As the old military adage has it, no good deed ever goes unpunished. And so it would seem with American security interests in the Persian Gulf. Soon after the United States has removed a major threat to American and regional interests with the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime, Washington has to come to terms with the looming challenge of Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. The good news is that assertive multilateral diplomacy still has some running room for negotiating a stall or derailment of Iran's nuclear weapons program. The bad news is that the prospects are dim for achieving this end without the resort to force over the coming years.
The Iraq war is the backdrop for the evolving policy debate on Iran. The Iraq situation pits competing views of American national security strategy after 11 September 2001 against one another. On one side, critics of the Iraq war are posturing that if weapons of mass destruction (WMD) failed to be a sufficient justification for waging war against Iraq, then concerns about WMD have even less merit for forcibly challenging the Iranian regime over its nuclear weapons aspirations. On the other side, the threat posed by WMD--with the associated risk that terrorists might get their hands on WMD--is emerging as a worldview to replace the grand unifying scheme of containment which governed American and Western policy during the Cold War. Those in this camp view the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq as models for other policy challenges that involve WMD and potential support for terrorist groups coming from the likes of Iran and North Korea.
There are pitfalls, though, of viewing the Iran policy debate entirely through the Iraq policy prism. Just as a prism bends rays of light, Iraq and Iran, while they share many features, are distinct problems that require the modulation of policy tools. This article seeks to illuminate the commonalities and variations between past Iraq and today's Iran as well as the strengths and weaknesses of American policy options for dealing with the growing security challenge posed by Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons.
Iran's Decrepit Armed Forces and Squeezed Geopolitical Space
Iran shares with Iraq geopolitical aspirations in the Persian Gulf in which weapons of mass destruction play a critical role. Iraq's past drive for WMD was fueled by Saddam's lust for power and his will to politically and militarily dominate the Gulf. Although Iraq's behavior over the past decade captured the most international attention, Iran too has hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf. Khomeni's revolutionary goal was to remake the region in Iran's own self-image, governed by clerics and Islamic law. Iraq's 1990-91 war pushed into the far background the premier security concern of the United States and the Arab Gulf states in the 1980s--that Iran would emerge as the winner of the war with Iraq to become the dominant power capable of directly threatening Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Iran's geographic girth lends itself to a country with large standing armed forces, but Iran's military today is weaker than it was in the wake of the revolutionary euphoria of 1979. (1) The Iranians militarily lived off the Shah's US-provided arms and equipment to survive the Iran-Iraq War, but the war nearly exhausted their inventories and put enormous wear and tear on equipment holdings. They have managed to make due, in part, by cannibalizing American equipment to keep fewer armaments running, but these stopgap efforts are increasingly more difficult to muster to prolong the longevity of the military inventory. The Iranians also are using illicit means to bypass US restrictions on the export of military equipment to Iran. (2) Iran has been hard-pressed to find direct external weapon suppliers to replace the United States. Michael Eisenstadt observes that in recent years Russia has been Iran's main source of conventional arms, but Moscow has agreed not to conclude any new arms deals and to halt all conventional weapons transfers since September 1999. …