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?