The CIA recently came out with the complete documents of the coup in Iran. As US is facing a riptide of a debate about foreign influence in another sovereign state’s domestic policy, the timing couldn’t have been better. Of all the cases, the influence in Iranian coup stands out, as that paved the way to US-Soviet rivalry in the Middle east during the early days of the Cold war. Infact, one can argue that US middle eastern pivot, from depending on Iran, to depending on Arabs changed the regional dynamics and shaped the world was we know today.
But it’s not just that it comes at a time, where this debate about great powers interfering in foreign affairs is heating up, proving that no one in the game of geopolitics is a saint. There’s a more sinister reality, one that goes with the timing of it all. The old idea of military intervention and regime change in Iran is back. Politico reported that a section of neo-conservatives and traditional hawks, who are opposed to Iranian regime are once again pushing the idea of a change in the clerical regime in Iran. The ones who independently wanted to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal under Obama areonce again spearheading this movement. This is not new. There is a section, which has been pushing for a regime change for a while now, even against the advice of the Pentagon. Which has led many to wonder if thenext war is with Iran and is in the cards now, andif plans are being put to place for an upcoming conflict. In the history of least self-aware events in American history and foreign policy, this will rank quite high up.
Needless to mention how myopic and dangerous this thought process is. First of all, it defies logic geopolitically. In no measurable metrics is Iran a threat in Middle East, with regards to American interests. According to the logic of balance of power, in a triangular balancing, it is always prudent to back the weaker power against the stronger one.[i] Britain backed the Dutch against the Spanish Armada, European Dutchies against Napoleon, France against Kaiser’s Germany and France and Soviets against the Nazis. US backed China against Soviet Union since 1971. In recent times, we have seen India display balancing behaviour by militarily training Afghan forces, to balance off the Taliban support from Pakistan. By that logic, the West should support Shiite Iran against the Wahhabi Sunni Gulf powers.
Iran’s military expenditure, is a lot less compared to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the GCC, and its economy is one tenth of the GCC.[ii]To compare, Iran’s military budget is 12.3 Billion dollars. Saudi budget is 63.7 billion dollars. Iran spends 3 percent of GDP on military, Saudis spend 10 percent. Compared to around 1200 American supplied tanks for Saudis, Iran has around self- made and designed 2500 Zulfiqar tanks. Saudis have around 10000 armoured fighting vehicles, compared to only 1315 for Iran. Iranian defence is based on static artillery, and its defence doctrine echoes Indian defensive doctrines during the Sundarji period. [iii] The Saudi airforce is exceptionally modern with standard F-15s in service, compared to Iranian airforce which are still 80s acquisitions. The only branch where Iranians have an overwhelming superiority over the Saudis, is the Naval arm. In a hypothetical conflict, Iranians are capable of blocking the Strait of Hormuz, for a short term. However that’s unlikely, given that US 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, and US is treaty bound to keep the sea trade routes open. Iran is not capable to promote its influence across Middle east, being weaker militarily, demographically, and economically, compared to the Gulf powers led by Saudi Arabia, now involved from Egypt to Yemen.
Compared to Saudi Arabia and Saudi hegemonic aspirations therefore, Iran is not a threat[iv]. On the other hand, Iran is a flawed, but functioning democracy, and its people are a proud secular people with thousands of years of civilization behind them, as opposed to her Gulf counterparts. Again compared to any Arab country, with the exception of Syria and Egypt, Iran is a natural civilizational power. It is, also compared to Saudi Arabia, not involved in any overseas adventure which involves direct strategic threat to any Western power. Iranian forces are of course, fighting in Syria and Iraq, but with the legal permission of the last legal government of both the countries. It is an ally of the West as well as Russia against ISIS. The logic of geopolitics therefore suggest that Iran needs to be backed in Middle east by the West.
To draw a historic comparison, Iran is now positioned like Austria prior to first world war, in the sense, too small and weak militarily to dominate whole of Middle East, as a hegemon, and too big a power to roll over and crush militarily. It is therefore imprudent and shortsighted, from a policy perspective, to find the idea of regime change in a country as powerful and big as Iran appealing, without knowing what might come next.
That is the second concern come. The history of regime change, from Iraq, to Libya, Egypt and Syria only resulted in tremendous bloodshed and proxy war and the ravaging of entire landmasses. As countless research has proven, after any regime is forcibly overthrown, the stakeholders of that society loses the positions they usually enjoy. Those are the same people who fuel the ranks of any insurgency. In Iraq for example, the majority of the local ISIS fighters and leaders were from trained troops of Saddam’s time. It is a nightmare scenario to imagine what might happen with Iranian fighters joining another insurgency, right next to Afghanistan/Pakistan/China border. It will affect the stability of Afghanistan, and hamper the direct geo-strategic interest if India and Russia in Central Asia.
To try something repeatedly knowing the result will be the same is a symbol of madness. In the case of Western foreign policy, it is a sort of insanity. The idea of a broken unstable Iran after a regime change operation, is so insanely dangerous, that it should make any policy maker around that region sleepless at night. The amount of insurgency and the way it would affect Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and China, not to mention the threat to the economy and security of trade routes is beyond words can outline. Not to mention the hypocrisy of blaming Russia, or any country, with regards to interfering in the sovereign affairs of any other great power, when talks of blatant regime change, with no regards to the effect, or the legality.
[i] The Origins of Alliance Stephen M. Walt Cornell University Press | Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100125840
[ii] See: Compare Armed Forces – armedforces.eu/compare/country_Iran_vs_Saudi_Arabia; Saudi Iran Mil Stat compared https://knoema.com/xvjpeaf/saudi-arabia-and-iran-military-statistics-compared; Global Security – Iranian budget http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/budget.htm; Iranian mil expenditure https://tradingeconomics.com/iran/military-expenditure; Data World Bank http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS; Global Fire Power http://www.globalfirepower.com/;
[iii]Ladwig, Walter (Winter 2007–2008). “A Cold Start for Hot Wars?: The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine” (PDF). International Security. 32 (3): 158–190, 160. doi:10.1162/isec.2008.32.3.158. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
[iv] Read: The myth of Iranian Military Giant, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/10/the-myth-of-the-iranian-military-giant/;