Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Rise of Iran: How Durable, How Dangerous?

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Rise of Iran: How Durable, How Dangerous?

Article excerpt

Iran is viewed by many as a rising power that poses an increasing threat to regional and even global security. This view is wrong for three reasons. Iran's hard and soft power is exaggerated by most accounts; it is too limited to allow the Iranians to dominate the Persian Gulf let alone the Middle East, and its brand of Shi'ism has very limited appeal outside of Iran. Second, growing internal political and economic instability will seriously limit Iran's bid for regional dominance. Third, the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program has led analysts to underestimate the ability of the other regional powers and the West to balance Iran and contain its influence, even if it acquires nuclear weapons. If these limitations on Iranian power are taken into account the rise seems destined to be a short one.

The consensus among Iran watchers and Middle East experts is that Iran is a rising power. Iran is generally portrayed as an unstoppable force with a capacity and a will to dominate the Persian Gulf and even the Middle East. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, regarded as a foregone conclusion by an increasing number of commentators and experts, is believed to further enhance Iranian power and to make balancing and containment impossible.

This view is fundamentally flawed, vastly exaggerating the extent of Iran's rise and the threat that it poses. It is important to accurately assess Iran's power and the threat that it poses because the dominant view of Iran has a negative impact on the ongoing negotiations aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program and increases the likelihood of a preventive attack against Iran's nuclear program. The latter option has recently received serious attention following the failure of the Obama Administration's engagement strategy.1

Our argument has five parts. First, we present the predominant view of Iran's rise and the threat that it poses. Second, we demonstrate the way in which Iran's hard and soft power has been vastly exaggerated. The third section demonstrates that increased economic and political problems will make Iran's rise impossible to sustain. Fourth, we show that Iran, as a result, can be balanced and contained even if it develops nuclear weapons. We end with a conclusion summing up our main points.


The ongoing debate on the rise of Iran and its consequences has been dominated by two camps: a "hard power" camp emphasizing military capabilities and geopolitics and a "soft power" camp emphasizing religious and ideological factors.2 The hard power perspective suggests that Tehran has been the principal beneficiary of the American policy of regime change, as it removed two of Iran's arch enemies and tied down American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, making it impossible for the United States to put effective pressure on Iran to stop its support for terrorism and its alleged nuclear weapons program. These favorable geopolitical developments coincided with unusually high gas and oil prices (1999-2008), enabling Iran to build up its military strength, expand its regional influence through closer alignment with Syria and support for militant groups, most notably Hamas and Hizbullah, and at the same time ignore the economic sanctions imposed by the US and the UN to stop its nuclear program.

In the realist hard power perspective, a rising Iran is a rising threat. Any state gaining relative power is expected to enhance its security or power; Tehran is accordingly interpreted as a status quo-orientered power seeking to enhance its security (deterrence),3 or as a revisionist power seeking to establish regional hegemony and to export its revolution.4 The Iranian nuclear program is viewed as a major threat because of fear that the emergence of a nuclear Iran will result in a nuclear domino effect, triggering an arms race in the region. In addition, some analysts fear that the current regime might use its nuclear weapons against Israel, pass them on to terrorist groups, or employ them against its own citizens in the event that an internal rebellion threatens to overthrow it. …

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