This is a guest post written by Matthew M. Reed, a research intern with the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
Iran’s arsenal is familiar by now. It includes the “oil weapon,” armies, proxies, and ultimately nuclear weapons. Each tool of leverage is seriously flawed but that does not prevent alarmists from overstating their effect. Upon further review, Tehran’s arsenal is generally weak.
Use of the “oil weapon” is unrealistic. According to the US Government Accountability Office, “between 50 and 76 percent of the Iranian government’s revenues in recent years” came from oil exports. Limiting output to punish Western economies with higher prices would thus be suicidal for an oil-dependent regime. Saudi Arabia also makes the threat less viable with their spare production capacity and willingness to stabilize markets during crises. Saudi spare capacity (i.e. the ability to pump extra oil as needed) and Iran’s total daily crude exports now hover around the same mark: 3-4 million barrels per day. If Iran uses the oil weapon, the Saudis will compensate.
Any threat from Iran’s conventional army is also overrated. The Revolutionary Guard Corps and regular army are competent but aging fast. This limits their ability to project power, which is a prerequisite for intimidating neighbors. Provision 8 of UN Resolution 1929 prevents any decisive accumulation of Iranian conventional arms including advanced weapons and spare parts. Perhaps most importantly, Iran’s immediate neighbors – Iraq and Afghanistan – are states which Iran sees no gain in attacking; any substantial Iranian force could also never cross the American-controlled Gulf. Iran’s armed forces can certainly defend their own borders but the military poses no threat to neighbors enjoying American protection.
It is true, however, that Iran’s mastery of asymmetry is problematic. Should conflict arise, Iran could lash out globally with a flourish of small-scale kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings. But these attacks would be disruptive, not decisive. Same goes for Iran’s proxies. Tehran maintains no “on-off” switch for Hamas and Hizballah, and their support is specific to resisting Israel, meaning these groups could not destabilize the entire region. Iran’s most capable proxies are geographically concentrated, so much so that the threat is minimal.
Beyond this, Iran could disperse explosive sea mines in the Persian Gulf and harass commercial shipping as it did in the late 1980s. Such action would cost too much, however. First, mining the Gulf would be suicidal because the regime – as stated above – depends on oil revenues and could not export its only commodity. Second, doing so would cross an international “red line” and result in the conversion of the US Fifth Fleet into an active force off Iran’s shores. Mining vital shipping lanes would be ruinous and invite retaliation.
Finally, nuclear weapons scare many with good reason: Iran’s leadership is less predictable because its decision-making process is opaque. Complicating this is the absence of any direct US-Iranian dialogue. But at the same time, recent developments are encouraging. The $60 billion Saudi arms deal received the most attention last month but other Gulf states are arming anew: Kuwait will receive new Patriot interceptors soon and the United Arab Emirates will enjoy the protection of more advanced anti-ballistic missile systems before Iran weaponizes. These deployments, combined with Israel’s activation of the Iron Dome and David’s Sling anti-missile systems, will cheapen nuclear threats. Cost-benefit considerations matter also: the Islamic Republic will not develop a sizable nuclear arsenal soon, meaning the regime would probably not gamble away the crown jewels if they could be shot down.
Every tool at Iran’s disposal comes with serious limitations: the “oil weapon” is self-defeating; Iran’s conventional military is too modest; any asymmetric attacks would be small-scale or prompt massive retaliation; and nuclear intimidation is evaporating with the deployment of new anti-missile systems. Iran’s leaders might still make rhetorical threats, but their tools are too weak if they wish to convert verbal attacks into physical ones.
— Matthew M. Reed