Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 12:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 12:43 | SYDNEY

Iran: A paper tiger?


Rodger Shanahan


30 September 2009 17:06

Further to Sam's post concerning Amin Saikal's views about Iranian military capabilities, I must confess to thinking that he grossly overestimates Iran's abilities in event of a military confrontation. 

Iraq's military capabilities were talked up in many circles prior to their engagement with Western military forces, but once they were confronted by a technologically advanced, networked, well trained, professional force they were comprehensively defeated. It was only after coalition forces occupied Iraq that these advantages disappeared as Iraqi's nationalist, Islamist, and foreign fighter groups confounded the occupiers by avoiding decisive engagement.

No one is talking invasion and Iran in the same breath, so Iran's ability to negate the massive military-technological advantages the West holds is limited. Iran could, as Saikal suggests, 'curtail its oil production...use various militant groups in the region...block the Strait of Hormuz...blow up oil platforms in Gulf Arab states and...rocket Israel and US bases in the region.' However:

  • While Iran may curtail its oil production to some effect, it would come at an economic cost to itself for which it is ill-prepared. Iran's reliance on refined petroleum makes it more vulnerable to a tit-for-tat cutoff of supply than the rest of the world.
  • Any military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would also feature secondary targets such as missile launch sites. Even if Iran did manage to launch a few, Iraq's missile attacks on Israel in the 1991 Gulf War demonstrate that political leaderships are more robust than generally acknowledged, understand the issues at stake and are unlikely to retaliate indiscriminately. 
  • While much is made of Iranian threats to block the Straits of Hormuz, its ability to do so is limited. As with all Iranian military capabilities, while they may be able to launch one-off attacks, they cannot sustain them.   
  • As for using various militia groups in the region (which I take to refer to Hizbullah and possibly Hamas), both organisations are essentially Islamist nationalist groups, despite their close military (and in the case of Hizbullah, ideological) links to Iran. If Iranian targets were struck it is unlikely that either would risk a serious military escalation because of the political, financial, logistic and personnel cost to them. There may be enough rockets lobbed across the border to send a message and save face, but Hamas is unlikely to shed Sunni Gazan blood for Shi'a Persian revenge. Hizbullah would understand that Israeli retaliation would be much more costly to them than their 2006 encounter.
  • As for Gulf Shi'a, despite some claims to the contrary, they are unlikely to provide their Sunni governments any reason to question their loyalty to the state by undertaking anything more than public protests in support of Iran.  

Contrary to Saikal's claims, I don't think a (non-nuclear) military confrontation between Iran and the West would 'set the entire region on fire', while I do think that the West would emerge a clear winner. The West can only hope that Iran's rational military thinkers conclude the same.

Photo by Flickr user fritzon, used under a Creative Commons license.