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The Rise of Iran: How Durable, How Dangerous?
Ali Rahigh-Aghsan and Peter Viggo Jakobsen
Iran is viewed by many as a rising power that poses an increasing threat to regional and even global security. This view is wrong for three reasons. Iran’s hard and soft power is exaggerated by most accounts; it is too limited to allow the Iranians to dominate the Persian Gulf let alone the Middle East, and its brand of Shi‘ism has very limited appeal outside of Iran. Second, growing internal political and economic instability will seriously limit Iran’s bid for regional dominance. Third, the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program has led analysts to underestimate the ability of the other regional powers and the West to balance Iran and contain its influence, even if it acquires nuclear weapons. If these limitations on Iranian power are taken into account the rise seems destined to be a short one.

The consensus among Iran watchers and Middle East experts is that Iran is a rising

power. Iran is generally portrayed as an unstoppable force with a capacity and a will to dominate the Persian Gulf and even the Middle East. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, regarded as a foregone conclusion by an increasing number of commentators and experts, is believed to further enhance Iranian power and to make balancing and containment impossible. This view is fundamentally flawed, vastly exaggerating the extent of Iran’s rise and the threat that it poses. It is important to accurately assess Iran’s power and the threat that it poses because the dominant view of Iran has a negative impact on the ongoing negotiations aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program and increases the likelihood of a preventive attack against Iran’s nuclear program. The latter option has recently received serious attention following the failure of the Obama Administration’s engagement strategy.1 Our argument has five parts. First, we present the predominant view of Iran’s rise and the threat that it poses. Second, we demonstrate the way in which Iran’s hard and soft power has been vastly exaggerated. The third section demonstrates that increased economic and political problems will make Iran’s rise impossible to sustain. Fourth, we show that Iran, as a result, can be balanced and contained even if it develops nuclear weapons. We end with a conclusion summing up our main points.

The ongoing debate on the rise of Iran and its consequences has been dominated
Ali Rahigh-Aghsan is Assistant Professor at the Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University and Peter Viggo Jakobsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. The authors would like to thank Gorm Rye Olsen, Michael Friederich Kluth, Ali Alfoneh, Tom Sauer, as well as the reviewers and editors for useful comments.

1. Amitai Etzioni, “Can a Nuclear-Armed Iran Be Deterred?,” Military Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (May–June 2010), pp. 117–125; Joe Klein, “An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table,” Time Magazine, July 15, 2010.
MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL M VOLUME 64, NO. 4, AUTUMN 2010 DOI: 10.3751/64.4.13

” The Middle East Review of International Affairs. Vol. the real question is how the US should tackle a nuclear Iran. 1 (March 2001).” Middle East Review of International Affairs. We employ these camp labels for the sake of convenience and they should be seen as idealtypes. 3 (September 2006). 25.” Middle East Review of International Affairs. p.” Proliferation Papers. 1 (March 2006). Efraim Inbar. “The Need to Block a Nuclear Iran. 2006).4 The Iranian nuclear program is viewed as a major threat because of fear that the emergence of a nuclear Iran will result in a nuclear domino effect. p. In the realist hard power perspective. Barry Posen. 2006). or employ them against its own citizens in the event that an internal rebellion threatens to overthrow it. Shahram Chubin. “Iran: The Rise of a Regional Power. p. . Barry Rubin. Diplomacy is considered a failure. 18. most notably Hamas and Hizbullah. pass them on to terrorist groups. Vol.5 The hard power camp has little regard for the US-led efforts to constrain and balance the growing Iranian influence. Vol. No. A Nuclear-Armed Iran: A Difficult But Not Impossible Policy Problem (New York: The Century Foundation. 4. Michael Eisenstadt. Economic and political sanctions are viewed as equally ineffective because of Russian and Chinese opposition and European reluctance. Robert Lowe and Claire Spencer. a rising Iran is a rising threat. 10. 5. No. p. p. making it impossible for the United States to put effective pressure on Iran to stop its support for terrorism and its alleged nuclear weapons program. No. 21 (Winter 2008). 3. Any state gaining relative power is expected to enhance its security or power. 6. 7. and the military air strike option is regarded as high-risk and unlikely to prevent Iran from going nuclear. some analysts fear that the current regime might use its nuclear weapons against Israel. Its Neighbours and the Regional Crises (London: Chatham House. Some scholars use arguments from both camps. Accordingly.560 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL by two camps: a “hard power” camp emphasizing military capabilities and geopolitics and a “soft power” camp emphasizing religious and ideological factors. and the hard power camp expects Iran to continue to enhance its military capabilities and challenge US influence in the Middle East. 2008.3 or as a revisionist power seeking to establish regional hegemony and to export its revolution. and scholars identified as belonging to a camp may not necessarily make all the arguments that we attribute to it. 149.6 In contrast. Iran. April 28. “Iran’s ‘Risk-Taking’ in Perspective. p. and at the same time ignore the economic sanctions imposed by the US and the UN to stop its nuclear program. that matters. rather than the military one. The main reason for the rise of Iran as a 2. Ehud Yaari. 10. triggering an arms race in the region. The rise of Iran consequently appears almost unstoppable.” The Jerusalem Report.2 The hard power perspective suggests that Tehran has been the principal beneficiary of the American policy of regime change. “The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran: An Assessment. the soft power camp explains the rise of Iran with reference to religious and ideological factors. 6. expand its regional influence through closer alignment with Syria and support for militant groups. In addition. 5. as it removed two of Iran’s arch enemies and tied down American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “Not Slowing Down. These favorable geopolitical developments coincided with unusually high gas and oil prices (1999–2008). enabling Iran to build up its military strength. No. Tehran is accordingly interpreted as a status quo-orientered power seeking to enhance its security (deterrence). mainly because this option has served Iranian interests in gaining time within its “talk and build” strategy. It is the change in the ideological balance of power. 3.

the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia. while 7. Hizbullah. The GCC also has more major naval combat ships than Iran in all categories. Saudi Arabia.6 times as much on arms as Iran during the period of 1988–2007. 145. and exaggerate its offensive and political potential. Vol.5 times as much on their defense as Iran in the ten-year period 1997–2007. and the Jihad Group in Egypt. with respect to procurement. No.10 WHY THE RISE AND THE RESULTING THREAT IS EXAGGERATED This predominant view suffers from a number of flaws that combine to form a vast exaggeration of the rise of Iran and the threat it poses to regional and international security. and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Paul Salem. Egypt. . Qatar.9 and the Sunni regimes of Bahrain. and Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Lebanon. the difference is even more dramatic as the GCC spent 15. such as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. 87. p. 2007. Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia alone has more high-quality combat aircraft and tanks than Iran. the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Vol. These countries spent 7. If one merely looks at numbers. Rubin. p. February 22. “Dealing with Iran’s Rapid Rise in Regional Influence. 8. No. HOW DANGEROUS? M 561 regional power is the establishment of a Shi‘ite-dominated government in Baghdad and Hizbullah’s increasing influence in Lebanon. 13. the Iranian military appears quite formidable. 1 (Winter 2008). the National Islamic Movement in Sudan. Iran has been outspent massively by the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain. However. The GCC has a total of 495 and 1.” The Japan Times. Jordan. “Iran: The Rise of a Regional Power. “Iran’s New Iraq. 25. 3 (May–June 2007). except submarines (Iran has three. The collapse of Pan-Arab nationalism is seen as the second key factor underpinning the rise of Iran. Iran’s MIlItary Power Is Blown out of ProPortIon Accounts of Iran’s growing military power generally fail to place it within a regional context. the principal threat emanating from Iran’s rise is the risk of increased instability and civil war that the rapid shift in the ideological balance of power creates. The armed forces of the GCC consequently have far better equipment than Iran. this picture changes once defense spending and the quality of the armed forces are taken into account.7 It is the rise of the so-called “arch of Shi‘ism” or “Shi‘ite cresent” that that gives Iran a dominant role. 10. Kuwait. 62. ignore the poor quality of Iran’s equipment and manpower. “The Shia Revival. Ray Takeyh. From the soft power perspective.8 The Iranian ability and willingness to fill this vaccum with its own ideological model has made it a role model for Muslims around the world.816 high-quality combat aircraft and tanks.” Middle East Journal. compared to Iran’s 55 high-quality combat aircraft and 730 tanks.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. Vali Nasr. enjoying advantages in both manpower and materiel. This section addresses each of them in turn. Hamas. 9.” The Military Review. Oman.” p. The outbreak of violence between Sunnis and Shi‘ites in both Iraq and Lebanon is seen as a direct result of this shift. respectively. and Syria are extremely worried that the emergence of a Shi‘ite-dominated Iraq will strengthen Shi‘ite movements in their own societies.

Iran’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles and non-conventional weapons can therefore be seen as a way of offsetting its conventional weaknesses. and the US helps to further enhance their qualitative advantage vis-à-vis the Iranian armed forces. Steven R. para. 13. and the GCC countries are incapable of using their capabilities jointly in an effective manner to counter an Iranian attack. 2009. -2 and -3 missiles. There is obviously more to military power than quantity. 33. There are indications that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capacity and estimates for the development of this capacity range from 2009 to 2015. 559–576. is that the GCC countries are strong enough to deny Iran a quick and decisive victory. 4 (Autumn 2005).” Strategic Comments. Iran denies that it has a military program. “Yes.15 Iran is suspected of having a biological weapons program and a capacity to develop chemical weapons.500–1. 12.562 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL the GCC possess none). 15. Caitlin Talmadge. however. No. pp. February 21. 18. 82–117. “The Continuing Evolution of Iran’s Military Doctrine. Scud-C.11 Iran’s manpower advantage also disappears when quality is taken into account: 220. 14. 1 (Summer 2008). cruise missiles. Vol. Ward. This makes an overt Iranian conventional attack on the GCC countries next to unthinkable and significantly reduces Iran’s ability to coerce the GCC militarily. No. 12. Vol. 2010. International Institute for Strategic Studies. pp. Uzi Rubin. and has used this technology to develop the Shahab-1. Anthony H.000 active personnel are made up of 18-month conscripts that receive only three months of military training. No. has a range of 1. May 31. Iran put its first satellite into orbit in February 2009 and successfully tested a new Sajjil-2 missile in May 2009 that is estimated to be able to carry a one-ton payload 1. Security Cooperation in the Gulf: Actions Rather than Words and Good Intentions (Washington. We Should Worry about Iran’s Satellite.” The Middle East Journal. The Shahab-3.12 The regime’s best offensive cards are consequently the Navy’s ability to close the Strait of Hormuz13 and the 125. and Charles Wolf Jr.” International Security. and No-dong ballistic missiles. giving the US time to bring its superior air. 59. It had an active chemical weapons (CW) program in the 1980s but claims to have terminated all offensive CW activities and destroyed its CW facilities prior to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. The key point to take away from the balance of forces just presented. Moreover. GOV/2010/28. IAEA. Cordesman. 1 (February 2009).. “The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.000 of its 545. 2008). Eisenstadt. the UK. Jerrold D. which entered into service in 2003. 2009).300 km and is capable of reaching Israel. Iran remains committed to an aggressive missile development effort that includes developing longer-range ballistic missiles. Green. 4–5. p.14 Iran possesses one of the largest missile inventories in the Middle East and has an indigenous missile program. 16. which do not benefit from such cooperation with leading military powers. and a space launch capability.and sea-power to bear against Iranian attackers. 15. Frederic Wehrey. pp. CA: RAND.” p. but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not satisfied that the Iranian nuclear program serves merely peaceful purposes. 78.16 11. DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz. Understanding Iran (Santa Monica. Vol. 37–42. “Iran’s Missile Development. 9. It has purchased North Korean Scud-B. GCC training cooperation with France.800 km. .000-strong Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) potent capacity for asymmetric warfare and terrorist activities.” The Wall Street Journal.

Central Asia. passed the Status of Forces Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement with the US. Understanding Iran. Iran’s rising soft power stems from the shift in the ideological Shi‘ite-Sunni balance of power and Iran’s ability to present itself as a leader of all Muslims in the Greater Middle East as a result of the collapse of Arab nationalism. which vests the political power to run a state in the hands of the clergy.ir/pages/?cid�19816. Wehrey. 15. This doctrine does not even enjoy broad support within Iran. Vol. its offensive potential would be limited as the use of nuclear weapons for purposes other than self-defense or its transfer to terrorist organizations would create a high risk of retaliation.” pp. No. especially if they were used against allies of the US. Vol. 19. 34. 27. 13 out of Iran’s 14 grand ayatollahs now oppose it. such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. broke with Iran and decided that it was in their best interest to allow the US to put military pressure on the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Only 10–15% of Muslims worldwide are Shi‘ites.. The subsequent political and military marginalization of al-Sadr has left Iran with limited influence over the future direction of Iraq. .17 Thus. http://www.tabnak. See Maximilian Terhalle. The limits of Iranian soft power within the Shi‘ite community are perhaps best illustrated by Iran’s failure to spread its influence in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. and even in Pakistan and Afghanistan — never followed the Iranian political model. 3 (Summer 2004). and Wolf Jr. 2008. with Da‘wa and ISCI votes. p. Green. September 2. Iran’s soft Power Is Vastly exaggerated In the soft power perspective. and its model has been in decline ever since. A key problem with this interpretation is its huge exaggeration of the Shi‘ite religion as a power resource. 18. While it would also enhance its ability to deter external aggression. only a small number of Shi‘ites follow the Iranian Velayat-e Faqih [governing by the scholars] doctrine. Iran’s influence in Iraq has declined since the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Ayatollah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz al-Hakim. “Are the Shia Rising?. p. pp.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. Iranian efforts to export its model and empower other Shi‘ite communities in the Greater Middle East had come to naught except for Hizbullah in Lebanon. “Are the Shia Rising?. This fact was underlined in November 2008 when the Iraqi Parliament. the Shi‘ite Muslims in the Persian Gulf region. Iraqi Shi‘ites have never followed the Iranian Velayat-e Faqih doctrine and Grand Shi‘a Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani.” Middle East Policy. HOW DANGEROUS? M 563 Needless to say. 2 (Summer 2007). “Regional Implications of Shi‘a Revival in Iraq. the political value of acquiring nuclear weapons would also be limited by the fact that it would likely trigger active balancing efforts by other states in the region. No. and Iran is not even recognized as a leader or role model within the Shi‘ite community in the Middle East. Vali Nasr. Moreover. Turkmenistan.19 Moreover. and the Caucasus — including Bahrain. Azerbaijan. Tajikistan. despite hard lobbying from Iran 17. 10. 14. 76. the emergence of a Shi‘adominated Iraq will not alter this state of affairs.” The Washington Quarterly. Tabnak Online. a nuclear capacity would help Iran to acquire a regional “great power” status by enhancing its prestige in the Muslim world. 77–79. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei died in 1988. Terhalle. regards it as a purely Iranian model. the most powerful Shi‘ite cleric in Iraq. and the Da‘wa Party headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.18 Contrary to what the soft power perspective holds.

Finally.” The Guardian. push that identity throughout the greater Middle East in the direction of Wahhabism and militancy.” March 26.” BBC Arabic Service. No.564 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL to prevent it. Its support in the Arab street remains fickle. draw a clear wedge between Sunni and Shi‘i Islam. 14. they are likely to prove counterproductive because they serve as a pretext for Bahrain. and Saudi Arabia to clamp down on Shi‘ite groups in their societies. activists.. “Regional Implications of Shi‘a Revival in Iraq. writers. is far less popular than its pan-Arab competitors. it is also wrong to regard Iran as the only model left standing following the collapse of Pan-Arab nationalism. ethnic. Jordan. Rather than a shift in the Sunni-Shi‘ite ideological balance of power. Iran-Iraq Relations (Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. 2006.” p. Kenneth Katzman. On the contrary. Arab public support for Iran dropped noticeably because it was seen as partly responsible for the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq. 22. The Persian-Arab and the Sunni Wahhabism-Shi‘ism divides impose very real constraints on Iranian influence. Al-‘Alam. 2010). educational institutions. “Labyrinths of the Sect. October 19–25. The popularity earned for its role in assisting Hizbullah during the 2006 war with Israel proved to be short-lived. 34–36. April 15. 23. Although Iran is popular in the Arab street due to its militant opposition to the US and support for groups that fight Israel. Rasha Saad. March 29. Nasr. The fact that Iran’s major transnational Arab media outlet. mosques. the Saudi government has been working closely with Wahhabi clerics since the 1980s to build a network of “seminaries. “Saudi Government Cracks Down on Shiite Dissidents. journalists. “Shias in the Gulf: Grumbling and Rumbling. pp. the rise of the Shi‘ites in Iraq may intensify internal religious rivalries within Shi‘ism as Iraqi Najaf begins to challenge Iranian Qum’s position as the center of the Shi‘ite theological world. Anees al-Qudaihi. it is not the only game in town and there are clear limitations to its influence. 2009. Iran’s cultural. Donna Abu-Nasr. 2007. and academics that would articulate and emphasize Sunni identity. by the Iranian failure to rebuild a pan-Shi‘ite coalition in the run-up to the 2010 national election. “Saudi Arabia’s Shia Press for Rights. November 2. 2009. beating the more pro-Iranian incumbent al-Maliki’s alliance by two seats. 6–10.20 His alliance emerged as the largest in Parliament. 2009. 817. Egypt. Wehrey.” Al-Ahram Weekly. Further evidence that Iranian influence is waning is provided by the fact that the ISCI was severely punished in the January 2009 governorate election for its perceived ties to Iran. “Sunni Side Up.22 Moreover. preachers.”23 Considering that Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is more than 60% larger 20. 21. linguistic. and eliminate Iran’s ideological influence. and Wolf Jr. provides yet another indication that Iran’s influence on the Arab street has been exaggerated. March 24. . and by the comeback of the pro-American former Prime Minister ‘Iyad ‘Allawi in that election. The Economist.” The Associated Press. In 2007. pp. Understanding Iran. and religious composition stands in contrast to the majority Sunni Muslims both in the Middle East and in Southwest Asia. Its many efforts to portray itself as a pan-Islamist leader by being more pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli than the Arab regimes does not alter the fact that Iran remains the odd man out in the Arab world. Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. Green.21 It seems unlikely that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s energetic attempts to position Iran as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds will alter this state of affairs. Ian Black.

2007. 27.E. See Mehdi Mozafarri. it is not surprising that Saudi analysts do not view Tehran as capable of sustaining its regional ambitions or supporting other countries with a majority Shi‘ite population. in charge of running the state. 26. 19–22. local councils. B1.27 Two successive presidencies held by the pragmatic (Rafsanjani. and mayors. parliament.25 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced the concept of Velayat-e Faqih in order to solve this crisis of central authority. 25. “Meet ‘The Decider’ of Tehran. HOW DANGEROUS? M 565 than Iran’s.” Middle East Policy. he has been forced to balance the various factions against each other to prevent any of them from becoming powerful enough to challenge his power. Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei. Thus. His solution was to put the clergy. The clergy was organized by a network of mujtahids i. December 9. Rather.e. It’s Not the Hothead You Expect. it contains a built-in potential for tension between the unelected clergy and the elected politicians that Ayatollah Khomeini. 84–100. p. religious authority has been based on the notion of marja-e taqlid [independent thought] which is characterized by various religious opinions and schools of thought. A Shia Crescent and the Shia Revival: Myths and Realities (Saudi National Security Assessment Project. 2 (Summer 2007). p.. “Iran: Ahmadi-Nejad’s Tumultuous Presidency. had the charisma and the religious authority to keep in check. pp. 2007). 14. pp. a powerful body of independent Shi‘ite ‘ulama [religious scholars] without a generally accepted clerical hierarchy or bureaucratic organization. Since Iran’s political system also includes a popularly elected president.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. headed by the Supreme Leader.24 GROWING INTERNAL INSTABILITY WILL MAKE THE RISE DIFFICULT TO SUSTAIN Since the Safavid dynasty in the beginning of the 1500s and the establishment of Twelver Shi‘ism as the dominant religion in Iran. Vali Nasr. the first Supreme Leader.” The Washington Post. and a reformist faction led by former President Mohammad Khatami. His successor. autonomous. the Shi‘ite clergy never had a sole source of central legitimate religious authority. Three principal factions or clusters with fluid and overlapping memberships have developed since the Revolution: a conservative faction dominated by the clergy and the Supreme Leader. No. the Shi‘ite clergy was determined by a multitude of independent. Sharpe. 2006). Nawaf Obaid. 9. a pragmatic faction led by former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. He is not seen as possessing the religious qualifications necessary for the post of Supreme Leader by many Shi‘ite religious leaders both inside and outside of Iran. 1987). “Iranian National-Security Debates: Factionalism and Lost Opportunities. 21 (February 6. Authority in Islam: From Mohammed to Khomeini (New York: M. has neither. Mehran Kamrava. 1989–1997) and 24. Although Khamenei is generally regarded as the ultimate decision-maker on key issues. and often competitive religious authorities.” International Crisis Group Middle East Briefing. No. . International Crisis Group.26 and his inability to provide an authoritative religious justification for the role played by the clergy and the Supreme Leader in the running of the Iranian state has made the Supreme Leader vulnerable to challenges from both the clergy and the elected politicians. Vol.

The Rise of the Pasdaran. 2009. 37–48. 3. and Bohandy. and Other Intelligence and Paramilitary Forces (Washington. R. The IRGC have not only extended their influence into virtually every sector of Iran’s legal economy.” Orbis. Other analysts view the IRGC as tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader: Michael Rubin. 2009). 4 (Fall 2008). as well as subsequent actions undertaken by Ahmadinejad and the IRGC to destroy the so-called “Green Movement” and other opponents. pp. including the lucrative oil and gas sector. the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Wehrey. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. but they are also believed to control the lion’s share of the black market. Nichiporuk. himself a former IRGC commander. pp. 2007). 33. Frederic Wehrey.” The Christian Science Monitor. “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics. Alfoneh. This rise has accelerated since the 2005 election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. “The Iranian Moment. CA: RAND.S. Vol. “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Tightens Grip. Alireza Nader. 15. 54. pp. and. 31. Nader. 3 (Summer 2010).” The Middle East Quarterly. Hansell. 1997–2005) factions respectively induced Khamenei to increase his support for the conservative camp. DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies. For a good analysis of these implications. . “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — A Rogue Outfit?. the development and deployment of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Brian Nichiporuk. Karim Sadjadpour. Vol. Green.30 They have also become Iran’s dominant military player through their control of Iran’s capacity for asymmetric warfare (notably guerilla warfare against invading forces and raids against Gulf shipping and oil infrastructure). In doing so he facilitated the rise of the IRGC as a new autonomous player on the political scene. March 3. see Mehran Kamrava. While the longer-term implications for the Iranian regime are difficult to predict. “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics. 15. Policy Options. Rasool Nafisi. Bohandy. some believe. IRGC veterans won 80 of the 290 seats in the March 2008 parliamentary elections.” p. 29. Iran’s external terrorism capability embodied in its elite Quds Force. Anthony H. No. Scott Peterson. 4 (Fall 2008). “Iranian Political and Nuclear Realities and U. December 9. “The 2009 Elections and Iran’s Changing Political Landscape.28 and former IRGC officers constituted half of Ahmadinejad’s new cabinet finalized in November 2009. 3. 18. Jerrold D. pp. pp. Cordesman.29 The IRGC’s accumulation of political power is underpinned by growing economic and military influence. has eroded the Supreme Leader’s legitimacy to such an extent that it is difficult to see how he could roll back the IRGC. Green. 32. The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Santa Monica. Ahmadinejad appointed 14 former IRGC commanders to his 21-person cabinet and systematically replaced provincial governors supporting Khatami and Rafsanjani with IRGC officers. 30. Ali Alfoneh. The IRGC is believed to earn as much as $12 billion per year from illicit black market activities and to control 68% of Iran’s total exports. No.” Middle East Quarterly. 2009. 89–91. 400–412.” p.” Written testimony. the Al Quds Force. 65. Vol. Nafisi. No. 3–14. p.566 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL reformist (Khatami. Tellier. and S.32 Khamenei’s support for the IRGC’s brutal suppression of the demonstrations following the June 2009 announcement that Ahmadinejad had been reelected as president.31 An increasing number of analysts now regard the IRGC as a threat to the Supreme Leader as they no longer see the latter as capable of controlling or supervising the IRGC’s military and economic activities. Lydia Hansell.33 28. which were overseen by former IRGC commander and Deputy Minister of the Interior Alireza Afshar. 55–56. US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

” Survival. Country Profile Iran (Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.2 million bpd in 2007. HOW DANGEROUS? M 567 there is no doubt that the scene is set for increased polarization and factional infighting that will make it increasingly difficult for the Iranian regime to pursue a coherent and pro-active foreign policy. The Iranian economy has been mismanaged since the Revolution and is currently in such dire straits that it cannot support a bid for regional dominance. Shayerah Illias.” Iran Strategy Brief.S. Ilan Berman. 35. pp. 2010. and the uncertainty brought about by the nuclear crisis. 51. April 22. . Unfortunately for the Iranian population.34 In the near and medium term. pp.” VOANews. 36. 178.37 The clergy can only hope for oil prices to recover and increase above the $90 mark that Iran needs to balance its budget.php 37. Edward Yeranian. oil accounted for some 80% of Iran’s total revenue and 40–50% of the government’s revenue. January 2008. 15–26. 2. p. Production fell from 6 million barrels per day (bpd) in 1979 to 4.36 plus some $28 billion of foreign debts. 2009. DC: International Monetary Fund. and in 2009 oil exports fell by 24%. 2010). Rooz Online. p. p. “Tehran Begins to Feel the Pain of Finance Crisis. international sanctions. 21. 2008). This forced the regime to deplete its foreign currency reserve which reportedly had been reduced to a mere $10 billion by the end of 2008. 3. http://www.com. “Iran’s Power in Context. as Iran’s oil industry is struggling. No.35 The collapse of oil prices hit it hard. 39. Vol. $1 billion in direct foreign investment is needed a year to keep production at its current level and another $1. Iran does not HaVe tHe econoMIc Power to sustaIn a BId for regIonal doMInance Iran does have economic “great power” potential: it is the second-largest oil producer among the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the fourth-largest crude oil exporter in the world. Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia (Washington. Iran’s achilles heel is its high dependence on oil revenue. January 22. but foreign investment has been well below this level and falling in recent years as a result of domestic instability. see Patrick Clawson. 38.” The Washington Times. “The Islamic Republic’s Economic Failure.com/archives/2009/01/post�11183. Hadi Nili.39 The regime cannot solve the crisis by enhancing productivity for another reason: it would require fundamental economic reform. 1 (February/March 2009). June 27. For good overview of the economic policies pursued since the Revolution.5 billion to increase it. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have urged the Iranian government for years to address these 34. 2008. keeping the Iranian economy afloat and preventing serious social unrest will be a major challenge for the regime. Policy Issues (Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. 2008). “The Case for Economic Warfare.roozonline.” The Middle East Quarterly.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. “Iranian Oil Exports Fall by a Quarter During Past Fiscal Year. 29–31. No. 30. November 5. this potential is not about to be realized. 15. In 2008. p. 4 (Fall 2008). Vol. Shahram Chubin. creating a huge budget deficit of some $30 billion in 2008–2009 (according to the most optimistic official statistics).38 They cannot solve the crisis by increasing oil production. Iran’s Economic Conditions: U. and it boasts a population of some 71 million as well as an average GDP growth of around 5% over the past decade. No.

It is impossible to know whether Iran can be influenced not to go nuclear. gas.42 Legislation passed in January 2010 is supposed to cut the subsidies by $20 billion as a first step in a gradual process that will phase out all subsidies by 2015. as the regime relies on massive subsidies to hold popular discontent in check. In 2008. 40. and 20% to infrastructure projects. 2010.44 In 2010. 43. and since Ahmadinejad has promised to give 50% of the money saved to Iran’s lower classes.S. and Akbar Torkan. 44. and electricity) at $84. “The Bazaar Strikes Back.7 billion in 2008.” Iran Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. in short. which would lose many of its privileges if the economy was liberalized. June 19. According to the the IMF. In 2007. “Energy Subsidies Reach $84b. Significantly reducing public spending is also out of the question.” Iran Daily. but four Five-Year Economic Plans launched by three different presidents to reduce state controls. Charles Recknagel. put the cost of Iran’s energy subsidies (oil. Deputy Oil Minister for Planning Affairs. Meeting the Challenge: U. 14. 42. July 29. Nili. but implementation of the first phase has already been delayed several times due to protests. triggered by a lack of gas for heating. and attract foreign investment have largely failed due to opposition from the powerful bonyads (charitable trusts that have large stakes in some sectors of the economy) and the IRGC. bazaar merchants used the strike weapon again. “Tehran Begins to Feel the Pain of Finance Crisis. forcing the government to reduce an increase in income tax from 70% to 15%. 41. but supposing this effort fails.” The Economist. The . 2010. 2008). January 14. an attempt to increase the price of gasoline by 25% had to be abandoned in the face of riots. 2010. Daniel Coats and Charles Robb. reduce the dependence on oil revenue. these subsidies amounted to 27% of GDP in 2008–2009. 2008. Policy toward Iranian Nuclear Development (Bipartisan Policy Center.45 The Iranian regime is. 14. Suzanne Fenton.” MEED. liberalize trade.” 45. Iranian power and influence can still be contained and a nuclear arms race averted. from turning violent. deregulate the economy. p.568 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL problems. its effect on the budget deficit will be negligible. “Iran Struggles to Cut Subsidies.40 If these subsidies benefiting the middle class and the poor were removed to reduce the public spending deficit. p. “Iran Moves To Cut Popular Economic Subsidies Despite Political Risk. the introduction of a modest 3% sales tax was abandoned because it triggered the largest strike in the bazaars [markets] since the Revolution. p. unrest would be inevitable. 5. AND A NUCLEAR ARMS RACE AVERTED The failure to stop the Iranian nuclear and long-range missile programs to date does not necessarily imply that Iran’s growing power cannot be balanced and contained.41 and in early 2008 the government had to deploy IRGC units to several northern cities to prevent protests. IRAN CAN BE BALANCED AND CONTAINED.43 Attempts to increase taxes have been equally unsuccessful. in deep economic trouble and this will significantly constrain its ability to fund foreign policy initiatives in the foreseeable future. April 27.

” Foreign Affairs.46 the mere possession of nuclear weapons would not automatically translate into enhanced political influence because credible threats of nuclear use are difficult to make for purposes other than self-defense. 2009. Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh. Given that the US will maintain a significant military presence in the region following its withdrawal from Iraq. Says U. it is difficult to see a military reason preventing deterrence and containment from working. “Iran’s Nuclear Challenge. “Can a Nuclear Iran be Contained or Deterred?. p. their resistance to any use of force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.and sea-power that the US could immediately bring to bear to counter an Iranian attack. in the form of personnel.” 47. 2008. Iran Pose Main Threats to GCC. Hizbullah.” Defense News. pp. 87. see Chubin. March 24. While the possession of nuclear weapons would enable Tehran to escalate its use of these instruments without fearing military retaliation against its homeland. Whether Iran has nuclear weapons or not.S. and political resources to deny Iran the ability to use conventional and asymmetric military power to intimidate or subvert others. “Extremism. their unwillingness to allow the US to deploy the number of troops required for containment to work. 85–94. the lack of credible US security guarantees. Barry Rubin. March 9. pointing to the GCC’s unwillingness to confront Iran. Michael Rubin.” Middle Eastern Outlook. The long-standing efforts undertaken by Saudi 46. .47 Hence. its alliance with Syria and its capacity to support non-state actors like Hamas.48 This analysis is flawed for four reasons. 2 (Summer 2007). economic.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. See for instance Colin Dueck and Ray Takeyh. For a convincing argument that the behavior of a nuclear Iran is impossible to predict. Most analysts do not regard containment and balancing as feasible. their ineffective military cooperation. HOW DANGEROUS? M 569 BalancIng and contaInMent are not as Hard as generally BelIeVed Whether Iran goes nuclear or not. Vol. and prepositioned materiel. Riad Kahwaji. especially with respect to sanctions and military measures. and the failure of the US and the EU to agree on a common Iran policy. Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The second is that the GCC countries are containing and balancing Iran more actively than they are given credit for because of their cautious rhetoric and vocal opposition to preventive attacks on Iran. Naval Chief. “Iran’s ‘Risk-Taking’ in Perspective.” New York Daily News. 194. 1 (January/February 2008). “The Cost of Containing Iran. the military balance of power between Iran and the GCC is more or less even. they expect the GCC to opt for appeasement rather than balancing if Tehran goes nuclear. and the Taliban and to employ asymmetric military strategies will remain its key instrument with respect to influencing political outcomes in the region. Whether a nuclear armed Iran would escalate its use of these instruments remains a topic of heated debate. As demonstrated above. Vol. No. popular hostility towards the US within the GCC and Middle Eastern countries. bases. effective balancing and containment will at a minimum require a concerted Western and GCC effort to marshal sufficient military. No. November 5. 122. The first is that it exaggerates the amount of Iranian hard and soft power that has to be contained. meaning that Iran only enjoys an overwhelming superiority if it is allowed to take on the smaller GCC members (not Saudi Arabia) one at a time — a very unlikely scenario given the massive US military presence in the Gulf and the superior air. “What if Iran Gets a Working Nuclear Weapon?. 2008.” Political Science Quarterly. 48.

31. Blanchard and Richard F. 2008). June 11.” National Defense. Iran: U. Kuwait.” which was clearly intended to send a signal to Iran not to go nuclear. Kenneth Katzman. GCC-US cooperation has intensified as a result of the Gulf Security Dialogue initiative launched in 2006. October 8. and Palestine. 50.570 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL Arabia to contain Iranian soft power have already been noted. It is easier for both Arab and European countries to cooperate with the US without triggering domestic discontent.50 These efforts to enhance their own military power are accompanied with efforts to establish closer military cooperation with the US. because Obama was a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq and is overseeing the withdrawal of US forces from that country. “France Gains Military Presence in Persian Gulf. it has led both to closer defense cooperation between the US and the GCC countries and US weapons sales worth some $25 billion. the GCC has outspent Iran massively on defense in the last decade. Qatar.52 Third. and the UAE has also bought the advanced Theater High Altitude Area Defense longer range anti-missile system. It is no coincidence that the new US approach has been accompanied by renewed Saudi and Egyptian campaigns aimed at undercutting Iranian influence in Syria.” The Washington Post. Mazen Mahdi. Their defense spending has increased even further in recent years and the priority given to acquiring anti-ballistic missile capabilities demonstrates a growing concern with the threat from Iran as well as a growing determination to counter it.S. “Gulf Countries to Hold Joint Naval Exercises with NATO. the new Administration’s attempts to engage Iran and Syria have made it easier for the Arab countries concerned about Tehran’s growing influence and nuclear program to step up their own diplomatic balancing against Iran.000-man force responsible for protecting oil facilities and key infrastructure from external attack. January 16.S. and although this initiative has made little headway with respect to establishing closer cooperation among the GCC countries. As mentioned above. 51. All of the GCC states are in the process of acquiring or upgrading advanced Patriot missile systems (PAC-3). and later that year NATO held joint naval exercises with four GCC members (Bahrain.49 and their efforts to build up their own military capacities. the UK. The most recent initiative is a plan to triple the size of Saudi Arabia’s 10. the election of US President Barack Obama has improved the prospects for effective containment and balancing in three ways. and a decision by Morocco to cut diplomatic ties with Teh49. and because his Administration has sought to engage both Syria and Iran. Stew Magnuson. It also helps that the new Administration is perceived as less likely to authorize a preventive strike against Iran than the Bush Administration. 2010). 52.” International Herald Tribune. and NATO. January 31. The Gulf Security Dialogue and Related Arms Sales Proposals (Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. 2010. Joby Warrick. Compounded also are the GCC decision in 2006 to launch a joint GCC study of “peaceful nuclear technology. . p. and the UAE) for the first time. France.51 France established its first military base in the Gulf in Abu Dhabi in 2008. Grimmett. “Iranian Threat Spurs Gulf Nations to Upgrade Defenses.” The National (UAE). Concerns and Policy Responses (Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. as have Bahrain’s and Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to clamp down on their Shi‘ite minorities in order to prevent any Iranian infiltration. 2008. Steps Up Arms Sales to Persian Gulf Allies. May 2009. 2008. November 1. “U. Lebanon. Katrin Bennhold. Christopher M. Further.

Rubin. pp. April 20. Brenda Gazzar. p. Egypt will feel pressure to do the same to maintain its credentials as the leader of the Arab world vis-à-vis Saudia Arabia. 172. May 2008. April 17. 151.” The Journal of International Security “ Affairs.” and so on.57 According to this logic. and pressure will then mount on Turkey to go nuclear to maintain its status as a regional “great power. For the American use of sticks and carrots to persuade the Arab states and Turkey to support the deployment of US forces in the region and the war against Iraq. 56. Nuclear Programs in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran. the Obama Administration’s efforts to engage Iran laid the foundation for increased diplomatic pressure and the UN and EU sanctions imposed in June and July 2010. David Pollock and Mohammad Yaghi. 1992). however. “Iran’s Power in Context. March 5. Their willingness to take effective measures to balance and contain Iranian influence has increased over time as Iran has approached the nuclear threshold and the threat has become clearer. 2010. The GCC governments and the American allies in the region can also be expected to. United States Senate. No. March 10. March 23. 1993). Chubin.59 The danger of an arms race is not imminent. 261–262. Amir Taheri. 58.60 53.” Reuters. 110th Congress. February 2008. BBC News.53 Third. 2009.S. both the European and the Arab countries have so far acted in accordance with the expectations of balance of threat/power theory.” April 19.56 some argue it has already started. May 1. International Institute for Strategic Studies. 2009. 2009. “Analysis: Iran Faces Shift in Strategy from Moderate Arabs. see Mohamed Heikal.58 That the risk of an arms race is real is underlined by the fact that 13 countries in the Middle East have announced new or revived plans to pursue or explore nuclear programs since 2006. 2007. p. as the current aspirations for nuclear energy in the region will take 10–15 years to fulfill.” pp. “Arab States Have a Stake in Iran’s Talks. 83.55 a nuclear arMs race Is not IneVItaBle Many fear that a nuclear Iran will trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This logic is spelled out nicely in Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East. just as they did in response to Iraq’s attack on Kuwait in 1990. and Dilip Hiro. Reuters. 2009. No. “U. 25.” 57.” July 26. pp.” Wall Street Journal. 55. 174. Illusions of Triumph (London: HarperCollins Publishers.’ Scowcroft Warns of Proliferation from Iran. 7. “EU Tightens Sanctions over Iran Nuclear Programme. Dennis Ross. Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations.54 Finally. “Egypt’s Campaign against Iran Sends Washington a Signal. 59. under strong US pressure. 2010. . “What if Iran Gets a Working Nuclear Weapon?. Second Session. Nuclear Programs in the Middle East. 257–261. 2009. “Iran Has Started a Mideast Arms Race. UN doc. p. Desert Shield to Desert Storm (London: HarperCollins Publishers. “Bush Fears Nuclear Arms Race in Middle East.” The Financial Times. align themselves more closely with the US and the West. Saudi Arabia will feel compelled to follow suit if Iran goes nuclear. 1507. It follows that many Arab countries and the EU can be expected to back tougher economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to punish Tehran if it decides to go nuclear.” The Jerusalem Post. June 9. Ilan Berman. 54.” PolicyWatch. 105–106. Roula Khalaf. Susan Cornwell. 60. S/RES/1929. 2006.” The Washington Post. HOW DANGEROUS? M 571 ran. A19. “A New Strategy on Iran.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. 15 (Fall 2008). “How to Think About the Iranian Bomb.

pp. “The Application of Incentives to Nuclear Proliferation. and political support contingent on their not developing nuclear weapons. Its declining influence in Iraq is a clear indication of this. US-led efforts supported by the GCC. This tactic worked in similar circumstances with Taiwan and South Korea during the Cold War. and the EU would be more than sufficient to balance and contain Iran and deny it the ability to translate a nuclear weapons capacity into increased political influence in the region. US allies in the Middle East. Tehran has jumped through a window created by others and exploited very favorable external circumstances to position itself as a spoiler in the regional conflicts in the Middle East. Accurately assessing Iran’s power and the threat it poses is important because an 61. The rise of Iran has largely been caused by factors that Tehran does not control: unsuccessful US policies. The Price of Peace: Inducement Strategies for International Conflict Prevention (Lanham. Since all these states and the rest of the GCC countries effectively depend upon the US for their security in the interim until they can develop their own nuclear deterrent. Virginia I. MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Spector. the US can offer to extend its nuclear umbrella to them and provide continued military. and the US is in a position to give them an offer they cannot refuse. efforts that are bound to increase significantly if Iran does decide to build a nuclear weapon. and Palestine and needs to be given a seat at the table when these issues are being discussed.. Its current ability to shape and determine future outcomes in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East will be reduced by growing political and economic difficulties that will make it increasingly difficult for Tehran to pursue a coherent and proactive foreign and security policy. It will be reduced further by the balancing efforts that Tehran’s active support for Hamas and Hizbullah and its nuclear program have triggered to date. Since Iran is not capable of hitting the US mainland with nuclear missiles. Egypt. the US would not have to sacrifice New York to protect Amman and this makes extended nuclear deterrence inherently more credible in the Middle East than it was in Western Europe during the Cold War. They are wrong in believing that Iran commands the hard and soft power to determine the outcomes in any of these conflicts singlehandedly.572 M MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL This leaves considerable time for the US to persuade Saudi Arabia. Foran and Leonard S. 34–37. . ed. high oil prices. economic. Lebanon. 1997). The hard and soft power camps are correct in pointing out that Iran can throw a spanner in the works in Afghanistan. and there is no reason why it should not work in the Middle East as well. CONCLUSION The rise in Iranian power is unsustainable and less threatening than the hard and soft power arguments suggest. and an Iranian nuclear weapon would provide the glue required to hold such a coalition together. and Turkey not to go nuclear.61 The penalties the US can impose if they renege on this promise are prohibitive and since none of these countries have an interest in appeasing Iran unless forced to do so for lack of an alternative. it is hard to see why they should not accept such an offer. It is also inconceivable that the US would refrain from extending such an offer to its allies given the strategic importance that it attaches to the region. Iraq. and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” in David Cortright.

A10. Similarly. it could also make it easier for hawks in Tel Aviv and Washington to make the case for launching a preventive attack against the Iranian nuclear program and the IRGC. Lebanon. the regime in Tehran must still be taken seriously. p. Iran has increased its relative power. April 27. Although Iran is less powerful and less threatening than generally thought. played a destabilizing role in Iraq.S. A realization that Iran is less powerful and less threatening than generally thought would increase the likelihood that the negotiations initiated by the Obama Administration can succeed in persuading Iran to give up its alleged desire for nuclear weapons. a more accurate view of Iran’s power would also facilitate efforts to contain and balance Iran. It is precisely for this reason that Obama’s efforts to engage Iran are viewed with concern in several Arab capitals. Jay Solomon. 2009. .62 Even worse. to conclude that a nuclear weapons capacity would turn it into the regional hegemon that it is being characterized as. Should these negotiations fail. it could induce the Obama Administration to offer far too much to Tehran in order to remove the inflated threat. or worse. This is by no means an impossible task. HOW DANGEROUS? M 573 inflated threat perception has a negative impact on the negotiations aimed at persuading Iran to play a more constructive role in the region and to give up its nuclear weapons program. Seeks to Assure Arabs on Iran. 62. “U. It may embolden Tehran to demand too much in the negotiations.” The Wall Street Journal. but it would require a sustained and coherent effort led by the US. and Palestine.THE RISE OF IRAN: HOW DURABLE. This would be a huge mistake. and it certainly has the capacity to continue to do so.

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