There’s No Need to Attack A Declining Iran
Against the backdrop of cosmetic military strikes against the brutal Syrian regime, a close ally of Tehran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been touring Western countries warning about the dangers of Iranian expansionism.
As dangerous as this may be, an even greater danger would be an escalation against Iran which could lead to war—a conflict that would be several times deadlier than our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the president seems inclined to leave the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), and could even be considering strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, as his new National Security Advisor John Bolton once advocated, such actions would be counter-productive to U.S. interests. If the goal is to push back on Iran’s attempt to expand its influence across the Middle East, all the United States has to do is let events unfold.
Though it has skillfully used Shia militias—because they lack conventional capabilities—to expand its reach in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Iran is not on the cusp of dominating the Middle East. While Iran has tried to portray itself as the leader of the Muslim world, it has instead alienated most of its Muslim neighbors due to its constant meddling. Recent polling by Al Jazeera indicates that 57 percent of Arabs back Israel over Iran. Even Shias in Iraq are increasingly put off by Iran’s attempt to dominate their affairs.
While Iran has excelled at asymmetric power projection, its conventional military forces are largely behind those of its neighbors in capability, and not just Israel’s. To the east, it borders the Muslim world’s only nuclear power, Pakistan, which is generally close to Saudi Arabia and is a Major Non-NATO Ally to the U.S. To the west lies Turkey, a NATO member with the second-largest military in the alliance. And, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the “Arab Gulf states have had an overwhelming advantage of Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.”
According to Foreign Policy, “during 2014, Iran’s military spending was about $15 billion, which comprised about 9 percent of total military spending in the Middle East. That’s a mere fraction of Saudi military spending and about two-thirds of the UAE’s. Saudi Arabia now spends a whopping $76.7 billion a year on defense, nearly 12% of its annual GDP of $646.4 billion. The Gulf Cooperation Council states of Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE outspend Iran on arms by a factor of about eight.” Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman said as much during a recent interview on 60 Minutes: “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy.”
Moreover, largely due to ideological decisions and confrontational stances by its leadership, Iran has squandered away its advantages over other countries in the region. A hundred years ago, Iran, unlike most of its neighbors, was a coherent nation-state with a constitution (since 1906), and Persian was the French of the Middle East: an eloquent language of culture cultivated by elites from Istanbul to Delhi.
Today, Iran’s stature and appeal are vastly diminished.
Dubai has emerged as the economic hub of the region, while its sister-city, Abu Dhabi, has partnered with the Louvre to create the most important cultural project in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is looking to post-oil, technological future by investing billions in data centers and solar power. Women are as educated in the Arab world as they are in Iran.
Meanwhile, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently pointed out, Iran is at the cusp of an internal explosion because its political system has failed to comprehend and solve the economic, environmental, and social issues that have left most Iranians feeling frustrated at their country’s stagnation and obsession with foreign interventions.
What then is the point of expending valuable American blood and treasure to confront Iran militarily, a potential conflict significantly greater than our war in Iraq if our group forces were to be deployed there. A bombing campaign would invite retaliation on American interests and allies throughout the region by way of Iranian proxies and could potentially lead to an economic crisis if oil tankers in the Gulf are attacked. Moreover, a war could cause the Iranian people—many of whom are disgruntled with their current situations and their rulers—to rally around the regime, because it would be seen as protecting the country’s national interests from attack by a foreign power.
The Islamic Republic’s project, both external and internal, is slowly unraveling on its own. America would benefit from learning from the lessons of its past support for unpopular leaders in Iran as well as gain the goodwill of the Iranian people by not attacking and potentially supporting an unpopular government as John Bolton, Trump’s newly appointed national security advisor, seems to want to do with his promotion of the widely loathed, fringe, cultish, exile group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
Since its humiliation at the hands of the British and Russian empires in the 19th century, Iran has wanted a place of its own in the sun. No American, Israeli, or Arab policy will change that—and we do not need to since it is not a threat to any U.S. interests. Even the late Shah wanted Iran to become a regional power. But Iran is in no way an existential threat to us.
If we let events take their course naturally, Iran’s desire for regional influence will continue to be checked by the ambitions of other regional powers, while internal pressures may eventually produce a government more favorable toward us, all without any American military action.
Akhilesh (Akhi) Pillalamarri is a Fellow at Defense Priorities. An international relations analyst, editor, and writer, he received his Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he concentrated in international security. His work has appeared at The Diplomat, The National Interest, The American Conservative, and Rising Powers in Global Governance. Follow him on Twitter @akhipill.