US Foreign Policy
Policy Paper

Iranian National Security Policies under the Islamic Republic: New Defense Thinking and Growing Military Capabilities

in Program

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and particularly sincethe defeat oflraq in the Gulf War, Western observers have periodically gestured with alarm at the rearmament program of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Some have addressed the  potentially adverse consequences for the West of the flow of dual-use technology into Iran and worry that the West is abetting the rise of another Iraq.

The United States is clearly worried by the prospect of resurgent Iranian military power. In 1991, the Bush Administration launched a diplomatic effort aimed at prevent­ ing other Western  states  from giving Iran  the  wherewithal  to  develop  a sophisticated defense  industrial  base. In  1993, Clinton  Administration  National  Security Council staffer Martin Indyk articulated a policy of “dual containment,” which classifies both Ba’thist Iraq and Islamic Iran as threats to US national security and to regional stability in the Middle East. As Iranians view it, the policy is not only designed to thwart the reconstruction of the country’s military capabilities but also to ensure that Iran does not get Western technology or resources needed to modernize and develop its economy. Moreover, they contend, dual containment will weaken the hand of Iranian technocrats and strengthen the hands of ideological purists like the radicals and conservatives, who want no links with the West .

Is Iran building a military establishment for offensive purposes, or to ensure a deterrent and retaliatory capability against potential enemies? Iran’s leaders contend that Iran is acquiring arms in order to modernize its forces and to replenish a war-depleted inventory. They claim that their defens_e budget is lower than that of their neighbors and note the Gulf Arabs’ purchases of large amounts of high tech weaponry. They note that the West has several motives for making Iran’s arms imports appear controversial: to increase sales to Iran’s neighbors (because Western economies are in depression and need the infusion of capital); to heighten tension between Iran and its neighbors (so that the USA can expand its military presence in the Persian Gulf); and to keep the Gulf Arabs dependent on the West (thereby maintaining Western dominance of a region containing a critical energy resource).

Faced with what they see as a hostile West, Iranians have espoused a conspiracy theory remarkably  similar to the one abroad in Iraq between  1988 and 1990. Tehran believes that it is being set up as the regional bogeyman of the 1990s; a likely target of attacks intended to destroy its scientific and industrial infrastructure. 6 Iranian officials believe that the USA, in particular, is orchestrating a range of efforts intended to undermine the integrity of the country as a whole and the Islamic Republic as a polity. Officials and academics point to certain policies as indications of an increasingly hostile Western attitude toward the IRI: the controversy over its rearmament program; the recurrent tensions in bilateral relations with NATO-member Turkey; the exaggerated fears of Iranian influence in Central Asia; and the dispute over the island of Abu Musa with the United Arab Emirates in the summer of 1992, which the West and other Arab states “used” to make Iran appear an expansionist power.

The Islamic Republic oflran is clearly still an anti-status-quo power whose ideology is at odds with that of its neighbors. But the radical “export of revolution” faction that supported acts of subversion in the region in the revolution’s name, and that prolonged the Iran-Iraq War in a costly, futile effort to destroy Saddam Hussein, was sharply set back by Iran’s 1988defeat. Thewar and its outcome forced the Islamic Republic’s officials and defense planners to pay heed to traditional Iranian national security interests, to address their strategic mistakes, and to absorb the war’s military lessons. By 1989, it was clear that failures, not only in war-fighting strategy but in foreign and domestic economic policy, had helped to discredit the radical faction of the clergy that until then had controlled the government.

This paper attempts to give an objective analysis oflranian national security policy. The first section deals with Iranian  national  security perceptions, and actions based on those perceptions, from the 1970s to the present. The second section deals with Iran’s rearmament program, sector by sector, while the third addresses Iran’s motivations and activities with respect to unconventional weapons. The final section offers conclusions. Overall, the paper concludes that the dictates of state interest and the quest to make Iran the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf (a dream of the current rulers shared by the late Shah), coupled with a pronou nced nationalistic resurgence-and not a religious­ ideological crusade-are the principal driving forces behind Iran’s weapons program. 

This conclusion does not mean, however, that the West can expect to find Iran’s policies congenial to its interests. The return of Iranian nationalism has been paralleled by the  rise of a technologically-oriented approach to national military power, championed by technocrats and conservatives, that calls for the acquisition of sophisticated conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Together, these developments suggest continuing tension  between  Iran and the West,  and between  Iran and its  neighbors.

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