What Iran's Bluster Hides

Why the Mullahs are willing to engage in brinkmanship but not in a war with Israel.

According to the Global Fire Power website, which uses CIA data, Iranian military strength is hardly as ominous as it appears from Iranian propaganda press releases.

Iranian active military strength stands at 545,000 troops, and its reserve forces number 650,000. And while its population total is over 77 million compared to Israel’s 7 million (less than 10% of Iran’s), Israel’s defense budget is greater - $16 billion vs. Iran’s $9 billion. And while Israel’s military manpower stands at 187,000 in active duty, and 565,000 in reserves, it is far better trained and motivated.  Moreover, Iran has 3,230 tanks against Iran’s 1,793, and 1,964 aircraft vs. Iran’s 1,030.  The Iranian air force is rather weakened by its older model fighters, such as the F-5, which the Shah received from the U.S. and which lacks spare parts.  The same is true for their tanks, which rely on the Russian T-72, and older model tanks.  Regardless of the size of the Iranian army infantry or its armor, it is highly unlikely that Iran will be able to move those against Israel, giving the distances involved.

To compensate for its inability to compete with either the U.S or Israeli air forces, Iran developed a missile industry, producing missiles that allegedly could hit all points in Israel (while stockpiling nearly 45,000 missiles with Hezbollah in Lebanon).  Israel’s civilian population has demonstrated, during recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza (2006 with Hezbollah and 2008-2009 with Hamas) that it can withstand massive missile attacks on its cities.  Moreover, Israel has advanced and put into operation anti-missile missiles, such as the “Arrow” and “Iron Dome,” which the Iranians lack.  Conversely, the Iranian civilian population was traumatized by the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (1980-1988) during which Saddam’s army lobbed Scud missiles on Iranian cities that killed thousands.  The regime in Iran failed to build air-raid shelters then, and have done little to lessen the vulnerability of Iran’s civilians today.  An Israeli or American retaliatory attack on Iran would expose Iran’s civilian populations to death and destruction and cause the public to rebel against the mullah regime, a possibility the leaders of the Islamic republic must take into account.

Belligerent proclamations against Israel and threats to “wipe the Jewish State off the map” conform to the best in psychological welfare -- something which the Iranian regime excels at. You-Tube videos show supposedly successful launchings of long-range missiles and a new submarine, all aimed to deter Israel and the U.S. from attacking Iran.  The Financial Times, reporting from Iran on August 20, 2010, quoted Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defense minister, as saying that “the Qiam 1 surface-to-surface missile" had “new technical features and unique tactical capabilities, and an improved targeting system.” The underlying message from Tehran is that “we have a strong military and if you attack us, we’ll destroy you.”  Intimidation by threats is, when carefully analyzed, an attempt to ward off an attack by those they know to be stronger while masking their weakness. Yet, Israel and the West take Iranian propaganda at face value, and thus Iran appears a lot stronger than it is in reality.

The Iranian army has been significantly repressed by the mullahs.  The top military echelon was decimated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and those who escaped death, torture, and forced “reorientation” escaped to the West.  The role of the theocratic regime’s Revolutionary Guards is to keep an eye on the army’s generals.  Advancement is reserved only for those who show loyalty to the regime.  Personal initiative is seen as dangerous by officers and soldiers alike.  On July 2009, 36 officers who intended to participate in demonstrations against the regime in their uniforms were arrested, and most likely liquidated.  The Guardian newspaper reported, “The officers intended the gesture to show solidarity with the demonstrations against last month's presidential election result, which was won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but which has been clouded by allegations of mass fraud.”

Iran’s vulnerabilities are not confined to external military threats.  The Sunni-Muslim minorities rebelling against the oppressive Shiite theocracy have exacted a heavy toll on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Kurdish rebels in the northwest, the Baluchis in the southeast, and the Ahwazi-Arabs of Khuzestan in the southwest continue to fight the regime, and should the Iranian regime divert its forces from these areas, the attacks on the regime would increase to critical proportions.  In addition to the pressure on the regime from the Sunni minorities who seek to bring it down and achieve either autonomy or independence, escalated war and chaos would encourage a civil uprising against the regime among ethnic Persians.  In the 1980s, Saddam’s attack on Iran fostered general solidarity with the regime.  Today, however, the situation is different in that the Islamic revolution has lost the support of the public in Iran.  Millions marched against Ahmadinejad and the stealing of the last election by his regime.  The young people of Iran despise the regime, and are becoming increasingly anti-religious according to Caspian Makan, an Iranian film director, journalist and dissident. These same people identify with the more liberal and democratic Green Revolution, and are waiting in the wings for the right moment to take action. The Iranian regime is fully cognizant of this.

Tehran has two formidable surrogates whose forces can be used against Israel: Hezbollah and Hamas, but should either of them seriously endanger Israel’s population, Iran is aware that Israel is capable of completely destroying these two entities.  And, both Hamas and Hezbollah have their own interests to protect.  While Hezbollah controls the Lebanese government, a massive attack on Israel would most certainly bring about its destruction. Similarly, Hamas seeks first and foremost its self-preservation.  The Iranian regime is also fully aware of the fact that Israeli retaliation against an Iranian attack would spell the end for the Islamic revolution.

It is for these reasons that Iran is willing to engage in brinkmanship but not in a war with Israel.  Its nuclear efforts are meant to immunize it from a military attack and U.S. and Israeli superiority, and its bluster hides its weakness.  To paraphrase the words of the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu in his book “The Art of War,” written back in the 4th Century BCE, what matters most in a war is not how many fighters you have or how well equipped they are, but rather what your opponents think you have.  If they think you are weak and vulnerable they will surely attack, but if they consider you strong or unpredictable, they would refrain from attacking you. Iran has well absorbed Sun Tzu’s teachings.