The United States’ dominance in the Middle East is based on a complex system of alliances, with Israel, the “conservative” Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia being the pillars of this structure. This system would be perfect if it comprised Iran but the revolution of 1978-1979 made this impossible. On the other hand, it gave the Americans new opportunities for enlarging their military presence in the region. It was that very revolution that forced the Gulf monarchies to ally with the United States. The Iranian-Iraqi war of 1980-1988 and Iraq’s attempt to occupy Kuwait made this alliance even stronger. In 1981, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates formed the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition meant to rebuff possible Iranian attacks.
The gear of the United States’ dominance in the Middle East is the policy of inciting conflicts and helping to overcome them. And each new conflict makes the Americans’ presence even larger. The Iranian revolution also helped in the matter as it gave the Americans an opponent in the region and a good pretext to enlarge their presence.
Iran’s national security strategy is aimed against this presence and its key guarantors, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. The Americans have a counter-strategy – NATO with its “security front” stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan.
In response, the Iranians are trying to improve contacts with the other great powers acting in the region - either as the Americans’ partners or as their antagonists.
Their main postulate is that the Americans are using their political and economic influence and their key ally, Israel, for gaining full control over the region and that the Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia are helping them in this effort.
The Iranian leaders believe that Sunni Al Qaeda and ISIL are American projects, designed as guarantees of the Americans’ presence in the region and as their weapon against Iran. They also blame Saudi Arabia for provoking inter-religious tensions and attempting to isolate Iran from regional affairs. In this light, they qualify their revolutionary support of Shias as patronage of the “oppressed.”
In the late 1990s, the Iranians stopped their attempts to export their revolution to the region as they saw that that policy might have ended in their total isolation. Their current leader, Hassan Rouhani, believes that Iran must not have constant enemies and should be more pragmatic in its foreign policy. In contrast, Ayatollah Khamenei and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps object to any compromises.
Today, Iran is quite independent in its national security strategy and is using different instruments for pushing its goals in the region – diplomacy, values, soft force, financial support. One of these instruments is support of armed groups using violence against Israel. The Iranians sponsor Hezbollah in Lebanon, HAMAS in Palestine, Houthis in Yemen and Shias in Iraq. The Americans are very displeased with this and keep labelling Iran as the key sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East.
The Iranians’ military strategy is based on their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – their major force in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrein and Yemen. Initially designed as a guard of internal security, that army is now actively involved in Iran’s foreign policy, with their special unit, Liwa al-Quds, engaged in arming, training and financing allies.
The Americans’ policy on Iran is quite consistent. No matter who is in the White House, Iran remains the major security problem for Washington. The Americans are mostly concerned about the Iranians’ efforts to develop advanced military technologies and, first of all, its nuclear and missile programs. The Iranians insist that they comply with all of their nonproliferation commitments but the Americans and their allies don’t believe them and claim proofs. The Americans’ key concern here is that once Iran gets a nuclear weapon, they will have no more military instruments for pressuring it.
U.S. military experts claim that Iran has the region’s largest missile arsenal and this is a big challenge to the United States’ allies. The Iranians are quite active in this sphere: they have long-term strategic plans to make their own ballistic rockets but, in the meantime, they are buying missiles from allies, one of them being, North Korea. On July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution urging Iran not to develop or test ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons but since then the Iranians have carried out four such tests. In response, the Americans are helping their allies to build regional anti-missile systems.
They have a comprehensive anti-ballistic program with Israel and have supplied Patriot PAC-3 anti-ballistic missile systems to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and THAAD to the UAE. In Sept 2012, they installed an anti-ballistic radar in Kuwait and tuned it to similar radars in Israel and Turkey.
As far as ordinary warfare is concerned, Iran is believed to be unable to defeat the United States but able to cause serious damages to its army. The Iranians are able to defend themselves from any attacks from their Arab neighbors but will hardly be able to attack the Gulf or to invade the Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia.
But the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have shown that the Iranians are able to project force by using their Islamic Revolutionary Guards and supporting friendly governments and forces.
Presently, the Americans have as many as 35,000 men in the Gulf for being able to restrain the Iranians. They have four bases in Saudi Arabia, four bases in Kuwait, two bases in Bahrain, two bases in Qatar, two bases in the UAE and four bases in Oman.
The Americans have defense cooperation agreements with Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, an access agreement with Oman and a memorandum of mutual understanding with Saudi Arabia. All of them are aimed against Iran. In Feb 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested enlarging safety umbrella for the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In Mar 2012, the Americans launched a strategic dialogue program for then Gulf monarchies. Besides, selling them arms, they are enhancing their air and sea capacities and security on the border and the sea. They are satisfying all of their needs for planes, ships, radars, signals and troop command systems.
For the Americans, the Gulf Cooperation Council is a single military-political alliance. But in reality, there are lots of contradictions among the Council’s members. In 2012, all of them supported Saudi Arabia’s initiative to form a united military command but have done nothing to this end ever since.
The final goal of the Americans’ military construction in the Gulf region is to make it stronger than Iran. Even more, they want Saudi Arabia to be stronger than Iran even without the other Gulf monarchies.
Let’s see what arms the Gulf Cooperation Council states have with Saudi Arabia inclusive and what arms Saudi Arabia has alone (within the brackets)
Army: 366,000 (225,000);
Ground troops and national guards: 270,000 (175,000);
Tanks: 1,733 (600);
Armored vehicles: 6,418 (3,011);
Guns: 2,043 (771);
Air defense systems: 2,155 (1,805);
Personnel: 25,000 (13,500);
Frigates: 11 (7);
Patrol boats: 409 (83);
Amphibians: 409 (83);
Personnel: 35,000 (20,000);
Planes: 498 (261);
The Gulf monarchies have much more up-to-date arms that Iran has but it is not yet known how efficient their armies are. U.S. experts doubt that they are efficient and one of their arguments is that they comprise lots of Pakistanis and other foreigners.
The Iranian troops are more experienced: they fought with the Iraqis in 1980-1987 but it was a protracted bloody position war with no real victories recorded.
Today, Iran has as many as 475,000 soldiers but they are divided between the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The latter are the guarantors of the Islamic revolution and its values, the guards of Iran’s internal security. They also control Iran’s missile programs and have even more powers than Iran’s intelligence services has. Their Liwa al-Quds force consists of 10,000-15,000 people, who train and arm pro-Iranian political groups and leaders in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the Gulf, Gaza and West Bank, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards also have a network of contractor companies, which control Iran’s economy.
Iran’s army comprises 350,000 men, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps almost 100,000 men, the navy 18,000 men, the air force 30,000 men, the security services 40,000-60,000. Iran also has Basij, voluntary militia controlled by the selfsame Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Iranians have 1,650 tanks, including 480 Russian T-72s, 4 corvettes, 18 Chinese patrol boats, several hundreds of boats, 3 Russian Kilo-class submarines and several small boats, possibly bought from North Korea, 330 planes and helicopters, including 25 MiG-29s and 30 Su-24s as well as Shah-time U.S. F-4s, F-5S and F-14s.
In Jan 2007, Russia supplied Iran with 30 9K331 Tor-M1missile systems worth over $1bn.
Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan visited Moscow in Feb 2016 and negotiated the purchase of new conventional weapons worth $8bn, including T-90 tanks, Su-30 planes, helicopters, anti-ship missiles, frigates and submarines. The UN’s resolution 1929 prohibits the sale of some conventional arms to Iran. Iran’s defense budget accounts for 3% of its GDP or $15bn. The major arms suppliers are Russia, China, Ukraine, Belarus and North Korea. The incident of Aug 2016, when the Iranians let the Russians use their Hamadan-based air base for air strikes on Syria was the first time they had ever let foreign soldiers into their military units.
Iran has a total of 1,800 kilometers of seashore in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. As a result, the Iranian fleet is divided into two parts: the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy controls the Gulf of Oman, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. So, in case of a war, the Iranians may mine and block the Strait of Hormuz. As a result, as many as 17 billion barrels of oil or 35% of all oil transported by sea and 20% of all oil sold in the world will be deadlocked in the Persian Gulf.
In late 2016, rebels in Yemen struck a UAE ship in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait with an Iranian anti-ship missile. Many saw that as Iran’s attempt to project its force in territories close to the Suez Canal. In Jan 2014, the Iranians sent several military ships to the Atlantic Ocean for the first time ever.
Trump’s administration has not yet specified how it will react to such maneuvers.
One more sensible point in U.S.-Iranian relations is Syria. In late 2016, the office of UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura estimated each year Iran provides Syria with military and economic assistance of $6bn, this including loans. The Iranians regard Bashar al-Assad as their key ally, first of all, because he patronizes Alawites and also because they fear that al-Assad may be replaced by a Sunni regime.
One more motive for the Iranians to be present in Syria is to oppose Israel and to support the Lebanese Hezbollah. Khamenei has repeatedly qualified Israel as a cancerous tumor that must be removed from the region. In Sept 2015, he said that there will be no Israel in some 25 years.
Iran’s growing presence in Syria and Israel’s displeasure may be the key factors that are forcing Trump to seek ways to revise Obama’s attitude towards Iran. During his presidential campaign, Trump criticized Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan on Iran’s nuclear program. On Feb 1, 2017, Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn warned Iran against continued ballistic missile tests and added that any U.S. countermeasures would be beyond the Joint Comprehensive Plan. Later, Trump warned that all scenarios were possible. This warning as well as Trump’s contacts with the Saudis show that Trump may be inclined to deepen the United States’ relations with the Gulf monarchies.
On Apr 19, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the revised attitude would concern not only Iran’s nuclear program but also its activities in the Middle East. Tillerson accused the Iranians of undermining the Americans’ interests in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But it is not clear what exactly the Americans can do against Iran – for their withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan will not mean restoration of international sanctions against Iran.
U.S. experts wonder if the Joint Comprehensive Plan can change Iran’s national security policy and if yes, then how. Now that the international sanctions have been lifted, the Iranians have more capacities to support their regional allies and proxies. On the other hand, now they have a stimulus to avoid activities that may result in new sanctions. Consequently, they are trying to improve their relations with the Gulf monarchies. If Rouhani loses the May 19 presidential elections, the Iranian reformers will lose ground and may be replaced by more radical forces. For the Americans the best scenario would be the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Since all the above scenarios are problematic, the only way for the Americans is to enlarge or institutionalize Sunni coalitions and to help them in proxy conflicts. Consequently, the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq will be continued but the Iranians are not afraid of this.
EADaily ’s Middle East Bureau