Iran–and we all should run.

Iranian-American relations haven’t been good since the revolution of 1979 overthrew Shah Reza Pahlevi.[1]  Sometimes they are less-bad.  Right at the moment, they are more-bad.  During the Obama administration, Iran pushed on many fronts that menaced not the United States, but its allies and clients.  All of this put both Israel and Saudi Arabia on edge.  They saw—and still see—Iran as determined to make itself the dominant state in a re-ordered Middle East.  The twin pillars of this dominance would be a series of client states in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; and nuclear weapons with the ballistic missiles to deliver them.  The re-ordering might include the annihilation of Israel and the limitation of America’s role in the region.  In the wake of the disastrous Iraq war, the American people clearly didn’t want another big war in the Middle East.  Sensibly, the Obama administration’s diplomacy focused on a successful effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

That left many other issues unresolved.  In May 2018, President Trump chose to leave the nuclear agreement.  He has re-imposed economic sanctions and has sought to coerce other countries to impose an effective embargo on Iranian oil.

On the left, there is a suspicion that the president believes that regime-change in Iran offers the only reasonable solution.[2]  President Trump’s rhetoric both attacks the Iranian ruling elite as corrupt and illegitimate, and celebrates Iranians who protest against that government.  However, the Iranian regime wields powerful tools against dissent.

On the right, there is a hope that confrontation will force the Iranians to make concessions in other areas as well.  Many experts doubt that Iran’s leaders will bend.

Will Iran’s leaders do something stupid?  For its part, Iran has raised the possibility of closing the Straits of Hormuz at the outer end of the Persian Gulf in retaliation for American actions.  Some 40 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Straits in tankers.  They tried this during the long Iran-Iraq War in the Eighties.  The US Navy began convoying tankers.  On 22 July 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that President Trump was running the risk of “the mother of all wars.”[3]  Trump responded in kind.  If Iran actually did try to close the Straits of Hormuz, then the possibility of military conflict would become very real.  It seems unlikely that American air and naval forces operating from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Sea would stop at suppressing Iranian forces around the Straits.  Very heavy air attacks could follow on Iran’s nuclear facilities and key regime assets like the Revolutionary Guard.  So, Iran probably will not close the Straits.

It seems equally unlikely that American leaders will do something stupid.  Americans still don’t want a big war in the Middle East.  Iran’s nuclear program can only be constrained voluntarily.  Nuclear weapons are a matter of science, engineering, and money.  Iran has all three.  An attack would not necessarily do more than postpone the Iranian program.  An attack would sent Iran in pursuit of other, indirect ways of striking back at American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Maybe Vladimir Putin will quietly mediate a settlement.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “A War of Words With Iran Risks Spiraling Beyond Control,” NYT, 24 July 2018.

[2] It worked OK from 1954 to 1979.  We’ve had forty years of hostility in return for twenty-five years of cooperation.

[3] Saddam Hussein used the same phrase when faced with an American invasion in 2003.

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Bang for the Buck

How much defense spending is enough?  Faced with big budget deficits, a reluctance to pay taxes, and a sluggish economy hard put to square the circle by generating wealth, inquiring American minds want to know.  In 2007 the American defense budget was about $470 billion.  In 2012 the defense budget was running about $550 billion a year. That’s a lot of bucks.  What did Americans get for the money?  They got an Army of 569,000 soldiers on active-duty; an Air Force with 1,990 fighter planes; and a Navy with 286 ships.[1]  That’s a lot of bang.

It’s a common-place that the American defense budget is equal to the combined defense spending of the next seventeen countries on the list.[2]  That bald statement argues for cutting spending without sacrificing security.  However, it needs interpretation.  On the one hand, it assumes that the “interests” of the United States and those of the other countries on the list are symmetrical.  They aren’t.  China’s primary interests are in the Far East; India’s in South Asia; Russia’s in the countries bordering it around the huge arc from Eastern Europe to Eastern Siberia; South Korea’s in Northeast Asia; France’s in Western Europe and the Mediterranean.  Decision-makers in Washington have to worry about the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Latin America all at the same time.  In terms of possible operations, the American military has to face a range of threats from nuclear war to conventional war to guerrilla warfare to terrorism.

On the other hand, it assumes that fighting power is closely linked to budgets.  It isn’t.  Russia and China pay, house, feed, and care for their troops at a much lower level than does the United States.  Military equipment also is comparatively cheap in low-wage economies.  More importantly, how big is the Taliban’s defense budget?  Drones at a million and a half dollars a pop kill enemies, but the culture of a primitive area causes new ones to spring up like dragon’s teeth.

Perhaps it isn’t how much money a country spends that tells you something about its attitude toward military power or its sense of pressing danger.  Perhaps it is the share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a country will devote to military power that is key.[3]  In 2012 the United States devoted 4.7% of GDP to defense, Russia 4.4%, the People’s Republic of China 2.1%, and the European Union countries 1.7%.  China’s neighbors don’t appear to feel deeply threatened–yet.  Japan spends 1.0%, Taiwan 2.3%, Vietnam, 2.5%, South Korea 2.7%.  On the other hand, not all of Russia’s neighbors seem to feel secure.  Georgia spends 5.1% of GDP on defense.

On one SIPRI list Iran devotes a nominal 1.8% to defense.  Other estimates put it at 2.7% and back in 2006 the commander of the US Central Command called the Iranian military the most powerful in the region.  Moreover, the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons and willingness to use proxies in Iraq and Syria make them far more menacing to their neighbors than the statistics alone suggest.  As a result, Saudi Arabia spends 8.9% of GDP on defense, Oman 8.4%, and the United Arab Emirates 6.9%.  Perhaps those high figures reflect doubts about an American security umbrella.  They may also hint at an informal alliance with Israel to prevent Iran from finishing its drive for nuclear weapons.  War is coming to the Persian Gulf if the Iranians don’t blink.


[1] “Downsizing the Military,” The Week, 5 October 2012, p. 13.

[2][2] See the rankings by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) presented at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures

[3] Ibid.