Monday, May 15, 2006

Iran’s Quest for Regional Hegemony

Iran’s Quest for Regional Hegemony

Old Strategy and New Challenges

Ali-Asghar Kazemi*


Keywords: Middle East, Persian Gulf, new strategic environment, Iran’s geo-strategic position, nuclear proliferation, Additional Protocol to the NPT, Iran’s military build-up, US strategy


Because of its special geo-strategic position in the Middle East, Iran has always been keen to assume a pivotal role in the region. However, as opposed to the old regime, the present one, while pursuing the same vision, is facing unbearable challenges in its strategy. The main argument of this paper is that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s endeavor to buildup a credible force structure is neither directed toward any power projection against any particular state in the Middle East, nor designed to threaten the presence of any extra-regional powers deployed in the region. Rather, it is mainly devised to ensure its very existence and to deter any potential contender to encroach against its territorial integrity and the survival of the revolutionary regime, and to prove the capacity of Islamic governance to run effectively and in an efficient way the business of a nation-state, with the requisites of the 21st century. Iran’s nuclear undertaking, if ever directed toward unconventional aims and objectives, should be viewed from this perspective.


Iran’s geo-strategic position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region has always dictated its political and security posture vis-à-vis its neighbors and outside powers. Throughout the long history of this ancient country, from the Old Persian empires to the present time, Iran has always identified itself differently from other nations of the region, in spite of religious binds, which presumably should narrow the gap between the Persian and Arab civilizations. The geopolitical necessities have remained almost untouched and even more sagacious after the revolution and the Iraq-Iran war, which lasted near a decade. The end of the cold war has strengthen Iran’s strategic position, and as a consequence, pushed the Islamic government in power to continue the same path and political vision and aspiration in the region as the old regime.

Thus, in setting up its defense and security goals and interests, we witness that many of the old projects in various domains are being pursued even with more fervor than before.

Once the Shah had the ambition to assume the role of gendarme in the Persian Gulf region; but he did not survive to achieve his dreams. Now, the Islamic Republic is putting its feet in the same shoes, of course with a big difference. That is, while the old regime had access almost to all and every kind of Western weapons and technology, the new revolutionary regime is banned from such sources and is compelled to rely on international black markets to procure what it believes necessary for building a credible power to be reckoned with. Iran’s nuclear ambition, that has created lots of attention in the past months in the world, seems to fit this grandiose objective.

The main argument of this paper is that the Islamic regime in power in Tehran will pursue the strategy of a hegemonistic power in the region for a dual purposes: a) to counter any eventual threat and challenge to the very existence and survival of the revolutionary regime and, b) to show the efficiency and viability of the Islamic governance to respond to the needs of 21st century, as a successful model to be followed in the region.

Old Ambitions in a New Strategic Environment

Almost a quarter of a century has elapsed since the Shah’s regime has been toppled through a series of unprecedented events, stemming from internal social unrests and, as some prefer to believe, external political games and conspiracy that led to the 1979 revolution. During the final years of the old regime, Iran was on the verge of becoming a virtual superpower of the region, thanks to the god-given oil revenues, Shah’s ambition for power, and, of course, western technological and political support, without which it was impossible to think of such ostentatious venture. In those days, the Shah was given almost a carte blanche for all kinds of state of art weapon systems and major defense hardware to build-up a very sophisticated and efficient military power. Ships, aircrafts, tanks and other components of the latest production of the West, swiftly appeared in the inventory of the Imperial Navy, Army and the Air Force, backed by all-out logistical and training support, from all over the world.[1]

With the downfall of the Shah regime and the subsequent events that occurred in Iran, many of the weapon contracts were cancelled and most of the well-trained and educated cadres were purged from the armed forces or preferred voluntary premature retirement. With the outbreak of war with Iraq, some of them came back to do their duty for their homeland. Many young American-trained pilots were among those who fought the enemy courageously and some never came back from their sacred mission. The Navy easily established its sea supremacy in the Persian Gulf in initial phase of the war. The Army, which suffered most from the revolutionary wash out, had a different story. Nonetheless, poor-equipped and disorganized army soldiers and officers fought bravely and courageously until the end of the 8-year war.

Iran-Iraq armed hostilities left many thousands of casualties and extensive material and moral damages from both sides. But the war was a blessing for the fragile revolutionary regime to solidify itself by containing people’s demand for social and political development. Instead, the war induced earnest attempt to rely more than ever on indigenous initiatives and schemes to tackle with Iraq military threats. That was the beginning of the arduous challenge the Islamic regime faced during the war in procuring and producing the much needed weapon systems and equipments to sustain combat capability.

The termination of war between Iran and Iraq brought a new sense of identity and drive for the Islamic regime to embark upon a series of projects initiated during the hostilities.

Missile assembly line, construction of small fast boats, armored vehicles, tanks and other light weapons for use at sea, on land and in the air, were among the many projects which gradually pave the way for relatively self-sufficient and autonomous logistical support in the defense and military industrial complex. In the field of the missile industry a very decisive jump has taken place in recent years, which has become a source of annoy to many in and outside the region.

Against this brief background, and with the more recent suspicions of Iran’s nuclear project, many specialists in the field of defense question the logic and true intention behind Iran’s military build-up in the region.

Iran’s Military Build-up: Facts and Allegations

In the late 1990’s, military observers in the West believed that Iran has embarked on a major modernization and buildup of its forces; that includes selective acquisition of conventional new advanced weapons as well as an ambitious nuclear weapons program.

In the views of American military experts who follow Iran’s development in the field of defense, the current military buildup began in 1989, not long after the conclusion of the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Iran, with a Gross Domestic Product of only about $80 billion in 1990, spent $3.1 billion on its military that same year. The next year, the defense budget rose to $3.8 billion.[2] It is believed that this sum has gradually augmented with the relative increase in oil revenue in the following years.

Washington officials and nongovernmental analysts report that Iran has been active on the arms procurement front. Statistics show that during the period 1989-95, Iran acquired 184 new battle tanks, eighty infantry fighting vehicles, 106 artillery pieces, fifty-seven combat aircraft, and twelve warships. According to this report, the purchases have expanded Iran’s current arsenal to about 1,200 tanks, 1,000 armored personnel carriers, 2,000 artillery pieces, 265 aircraft, and twenty-eight warships.[3]

With a population of about 70 million, Iran maintains an armed forces totaling about 513,000 active troops--including its most elite force, the 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guard Corps. Another 350,000 are reservists. Most of the Guards are ground forces, but they have also developed a parallel armed forces system alongside with the regular army, navy, and air force; a heavy burden that the revolutionary regime has been affording all along, due to some unknown sense of mistrust .

According to Pentagon officials, the revolutionary regime in Iran will “be in a position to construct a crude but workable nuclear device at the turn of the century.” In their view, “the development of a ‘Persian bomb’ is Iran's top priority, and Tehran receives technology and aid from both Russia and China.” [4]

The US Defense Department expert further speculated "we're talking about something the size of a boxcar," he explained, "but with the Iranians, a truck or a merchant ship can be a weapon-delivery system."[5]

In view of the US officials, in the field of conventional power, “Iranian military planners are taking steps to bolster their naval forces, in particular with purchases of Chinese advanced cruise missiles.” Moreover, Tehran has purchased new and upgraded surface warships, including five new "Houdong" Chinese fast-attack craft delivered to the port at Bandar Abbas.[6]

The assumption is that ships, submarines and cruise missiles, along with other recent deployments of missiles on tiny islands in the Strait of Hormuz, form the outline of a developing challenge to US interests in the region.

Iran appears to be using its naval forces mainly as an instrument of defense and foreign policy. But this does not mean that an eventual power projection against an actual or potential hostile who might challenge Iran’s presence in the Persian Gulf, the strait of Hormoz and the Sea of Oman, might not trigger the operation of these forces.[7] Prior to delivery in 1995 of 10 Hudong patrol boats equipped with C-802 missiles, Iran was without a ship-mounted ASCM capability. With the refitting of Iran's Kaman class fast-attack boats, they will have 20 craft carrying this missile and forty C-802 missiles are reported to have been sold. [8]

It is believed that the C-802 missiles are less accurate than the Chinese Silkworm, but the number of missile sites along the Persian Gulf coast, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, could pose a potential threat to whoever that might encroach the waters under Iranian sovereignty.

Iran also processes surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile batteries on Qeshm and Sirri islands, and on Abu Musa; the island whose sovereignty has long been disputed between Iran and the United Arab Emirates.[9]

Observers believe that the delivery and commissioning of three Russian Kilo-class submarines will confirm the Iranian intention to dominate the Persian Gulf. Each submarine has the capability of carrying 18 torpedoes and at the same time, they can be used as mines-layers. Thus far, Iran is the only coastal state of the Persian Gulf to possess under water capability. Regular naval exercises that take place several times a year by the Iranian Navy, alongside the other forces, are seen by observers as a clear sign that Iran intends to show its undisputable supremacy in the Persian Gulf.[10]

The objective of the Iranian naval buildup, in the view of the American military experts who track the development of Iran’s military build-up, is "to develop the capability to choke us off, at least temporarily, at the Strait of Hormoz, or if they can't choke us off, at least make it very difficult for us to get in. This perception of course has led to a number of preoccupations for the American defense planners, since many of the oil-producing sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf region rely on American military protection to resist the presumed Iranian pressure and influence in the Persian Gulf.[11]

With respect to the Iranian Air Force, it is believed that while Iran processes a relatively small number of combat aircrafts, but it has improved its air capability with Soviet-made MiG-29 "Fulcrums" and Su-24 "Fencers" as its primary air defense forces. With a newly installed in-flight refueling capability, Iran's MiG-29s have been given greater range. Furthermore, it is being speculated that Iran has the capability of air-based delivery of a nuclear weapons (if ever acquired) with the Fencers, supposed to be Iran's main strike aircraft.[12]

As for missile capability, experts believe that Iran has been developing its own Soviet-designed Scud B and Scud C missiles, having ranges of about 300 kilometers and 500 kilometers, respectively. In addition to possessing some 200 to 300 Scuds, Iran also has expressed interest in purchasing No Dong medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea.

Beside that, in the past few years, Iran has been working on new brand of missile called “ Shihab.” According to defense sources, Iran has already successfully test-fired the Shihab-3 missile, which has a range of 800 miles[13], and is now on the verge of testing a more sophisticated Shihab-4, which will have a range of some 1,250 miles and be capable of carrying a non-conventional payload.[14] It is being speculated that Shahab-5 is the newest missile, which will enter Iranian defense inventory in near future, with a range of about 2500 miles. It is believed that while the Shihab-3 is based on North Korean know-how, the new missile will be based exclusively on Russian technology.

This latter undertaking is indeed a major source of anxiety and threat not only for the region but also for countries located far beyond the Middle East. While Iran’s defense minister, vice Admiral Ali Shamkhani has pledged that Iran's military power will not be directed at any Arab state, Israeli experts interpreted this statement as suggesting that Iran’s military build-up is intended to confront Israel.[15]

As concerned the source of Iranian military acquisition, in his interview with al-Wasat, admiral Shamkhani denied any secret military cooperation or arms-purchase agreements between Iran and Russia: "We cooperate with Russia in the open and there are no secret agreements between us," he further stressed:” We have had to turn East because of the Western arms embargo and our need to develop our defensive systems...But we do not seek to acquire any of the non-conventional weapons." [16]

Nevertheless, Iran's ballistic missile manufacturing program is supposed to lack the capability to produce some parts that are essential for the total production of some types of systems. Presumably, Iran hopes to eventually have complete manufacturing capabilities for its Scuds. Iran also produces short-range missiles similar to the Soviet FROG-7.

With respect to the limitations constraints faced by Iran in its military build-up, Western observers have rightly pointed that the process has been tempered somewhat by its economic woes, which include a US embargo, a cash shortage because of fluctuating oil prices worldwide, rapid population growth, and an external debt.[17] The latter problem has made it difficult for Tehran to gain the international credit needed to finance weapons procurement. In 1996 and 1997, Iran was expected to spend roughly $3.4 billion on weapons. However, it is worthwhile to remember that Iran’s total defense expenditure lagged much behind the total arms acquisitions of the Persian Gulf states, during the past years.[18]

Iran's plan for development of its conventional forces obviously calls for creating units and force capability that are more maneuverable at sea, on land and in the air and have more advanced weapons for specific purposes and outside threats emanating essentially from forward-deployed US forces in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Defense analysts in the West, however, seem not to be much troubled with Iran’s conventional arms build-up, rather they have been focusing at Iran as a source of nuclear and biological threat.[19]

The main assertion of American defense experts is that "Iran's priorities [are related to] weapons of mass destruction--their nuclear program, their chemical program, which is pretty well advanced, their biological program, and their missile program, which also is pretty well advanced."[20]

On the other hand, the IAEA’s key findings about Iran are in reports released in March 2004 and November 2003, with the next important one due this June 2004. In November, the IAEA concluded that Iran's nuclear program consists of practically everything needed to fuel a reactor or in effect to produce materials for bombs, "including uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, and heavy water production."[21]

These allegations are indeed so serious that needs a much closer look. Thus, I have included below a tiny portion of two previous papers, which I prepared for the UCLA Persian Gulf Security Conferences, held successively in Athens- Greece (December 2003), and in Amman-Jordan (May 2004) and seem relevant to this analysis.[22]

Iran’s Nuclear Option:

How much realistic, How far Credible?

Is Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear technology potentially harmful to world order and peace? It depends on whose lens we use to view the issue. The IAEA Board of Governor’s decision to pass a resolution on 12 September 2003 for the implementation of the NPT Safeguards has been interpreted differently inside Iran from at the international level.[23] Preoccupation with the danger of Iran’s nuclear capability is now an alarming issue throughout the world. Iran’s decision to start negotiations for the conclusion of the Additional Protocol, and the IAEA request that Iran should promptly and unconditionally sign and implement it while stopping all nuclear enrichment programs, may bring a modicum of relief to all those who feel threatened by Iran’s undertaking. Since we are now in the midst of this process, it is very hard to pass judgment on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations.

Controversies between Iranian authorities and the IAEA on the one hand and the rest of the world, especially the United States and the EU, on the true intention of Iran’s nuclear activities, have been at its height during the past months. The latest IAEA resolution adopted after lengthily negotiation in mid June 2004, gives Iran one last chance to cooperate fully and in a transparent manner with this world body in charge of nuclear activities of member states.[24]

Iran claims that it is merely using the basic and inalienable right of all NPT member states to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes and is ready to assure the international community that it has no intention to produce nuclear weapons. Some critics would also argue that the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1 July 1968 is not an endeavor designed to protect mankind from the danger of devastation and annihilation, but rather to preserve the monopoly status of a handful of powers in possession of such technology.

Iran claims that it’s undertaking is legitimate and just. We know well that justice, equity, and fairness have never been highest aim of dealings between states, yet they have served as useful caveats in political discourse for the promotion of national interests. In fact, one of the causes of war and hostility is the frustration of the less fortunate over unsatisfactory conditions allegedly created by the powerful nations. To them, slogans such as rendering justice to the powerless, saving humanity from the plague of hunger and disease, securing the world from the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, atomic bombs and so on are wonderful words that only tickle ears and minds. Indeed, international norms and principles are always coated with some kind of noble and human overtone that merely serves as ground to promote one’s own policy or interests.

Some contend that the main objectives of owning nuclear weapons have always been their deterrent capabilities and use as leverage in political dealings. The argument against this is that nuclear capability in the hands of undemocratic and irresponsible regimes is too dangerous and should be contained at any cost. There seems to be a consensus on this latter point between the United States and many European powers. Realistically looking at the matter, even if we assume that Iran is trying to acquire a handful of nuclear weapons, it would have little operational or deterrent value. On the contrary, such an endeavor would increase Iran’s vulnerability vis-à-vis its potential adversaries.[25]

Digging into the intention of political leaders is a difficult task. Iranian leaders are no excption to this.Therefore on has to make a number of assumptions at different levels of strategic planning and decision-making process.

On doctrinal level, it is safe to suggest that Iran’s national interests, objectives and strategies are shaped by its regional political aspirations, threat perceptions, and the need to preserve its Islamic government.[26] But, the problem is that most of the time the term “national interests” is not quite lucid and those who decide about them are not quite apt for such vital task. Thus, in seeking to explain the behavior of a State, such as Iran, in the international or regional scene, we have to read into the minds of men and individuals at the higher echellon of decision making apparatus. This indeed is not an easy job and requires some imagination and speculation.

Assuming that men are rather deliberate and self-conscious about what they do, thus, they should know their own motives and give reasons for their behavior. But this does’t seem to be often true. Because, sometimes people do not want to confess their real motives, or at least not all of them, and so they may knowingly lie or distort or conceal the facts. Sometimes even, they may base their motives and behavior on false assumptions about themselves, their true aims and objectives, their threats, their capabilites and opportunities, or their political and strategic enviroment. This may prove to be very dangerous, not only for them but also for others who interact with them.

One may argue safely that in present day Iran, we are facing with this latter kind of decision-making, that is, we are concened with factors affecting choice other than the entirely conscious and rational criteria that usually come into play in the determination of “national interests.” Political expediencies sometimes overshadow factors related with optimum and rational choices. Perhaps,the reason behind the very risky and high political costs of Iran’s nuclear venture, may find its rationale in such argument which goes beyond the regular calculation of risk or cost-benefit analysis.

With respect to the true intention and objective of Iran’s nuclear activities, the official answer is that this country it merely using its basic and inalienable right of all member States of the NPT to develop atomic energy for peaceful purpose. To this end, Iran claims that it is ready to ensure the international community that it have no intention to produce nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the upper echelon decision-making ladder in Iran has rightfully and in several occasions recognized that Iran does not consider nuclear weapon as a viable and rational useful strategy for defense purposes. The official reading of such statement is that nuclear option may render the country more vulnerable to risks outside threats[27] But, most critiques and specialists in the field believe that these claims are mere rhetoric that is neither supported by factual evidence, nor accepted by the IAEA and the international community as a whole. They refer to recent (February 2004) revelations about international nuclear black market and specific findings of the IAEA during its last inspection in Iran.[28]

How then shall we explain the present situation and the earnest attempt by Iran to pursue its long-standing nuclear policy? In fact, as we know, the project goes back to the 1980s, that is the period in which Iran was engaged in an all out war with its neighboring hostile State, Iraq. The optimistic view would go along with the argument advanced by Iran about its peaceful intention of developing nuclear technology. The pessimists however, have more ground to argue against the peaceful aims of such undertaking. They would eventually base their argument on the following facts and factors:

1) Iran as an important and rich country in oil and gas, having extensive reserves of fossil fuel inland and offshore, does not need to embark on a more costly and risky nuclear project in order to produce energy,

2) Enrichment facilities and related components that are being used or developed by Iranians, do not seem to be for support of civilian nuclear energy plants in Bushehr (considering the fact that the Russians are supposed to supply the necessary fuel for Bushehr plants and the Iranian party is obligated to return the depleted uranium that could be used in nuclear bomb),

3) Iran may be enthusiastic in obtaining nuclear capability with the objective of deterring any potential aggressor that might threaten the very existence of the Islamic regime,

4) Iran may contend that the West is using a double-standard policy with respect to the nuclear proliferation (Pakistan, India and Israel are the ones who have been left out of the black list),

5) Iran might be tempted to acquire nuclear technology for the mere sake of national pride and prestige with a view to boost its regional position vis a vis its potential opponents and contenders,

6) Being a nuclear power for a revolutionary Islamic State may be an indication of the regime efficiency and viability despite the mounting pressure from the world political environment,

Pessimists have a tendency to believe that Iran is pursuing the North Korean tactics by lingering the legal process of ratifying the safeguard measures related to the NPT additional Protocol. In other words, Iran is trying to buy time for enrichment of enough uranium to build a number of nukes before it officially declares to withdraw from the NPT obligations. This will put the IAEA and the world as a whole before a fait accompli,

For them, Iranian leaders would prefer running the risk of being target of an eventual preemptive strike than to give up the power altogether. Since, they believe they can capitalize on such event to consolidate the people while tightening the rope around the opposition neck,

Optimists and pessimists would both admit that strategic thinking; rationality, national interests and optimum choice do not have the same meanings among the Iranian leaders and the Western political thought. This indeed makes a lot of difference when the two sides face each other in a peaceful dialogue or in a hostile confrontation.[29]

Iran hopes to expedite the winding up of the case before the IAEA, using the leverage and influence of the EU members. But the United States authorities appear not satisfied with the idea and wish to pave the way to send the case to the UN Security Council. We have to wait some more time before passing the final judgment on the matter.

New Challenges in the Persian Gulf:

Iran and the US Strategy

The Persian Gulf, which has always been an area of strategic interests for the American foreign policy since World War II, has become the cornerstone of the U.S. strategy after the end of cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Unions. The September 11 events, which led to the military interventions of the United States and Coalition forces in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, created a very vulnerable situation in the Persian Gulf. Iran, as the main power of the region, who has always claimed that the security of this strategic semi-enclosed body of water should be left to local powers, now feels encircled by the United States and is quite apprehensive of this presence. During the past months, the United States did not hesitate to show anger and discontent on various occasions against Iranian authorities. This has made the situation, already very tense between the two countries, even more unbearable.

Iranian decision makers are quite aware of the gravity of the situation and are contemplating ways and means to attenuate the sensitive atmosphere overshadowing the security of the Persian Gulf region. To understand Iranian view on the matter of the Persian Gulf security, one should comprehend the very basic tenure of the revolution, which has brought the present regime into power in 1979, and circumstances that led to the rise of fundamental differences between the two countries.

Of course, the historical background of Iran-US relations go beyond the purpose and objective of this short comment, since many books and articles exist on the matter. My aim here is only to examine a tiny portion of the spectrum of problems dealing with the future security prospects in the Persian Gulf and the appropriate policy recommendations with a view to project a fair and balanced solution for all the regional and international actors.

Let’s first see what is the force arrangement in the Persian Gulf. The United States, which historically had a low profile military and naval presence in the region for many years, at the beginning of the 1990’s, right after the so-called second Persian Gulf crisis (i.e. after the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq), started to build-up its forces in the region. Though it was for temporary missions, yet, from that time up to now, the U.S. presence became more visible and therefore more annoying for Iranian authorities and other Persian Gulf States.

Whereas Iran had tried the policy of confidence building towards littoral States of the Persian Gulf during the past 5-6 year period (i.e. during the Khatami’s administration), and to some extent it was successful, the United States did nothing to promote the situation, and even in some cases aggravated the security environment susceptible to leading to hostilities. One example is the seizure of an Iranian merchant ship not long ago, under the pretext of ‘ search for hostile destination. Other petty incidents in the Persian Gulf between Iran and U.S. created a situation of threat and denial, which could not but aggravate the tense relations between the two State, and consequently to undermine Iran’s policy of confidence-building towards other States of the Persian Gulf, presumably in line with American presence.

The recent experience of force projection in Iraq, clarified a number of security bottlenecks, thus far hidden behind some sort of diplomatic shyness between the United States and the Arab nations of the Middle East. Saudi-Arabia, as the most important traditional ally of the U.S., expressing loudly discontent against American intervention in Iraq, became a vocal critique of this country, while approaching toward Iran. As we witnessed in recent months, the United States changed its stance towards the Saudis, (especially after the disclosure of some kind of doubtful ties between the AlQaeda group and the Saudi officials) and plan to evacuate their forces from there.

With respect to other U.S. allies in the region, we are not quite sure of the trends. But one thing is certain, that is the fact that the traditional regimes of the Persian Gulf, which once the fear of the Islamic revolution in Iran pushed them towards the Americans for protection, now feel much more insecure by the policy of “forceful democratization”, which could end-up to disaster for the internal security and their very existence.

Although the Iranian policy of rapprochement with the Persian Gulf littoral States, has so far not reached to the point of building a true “security community,” but based on the present trends, it does not seem to be a far-fetched strategy that could lead to the following plausible consequences:

a) Inhibiting more and more the U.S. presence in the region;

b) Making the future American interventions in the region much more difficult and costly;

c) Building an anti-American shield against the United States policy of “forceful democratization” in the region;

d) Narrowing down the gap between the Iranian regime and the conservative Arab States;

e) Pushing the Persian Gulf States, especially Iran, toward European Community, and other world great powers, such as Russia and China, while limiting economic interaction with the U.S.

f) Making the strategic environment much more difficult for the United States force deployment in crisis situations.

Based on the above plausible outcome, it would indeed be hard for the United States to bear the consequences, unless the American policy in the Persian Gulf changes its contents and context. That is to say, the American objectives and therefore ways and means to reach them should be adapted to the new emerging environment. The new environment is not necessarily in favor of the American military presence in the region. Especially, the fact that the United States are leaning toward the use of force to achieve their objectives, in spite of world objection, heighten the tense situation among regional States. This in turn may lead to the rise of anti-American sentiments and further push the once hostile attitude of littoral States towards Iran, to a more tolerant policy of accommodation ant entente.

There are multiple ways that Iran could interact positively with the Persian Gulf States. The followings are among the most probable course of action that can lead to amicable relations in the Persian Gulf, which could promote the security of the region for the littoral States as well as third extra-regional parties, provided that these latter abstain to intervene in the internal affairs of the region. The most suitable areas of cooperation seem to be the followings:

a) Regional coordination and cooperation on the matters of maritime environment, sea pollution, through strengthening the ROPME Convention and its relevant protocols;

b) Mutual entente on matter of maritime boundary delimitations (Given the fact that a number of unresolved issues still remain to be negotiated)

c) Cooperation on matter related to sea lines of communication and traffic separation schemes, within the purview of IMO functions;

d) Confidence building through gradual strengthening social, cultural, economic and strategic ties among the regional States

e) Cooperation on matter pertaining illegitimate traffic of narcotic substance, and other illegal trade and contraband.

Through achieving the above objectives, the ground would be ready to embark on more serious business of security cooperation among regional States, with the support and endorsement of other non-regional interested powers.

The United States, as an equal partner and the de facto transitional Power in charge of Iraq, until this latter regains its full sovereign rights to enter into international relations, can help the steady progress of the above course of action. This may expedite the long awaited security arrangement in the Persian Gulf, provided of course, that mutual confidence and good intention from all parts prevail. It is the humble contention of this author that this process is capable to best serves the interests of the United States, as well as the littoral States of the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and the wider world.


Whatever conclusion that may be derived from this short analysis, it can be safely stated that Iran’s endeavor to acquire technological know-how and hardware in the field of defense and nuclear activities, does not seem to be a threat to peace and stability in the region. However, Iran’s recent behavior in the Persian Gulf may be interpreted differently by outside observers. In the wake of a number of incidents that took place during the current month in this region, one may argue against the above proposition.

In fact, the month of June 2004 appears to be a decisive moment in time with regard to Iran’s assertion of sovereign right in the Persian Gulf and the Shat-al-Arab waterway, which forms Boundary River between Iran and Iraq. Few days after the IAEA resolution was adopted in June 2004 with respect to Iran’s nuclear activities, Iranian authorities, while voicing their discontent with the three EU members who had sponsored the resolution, they arrested three British gunboats and their crews in the Shatt-al-Arab River. Though Iran categorically denied any link between the two events, the incident was regarded in the international media as a harsh response to UK’s role in the IAEA Governing Council in preparing the draft resolution along with France and Germany.[30]

Although the incident was rather quickly settled through diplomatic channels[31], nevertheless it can be considered as a real indication that Iran would not hesitate to use similar incidents as a pretext to challenge and humiliate even an important EU power, such as the United Kingdom in the area of its dominion in the region. Interestingly, the incident occurred about a week after another confrontation that took place in the Persian Gulf between Iranian Navy and the Qatari and UAE fishing boats.[32]

How shall we construe such behavior at a critical time when Iran is almost totally encircled by foreign forces, not quite friendly to it? Does this mean that Iran is in fact using its mussels to show its real intention of pursuing an independent hegemonistic policy in the region? The followings are mere speculations about the actual trend of Iran’s posture in the region:

· Recent reemergence of hardliners in Iranian political scene (for the time being in the Parliament), which is the result of a serious rebuff of progressive elements, is gradually showing its products in political arena. This means that the conservative front is preparing to take over almost all the elements of national power in Iran,

· The conservative faction who always had the military instrument under its control, is using Iranian armed forces to consolidate its political power, while shaping Iran’s hegemonistic strategy in the region,

· The true aim of the new emerging conservative government, which would very likely succeed the reformist one in power, is to show that it is more efficient, independent, and enough strong to contain any internal unrest or opposition challenge, and to deter any external pressure or threat that are susceptible to change the prevailing situation in Iran,

· After the new conservative government is established in Tehran, we may gradually witness signs of rapprochement with the United States, if assured that the continuity of the Islamic regime is not challenged or threatened.

* Professor Ali-Asghar Kazemi holds a Ph.D. in International Law and Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Mass. He is the author of many books and articles, and a legal advisor on matters concerning the international law of the sea. Currently, he is dean of the Graduate School of Law and Political Science, Islamic Azad University (Science and Research Campus) Tehran-Iran.

[1] See for example, Amy Truesdell, “Iran plans Gulf trip, projecting a Powerful Military Force.” In this paper it is suggested that “ The Iranian government's key objective in building up its armed forces is the same now as it was before the revolution in 1979: to secure regional military superiority.” A:\Global Defence Review Iran plans Gulf trip.htm

[2] See: Bill Gerts, “Iran’s Regional Powerhouse,” in: Air Force, Journal of Air Force Association, Magazine Online, June 1996 Vol. 79, No.06.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See e.g. Bill Gerts, “Iran’s Regional Powerhouse,” ibid.

[5] ibid

[6] Idem

[7] Recent incidents ( June 2004) in the Persian Gulf, which began with the attack of a Qatari gunship on an Iranian fishing boat, that triggered a series of retaliatory operations by Iranian naval forces as well as harsh diplomatic protest to Qatari government, is a vivid example of such kind.

[8] To this we should add offensive mines that are believed to be deployed in the Persian Gulf. The EM-52 rising mines are part of a 3,000-weapon stockpile of anti-ship mines. This purchase is significant because, unlike most other mines, the EM-52 is operational in deep water such as the Persian Gulf. When the hull of a ship passes over the device the mine is triggered and a rocket is fired at the hull. Placed in choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz, this device could be devastating. See Amy Truesdell, “Iran plans Gulf trip, projecting a Powerful Military Force.” Ibid.

[9] It is interesting to note that every time when the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council has some kind of meeting, the UAE ‘s claim on the three Islands ( Lesser and Greater Tombs and Abu Mussa) is raised and endorsed by the Arabs and obviously rejected by Iran.

[10] This view is apparently supported by the types of exercises carried by the Iranian Navy in the Strait of Hormoz, such as: sabotaging ports and attacking oil platforms and coastal targets. Cf. A:\Global Defence Review Iran plans Gulf trip.htm

[11] It is interesting to note that about ninety percent of Japan's oil and sixty percent of Europe's oil pass through the strategic region. Cf. ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See e.g. Douglas Davis, “ Iran's missile buildup seems aimed at Israel,” The Jewish Weekly of Northern California, Friday August 7, 1998

[14] According to experts,” with the Scud Bs and Cs, Iran can bring every capital in the [Persian Gulf Cooperation Council] within range," Furthermore, one Pentagon official suggested that Iran “ can bring debarkation ports within range, and, if they do not already have a chemical warhead, they will probably have one very soon." See Bill Gerts, Ibid.

[15] In an interview with the Saudi-owned weekly al-Wasat, Shamkhani said that Iran's military power is "part of the capabilities of the Arab and Islamic worlds." He further said:

"It is certainly not directed against the interests of the Arab states," he added. "On the contrary, it adds to the strength of the Islamic world in facing the enemies of the Arab and Islamic nations."

Asked why Iran was building up its military muscle, increasing its arms procurements, deploying three Russian-built submarines and developing its missile program, Shamkhani replied: "You would notice that no other country has been as bullied or threatened as Iran. Israel, for instance, menaces Iran more than it menaces any other country." See Douglas Davis, ibid.

[16] Ibid

[17] At the time the report was written, i.e. 1998, total debt of Iran amounted to an estimated $ 35 billion. See Gerts, ibid.

[18] “ In terms of the regional military balance, Iran is, in fact, lagging behind considerably, a fact well documented by the various authoritative studies on arms transfers, including the annual reports by the Congressional Research Service and various editions of World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers. These studies show that, for example, the total arms acquisitions by the six countries of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during the period 1987-1998 was in excess of 52 billion dollars, compared to 2.5 billion dollars for Iran. To give another example, during 1995-1998 period, whereas the Saudis purchased close to 8 billion dollars of arms, Iran’s figure stood at 1.4 billions.” See Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Iran’s Military Modernization and the Regional Arms Race. A:\Iran’s Military Modernization and the Regional Arms Race.htm

[19] This came in the speech he made at the second session for "The Region and Future Conference" entitled "Iran and the Future of Gulf Security." By Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman said that Iran's new arms agreements signed since the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war are not enough to modernize or sustain its current forces, but that this leaves the standing issue of weapons of mass destruction. He added that in light of Iran's declaration of programs of these weapons, and its import of biological equipment and chemical weapons, one has to wonder at the reasons behind acquiring them. See; A:\IranExpert Iran's WMD critical issue to region -- Cordesman.htm Date: 06/05/2004

[20] Cf. Bill Gerts, ibid

[21] Cf. Iran's Nuclear Program Reaches Critical Juncture,” IEEE Spectrum online June, 2004

[22] See my papers: “Shifting U.S. Threat Perception After September 11and the Fear of Iran’s Nuclear Threat” December 2003; and, “ Iran’s Nuclear Venture: Legal Obligation and Political Temptation,” May 2004, both presented to the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations.

[23] The IAEA stated that Iran had not lived up to its reporting obligations under the terms of its Safeguard Agreement. Iran’s IAEA Safeguard Agreement requires the country to provide the agency with information “concerning nuclear material subject to safeguards under the Agreement and the features of facilities relevant to safeguarding such material.” Technically, Iran is still in compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, but as the IAEA stated, “it is the number of failures of Iran to report the material facilities and activities in question” that is “a matter of concern.” Going back over a ten-year period, Iran has followed a pattern of obfuscation that raises well-founded international suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program.

[24] It is worthwhile to note that the new resolution has been prepared and sponsored by three leading EU powers; France, Germany and the United Kingdom, who initiated an accord with Iran last year on the issue of nuclear project. For detail see my paper: “Iran Nuclear Venture, Legal Obligation and Political Temptation.” May 2004, Presented to the Regional Security Conference, UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, www.

[25] This fact has been even recognized by two important personalities directly responsible for Iran’s national defense and security. The leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, once said to his followers that the Islamic Republic’s strength does not lie in obtaining or the domestic manufacture of an atomic bomb, but it is “the power of the faith that can deter our enemy” (Washington Post, 17 November 1992). More recently, Iran’s Defense minister, Vice Admiral Ali Shamkhani, recognized in a February 2002 statement: “ The existence of nuclear weapons will turn us into a threat to others that could be exploited in a dangerous way to harm our relations with the countries of the region.” See the Guardian, 6 Feb. 2002. See also George Perkovich, “Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Challenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 April 2003.

[26] According to the analysis presented in the Global Security, “Tehran strives to be a leader in the Islamic world and seeks to be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. The latter goal brings it into conflict with the United States. Tehran would like to diminish Washington’s political and military influence in the region. Within the framework of its national goals, Iran continues to give high priority to expanding its NBC weapons and missile programs.” See: - Last updated, December 13,2002

[27] Cf. my paper presented December 2003 to the Regional Security Conference in Athens- Greece, on

“The Shifting U.S. Threat Perception after September 11 and Fear of Iran’s Nuclear Threat.”

[28] See my paper of last May 2004, presented to the Regional Security Conference in Amman-Jordan.

[29] Mr. Hassan Rohani, secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, who was in charge of nuclear issue negotiation with the three EU foreign ministers last year, in an interview with the media, after the adoption of the new resolution in June 2004 by the IAEA, said that Iran will revise its position with respect to the uranium enrichment, which it had voluntarily suspended upon the signing of the accord with the EU states (France, Germany and UK). He argued that since these latter countries have not lived up to their commitment, Iran sees itself relief of the obligation created by the agreement.

[30] British navy personnel (two officers and six sailors) were blindfolded and directed to the shore for further investigation. Iranian authorities claimed that they would be prosecuted if proven that they had willfully entered Iranian internal waters. The problem was finally settled through diplomatic channels.

[31] By releasing the arrested crewmembers of the British gunboats, after three days on June 26, Iranian authorities announced that it was found out through investigation that they had mistakenly entered in the internal waters of Iran. But, it seems hard to believe that a gunboat even without navigational aid could loose its way in the rather narrow and shallow waters of the Shat-al-Arab River. Interestingly, few days after their release, the British Navy personnel claimed that Iranian revolutionary guard forced them to Iranian waters while they were passing their normal route. The matter was later endorsed by the UK Defense Secretary and protested against Iranian government.

[32] See supra on the question of UAE claim on the three Iranian islands at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and Iran’s reaction on the matter.

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