolutionary nationalism. In its war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran absorbed heavy losses and eventually repelled an aggressor that had the backing of the United States.

If the United States attempted to occupy Iran, it could not use the divide-and-rule strategy that it has employed in Iraq. The Iranian regime banks on the expectation that in the case of external attack, nationalism will override the rift between Westernizers and traditionalists. Analysts in the Middle East generally agree that the regime's judgment is correct.

Iran's trump card is the geopolitical fact that it is a major oil producer bordering other major oil producers. A large-scale war undertaken by the United States would almost surely lead to a disruption of world oil supplies and the danger that Iran would use its missiles to attack Saudi or Gulf state oil complexes.

Iran also has a strategic ally in Syria, which shares with it the same security interests and borders Iraq on the west. The Iranian and Syrian regimes have been conferring closely since the American occupation of Iraq and have a common line that the United States should withdraw from the region. Russia is a benevolent neutral, perhaps ally, providing help with Iran's nuclear program and interested in diminishing American power in the region.

The European powers are ambivalent, subject to American pressure to bring the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, where sanctions could be imposed, and desirous of pursuing economic interests in Iran. Thus far, Iran's policy of "commercializing" relations with Europe has been a relative success, leading to reluctance by the Europeans to follow the American hard line. Instead, they have followed an independent diplomatic path to resolve the nuclear question. Recently, as Iran has taken a harder line toward the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Europeans have begun to tilt toward the United States, but it is still not certain that they will back a sanctions regime.

Finally, it is possible that Iran can turn the presence of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to its advantage. Historically, Iran has had close contact with, and political and cultural influence in, the regions on its eastern and western borders. Longstanding economic and cultural interchange gives Iran footholds in the west of Afghanistan and the southeast of Iraq, which it is presently using to back political forces that favor its strategic interests. In a wide ranging interview with al-Jazeera television on August 19, Iranian Defense Minister Shamkhari observed that the American military presence in its neighbors "is not power for the United States because this power may under certain circumstances become a hostage in our hands."

When the positives and negatives of Iran's strategic situation are weighed, it becomes clear that the complex balance of opportunities and threats provides the opportunity for Iran to try to expand its regional power at considerable risk. The reasoning of the hardliners, who are gaining increasing control over Iranian foreign and security policy, is that Iran has little choice but to attempt to strengthen itself by militarizing and pressing for spheres of influence, since the alternative is acceptance of American hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Their posture is primarily defensive, but they believe that the best defense at the present time is an assertive one. They will act with the best-case scenario in mind as they maneuver to avoid the worst case, resorting to brinkmanship and tactical retreats.


Iran plays its hand through one of the most complex sets of political institutions in the contemporary world. Not only are clerical institutions overlaid on the conventional executive, legislature and judiciary, but different factions have vested influence and authority within each of them. Iran does not speak with one voice or act with one hand. Indian political analyst Hamid Ansari observes that Iran's shifting stances of conciliation and defiance, and its elliptical and contradictory policy statements are "fully reflective of the multiplicity of centers that characterize the decision-making mechanism of the Islamic Republic."

Unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran has a polycentric politics, in which decisions on security and foreign policy are the result of shifting alliances and independent initiatives. This complexity leads to the simultaneous pursuit of seemingly opposed policies, but it would be a mistake to interpret it as a sign of weakness, since all participants are committed to Iranian independence and integrity.

Iran's polycentric decision-making system is, in fact, a source of strength in its current situation, since it leads structurally, rather than by design, to a multi-pronged strategy that hits all possible vulnerabilities of its adversaries, confuses them and allows for flexibility. If one policy fails, it will be deemphasized in favor of another. If one faction is discredited, another is ready to take its place. If all possible proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan are backed by one Iranian faction or another, downside risk is minimized and opportunity is enhanced. If reformists pursue commercialization of foreign relations and hard line traditionalists pursue militarization, Iran potentially gets the benefit of both tracks.

It is impossible to predict whether Iran will succeed or fail in its bid for security and regional power, but its regime has impressive and surprising assets that work in its favor.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein"


Post a Comment

<< Home