The Unraveling Middle East, Part II

Why Iran is the "evil empire" of the Muslim world.

[Editor's note: the following is the second installment of a three-part series. Part III will appear in tomorrow's issue. To read Part I, click here.]

With the Middle East being swept by revolutionary chaos, Iran is the power that stands to gain most from the outcome. The countries affected by the turmoil, their strategic location, the large Shia populations in many of these nations and Iran’s close ties to Sunni Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could give Teheran a hegemonic position in the region. Already, there is evidence to indicate this is occurring. On March 2, President Ahmadinejad warned the Saudi government not to move against that country’s Shia minority—numbering 2 million—on the planned “Day of Anger” protest set for March 11. This was followed the next day by Iran’s criticism of the Saudi decision to raise oil production by 500,000 barrels a day, to meet the shortfall caused by the fighting in Libya. The fact that Iran has so publicly stated its position regarding Saudi domestic and economic policy indicates growing confidence in Tehran regarding its status as a regional power.

A primary reason for Iran’s growing assertiveness is its capacity to use force. This includes not only Iran’s considerable armed forces, but also the capabilities of its surrogates. This combination enables Iran to wage war throughout Southwest Asia, and in key regions beyond.

Iran’s regular armed forces number some 290,000, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) providing another 155,000. Together, these forces field nearly 2,000 tanks, 340 fighter-bombers and over 200 naval vessels. The regular armed forces are tailored for conventional warfare. The IRGC is considered the most sound branch of the military. While it is tasked with defending Iranian territory, its air force controls Iran’s ballistic missiles, ensuring regime control over this vital component.

While Iran has older equipment in its inventory, it also deploys considerable quantities of modern weapons. These include some 500 T-72 tanks, 25 MiG-29 fighters and 30 Su-24 strike aircraft, and three Kilo-class attack submarines. Older equipment has been modernized, including F-14 Tomcats supplied to the Shah in the 1970s. Iran’s defense industries have also produced tanks and combat aircraft, and have reportedly developed a variant of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile, embargoed by Moscow. Cooperation with foreign nations, including North Korea and China, has also taken place.

As for ballistic missiles, Iran is estimated to have 1,000 in service. Most worrisome is the Shahab 3, which has a range of 2,100 km, enough to reach the Aegean Sea. There are estimated to be several hundred Shahab 3s in service. The Shahab 5, developed from North Korea’s Taepodong 2, has a 6,000 km range, covering all of Europe (although it’s not been confirmed if these missiles are deployed).

Then there is the matter of WMD. In a report for Canada’s Mackenzie Institute, its president, John C. Thompson, notes that Iran has produced chemical weapons since the 1980-88 war with Iraq. As for nuclear weapons, while Iran’s program has suffered setbacks due to cyberwar attacks (namely Stuxtnet), Thompson states that “Iran has certainly had ample opportunity to amass a stockpile of radioactive material. They might not yet be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to Tel Aviv, but they could strew hundreds of kilos of radioactive dust over it.” The same could be said for any point in the Gulf.

To this should be added Iran’s proxies and allies. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has amassed thousands of rockets and battlefield missiles targeting Israel. It also has a large force of trained guerrillas that can invade northern Israel and seize key areas to forestall an Israeli drive into Lebanon. Hamas can similarly strike from Gaza, as recent attacks with Grad missiles on Beersheba show. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), backed by Iran and Syria, carried out major exercises in Gaza in February, which showed its enhanced ability to wage guerrilla war. Syria, with chemical weapons, a nuclear program, armed forces nearly 300,000 strong, 5,000 tanks, 555 combat aircraft, and over 850 surface-to-surface missiles (soon to include the Russian-made Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile) presents a serious threat to the Golan Heights, and can send large forces into southern Lebanon in support of Hezbollah.

The presence of large Shia populations in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and other Gulf states simplifies Iranian efforts to destabilize these countries, paving the way for overt Iranian action. Teheran’s tactical alliance with the Taliban means that Allied forces could see a western front open in Afghanistan, with greater pressure in Pakistan. Somali pirates, supported by Islamist groups, have expanded their activities into the Indian Ocean, increasing the threat to Western shipping in the event of general war.

In other regions, Iran has useful allies. North Korea, with its enormous conventional forces and WMD, presents a continuing danger, particularly through its growing ballistic missile capabilities. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, engaged in a major military buildup, can threaten Colombia and the Caribbean Basin, while its alliance with Iran has seen a sizeable Hezbollah presence emerge in the Western Hemisphere. Most alarmingly, according to Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, Tehran and Caracas signed an agreement in November 2010 to establish an Iranian military base in Venezuela. Jointly manned, this will house Iranian ballistic missiles like the Shahab 3, in range of the U.S. Iran has reportedly given permission for the use of these weapons by Venezuela in case of an “emergency.” If such weapons are deployed, they would give Iran the ability to mount a military strike on American soil.

There is also the matter of mass terror attacks against the West. Hezbollah has long engaged in such actions, and al-Qaeda could be counted on to take advantage of a global conflict to do the same. Given both groups’ presence in North America and Western Europe (as well as in vital oil producers like Mexico and Nigeria), attacks on political, economic and military targets are likely.


David Walsh has a Ph.D from the London School of Economics and is the author of book, "The Military Balance in the Cold War: US Perceptions and Policy, 1976-85."