Iran and the Gulf Military Balance
By Anthony H. Cordesman, Alexander WilnerDec 1, 2011
This report has been extensively updated in the wake of the IAEA’s November 8, 2011 report which provides the most detailed indicators that Iran is taking steps toward producing nuclear weapons. Moreover, it includes an analysis of the ongoing policy debate within Israel’s leadership and national security establishment concerning a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades. It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.
Iran’s foiled assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, raises questions about Iran’s judgment and which elements within the regime are in control of the country’s decision-making process. If successful, such an act could have led the country into diplomatic isolation or war. This lack of judgment on Iran’s part is especially worrying for the US, Israel, and Iran’s Arab neighbors, given the likely military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s accelerated military competition with the US and its regional allies.
Explosions and other ostensible acts of sabotage on Iranian missile and uranium enrichment facilities during the month of November seem to confirm that military competition between Iran and its competitors is accelerating. While no state or organization has claimed responsibility for these events, they represent a significant escalation in the competition with Iran.
On November 12, an explosion at a missile base outside of Tehran killed the leader of Iran’s ballistic missile program, General Hassan Moghaddam, and 16 others. While the scale of the blast was initially unknown, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has released a satellite image of the facility indicating that the site suffered widespread destruction as a result of the explosion. Similarly, on November 28, large explosions rocked a uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan. While Iranian officials have claimed these blasts resulted from industrial accidents, such claims are likely unfounded given the timing of these events. While the details surrounding these incidents are uncertain, they seem to indicate that external actors are playing an active role in attempting to impede the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled Iran and the Gulf Military Balance, which is now available on the CSIS website at:
The most threatening form of US and Iranian competition takes place in the military and security arena. The US and Iran are military competitors in the Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Levant – and in steadily wider areas as Iran expands its ballistic missile capabilities. Military competition occurs in ways where each nation seeks to deny the other side military options, and seeks to establish or reinforce containment, deterrence, and limits on escalation. It is also a competition for military prestige and status, and which seeks to use military forces to influence the behavior of other states.
The historical background of this military competition tracks closely with the history of the political tensions between the US and Iran. Iran sees competition as driven by US efforts to dominate the Gulf and the region, by a period of US intervention in Iranian internal affairs that began in 1953, by US security assistance to the Pahlavi regime before the Shah’s fall, US support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the “tanker war” from 1987-1988, and US efforts to deny Iran imports of arms and military technology. Iran feels the US seeks to become the dominant power in the region while seeking to contain Iran’s power and influence.
The US sees Iran as a state that has been vehemently anti-American since the fall of the Shah and the founding of the Islamic Republic, which held US embassy employees hostage, threatens the region and exports terrorism, has exported aid and arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, threatens Israel’s existence, is seeking nuclear-armed missiles, and is steadily building up asymmetric forces that threaten the stable flow of Gulf petroleum exports. It feels Iran seeks to become the dominant power in the region while seeking to expel US power and influence.
The end result is a competition that has now gone on for 32 years and which has occasionally led to direct action. Key events include the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981), US seizure of Iranian assets, the imposition of sanctions on Iran, and occasional military clashes (1988). The most prominent aspect of US-Iranian rivalry, though, has been the use of proxies.
The US has continued to provide its Gulf allies with advanced military equipment to counter Iran. Saudi Arabia has received billions of dollars of advanced equipment, including AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, M1 Abrams main battle tanks, and F-15S multirole fighters. Such systems are far more advanced than Iranian military technology, and serve to both limit Iran’s influence and provide a major deterrent to Iranian forces.
Throughout this period the US and Europe have refused to provide Iran with new arms sales as well as military technology, parts, and updates for the systems they sold during the time of the Shah. They have also put continuing pressure on Russia, China and other arms suppliers to limit the transfer of arms. The US and its allies also favored Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and the US provided substantial support to Iraq in the form of arms sales, intelligence, and technological assistance. The combination of such limits on Iran’s arms imports and its massive losses during the Iran-Iraq war have severely restricted the quality and modernization of Iran’s conventional forces, and forced Iran to both create a domestic arms industry and find alternatives to conventional military power.
The recent history of US and Iranian military competition reflects the fact that Iran has sought to bridge the gap in conventional capability by building a strong asymmetric warfare capacity. After suffering tactical defeats at the hands of superior US forces in the Gulf during Operation Praying Mantis (1988), Iran shifted its focus to developing a strong asymmetric capacity that focuses on the use of smart munitions, light attack craft, mines, swarm tactics, and missile barrages to counteract US naval power. While such assets cannot be used to achieve a decisive victory against US and other forces in a direct confrontation in the Gulf, they are difficult to counter and give Iran the ability to strike at larger conventional forces with little, if any warning.
Iran has also created robust nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which have become a focal point of US-Iranian military competition. Iran’s missile program dates to the 1980s, and was fully underway during the Iran-Iraq War. While Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities were initially limited, the range and sophistication of the country’s missiles has increased greatly since its inception in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran has now created conventionally armed ballistic missile forces that can strike at US allies and US bases in the region with little warning, and could be configured to carry nuclear warheads if Iran can develop them.
Although an Iranian nuclear program has existed in some form since the 1950s, Iran’s push to enrich uranium and reach a nuclear breakout capability began in earnest during the Iran-Iraq War, and accelerated in the early 2000s. In spite of sabotage, the assassination of some scientists, and international sanctions — Iran’s nuclear program has steadily progressed. Iran still maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful, but its lack of cooperation with the IAEA and a range of other indicators that it is developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons make such claims doubtful. It is possible that Iran may acquire deliverable nuclear weapons at some point in the next five years.
Military competition between the US and Iran will likely continue to intensify given the importance of the Gulf in global energy security, Iran’s goals of becoming a regional power, and socio-political instability in the Middle East. Despite US conventional superiority, Iran’s asymmetric strategy presents a unique challenge for US policy makers, as it hinges on bolstering and diversifying its unconventional, nuclear, and missile capabilities to undermine the US presence in the region. To compete with Iran most effectively, US decision-makers must carefully assess and address Iran’s asymmetric strategy, as well as its perception of military competition.
More broadly, Iran and the US will continue to compete militarily as long as the Strait of Hormuz remains strategically critical and Iran seeks to establish itself as a regional power. As Iran is constantly stepping up its efforts to challenge and undermine the US’ presence in the Middle East, the US cannot afford to be lax or dismissive in confronting Iran’s strategy. To effectively engage Iran, the US must put Iran’s perceptions of military competition, as well as its aforementioned conventional and asymmetric capabilities in careful perspective, and continue to develop the means to counter Iran’s evolving assets throughout the region.Programs
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