The chaos and uprisings across the Arab world, the Palestinian UN bid, and Turkey’s regional power push have removed Iran from the top headlines. However, Iran’s presence can be felt in all three strategic topics and its foreign policy actions and intentions shouldn’t be ignored.
Much of the ambiguity that surrounds Iran’s foreign policy is due to their lack of a official national security doctrine. Yet, based on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s history, actions, and rhetoric; we can find their strategic goals. First, ever since the fall of the Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and following Islamic coup, the primary foreign policy goal of Iran was to spread the Islamic revolution in the Muslim world. Second, Iran, even under the Shah sought regional hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Iran has had some successes in these regards, yet has had several failures that have prompted a change in strategy.
In the 1970’s, with America’s help, Iran was the most powerful country in the Middle East. Iran, not Israel, was America’s top weapons destination. The Shah embarked on a serious military build-up and in the 1970’s, Iran achieved Persian Gulf hegemony in the aftermath of Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf. However, the Islamic revolution in 1979 decimated Iran’s military and embarked on a policy of spreading the Islamic revolution by force. Its first opponent was Saddam’s Iraq. Iran and Iraq soon found themselves in a brutal eight year war, which ended in a military defeat for Iran. Saddam ended the war as the regional hegemon, which would ultimately lead him to the miscalculated decision to invade Kuwait. Following the war with Iraq, Iran attempted to build its military not by creating a massive conventional army that existed under the Shah, but sought a cheaper and quicker solution in acquiring ballistic missiles. Iraq, during the war, pounded Iran with hundreds of Scud missiles and used chemical weapons in response to Iranian “human-wave” assaults on Iraqi positions. Iran was surprised by chemical attacks and could not counter Iraq’s missile barrages, two major reasons Iran sued for peace in 1988. Its military was devastated and the Islamist purges during the 1980’s eliminated most of the specially trained military personal that was capable of operating advanced western weaponry. Thus, it found itself with a decimated army and an airforce, which was once one of the most powerful in the world, but was purged because Iran’s pilots had received training in the US and Israel. For an economically ravaged Iran, building a new airforce and army was too costly and required too much time. Therefore, Iran decided that the most effective weapon for deterring its enemies, the US and Iraq, was ballistic missiles.
Iran, realizing that much of the world was unwilling to sell it weaponry because of its actions in the Iraq-Iran War, made the strategic decision to domestically produce long-range missiles. For Iran, this is a source of national achievement and is why we constantly see Iranian parades and demonstrations touting its missile arsenal. In the 1990’s and until 2003, Iran’s greatest threat was Iraq, followed by the US. Iran did have legitimate defense concerns, much of it due to Iraqi actions in its war with Iran and the threat of another Desert Storm against the Persian homeland. Until 2003, Iraq was the most powerful state in the region. However, following America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sacking of Saddam, America became the most dominant regional power. Iran, however, has not given up its goal of returning to regional hegemony. It has harassed and complicated US efforts in Iraq to this day and has been effective. Iraq, due to internal chaos, much of it propagated by Iran, has been unable to create a military force that is capable of defending itself from Iranian intervention. While many people question America’s action in removing Saddam, thus handing the keys to the country to the Mullah’s in Tehran, this has coincided with a tremendous US sponsored military build-up by the Arab Persian Gulf states.
Iran has used terrorism and constant shows of force with its missiles to deter the US from having any thoughts of acting against Iran. Thus far, this strategy has worked and Iran has operated and intervened in Iraq with complete impunity. Now that Iraq no longer provides a threat to Iran’s regional ambitions, Iran needed a reason to justify its large procurement of ballistic missiles to a level that alters the regional balance of power. Iran found its justification for missile build-up in Israel, as very few regional powers will publicly question rhetoric against Israel.
Iran knows Israel is not a top security threat or concern, as its concerns are more immediate and involve regime stability, deterrence, spreading the revolution, and establishing hegemony in the Gulf. For the Mullahs, Israel is an ideological threat, and not a major security threat. They prefer low-intensity conflict with Israel, via Hezbollah and Hamas, instead of direct confrontation. So why is Iran still touting its missiles?
America, realizing Iraq is weak and fractured, needed another player to muster enough force to deter Iran’s actions in the region. For America, that player is Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni rival in terms of religious authority in the Muslim world and strategic positioning in the Gulf. Over the past few years, the military build-up in the Gulf has been incredible. America recently completed its largest weapons sale ever, totaling some $60 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi’s with American help and from its tremendous wealth has created an impressive conventional force. Saudi Arabia has invested in missiles, but its airforce has become its most potent weapon. The other Gulf States have conducted military build-ups as well and all were facilitated with US help in the effort to curb Iranian ambitions in the Gulf. Now that Iran no longer faces the Iraqi missile threat, it could face serious problems in any future conflict with Saudi Arabia, which would be backed by the US.
Iran’s missiles are for deterrence and to project power abroad. Yet, Saddam had the same calculation of the deterrent capabilities of his missiles before Desert Storm. He believed his missiles and chemical WMD’s would deter the US from any action in response to his invasion of Kuwait. He was dead wrong. Iran realizes this is a problem and the deterrent effect of this weaponry only goes so far, yet has not embarked on any significant conventional military build-up. That is where its nuclear program comes into play. While under construction for decades, Iran now uses its nuclear weapons program as its greatest deterrence card. This threatens reactions from other regional states. Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in receiving nuclear help from Pakistan in response. Iran’s missiles, while used to threaten Israel, are more for deterrence and regional ambitions that are curbed by its immediate neighbors. We must remember that in the aftermath of Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006 and its destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, Israel was not hit with any overt military response from Iran. What was more interesting was that Iran, which touts its role as defender of the Islamic world, never retaliated for Israeli operations against its two regional allies.
Make no mistake, Iran is acting aggressively in the region. Iran has become more cautious and cunning as a result of its blunders in Iraq, however, it isn’t shy of using subversion and terrorism to advance interests. Saudi Arabia has recently sent thousands of troops into neighboring Bahrain, which was experiencing an Iranian supported Shiite uprising against its Sunni rulers. The Saudi’s were able to suppress the rebellion and had a chance to show its new military capabilities. Saudi Arabia has also been active in obstructing Iranian efforts in Lebanon and fueling a Sunni uprising in Assad’s Syria, Iran’s strategic ally.
Iran does have many legitimate threats and just as many ambitions over its borders. However, the American sponsored military build-up in the Gulf has curbed Iran’s quest for hegemony. It remains to be seen, if this equilibrium can be maintained if the US withdrawals from the region. Iran’s immediate focus is in the Gulf and tensions are rising as a result of the chaos in the Arab world. With further regional chaos, coupled with mass arms procurements, threatens to alter the balance of power. Such a scenario is a recipe for clashes.