Iranian military capability reached its modern peak in the late 1970’s, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlevi. The combined effects of institutional distrust on the part of the theocrats who currently govern the Islamic Republic of Iran concerning the conventional military institutions, leading as it did to the decay of the military through inadequate funding and the creation of a competing paramilitary organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command (IRGC), and the disastrous impact of an eight-year conflict with Iraq, meant that Iran has never been able to build up conventional military power capable of significant regional power projection, let alone global power projection.
Where Iran has demonstrated the ability for global reach is in the spread of Shi’a Islamic fundamentalism, but even in this case the results have been mixed. Other than the expansive relations between Iran (via certain elements of the IRGC) and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, Iranian success stories when it comes to exporting the Islamic revolution are virtually non-existent. Indeed, the efforts on the part of the IRGC to export Islamic revolution abroad, especially into Europe and other western nations, have produced the opposite effect desired. Based upon observations made by former and current IRGC officers, it appears that those operatives chosen to spread the revolution in fact more often than not returned to Iran noting that peaceful coexistence with the West was not only possible but preferable to the exportation of Islamic fundamentalism. Many of these IRGC officers began to push for moderation of the part of the ruling theocrats in Iran, both in terms of interfacing with the west and domestic policies.
The concept of an inherent incompatibility between Iran, even when governed by a theocratic ruling class, and the United States is fundamentally flawed, especially from the perspective of Iran. The Iran of today seeks to integrate itself responsibly with the nations of the world, clumsily so in some instances, but in any case a far cry from the crude attempts to export Islamic revolution in the early 1980’s. The United States claims that Iran is a real and present danger to the security of the US and the entire world, and cites Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear technology, Iran’s continued support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s “status” as a state supporter of terror, and Iranian interference into the internal affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan as the prime examples of how this threat manifests itself.
On every point, the case made against Iran collapses upon closer scrutiny. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), mandated to investigate Iran’s nuclear programs, has concluded that there is no evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, the IAEA has concluded that it is capable of monitoring the Iranian nuclear program to ensure that it does not deviate from the permitted nuclear energy program Iran states to be the exclusive objective of its endeavors. Iran’s support of the Hezbollah Party in Lebanon - Iranian protestors shown here supporting Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during an anti-Israel rally - while a source of concern for the State of Israel, does not constitute a threat to American national security primarily because the support provided is primarily defensive in nature, designed to assist Hezbollah in deterring and repelling an Israeli assault of sovereign Lebanese territory. Similarly, the bulk of the data used by the United States to substantiate the claims that Iran is a state sponsor of terror is derived from the aforementioned support provided to Hezbollah. Other arguments presented are either grossly out of date (going back to the early 1980’s when Iran was in fact exporting Islamic fundamentalism) or unsubstantiated by fact.
The US claims concerning Iranian interference in both Iraq and Afghanistan ignore the reality that both nations border Iran, both nations were invaded and occupied by the United States, not Iran, and that Iran has a history of conflict with both nations that dictates a keen interest concerning the internal domestic affairs of both nations. The United States continues to exaggerate the nature of Iranian involvement in Iraq, arresting “intelligence operatives” who later turned out to be economic and diplomatic officials invited to Iraq by the Iraqi government itself. Most if not all the claims made by the United States concerning Iranian military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been backed up with anything stronger than rhetoric, and more often than not are subsequently contradicted by other military and governmental officials, citing a lack of specific evidence.
Iran as a nation represents absolutely no threat to the national security of the United States, or of its major allies in the region, including Israel. The media hype concerning alleged statements made by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has created and sustained the myth that Iran seeks the destruction of the State of Israel. Two points of fact directly contradict this myth. First and foremost, Ahmadinejad never articulated an Iranian policy objective to destroy Israel, rather noting that Israel’s policies would lead to its “vanishing from the pages of time.” Second, and perhaps most important, Ahmadinejad does not make foreign policy decisions on the part of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the sole purview of the “Supreme Leader,” the Ayatollah Khomeini. In 2003 Khomeini initiated a diplomatic outreach to the United States inclusive of an offer to recognize Israel’s right to exist. This initiative was rejected by the United States, but nevertheless represents the clearest indication of what the true policy objective of Iran is vis-à-vis Israel.
The fact of the matter is that the “Iranian Threat” is derived solely from the rhetoric of those who appear to seek confrontation between the United States and Iran, and largely divorced from fact-based reality. A recent request on the part of Iran to allow President Ahmadinejad to lay a wreath at “ground zero” in Manhattan was rejected by New York City officials. The resulting public outcry condemned the Iranian initiative as an affront to all Americans, citing Iran’s alleged policies of supporting terrorism. This knee-jerk reaction ignores the reality that Iran was violently opposed to al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan throughout the 1990’s leading up to 2001, and that Iran was one of the first Muslim nations to condemn the terror attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001.
A careful fact-based assessment of Iran clearly demonstrates that it poses no threat to the legitimate national security interests of the United States. However, if the United States chooses to implement its own unilateral national security objectives concerning regime change in Iran, there will most likely be a reaction from Iran which produces an exceedingly detrimental impact on the national security interests of the United States, including military, political and economic. But the notion of claiming a nation like Iran to constitute a security threat simply because it retains the intent and capability to defend its sovereign territory in the face of unprovoked military aggression is absurd. In the end, however, such absurdity is trumping fact-based reality when it comes to shaping the opinion of the American public on the issue of the Iranian “threat.”
Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books, including “Iraq Confidential” (Nation Books, 2005) , “Target Iran” (Nation Books, 2006) and his latest, “Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement” (Nation Books April 2007