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 significant amount 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 intended to exert influence by "exporting" their 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.