Iran’s paltry military spending?

An interesting piece argues that after the nuclear deal the Iranian military will not be as powerful as many seem to argue.

It begins, “You’d be forgiven for thinking that Iran, unshackled from economic sanctions, would have free rein to domineer its vulnerable Persian Gulf Arab neighbours and cause trouble for Israel. As the fearful refrain goes, if an Iran restrained by crippling sanctions has managed to assert its influence over four Arab capitals — those of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen — what will an Iran freed from sanctions and a global arms embargo do? As noted Iran hawk Ray Takeyh recently wrote, “the most important legacy of the prospective agreement [may be that it] enable[d] the Islamic Republic’s imperial surge.” This same line has been pushed so hard that it has become accepted fact in Washington. The problem is, the line isn’t true. But, nonetheless, it is threatening to upend a lasting nuclear deal with Iran. As the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries head down to the wire in Vienna, the issue has arisen in the question of whether the arms embargo imposed on Iran as part of the U.N. Security Council resolutions would be maintained following a nuclear deal”.

The author argues that “The United States and its European partners say yes; Russia, China, and Iran say no. The timing is troubling to say the least. Just as solutions have been found to constrain and roll back elements of Iran’s nuclear program, this issue — one that’s outside the scope of the nuclear talks — is now taking on such exaggerated importance that it threatens to undo the serious progress of the past 18 months”.

He goes on to mention that “no one imagined back in 2010 that a conventional arms embargo — part of what was otherwise a U.N. Security Council resolution focused squarely on Iran’s nuclear-proliferation activities — would rear its ugly head in quite this manner. The Russian and Iranian position is that the Security Council resolutions rested on the understanding that the arms embargo would be lifted once concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program were resolved. Provided that a deal is reached on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia and Iran thus argue, the arms embargo loses its legal justification. The current U.S. position, however, may be less interested in maintaining coherence with past policy than it is with ensuring that it mitigates regional allies’ concern as much as possible as part of a nuclear deal with Iran”.

He makes the valid point that the Obama administration “fears that undoing the arms embargo on Iran would be a step too far for some of the United States’ key regional allies, all of which — but particularly Saudi Arabia — threaten to undermine the administration’s case for a nuclear deal should they perceive their interests to dictate in favour of doing so. The problem is that the exaggerated tales, now running rampant in Washington, of Iranian regional ascendancy in the wake of a nuclear deal don’t jibe with reality. Far from being a hegemonic power, able to domineer and subdue its regional rivals with impunity, Iran has a regional position that remains untenable, all while its regional rivals procure weapons systems that make themselves increasingly invulnerable. Indeed, sober assessment shows that — both quantitatively and qualitatively — Iran’s regional rivals are well positioned not just to counter a “rising” Iran but to compete with it as well. Moreover, this has been true for some time. According to an April report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), interrogating the relevant “data make[s] a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage of Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.” Quantitatively, Iran’s military expenditures have sunk far below those of its Gulf rivals. In 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), more than 25 percent of Saudi government spending was devoted to beefing up its military assets — expenditures that totaled more than $80 billion. Along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which spent nearly $23 billion, the two Gulf Arab countries comprise well over half the $173 billion in military expenditures spent by all Middle Eastern countries that year”.

Importantly he writes that “Iran’s military expenditures failed to measure up. During 2014, Iran’s military spending was about $15 billion, which comprised about 9 percent of total military spending in the Middle East. That’s a mere fraction of Saudi military spending and about two-thirds of the UAE’s. The Gulf Cooperation Council states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — outspend Iran on arms by a factor of 13. This imbalance is also not merely a current phenomenon. In fact, according to SIPRI’s database, even prior to the arms embargo on Iran, which went into effect in 2010, Saudi Arabia’s military expenditures in the past two decades consistently doubled or tripled the amounts Iran was outlaying to its own military. The new trend, then, is not that Saudi spending has overtaken that of Iran (which has historically been the case during the era of the Islamic Republic), but rather that Saudi military spending has skyrocketed since 2005 to the point where it now dwarfs that of its regional rival”.

He adds another layer to this analysis noting that “As one CSIS report notes, “The Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world. Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah.” Saudi spending is used to procure the most modern weapons systems, while Iran is left with beleaguered and aging weapons systems ill-suited for state conflict. For the Gulf Arab countries, this includes some of the most modern American military hardware”.

He goes on to reinforce the point that “While it does retain the region’s largest stockpile of ballistic missiles, expert opinion remains that Iran has been less than successful in doing so, leaving it in the disadvantageous position of being both outspent and outarmed by its regional adversaries. Based on the trend lines, too, this situation is unlikely to change even in the wake of a nuclear deal. Indeed, a look at SIPRI’s accounting of the Islamic Republic’s past military spending shows that its expenditures have consistently been within 3 percent of its GDP. As much as sanctions have at times been cited as the reason for Iran’s paltry outlays to its military, the fact is that Iran’s military spending has moderately risen — not decreased — during the sanctions era. This can be chalked up to the fact that Iran’s security crises were exacerbated as a result of the ongoing nuclear dispute, not ameliorated by it. Following a deal, the incentive structure for Iran does not thus tilt in favour of increased military spending, but decreased spending”.

He concludes “Whether ill-informed or with malign intent, talking heads in Washington are portraying what is ultimately a false picture of the regional balance of power. Finishing the negotiations has proved tougher than many had predicted, with diplomats blowing through a third deadline this past week. The issue of the arms embargo on Iran is one of the few remaining sticking points — and it’s a tricky one because Russia has officially broken with the P5+1 and called for the embargo to be lifted. The entire nuclear deal could fall on this one single issue. That’s why it’s so essential to correct this common but false wisdom and adopt a more sober view of what the region might look like the day after a nuclear deal. It’s not just a matter of missiles — it’s a matter of war and peace”.

The key issue with the article is that while Iran’s military spending is low, the concern is not state to state warfare but the non-state actors that Iran is so prone to use such as Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

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