Monday, March 20, 2006

Iran and Irrational Security Strategy, Part I

Mister Bush's new National Security Strategy says America "may face no greater challenge from a single country" than one that has an economy the size of Holland's, no nuclear weapons at present, no navy or air force to speak of, a ground force that couldn't beat Saddam Hussein's army, and is halfway around the world from the continental United States. The Security Strategy echoes remark made last week by Secretary of State and former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice before the Senate Appropriations committee.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Iran's economy ranks 20th in the world, just ahead of Turkey's and right behind Taiwan's. Its total estimated 2005 Gross Domestic Product was $551.6 billion, roughly the amount that the United States will spend in 2006 on its Department of Defense alone, which in itself is a fiscal expenditure that matches the military spending of the rest of the world combined.

Iran's economy isn't showing signs of an imminent explosion. Again, from the World Factbook:
Iran's economy is marked by a bloated, inefficient state sector, over reliance on the oil sector, and statist policies that create major distortions throughout. Most economic activity is controlled by the state. Private sector activity is typically small-scale - workshops, farming, and services… Relatively high oil prices in recent years have enabled Iran to amass some $40 billion in foreign exchange reserves, but have not eased economic hardships such as high unemployment and inflation. The proportion of the economy devoted to the development of weapons of mass destruction remains a contentious issue with leading Western nations.

Airplanes, Ships, and Soldiers

As pathetic as Iran's economy is, the state of its conventional armed force is even worse. Its estimated 2003 military budget was $4.3 billion, which ranks well below such war mongering powerhouses as Canada ($9.8 billion), Mexico ($6 billion), and Sweden ($5.7 billion).

The Imperial Iranian Air Force combat aircraft are fighter jets we sold to the country when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi
was still in power: Korea era F-84s and F-86s and Cold War vintage F-4s, F-5s, F-14s, and F-16s. We haven't given Iran parts and maintenance support for these aircraft in over two decades, and except for the F-16--of which Iran only had 300 in 1976--all the jets we sold Iran have been retired from service in the U.S. military, and nobody else makes them.

In 1988, U.S. naval air and surface forces sank most of Iran's navy during Operation Praying Mantis in the course of a clear spring day. Iran has somewhat reconstituted its maritime force since that time, but it is still a coastal navy, designed to control the territorial waters off the country's shores on the Indian Ocean, Caspian Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iraq-Iran war lasted from 1980 to 1988. It was almost exclusively a land war fought along the border of the two countries and ended when the two exhausted countries agreed to a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations.

With so much of the world's oil supply in question, many nations participated in the war through economic and other indirect means. The two superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., backed Iraq. Interestingly, Israel supported Iran.

Sticks and Stones

The new National Security Strategy says that Iran "threatens" Israel, but doesn't specifically address what the "threat" consists of other than bellicose rhetoric.

The crow flying distance between Tehran and Tel Aviv is roughly a thousand miles. Iraq and Syria sit between the two countries, but even if they didn't, there's no way on God's brown earth Iran could project conventional air or land power that far. To bring firepower to bear on Israeli territory, Iran's Navy would have to sail more than 3,000 miles, something it is not designed or trained to do. Even if Iran's war ships made it all the way up the Red Sea, Israel's navy would sink them as they came out of the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean Sea.

Closer to Home

Israel has enemies a lot closer to home than Iran. It is literally surrounded by nations historically hostile to it: Egypt to the west, Jordan to the east, and Lebanon and Syria to the north. And, of course, it's snuggled up next to whatever constitutes Palestine at any given moment.

Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria have all attacked Israel. Only Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with the country. Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist group formed in 1982 to fight the Israeli occupation and labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, holds 23 seats in the Lebanese Parliament subsequent to the 2005 elections. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that has conducted attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets since its creation in 1987, became the majority party of the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council in 2006.

The specter of Iran possessing nuclear tipped, long-range ballistic missiles would change Israel's security equation to some extent, but the equation has a range of uncertain variables.

Right now, Israel has nuclear weapons. Iran does not. Mister Bush continues to claim that the Iranians seek to possess nuclear weapons. The Iranians continue to claim that they don't.

Even if the Iranians are lying, it's uncertain whether they can actually afford to build and maintain nukes. If they can afford nukes, they certainly can't afford very many of them.

Ultimately, though, even if they go to the effort and expense to develop a handful of nukes, it is highly debatable whether they would every actually dare to use them.

Coming up in Part II: Nukes or no nukes? And if so, so what?


  1. yeah, the whole mantra of Iran being this grave threat is completely overblown. I suppose that IF they developed a nuclear weapon, and IF they developed the delivery system to hit Israel, then they could potentially one day be a threat to Israel. As far as being a threat to the U.S., not likely to happen any time soon, if ever.

    It's a convenient bogeyman, though, when Iraq isn't going well, approval numbers are down, and you're trying to convince people you're doing something.

  2. Jeff,

    While I agree with your overall assessment of the situation, I disagree with your economic assessment. Remember that during the Cold War, most of Europe, led by Britain and France went to nuclear weapons exactly because they were cheaper than equipping, training and maintaining RA units.

    And while I agree that Iran is some distance from having nukes, particularly either nukes on ballistic missiles or suitcase nukes, unlike Iraq, they definitely have an historic association with terrorists, including Al-Qaeda.

    But that still does not give us the right (nor is it a good idea) to countenance invaded Iran which is what the Bushies want to do, if we had the military resources to do it.

  3. Publius,

    Can you give me some links to reliable sources on the Iran/al Qaeda connection?

    I'd especially like to see something that establishes Iran had more to do with founding and supporting AQ than America did.

  4. Ask and ye shall receive (I don't think Iran had anything to do with the founding of them, but my understanding is that they've certainly had a number of ties to them).,8599,664967,00.html

  5. Iran doesn't even need a nuclear bomb. All they need is the credible belief that they can put together a nuclear bomb in a short amount of time. If or when Iran reaches this point, they instantly become as strong as Israel.

  6. Jeff,

    I don't know how creditable you think it is, but I was going on Richard Clarke's book: Against All Enemies. I don't have it handy but he clearly states that after 9/11 he was called to the White House and told to summarize the link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. His immediate response was "You mean Iran." and he was told no, Iraq. He details in the book why they'd been following Iran and its general support of terrorism and Al-Qaeda for some time but that Saddam Hussein had seemingly learned his lesson about not dabbling in backing terrorism against the US after the US had back-channeled a warning if he did so.

    Googling 'Richard Clark 'Iran' and 'Al-Qaeda' turns up a couple interesting references including:

    which is an interesting comment on where we are now.

    Meanwhile Slate has an excerpt from Clarke's book:

    'Page 30-32: Considered attacking Iraq on the evening of Sept. 12. At one point, Bush pulled a few of his advisors into a conference room:

    "Look," he told us. "I know you have a lot to do and all … but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way."

    I was once again taken aback, incredulous, and it showed.

    "But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this."

    "I know, I know, but … see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred."

    "Absolutely, we will look … again." I was trying to be more respectful, more responsive. "But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of Al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen."

    "Look into Iraq, Saddam," the President said testily and left us.'

    Not quite a smoking gun "they play a little" but I do clearly remember the part of about "you mean Iran"

  7. Scott and Publius,

    I don't really mean to give short shrift to Iran's role in supporting terrorism. I just have yet to see hard evidence that it lays a significant enough role to justify the level of threat the admin attributes to the country.

    Clark's comment "Iran plays a little" tells me a lot, especially as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen are mentioned in the same sentence.

    I don't agree with the assessment that Europe went to nukes because they were "cheaper" than conventional forces. They kept their conventional forces, and there are a whole lot of reasons why having nuke missiles positioned in friendly, sovreign European countries was strategically advantageous. (Some will argue that the main reason Kennedy agreed to take our nukes out of Turkey was that the stuff in France and England served the purpose).

    And I don't know whether we helped pay the piper for the European nukes, but suspect we did in one way or otehr.

    Great discussion.


  8. Jeff,

    I can't really tell more about Iran, nor do I think Iran's level of support of Al-Qaeda justifies invading Iran. But if you had to say one country supported Al-Qaeda, it would be Iran not Iraq. Again, I don't recall the reference, but Iran at least allowed free passage of A-Q members and likely R&R and/or med help. That's not to say that they were arming A-Q, training them (though I wouldn't be completely surprised either), or ready and willing to hand over a nuke (which I very much doubt even if they had one). It's pretty clear also that Iran is a ways from having nukes but that they *really* want them and have gone to a great deal of trouble to decentralize and harden as much of their nuke industry as they can. Also, you don't purify plutonium for nuclear power. But I'm sure there are lots of countries want them and some are trying. Invading a country like Iran would make Iraq look easy. However, one of the reasons I think Iran wants them so badly is exactly because of the weakness of their RA. Having even 1 nuke makes everyone think twice about pissing them off. However, I think they are also willing to use the *threat* of building nukes for a diplomatic advantage and to improve the standing of the government among the population - much like the Bushies love to yammer on about why we need to stand together and suspend the Constitution to defend against terrorists.

    As for the cost of armies. Again, sorry for my imprecise memory but about 20 years ago I read that England had written a white paper about the fact that if they built their nuclear arsenal, they could reduce their standing army because, in essence, nukes are a fixed cost capital expenditure while armies take care, feeding and expensive maintenance. This is what they did in the late 50s reducing their standing army by quite a bit. I believe my source was The Third World War by John Hackett but I was reading a lot of military/cold war stuff then from popularizations such as that to technocrat docs so my memory may well be false. I do remember looking up the British white paper and reading some of it but it's the usual horrific mixed with dry reading of the military docs of that era.

  9. Sorry, to keep going about this but found a reference on the 1957 White Paper. From Wikipedia:

    "More reforms of the armed forces took place with the 1957 Defence White Paper, which saw further reductions implemented; the Government realised after the debacle of the Suez War that Britain was no longer a global superpower and decided to withdraw from most of its commitments in the world, limiting the armed forces to concentrating on NATO, with an increased reliance upon nuclear weapons. The White Paper announced that the Army would be reduced in size from about 330,000 to 165,000, with National Service ending by 1963 (it officially ended on 31 December 1960, with the last conscript being discharged in May 1963) with the intention of making the Army into an entirely professional force."

  10. I agree that Iran's "threat" to the U.S. is being greatly exaggerated by the admin. I suppose that if they were to actively engage in funding al qaeda, and providing technology to them, as well as a safe haven for planning operations, they'd be more of a threat to the U.S. than Afghanistan was, but I haven't yet seen anything to indicate they are doing that.

    I think they are a number of years away from having a nuclear weapon, and many more years away from anything approaching the kind of delivery system they would need to target the U.S. I just don't see that as a plausible scenario.

    I do think they could be a real threat to Israel if they had a nuclear weapon in hand. Israel, though, has all but said they'll bomb Iran's production facilities before they let that happen. I suppose that remains to be seen.

    I wonder how long it will be before there is all out warfare in every place between Egypt and India. Cooler heads might prevail in the long run, but it isn't looking likely.

  11. No one has mentioned the biggest nest of Al-Qaeda-Saudi Arabia. Why do you suppose that is?

  12. In reverse order--

    Defuning: Maybe no one has mentioned it because they don't want anyone to hear it. ;-0


    I'm not talking from "insider" knowlege on this, but I'm convinced the Israelis would strike first, and firmly believe, well, that their intelligence knows exactly what's going on in Iran.


    I studied that 50s era in War College 11 years ago, and it wasn't one of my main subjects of study. I seem to recall reading that white paper too, and many others from the nuclear dawn era as well.

    I'll have to defer in depth discussion of it till I get time to revisit the material, but a lot of things were involved in force strategy decisions then, and as now, white papers get written in support of many opposing views.

    Pre-Korea, a lot of military thinkers believed nuclear weapons had made conventional forces more or less obsolete--especially back in the days before the Russkis got the bomb. Today, some think this overconfidence in the influence of nukes is why the Army fell into relative disrepair and wasn't really ready to fight when the North invaded the South. But like you, at this point my memory can't separate the "dry" stuff from the fascinating historical fiction on the subject--especially Griffin's stuff, which is so detailed at times it's more believable than straight historical work.

    As to who was the "main" supporter of AQ, I have yet to find a definitive, trustworthy source that says who was helping them out when and how much. One fair point of view says nobody helped UBL out more than the USA. It's for that reason I tend to keep the issue at arm's length.

    Thanks again to everyone for the great discussions on this subject.

    When the news cycle slows down (if that ever happens) I'll revisit the history of nukes and how they influenced force structure decisions. Pluribus, thanks for suggesting the topic.

    (BTW, am I right in thinking you adopted your screen name from the Federalist papers?)

    PS: Forgot what I was going to say about plutonium. I'm no nuke engineer, but as I understand it, plutonium is a man made deal and has to come from a reactor. This link seems to indicate that's a correct impression.,0,6266532.story

  13. Jeff,

    FWIW, I am not a military guy, just an avid historical guy and I'd be very interested in your comments on force structure decisions. I think the desire to get nuclear weapons has become one of "Look, no one can be US land forces in a straight up fight and while we may "win" a guerilla war, we sure don't want that to happen in our country. OTOH, if we have a nuke, even the Americans would have to leave us alone." In otherwords, nukes as magic wands.

    Yes, plutonium does not occur in nature, it must be manufactured in a reactor. Most naturally occurring uranium (U-238) is not fissionable and the fissionable stuff (U-235) occurs only rarely - only about 0.7% of all uranium is U-235 and since it is chemically identical to U-238, it must be separated through very difficult proceses (centrifuge or gaseous diffusion). OTOH, U-238 is just fine for a reactor producing energy.

    Plutonium, exists in trace quantities on the earth so effectively it can only be created in a nuclear reactor where Pu-239, the isotope most frequently created in a reactor, is as fissionable as U-235. But the Pu must be extracted from the byproducts of the reactor byproducts and there really is no reason to do this unless you want to build a bomb - you would not use Pu-239 in a reactor that you didn't want to explode.

    Yes, I picked publius because of the Federalist papers. A bit pretentious as I'm certainly not the man James Madison was, but I have become more involved with politics than ever before in my life because of the dire direction our country is taking.

  14. Anonymous7:22 PM

    Photos and video of Operation Praying Mantis are posted at