Study: Iran’s military capabilities do not match its ambitions

Despite Tehran’s efforts to export its Islamic revolutionary ideology, history shows lack of follow-through.

April 11, 2014 06:06
3 minute read.
A general view of the Arak heavy-water project, 190 km southwest of Tehran January 15, 2011.

Arak plant, Iran 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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The Iranian regime is cautious about using its military capabilities because they do not match its ambitions, a new study says.

Despite Tehran’s efforts to export its Islamic revolutionary ideology, history shows that the lack of following through with its belligerent rhetoric “is due as much to experience as to realism about its own limits,” according to Shahram Chubin.

Chubin is a nonresident senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace organization and the former director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

“But where Iran excels is in the more subtle areas of indirect diplomacy, menace and intrigue,” he said.

For example, Chubin told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that regarding the war in Syria, “Iran started slowly and then found it was pushing against an open door and stepped up its activities once it saw that the US would not react.”

In the article, titled “Is Iran a Military Threat?” and published in the Survival: Global Politics and Strategy journal, Chubin stated that Iran had little war experience in the past 150 years, until the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, which it helped provoke but did not start.

Iran has no strong military tradition and has focused on internal security and stability, he argued.

“Tehran underestimated the nationalism of Iraqi Shi’ites and overestimated the Iranian people’s willingness to sacrifice,” he said of the Iran-Iraq War.

“The missile war on Iranian cities generated much terror, bringing the horrors of war home. War weariness, criticism of the conduct of the war and the declining number of volunteers threatened to become a political liability for the regime,” he added.

As a result, “this domestic dimension of the war was an important factor in the government’s decision to ‘drink the cup of poison’, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini characterized the decision to end the war,” he said.

While Tehran claimed the war a victory, it “taught the regime several important lessons, the first of which was, having been caught unprepared and in disarray militarily, Iran would henceforth emphasize deterrence and readiness.”

Chubin went on to explain that the wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 demonstrated US military superiority as well as American weakness at dealing with an insurgency in built-up areas. A nuclear capability could offset this disadvantage.

Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, responded to this thesis. He told the Post that Chubin, whose work he greatly respects, overlooks the concept that Iran’s movement towards a nuclear weapons program is creating a security dilemma whereby Israel would lose its ability to maintain its military edge in the region.

“If Israel wants to protect its own security, it cannot afford to allow for this possibility,” he said.

Friedman said, “It was Iran that decided to invade Iraq instead of accepting a cease-fire and that Chubin’s statement in the study that ‘Iran’s rhetoric and behavior can, of course, be off-putting,’ is a vast understatement.”

Furthermore, Friedman argued the idea that Iran is essentially a non-aggressive actor and is looking to implement some kind of forward defense overlooks the point that from Israel, as well as other regional countries’ perspectives, the Iranian regime is seen as an aggressive offensive actor.

Chubin’s main point, that Tehran’s military capabilities do not match its ambitions is “precisely why it wants nuclear weapons, it doesn’t have the conventional power to carry out its ambitions and nuclear weapons would instantly make its ambitions realizable,” said Friedman.

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