Commentary

How Washington Has Inflated the Iran Threat

American and Israeli opponents of the agreement between the six major powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program have come up with dozens of arguments why the deal is bad. Many of them emerged before the deal existed. But of these reasons, a few have gained wide currency. One of these is the idea that Iran is poised to dominate the Middle East. In remarkably similar language, Israeli government officials, Republican congressmen and presidential candidates, and hawkish pundits all argue that détente on the nuclear issue will turn the region over to Tehran.

The first recent enunciation came from freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in a March Senate speech, in which he warned of Iran’s “drive for regional hegemony.” One month later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned that Iran’s “violent pursuit of regional hegemony represents a grave, grave threat … to the entire world.” Michael Doran, who helped design Middle East policy for the George W. Bush administration, warned a debate audience in May that “with this [nuclear] deal, we are turning Iran into the regional hegemon in the Middle East, all right?” The Wall Street Journal’s editors termed Iran an “emerging regional hegemon” in a May editorial. And finally, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in June that there is a real danger Iran could “gain hegemony in the region by being active in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Wherever this line of argument originated, and even given the Beltway tendency to threat inflation, it is ridiculous. Iran cannot attain regional hegemony in the Middle East in the policy-relevant future. It could not do so with an extra $100 billion, or even with nuclear weapons. To argue that it could both misconstrues regional hegemony and mischaracterizes the balance of power in the Middle East. There are plenty of reasons to oppose an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, and it is possible to mount a defensible argument against the nuclear agreement. The specter of Iranian regional hegemony however, is a bizarre fantasy that only reveals confusion.

Defining terms and measuring power

Claims that Iran is poised to achieve regional hegemony in the Middle East should be evaluated in light of what the term means.

“Regional hegemony” is a term in international relations popularized by the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer. (The term hegemon draws etymologically from the Greek word meaning “to lead.”) Mearsheimer said a regional hegemon “must be considerably wealthier than its local rivals and must possess the mightiest army in the region.” The consequence of meeting this condition is that the regional hegemon attains outsized influence in its region. As Mearsheimer goes on to argue, the only state in the modern era to attain regional hegemony is the United States in the Western hemisphere.

Claims that Iran is poised to achieve regional hegemony in the Middle East should be evaluated in light of what the term means. Does Iran look like it has a shot at becoming considerably wealthier than its local rivals? Does it look likely to possess the mightiest army in the Middle East?

The answer to all of these questions is a decisive no. Take, first, the agreed upon exemplar of regional hegemony: the contemporary United States. Its gross domestic product comprises roughly 68 percent of the Western hemisphere’s GDP, and its military expenditure constitutes roughly 86 percent of defense spending in the region. Its influence there is hard to overstate. For example, its commitment to fighting a war on drugs has produced disastrous results across the region, including more than 50,000 deaths since 2007 and billions of dollars in economic damage per year, just in its neighbor to the south. On matters of high politics, no country in the Western hemisphere would dare defy Washington’s desiderata.

Compare this with contemporary Iran. Even before sanctions took full effect, Iran comprised only about 11 percent of the Middle East’s GDP. Israel comes in at 8.6 percent, Iraq at 6.8 percent, and Saudi Arabia at 22.3 percent. Iran’s share of the region’s military expenditures is similarly unimpressive at 9 percent. Israel accounts for 11.1 percent of the region’s military spending, Iraq 10.4 percent, and Saudi Arabia 44.6 percent. While American client states in the region like Saudi Arabia certainly complain about Iran, it does not and cannot influence its neighbors in the way a regional hegemon would. But this isn’t just about misapplying an academic definition of regional hegemony. Even to suggest that Iran has a shot at dominating the region defies both history and logic.

As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has shown, Iran is “anything but the hegemon of the region.” As a recent CSIS report documented in great detail, the Gulf states’ militaries possess nearly a half-century technical advantage over Iran. Iran’s military doctrine is based around defense in depth, which is premised on fighting defensive wars while yielding territory in the hope the aggressor becomes vulnerable over time. The poor quality of its land forces, which would be at the center of any claim to regional hegemony, negatively influence its ability to project power anywhere in the region. Problems identified in the CSIS report include:

  • “Iran is superior in mass, but not weapons quality. It is over-reliant on aging and worn armor [and] towed artillery.”
  • “Iran has limited ability to project and sustain armored forces.”
  • “Iran cannot provide effective, survivable air cover and survivable naval escorts and defense.”

The bottom line is that Iran is capable of engaging in an array of provocative behaviors throughout the region, to include support for terrorism, support for nasty regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, and meddling in other foreign civil wars like Yemen’s or Iraq’s. All of these things make Iran problematic, but do not help it dominate the region.

Sometimes hawks seem to concede that Iran cannot militarily dominate the region, emphasizing instead its political influence or use of terrorism. For example, in March, Cotton falsely stated that “put simply, Iran dominates or controls five capitals” in the Middle East. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoed this talking point in July, fretting that “as we negotiate, [the Iranians] have toppled four Arab capitals. If this is a moderate government then I don’t want to see an extremist government.” Other observers highlight Iran’s support for auxiliaries like Hamas or Hezbollah, pointing out that these groups are inexpensive compared to military strength. Similar to conventional military power, however, neither Iran’s political influence nor its terrorist proxies can help it achieve hegemony.

The major reason Iranian support for terrorism cannot help it dominate the region is that terrorism is a poor tool for obtaining policy objectives, as Boston University’s Max Abrahms pointed out in a 2006 article titled “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” Abrahms estimated that terrorist groups achieved their political aims about 7 percent of the time, which, even if Iran launched a fusillade of terrorism across the region, would not help it consolidate political control.

As to Iran’s political influence, this too has been overstated. Political tumult in the region has opened the door to Iranian meddling in places like Yemen, but Tehran holds much less influence than is often argued, and it no more “controls five capitals” than does the United States. Iran has little control over these volatile theaters, and Tehran’s proxies buck Iran frequently.

As a recent report from the National Security Network’s J. Dana Stuster points out, Iran has been active across the region, but as the United States has demonstrated, Middle East activism does not equal mastery. Like the United States, in most instances Iran’s recent moves have been costly and won it little. In Syria, Iran is defending the status quo by spending billions to help prop up a wildly unpopular and marginalized regime. In Iraq, it is still dining at the table set for it by the U.S. invasion, yet has been bogged down helping combat the Islamic State Sunni terror group. In Lebanon, its proxies have had their political and military attention diverted to Syria, and in Yemen it has won credit for supporting the Houthi rebels, which are willing recipients of Iranian assistance but hardly pliant allies. None of this lends credibility to the idea that Iran “dominates or controls five capitals.”

Iran’s activities through the region also have cratered the popularity it had won by being among the most vociferously anti-Israel actors in the Middle East. As the National Interest’s Zachary Keck points out, Iran was viewed unfavorably in 14 out of 20 Arab and Muslim countries in 2013. Little has improved for Iran since then.

Neither Iran’s military power, nor its economic clout, nor its political moves across the Middle East afford it anything that could be called dominance or regional hegemony. At most, Iran today is an annoyance to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. But worriers suggest that while this may be true, two factors that may result from a nuclear agreement could help transform Iran into a more menacing foe in the future: revenue loosed by a nuclear deal, or a nuclear weapons capability.

The nuclear agreement’s effect on Iran’s relative power

In the first scenario, Iran’s clerical regime performs an economic miracle; in the second, it uses nuclear weapons in a way they have never been used in history. It is perhaps quickest to deal with these arguments by joining them, which is exceedingly unlikely to happen in reality due to the deal’s uniquely strong nonproliferation features. Iran hawks worry that an Iran after a nuclear deal will wind up with both a windfall of its own money released as part of the deal, as well as a nuclear weapons capability through cheating on the deal. Many observers have fretted that Iran would win up to $100 billion annually as a result of a deal. But even a nuclear-armed, cash-infused Iran could not achieve regional hegemony.

First, Iran will not be given $100 billion as a consequence of the nuclear agreement. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted in congressional testimony in July, the figure is closer to $50 billion. The Iranian estimate is $29 billion. Moreover, this is not “frozen” money, but rather Iranian oil revenue that has been held in foreign banks and useable for purchases from the countries holding the funds. Iran has not spent all this money because it could not purchase enough Chinese (or Indian, or Turkish) products that it needed. Also, as sanctions scholar Sam Cutler has observed, it bears mentioning that this money would likely become available if U.S. negotiators walked away from the deal, as hawks suggest, because the foreign countries holding the funds probably would stop complying with the extraterritorial provisions of U.S. law that limited the funds’ use in the first place.

But even if Iran did find itself with $100 billion more of its oil revenue, it could not dominate the Middle East. Much of the debate has turned on whether Iran would direct most of that revenue toward its military, or terrorism, as Republicans have argued, or toward domestic economic needs, as the Obama administration and the CIA have argued. But even if Iran directed all of this money toward its military, it would still be dwarfed by other regional players and their allies.

Similarly, nuclear weapons are not fungible across military objectives. They are very useful for some tasks and of little use for others. The main military task that would be achieved by an Iranian nuclear deterrent would be taking the threat of preventive U.S. attack off the table. Even hawks acknowledge this, as Graham did in his response to a 2012 question, explaining he opposed Iranian nuclear weapons because “The best way for the regime surviving, in their mind, is having a nuclear weapon, because when you have a nuclear weapon, nobody attacks you,” as well as unspecified fears of Iranian “influence” that would result from an Iranian deterrent.

It is true that Iran may feel emboldened by the possession of a deterrent, and engage in more of the nasty behavior in the region it engages in today. This is a good reason to oppose Iranian nuclear weapons. But Iran would not feel inured from military consequences across all objectives. In a 1997 study, MIT’s Barry Posen assessed the question “What if Iraq had nuclear weapons?” and concluded that even controlling for Kuwait’s limited strategic importance, the United States still would have acted to dislodge Iraq in 1990 and 1991. States have not been able to use nuclear weapons to deter third party interventions in the past except in instances in which regime survival or other core interests were involved. Similarly, nuclear weapons have not been useful to compel states to stop defending their own territory. History and theory both suggest that extraterritorial adventurism almost certainly still could be repelled at the conventional level.

This is why Israel, which has a secure second-strike nuclear capability against any conceivable adversary it may face, spends so much on its conventional military forces. It knows that it cannot wag its nuclear arsenal and get what it wants in the region. This dilemma would confront Iran as well, except that it is decades away from the power-projection capacity possessed by the Israeli military today.

Deflating the Iran threat

An Iran that could keep the profits from its oil sales and that engaged in more terrorism and proxy wars throughout the Middle East would look a lot like the Iran of 2007 or 2008, before most of the sanctions were enacted. No one argued then that Iran was a regional hegemon, and for good reason. Returning Iran to this status would not make it a regional hegemon today, and policymakers ought to stop inflating the Iran threat. U.S. policymakers should not signal to Tehran that they believe Iran could dominate the region as a consequence of the deal, if for no other reason than Iranian policymakers may foolishly believe them and act out accordingly.

Secretary of State John Kerry, the Obama administration’s point man on the Iran deal, made a remark about terrorism while running for president in 2004 for which he was ridiculed. It was insightful and accurate. Kerry said “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance… fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

A similar statement should be offered regarding Iran. Iran is a weak regional power that regularly defies U.S. prerogatives and complicates U.S. defense plans for the Middle East. It engages in terrorism and other initiatives that kill and destroy, but fail to produce control over its neighbors. Iran would be similar in any likely version of the future. Far from being a regional hegemon or dominating the Middle East, Iran is a nuisance. Great powers, to say nothing of the self-styled “home of the brave,” should not convince themselves that nuisances somehow constitute peers.

Justin Logan is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.