Thursday, November 01, 2007

Iran: Imminent Threat or Paper Tiger?


Lately, disquieting saber rattling has been heard emanating from Washington. Talking tough makes sense when you have the muscle to back it up. But with the nearly exhausted U.S. military still bogged down in Iraq and unable to bring peace to that ravaged country, it is foolhardy to be making noises that sound like willingness to undertake still another adventurous cruise in the uncharted waters of the Middle East.

Compared to what we knew about Iraq before we invaded it, Iran resembles Winston Churchill's famous description of the Soviet Union during the Cold War: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Without diplomatic representation in Iran since 1979, we know woefully little about it.

Facing Iranian Facts
Let's put Iran into perspective by comparing it with Iraq: Iran is slightly larger than Alaska; Iraq is slightly more than twice the size of Idaho, which is to say that Iran is almost four times the size of Iraq. Instead of flat desert and lush river flood plains, Iran's borders are rimmed by formidable mountain ranges surrounding a central basin. In population, Iraq's 27.5 million inhabitants are dwarfed by Iran's more than twice as many 65.4 million. Some estimates place Iran's population as high as 70 million.

In any conflict between Iran and the U.S., the mismatch would be profound. In terms of per capita GDP, the U.S. figure is $43,800; Iran's is $8,700, about equal to Iraq's. Iran spends 2.5% of its GDP on its military; we spend 4.1% on ours. Iran is the key transshipment point for heroin moving from southwestern Asia to Europe, and has the highest percentage of the population using opiates. Lest we attempt to portray ourselves as superior in that respect, let it be noted here that the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of cocaine, and a major consumer of Ecstasy, Mexican heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. So much for moral comparisons.

With American military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the countries of the Persian Gulf, and with carrier task forces patrolling in the Arabian Sea, all literally surrounding Iran, why wouldn't Iranians be apprehensive about our intentions and feel vulnerable? Here at home Americans similarly find the disposition of our forces and the bellicose talk emanating from Washington reason enough for worry.

Iran's professed need to create nuclear power facilities may have some basis in fact. Because of attractively high oil prices and the low level of Iranian industry, petroleum makes up 80 percent of its exports. Other items exported are fruits, nuts and carpets. Little of the crude oil Iran produces remains within its borders. India and Japan are major importers of Iranian oil.

In Iraq, President Bush's managerial ineptitude and poor judgment have left us mired in an endless war with no possibility of either achieving victory or exiting honorably. Thanks to mediocre public education and increasingly irresponsible mainstream media, the United States remains a country where knowledge of the history and geography of the Middle East are virtually absent. Despite having majored in history at Yale, the President has been blinded by his own abject ignorance of the Middle East, and his view of the area obviously has been tinctured by his provincialism, naive idealism and religion.

Similar lamentable ignorance can be found elsewhere in high places in America. Recently, Columbia University's President Lee Bollinger extended an invitation to speak on campus to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s President. In Iran, the presidency is an elected office but is largely honorific with comparatively little power. The only term to describe Mr. Bollinger's introduction of Mr. Ahmadinejad--one that verbally pummeled him to satisfy a pack of yapping yahoos—would be "boorish and ungracious treatment of an invited guest."

But instead of insulting him and thus strengthening his somewhat shaky position at home, Mr. Bollinger, by profession a lawyer, should have made a point of demonstrating democracy and free speech at work. This would have encouraged democracy-loving dissidents in Iran.

Mr. Bollinger's attitude only underscores the low level of knowledge about Iran and its people that is abroad in our land. If an American Ivy League university president knows so little about Iran, imagine the degree of ignorance prevailing at the highest level of our government.

Far from United

The notion that Iranians are united behind their government is preposterous to those who have any familiarity with the country. Among Iran's population, slightly more than half are ethnic Persians and 24 percent are Turks. Other ethnic minorities make up the remaining 25 percent. Many of Iran's 17 million Turks (called Azeri) are in open revolt against Persian cultural imperialism, and so are its 6 million Kurds. An Arab minority regularly detonates suicide bombs in Ahvaz in southwestern Iran. Baluchi tribesmen openly attack police posts in southeastern Iran.

We should be taking advantage of these major rifts and using them to our advantage to cause regime change. If some 40 percent of the American population were actively engaged in separatist struggles, one could hardly claim that the country was united behind Washington. Moreover, many in the bare majority of Persians oppose the theocratic regime of the mullahs because of its many prohibitive restrictions or because they are Sufis, a branch of Islam the regime persecutes almost as much as it does the small minority of the Baha'i sect.

The idea of Iranian national unity is a myth, and so is the concept of Persian nationalism, a minority position in a country where half the population is not even Persian. The U.S. should be capitalizing on these differences instead of portraying Iran as a united country.

Iran's Mythical Military Threat
As they did in the run-up to the first and second Iraq wars in 1991 and 2003, newspapers and magazines are starting to publish statistics about Iran's army, navy and air force to show how formidable they are. What they don't tell you is that Iran's warships are all more than 30 years old; its smaller naval vessels would only be capable of pin pricks against a modern navy. Because of a severe lack of spare parts, most of its combat aircraft (Mirages, F-4s, F-5s and F-14s) have not flown in years. Its army table of organization boasts brigades and divisions that exist only on paper.

Always described as a fearsome elite force, members of the Pasdaran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are uniformed smartly and appear to be well trained when marching in celebratory parades--but so do American high school marching bands. Although they exude a cocky, triumphant air--the truth is that they have fought only one war--the 1980-88 war against Iraq, and they took a licking in that one. Congress wants this force declared a terrorist force, but that would make them no more a foe to be feared than they are right now.

Iran's control over the narrow Strait of Hormuz through which tanker traffic down the Persian Gulf must pass is often cited as a reason to fear this mythical force, which allegedly could cripple U.S. oil imports and create a worldwide depression. Again, this is another manufactured threat that does not bear close examination. Global dependence on Middle Eastern oil is waning. At the time of the embargo by Arab oil-producing countries in 1973, the Middle East produced almost 40 percent of the world's crude oil. Today, the region produces less than 30 percent. In 1975, 28 percent of oil imported into the U.S. came from the Persian Gulf. Thirty years later only 17 percent came from there.

Miscalculation Common
Overestimating the strength of Middle Eastern military forces has been almost habitual among Western powers. In the 1960s the Soviet Union sold so much equipment to Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt that Western experts saw his military as intimidating. Just before the 1967 war, Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, no slouch at sizing up enemy forces, bought into the myth. While paying a ceremonious visit to the El Alamein battlefield and war cemetery, he predicted that the Egyptians could easily defeat the Israelis. Yet it took the Israelis only a few days to achieve victory. Six years later, with a substantial assist from the U.S. in the form of hastily airlifted munitions, the Israelis needed only three weeks to punish the Egyptians for their Yom Kippur surprise attack.

In the early 1990s, Saddam's army, which had defeated Iran after eight years of war (also with an assist from the U.S.) and was even larger than Nasser's, cast the same formidable shadow. So intimidated were the so-called coalition nations, they assembled a huge force. The U.S. contributed 575,000 troops, and 43,000 British, 14,000 French, 4,500 Canadians and assorted numbers from smaller nations also were arrayed against it.

When the war began in earnest, the Iraqi air force made no attempt to fight. Saddam's tanks that had paraded so threateningly provided little more than target practice for coalition forces. The levies that make up Arab armies have repeatedly shown little stomach for traditional battle, preferring what has come to be called asymmetrical, fourth-generation or guerrilla warfare.

In 2003, President George W. Bush, unknowledgeable and incurious about the Middle East, actually strengthened Iran by attacking and destroying its traditional archenemy, Iraq, previously a counter to Iranian expansionism. He further strengthened Iran by putting into power in Iraq a Shi'ia-dominated government with close ties to largely Shi'ia Iran. Now, possibly in an attempt to undo the mischief they have done to the balance of power in the Middle East, Messrs. Cheney and Bush are laying the groundwork for an attack on Iran.

With their saber rattling and scary talk of World War III, they hope to create the atmosphere of fear that worked so successfully in the lead-up to the attack on Iraq. The big question is whether the American people will hold still and allow themselves to be swindled a second time with the same tissue of lies and phony evidence.

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