Sunday, May 21, 2017

Iranian Military Spending

The relationship between Saudi Arabia's and Iran's military spending is interesting, often cited, yet almost always misrepresented. Lobbyists and pundits like to point to this as an indicator of foreign policy and aggression, but the reality is that it is far more complex.

Saudi Arabia spends a lot of money on conventional arms; President Trump during his trip to the kingdom sealed a massive $110 billion dollar arms deal. Iran on the other hand spends much less. This is taken by many to indicate that Saudi Arabia is the aggressor, while Iran is defensive or even docile in nature. This does not take into account strategies or the structure of the defense apparatuses or funding of terror groups, which both do, despite very different military spending numbers.

Saudi Arabia has emphasized conventional weapons and arms deals, buying the latest gadgets from the US. Iran, on the other hand, focuses on its missile program, and other asymmetrical aspects. It bombastically threatens to create a blue-water navy, but this is empty talk. Iran is restricted by geography, a smaller economy, and sanctions. Iran also has the experience of the Iran-Iraq War to draw upon; a bloody war where hundreds of thousands died.

After the revolution Iran was driven to export the revolution. Given Iran's weakness relative to the rest of the region—they are incapable of using force to conquer Iraq to Morocco and everywhere in between— they realized they needed to project soft power, and when using violence, to use it asymmetrically. Hezbollah, Amal, and various Palestinian groups benefited from this.

The most significant beneficiary of this approach is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). In 2016-17 only 5.3 MILLION was allocated to "refurbishing the fleet" of the regular Iranian Air Force. They operate what is essentially a parallel military (with some overlap) to the regulars (Artesh). This moves them into a grey area, with a completely different command structure (while still ultimately answering to the Supreme Leader).

Asymmetric warfare is by its very nature less cost-intensive. It isn't about overpowering the enemy, but about exploiting the stronger enemy's weak points and utilizing this to the advantage of the conventionally weaker party. Comparing the simple raw military spending numbers of Saudi Arabia and Iran does not fully capture the intricacies and nuances of strategically dissimilar entities.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Iran and Trump (Part 1)

Iran is one of the most interesting geopolitical threats facing President Trump. The new president has expressed strong distaste for Iran, mostly relating to the nuclear deal reached between the P5+1 and Iran during President Obama’s term. At the same time, Trump has expressed a strong preference for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Russia and Iran have complementary interests in the Middle East, especially regarding Syria, while Russia has habitually nominally supported Iran in an effort to undermine the United States’ hegemony. 

Trump appears to believe that a better deal can be reached with Iran, one abrogating the previous one. For this to be possible, the United States would need to reach a superior bargaining position. Whether the current position is weak or strong, at least one party (Iran) does not wish to give up more. Therefore they would need to be convinced that they are worse off than they believe, or to change the situation to the advantage of the United States. 

Iran, as always, has its own domestic concerns, mostly relating to keeping the population docile, and solidifying regime control over the economy and political system. At the same time, they are active in Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf. Their goal is to establish regional clout, and like Russia, to undermine the United States.

Iran has been making deals with European, and Asian countries since the nuclear accord was finalized. Countries like Greece and Italy, who already have massive financial troubles, benefit from Iranian crude. China always demands more, and other major purchasers like South Korea and India are also interested. 

Trump is faced with a situation where everyone except the United States (and Israel) is happy with the deal, or doesn’t care enough to make a fuss. The United States has virtually no leverage. The only path forward would be to enact coercive measures, forcibly preventing other countries from doing business with Iran. It would the United States versus the world. 

Iran knows this, and they have made a point of pushing in various ways. They ramped up their antagonist actions, especially in the Gulf after the nuclear deal was signed, and continue to act out. General Michael Flynn (Ret.), put Iran “on notice” recently after they test fired a ballistic missile. While not technically a violation of UNSC Resolution 2231 (the text is very poorly worded and unspecific), this test certainly “violated the spirit” of the nuclear agreement and the resolution. 

Today Iran fired another (short range air-defense missile) from the same location. This clearly is not a violation, as it is not ballistic, but it is provocative. While this is much less antagonizing than the previous launch, it is still a clear message to the Trump administration. Iran knows that the United States does not have the same global coalition Obama managed to wrangle, and they are betting that Trump, despite his erratic behavior, won’t be able to do anything to substantive. 

I expect limited provocations to continue, namely in the Gulf as I mentioned a week ago (, but is possible they try to find another dual-citizen hostage, or harass US navy vessels or commercial shipping. They realize how bad Trump looks globally with his inability to control his emotions, and how hypocritical some of his policies are. They are betting that he will be hamstrung by his inability to create a coalition, and to conduct effective diplomacy, while bogged down with domestic concerns.