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Dangerous but Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East

Dangerous but Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East by Frederic Wehrey et al. RAND Corporation, 2009, 203 pp.

Fredric Wehrey et al., under the auspices of RAND’s Project Air Force, conduct a painstaking examination of the strategic threat Iran poses to the United States and its Middle East interests over the next 10–15 years. The study aims to provide USAF leaders an assessment that empowers them to “anticipate and confront future challenges presented from Iran.” Utilizing primary sources, the authors approach their analysis through four distinct categorical lenses: Iran’s strategic motivation; its military doctrine and capabilities; its relationship with nonstate Islamic actors; and Arab public perception of Iran’s role in Middle East affairs. Their extraordinary, detailed examination and interpretive analysis left no stone unturned. This summary cannot do justice to the significance and comprehensiveness of their work.

According to their findings, Iranian oratory is more nationalistic in nature than revolutionary. By all accounts, Iran exercises normal state behavior. It has no desire to expand its borders or export its revolution to others. It views itself as a “symbolic beacon for global Islamic enlightenment,” rooted in becoming the preeminent power in the region. Indeed, Iran’s desire to increase its regional stature may be just a defense posturing mechanism in response to its internationally imposed isolation and relative encirclement. Furthermore, its nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism within the region appear to be nothing more than a pragmatic defensive response to deter possible acts of direct aggression posed against it and to ensure regime survival.

Iran spends well below the regional norm on defense as a percentage of annual GDP, even though its military aim is to counter attacks by a superior force. Most Iranian military equipment is outdated and poorly maintained. Ground forces suffer from both personnel and equipment shortages. The Iranian Air Force’s aircraft are particularly outdated and pose no regional threat, let alone a threat to US airpower. A conscript-driven military coupled with internal strife over loyalty issues has proven problematic for Iran as well. This weak military posture has caused Iran to shift its homeland defense strategy from conventional to asymmetric deterrence (e.g., maintaining ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons development capacity) intent on imposing intolerable costs to any potential invader.

Iran is a strong supporter of Iraqi Shiite, Palestinian, Hezbollah, and Hamas causes. Assistance to these groups has often provided a means to undermine US Middle East efforts while maintaining plausible deniability. Going forward, its influence on these groups will be limited, and reciprocal arrangements will likely be based upon mutually supporting interests.

Iran views Arab public opinion as a necessary means to influence nonfriendly Arab states and their Western allies. However, its strategic communication efforts have been perceived by Arabs as overbearing, unreliable, and self-promoting. Over 50 percent of Arabs distrust Iran and its ambitions. Many Arabs believe Iran has created instability, sectarianism, and violence, and that Iraq is the “central front for Iranian aggression.” Arabs further feel that a US-Iran agreement would adversely affect Arabs, since both countries would then exercise hegemonic power in the region.

The authors believe that US containment policy and the propping up of Iran’s neighbors militarily has failed to generate a positive behavioral change in Iran and has likely led to acceleration of Iran’s nuclear development activities and broadening of terrorist sponsorship. As such, they advocate a policy of unilateral de-escalation measures coupled with a strong multilateral effort that targets Iran’s violations of international norms/expectations. They also propose that the United States pursue common interests with Iran (e.g., stabilization of the fragile situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, drug trafficking, and refugee and natural disaster issues) as well as articulate clear regional policy objectives. Finally, they advocate the United States include Iran in a multilateral, regional security arrangement—an accord that is responsive to the interests/concerns of US Arab friends and allies.

The authors’ analysis is very persuasive; it is rooted in superb research and sound deductive reasoning. The chapters are crafted in such a way that the complex and multidimensional nature of the subject matter is easily digestible by the reader. This book is simply the most comprehensive work on the Iranian threat and is destined to be a standard reference for at least the next five years. It is a must-read for senior US military leaders and government officials, international relations/political science scholars, and anyone else interested in a thorough understanding of the multifaceted security threat presented by Iran to the Middle East and the United States.

Dr. David A. Anderson

Army Command and General Staff College,

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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