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By Adam C. Seitz and Anthony H. Cordesman


The Montréal Review, May 2011



The Islamic Republic of Iran presents a wide range of challenges in a region that is already plagued by insecurity and conflict. As long standing regimes are threatened by the wave of anti-government protests rolling across the Middle East, Tehran continues to advance its policies intended to expand its influence throughout the region in spite of its own internal challenges and power struggles within its leadership. At a time when the Arab spring is producing unpredictable changes in regional regimes and alignments, Tehran's aggressive regional policy, growing asymmetric warfare capabilities, and developing nuclear and ballistic missile programs present a separate set of challenges of great strategic importance.

Iran has become a political wild card throughout the region. Tehran continues to expand its influence throughout the region, not only by building political, trade and security partnerships with its neighbors, but also through the use of its proxies. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has deployed, armed and trained proxy forces throughout the region. Continued support of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah is part of a continued Iranian effort to spread its influence throughout the region through various proxy assets. The US led invasion in Afghanistan and the fall of Saddam Husain's Sunni regime in Iraq, has helped to make this part of a continuing Iranian effort to reshape the regional landscape into something Iran can more easily influence.

More recently, various Arab states have accused Tehran of fueling anti-government protests in countries like Bahrain and Yemen. Although such allegations are hard to prove, they are equally difficult to disprove. Iran's Quds forces, along with various proxies, have played pivotal roles in the anti-regime movements in Yemen and Bahrain. Their operations are the product of the Islamic Republic's long-running policy of developing close ties to opposition figures throughout the region. No matter what the extent of Iran's true involvement in current uprisings, the mere perception that Iran is capable of influencing such matters is a reminder of the threat perception driving much of the real-world behavior of nations in the region.

Iran's policy of actively seeking to expand its influence throughout the region through various means pose serious challenges for regional security. This does not mean that Iran plans to start new conflicts in the region or will actively seek to achieve its objectives by force. But such actions create perceptions that have far reaching security and policy implications.

Iran's political actions cannot be separated from its military ones: Iran's nuclear ambitions, missile programs and growing ability for asymmetric warfare. The full character of Iran's nuclear program remains unclear, as do its intentions to build nuclear weapons. The regime continues to seek ways to circumvent international sanctions and acquire supplies and equipment to develop nuclear and ballistic missile technology. Iran has been relatively successful in developing a strategy that relies strongly on ambiguity and misperception, seeking to confuse the leaders of the international community as to its real intentions and capabilities, while helping to buy time and space to advance its potential capability to build and deploy nuclear weapons.

Iran's actions have already led to a massive conventional arms buildup in the region. In the last four years the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, have purchased over $37 billion weapons from the US, with over $123 billion in arms deals under negotiations for the next four years.

Such arms buildups among the Arab nations have caused some unease in Israeli defense circles. While Israelis welcome the Arab build up as a way of countering Iran, some also feel that although such weapons may be targeting Iran today, no one can be certain that they will not be turned against Israel tomorrow. Such factors, along with the political upheavals in Egypt, have led to an increase in Israel's imports of advance weapons, as well as greater emphasis on Israeli domestic development of systems like UAV and missile defense programs.

At the same time, Israel has seen the Iranian nuclear threat as an existential one and began to react as early as the 1990s. It increased the range and capability of its missile forces and can now target all of Iran. It may have increased its nuclear inventory, and seems to be developing or deploying nuclear-armed cruise missiles that could be used by its submarines. This reaction has been reinforced by the fact that Iran, Syria, and North Korea have cooperated in missile programs and may have cooperated in some aspects of nuclear programs.

Iran's actions are driven as much by its lack of security as its opportunism and ambitions. Iran is still heavily dependent on major conventional weapons systems acquired prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and its weapons inventories were seriously depleted between 1980 and 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War. It has only had small deliveries of modern weapons since that time and its claims to producing its own modern weapons are grossly exaggerated. In order to offset its relatively weak conventional forces, Iran has had to emphasize asymmetric warfighting capabilities. Tehran has sought to strengthen the asymmetric elements in its force structure by building up the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).

The Islamic Republic has placed the most advanced weapons, research and development, or even its ballistic missile programs, under the command, not of its regular conventional military forces, but rather under the IRGC. The increasing role of the hard-line IRGC in the Iranian defense industry, economy, special weapons programs, and in various decision-making apparatuses has caused growing concern in the region, and beyond.

Iran has also sought to compensate for its conventional weakness by building up the threat of nuclear weapons and long range missiles. Its nuclear programs are still nascent, but Iran has already augmented its forces with what is currently the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. This is a force that continues to grow in size, range and sophistication, and is another source of Arab, Israeli, and US concerns about the continued expansion of Iran's ballistic missile programs.

The potential of a nuclear armed Iran has caused regional players to assess how they would retaliate against Iranian use of irregular warfare, when doing so risks creating lasting tension with a future nuclear power and may eventually increase the risk of escalation if Iran actually deploys a nuclear capability.

Iran has woven its use of proxies, its potential to block the Strait of Hormuz and its ballistic missile program into a strategy of deterrence to an attack on its nuclear program and vice versa. Every time there is talk of a possible strike against Iran, the regime issues a corresponding threat to use such tactics in response.

As Iran continues to progress in its nuclear program, defense industry, and overall self-reliance in the face of international threats, pressure and sanctions, the hopes of meaningful negotiations continue to diminish. If anything, Western actions against the Gadhafi regime in Libya may well have strengthened Iran's resolve to push forward with its nuclear program. Statements from the Iranian regime, ranging from the commanders in the IRGC and members of the Majlis to the Supreme Leader indicate that NATO actions in Libya have reinforced Iranian distrust of the west as well as underlined the added leverage that a nuclear option provides.

Although the "Arab spring" has led to less focus on these aspects of Iran's actions, they remain a key aspect of the overall instability in the Middle East. It is also clear that events in Yemen and Bahrain have increased Arab tensions with Iran, and this seems likely to be as true of shifts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and of Iran's efforts to influence the Palestinians. Iran is caught up in dangerous games and ones that now affect the stability and security of the entire region.


Adam C. Seitz is the Senior Research Associate for Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is a national security analyst for ABC News.


Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Birth of a Regional Nuclear Arms Race? is an expert insider's look at Iran's current and potential ability to wage both conventional and asymmetrical warfare, and the options available for dealing with a nuclear Iran.

Are we on the brink of a regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East? In this urgent volume, Anthony Cordesman and Adam Seitz examine how Iran's nuclear ambitions have already altered security policy for the United States, Iran's neighbors, and the international community. Cordesman and Seitz address the full range of issues related to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, including its emphasis on medium- and long-range missiles, the decline of Iran's conventional military capabilities, and continued Iranian efforts to undercut the spread of democracy in the region.


"This timely analysis explores the serious security implications of Iran's nuclear program in a region already troubled by insecurity and conflict. It also examines how Iran's nuclear ambitions and missile programs and its growing ability for asymmetric warfare are steadily becoming even more critical issues for the United States, Iran's neighboring countries, and the international community. The authors, Cordesman (analyst and television commentator) and Seitz (researcher, Middle East and South Asia), take an assessment approach to determining where the developments in Iran might lead. They also weigh the country's warfare capabilities and the options available for dealing with a nuclear Iran."

--- Reference & Research Book News


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