The Biden-Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia (China) may be problematic for American security if the other pockets of regional and global threat are not equally treated. For many in the foreign policy establishment, today China is America’s greatest rival and challenge. The fact that China’s economy is second largest after the US, its military keeps upgrading, and Beijing’s aggressive policy of expansion throughout the South China Sea and globally for that matter should be alarming. Most of all, however, China’s threat to Taiwan, and the Biden administration’s commitment to defend it, poses the specter of WWIII. Yet, it is rather the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Middle East region that may trigger a more immediate and devastating conflict.
While it is undeniable that Beijing poses a serious threat, it is important to consider that China stands to lose much in a confrontation with the US and the West. In the last few decades, especially after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, the era of US-China globalization lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. China became the warehouse of all manufacturing goods, whereas the West, and particularly the US became the consumers of “made in China.” Bottom line: in economic terms, China stands to lose big time.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has little to lose, even prior to the sanctions imposed on it by the US and its allies, the Ayatollah’s aggression in the region and beyond was clear to see. Iran has been a destabilizing force in the Middle East region and the leading state sponsor of terrorism worldwide. The Islamic Republic has deliberately aborted the negotiations in Vienna by demanding impossible Western and particularly American concessions, including a guarantee that future US administrations will not withdraw from the nuclear agreement. The Ayatollahs have decided to go for the status of a nuclear threshold state… this way they can play it both ways: claim that they are not yet nuclear, and thus still within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty agreement, and at the same time have their fingers on a loaded gun, but not yet firing.
In the 21st century, few countries represent an open threat to global security. Iran is such a state, along with North Korea (Pyongyang however is limited to Asia, although it provides lethal materials to Iran). Most countries, including enemies of the US, operate under the guise of being benign and peace-loving. Iran flaunts its dark side and routinely threatens other nations. Iran continues to call for the destruction of Israel and is an ever-present threat to the Arab Gulf states. In developing long-range missiles, the Ayatollahs hope to be able to destroy the “Great Satan” i.e., America, one day. A long-range missile that can reach the US (and certainly Europe) carrying a dirty bomb if not an outright nuclear bomb, is a frightening and realistic scenario.
What makes Iran far more dangerous than China is that it adheres to a messianic vision that includes an Armageddon of sorts, a terrible war that the “forces of evil,” namely the US and its allies including Israel, will be vanquished by the Islamic Republic which will bring about the advent of the hidden “twelfth imam.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is mandated by Iran’s constitution to pursue “an ideological mission of jihad in God’s way … extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”
The part that makes Iran extremely volatile is the IRGC, which answers to only one person: the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian government operates at his pleasure, and Khamenei has absolute power in the affairs of Iran. The IRGC is Khamenei’s personal army, and the IRGC does not answer to the elected government. The IRGC receives the lions-share of the military budget and gets the most modern and best military hardware, including overseeing nuclear and missile development.
According to the BBC, “The IRGC is estimated to have more than 190,000 active personnel, boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran’s strategic weapons. It also controls the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force, which has helped suppress domestic dissent, and the powerful bonyads, or charitable foundations which run a considerable part of the economy.” The IRGC exerts influence elsewhere in the Middle East by providing money, weapons, technology, training, and advice to allied governments and armed groups through its shadowy overseas operations arm, the Quds Force.
Iran is violating international law. It has illegally conducted ballistic missile tests in direct contravention of major UN resolutions and is currently violating the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has captured American ships, taunted and terrorized US sailors, and imprisoned US citizens. Lest we forget, Iranians invaded the American embassy in Tehran and held US diplomats as hostages for 444 days.
Delivering a keynote speech at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) conference in Oxon Hill, MD, outside Washington DC, former U.S. President Donald Trump declared, “I doubt that China is more dangerous than Iran.” He pointed out that “China is a country that doesn’t want to get blown up. Some people don’t care if they’re blown up. They’re fanatics. Now, Iran is going to have a nuclear weapon. So when you say, is China more dangerous than Iran? I doubt it.”
Whatever might be said about China, its leadership is far more rational than the fanatical Iranian leadership. China also stands to lose much more than Iran should a war be launched. It is therefore imperative that the Biden administration, and the administrations to come thereafter, focus on the Middle East and the Iranian threat first and foremost. It would require the Biden administration to allocate additional resources to the Middle East region, forge and lead a strong alliance that includes Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and perhaps Egypt and Jordan. It is of particular importance that the US and Israel develop a strategic plan to eliminate the Iranian nuclear and terror threats. The alternative would be a Middle East war that would make the war in Ukraine appear like child’s play by comparison. The US focus must be on Iran, and the time to act is now.