Strategic Competition With Iran: The Military Dimension

Iranian Strategic Competition with the US: The Military Dimension

US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, in which other states are outside players that can constantly intervene, and one where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is a game that has been going on for some three decades. It is clearly unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.

This does not make dialogue and negotiation pointless. Dialogue and negotiation do reduce the risk of escalation and misunderstanding. They offer a peaceful means of placing limits on Iran’s behavior, of helping to convince Iran’s regime that such limits are really in its interest, and establishing “rules of the game” which limit the risks involved to both sides.

Dialogue and negotiation with Iran are also ways in which the US can influence other states – as well as and Iranian public opinion and opponents to the Iranian regime – that the US is acting carefully and is not hostile to Iran, rather only to the actions of its current leaders. History has shown that the US needs to be seen as taking the moral and political high ground, avoiding unilateral action and risk taking, and avoiding conflict if at all possible. Moreover, US-Iranian competition does not preclude some forms of US and Iranian cooperation in areas like drugs, Afghanistan, or dealing with Sunni terrorism and extremism. It also may not preclude the eventual creation of “interest sections” in Washington and Tehran, and even formal diplomatic relations.

This does not mean that the US cannot hope to try influence the character of the regime in Iran, or reach limited agreements with Iran in areas of common interest. It does, however, mean that the US cannot plan for some kind of dialog, grand bargain, or sudden change in regime to alter Iran’s behavior.

Iran will remain a serious competitor as long as its current religious regime remains in power. It is also important to understand that Iranian diplomats and well-meaning Iranians that participate in the game in various forms of second track diplomacy are largely pawns. The real power center of the regime is the Supreme Leader, backed by instruments of regime control like the IRGC, armed forces, intelligence services, Basiij, police and justice system, key councils and review bodies, and the state media. The presidency and the Majlis are not unimportant, but they are not the “regime.” Iranian intellectuals, supposed spokesmen for Rafsanjani, and advocates of “grand bargains” are not serious pieces on the board.

The US must be ready to deal with a decade or more of prolonged competition that affects the entire Gulf, Iraq and the Levant, allies like Turkey, Central and South Asia, and the Gulf of Oman, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea areas. It must be ready to deal with constant political and diplomatic challenges, Iran’s use of state terrorism and proxies like Hezbollah, its expanding capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, Iran’s possession of chemical weapons and long-range missiles, and its search for nuclear weapons. At the same time, the US must recognize that there are no good or decisive military options and that it may well have to pursue a military and diplomatic containment strategy until – and if – Iran’s internal political dynamics fundamentally change its goals in the region and policies in dealing with the United States.

Iran’s Key Military Capabilities

Iran’s military capabilities are only part of this competition, but they are a critical part in many key respects. Iran’s mix of conventional and asymmetric warfare capabilities poses a key potential threat to US interests in the Gulf, as well as to Iraq and the Southern Gulf states. It affects the flow of petroleum to the world economy, the global economic climate in which the US must operate, and affects every aspect of the US economy. Iran’s asymmetric capabilities affect the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its growing missile and potential nuclear capabilities have already triggered an Israeli-Iranian nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and its ability to use its military forces to support proxy warfare plays a major role in supporting Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Burke Chair has developed a four-part overview of these developments entitled Iran, the Gulf, and Strategic CompetitionAll four parts can be downloaded in a combined document here:

  • Part One is entitled Iran, the Gulf, and Strategic Competition: Key Interests and Key Scenarios. It shows that Gulf energy exports will be a vital and growing part of the global economy through at least 2035. It shows the value of such exports, and the fact that – regardless of the statements of every US President since President Ford and the political posturing of the US Congress, the Department of Energy projects the US to be just as strategically dependent on oil imports in 2035 as it is today – a dependence that is much greater if US dependence on the overall health of the global economy is taken into consideration. At the same time, maps and charts show the vulnerability of the Gulf and nearby targets in the upper and Southern Gulf. It shows Iran’s access to key shipping routes and key chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz.
  • Part Two is entitled Iran, the Gulf, and Strategic Competition: The Conventional Balance. It shows that Iranian conventional forces remain weak, and are aging more quickly than Iran can as yet modernize them in spite of major efforts to create a military-industrial base. It also shows that the military expenditures and arms imports of the Southern Gulf states are vastly larger than those of Iran, and they have much larger forces of modern military equipment. Given the fact that the US brings a far more decisive lead in air, naval, and missile warfare to the table; Iran is anything but the “hegemon of the Gulf.”
  • Part Three is entitled Iran, the Gulf, and Strategic Competition: Asymmetric Warfare. It shows that Iran has far greater capability for asymmetric (or irregular) warfare than conventional warfare and has developed a wide mix of land, air, and naval capabilities that can threaten its neighbors, challenge the US, and affect other parts of the Middle East and Asia. These capabilities include Iran’s ability to threaten and intimate its Gulf neighbors, and threaten Gulf exports. They also include the capability to use state and non-state actors as proxies or in threatening and manipulating a range of neighboring states, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel. These forces are the key military elements of Iranian strategic competition and are steadily increasing in size and capability.
  • Part Four is entitled Iran, the Gulf, and Strategic Competition: Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction. It shows that Iran continues to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons, has chemical weapons, and may have a biological weapons program. It also shows that Iran has made the development and deployment of long-range missile forces a key priority. At present, these missiles may lack the accuracy and lethality to pose more than a terror threat, but they already give Iran some capability to pressure and intimidate its neighbors and other states in the region, deter attacks on Iran, and deter reprisals for its use of asymmetric forces. There is a significant prospect that Iran will be able to equip some missiles with nuclear warheads in the next three to six years – a development which would be a far more powerful deterrent and way of using military force to support its efforts at strategic competition.
  • All four reports can be downloaded as one document from

The Impact of Iran’s Military Forces in Strategic Competition

Iran has long sought to increase its influence in the Gulf, and the greater Middle East. Even in the late 1960s, the US found that the ambitions of the Shah of Iran, and his military build-up, posed a challenge to US interests in the Gulf. These challenges first came to a head during Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf, when the Shah made claims to Bahrain, and occupied two key islands near the main shipping channels through the Strait of Hormuz.

By the early 1970s, the US found that the Shah’s ambitions to become the dominant military power in the Gulf posed growing problems in its relations with the Arab Gulf states.  By the mid-1970s, it found that Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear power program involved the covert import of equipment and technology whose main value lay in developing nuclear weapons. While the US continued to make Iran a “twin pillar” in its security posture in the Gulf, along with Saudi Arabia, the Shah’s regional ambitions posed a continuing problem until his illness and fall.

US competition with Iran has been far more serious and consistent since that time. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s successful seizure of control over the Iranian revolution  in 1979-1980 brought a regime to power that demonized the US as the “Great Satan,” sponsored the seizure of the US Embassy and then kept American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Khomeini and his supporters saw Iran’s new regime as the model for a religious revolution throughout Islam and sought to push the US out of the Gulf to make Iran the dominant power in the region.  Their efforts failed to take hold in the region and the broader Islamic world, in part because they were seen as Iranian and Shi’ite, and in part because of Iraq’s invasion of Iran and the eight years of war with Iraq that followed.

Events did not, however, moderate Iran’s ambitions, the character of its regime, or its hostility towards the United States. They helped defeat Jimmy Carter in his reelection campaign and deeply embarrassed President Reagan as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal.

While Iraq invaded Iran at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, it did so after Iran made at least limited efforts to export its revolution to Iraq. Iran used a combination of the forces it had built up under the Shah, and new Islamic Revolutionary Guards forces, to go on the offensive in Iraq. By 1987, Iran’s efforts to try to defeat Iraq through attacks on Gulf shipping also led to low-level clashes between Iran and the US during 1987-1988 that are sometimes referred to as the “tanker war.” Moreover, Iraq’s chemical and missile attacks on Iran, and its use of chemical weapons, led Iran to develop its own chemical weapons program and to renew its nuclear efforts – although they continued to be described as peaceful nuclear power programs.

In the more than two decades since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in the summer of 1988, the US and Iran have been continuing competitors in the Gulf and throughout the region. The emergence of a more moderate reform regime under President Khatami appeared to offer the hope of change, but did not produce a meaningful shift in Iran’s behavior. Moreover, Iran continued to expand the scope of its activities, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and its support towards hard-line Palestinian elements like Hamas. It strengthened ties to Syria it had created during the Iran-Iraq War because of Assad’s hostility to Saddam Hussein, and reached out to Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea. It created special units to promote Iran’s influence and ideology like the Al Quds force in its Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

It also continued to build up its capabilities to use the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and its regular forces to threaten and intimidate its neighbors, particularly in the Gulf. It steadily expanded its long-range ballistic missile capabilities, and developed the capability to build liquid and then solid fueled IRBMs. This gave Iran the capability to strike at targets as far away as Israel. It also continued its chemical and nuclear programs, and by 2002, the scale of its nuclear efforts began to give it many of the elements needed to produce nuclear weapons. At the same time, Iran’s growing military cooperation with Syria gave it a partner outside the Gulf, and its military support of Hezbollah in Lebanon gave it growing influence there, as well as the ability to exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict and US ties to Israel to its own advantage.

Types and Levels of Non-Military Competition

Military forces are only part of the way in which the US and Iran compete. If this competition is described in terms of game theory, the way in which each nation plays the game is shaped by a matrix of the different types of competition, and how US and Iranian moves interact with the interest and actions of key nations and subregions in the other. All of these forms of competition are to some extent interactive, and go far beyond a focus on nuclear weapons, “closing the Gulf,” and “terrorism.” In broad terms, the US and Iran are now involved in the following types of largely non-military competition:

  • Ideology, religion, and political systems: The US is a non-Islamic, secular state whose concepts of rule of law and human rights differ sharply from an Iranian theocratic and increasingly authoritarian regime that still formally claims to lead the Islamic revolution and to be the leading voice in defining Islamic law and legitimacy. This competition goes on inside Iran, in the region, and throughout the Islamic world and operates on a religious/ideological, political, and economic as well as military level.

It is not, however, two-sided or “zero sum” in any sense, nor are the alignments of other state and non-state actors easy to characterize. For example, it is unclear that Shi’ites outside Iran show serious support for the concept of an Iranian Supreme Leader, or see Iran as a political and ideological power center beyond the role its seminaries play in educating foreign clerics. Sunnis and other sects often find it easier to deal with a distant, secular US; and Sunni extremisms and violent groups generally see Iran and Shi’ites as apostate or at least less legitimate members of Islam.

The US cannot compete directly with Iran as if it were a largely Muslim state, but the US can compete by supporting moderate Sunni movements and states. Moreover, Iran’s recent elections – and the role the Supreme Leader has played in them – have called Iran’s political and religious legitimacy into serious question both inside and outside Iran. The US faces problems of its own in attempting to export its concepts of human rights and democracy, but these political concepts often do have popular support in the region and are less threatening to local regimes and elites.

More broadly, however, Iran can exploit US ties to Israel, the fact the US is an outside power, and negative reactions to the role the US has played in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can seek to build Arab support by openly threatening and opposing Israel and by backing Hezbollah and Hamas. Here, covert and open arms transfers, military training, and sending advisors from its Al Quds force all add at least a paramilitary dimension to this aspect of strategic competition.

  • “Terrorism” and violent extremism vs. “counterterrorism:” Some other key forms of competition are violent without being military – at least in the conventional sense of the term.Iran has shown that it can exploit Shi’ite groups that have extremist and violent elements like Hezbollah, and sometimes use the support of hard-line and terrorist Sunni groups ranging from Hamas to AQI as proxies. Iranian groups like the Al Quds force and Vevak institutionalize such efforts, as do some elements of its foreign aid, arms sales, and religious activities.

It is questionable that (as some US reports claim) Iran is the leading sponsor of terrorism. Ironically, that title may belong to a US “ally” – Pakistan – whose tolerance of the Taliban and Al Qa’ida has a significantly more immediate impact on the US and its interests. There is no doubt, however, that Iran’s use of a variety non-state actors, intervention in Lebanon, ties to Syria, ties to Hamas, and ties to AQI are all linked to violent and extremist movements that are to some extent “terrorist” and a direct or indirect threat to the US and its allies. At a minimum, the US is forced to compete in the form of counterterrorism and sometimes must compete against insurgency (Iraq) or in supporting allies in actual conflict (Israel).

Once again, this competition involves a complex mix of third parties and competing interests. Various hard-line and extremist movements attempt to exploit Iran as much as Iran attempts to exploit them. All of the Arab Gulf states have to deal with different levels of threat.  Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestinians, Syria, Turkey, the UAE, Yemen, etc. all have their own interests as state actors dealing with their own and outside extremists, “proxies,” and terrorists in somewhat different ways. At the same time, each of these states must interact with both Iran and the US.

  • Energy, sanctions, and global economic impacts: Like other exporting states, Iran seeks to maximize its income from oil and gas product exports. At the same time, Iran is willing to pay a serious cost in terms of sanctions and create military forces whose use would do as much to reduce Iran’s exports and income as that of other Gulf states. Iran also shows little interest in the way that states like Saudi Arabia show in being a “stable supplier” and placing some limits on oil prices as a way of maintaining long term markets and global economic stability.

Iran competes in OPEC, and in diplomatic efforts to influence other export states and investors in its energy sector. This competition again, however, is sharply affected by Iran’s military power and capability to intimidate its neighbors or conduct asymmetric and conventional war. It plays out in US efforts to use domestic and international sanctions to put counter-pressure on Iran in a political and diplomatic sense, and limit Iran’s military build-up and its creation of nuclear and missile forces.

This competition also plays out in terms of the conflicting interests of a number of major powers, as well as forums like the 6+1. China wants stable and cheap energy on a global basis, but also seeks a guaranteed supply – or at least influence – through energy investments in Iran. Russia has similar interests, as do energy firms in countries like France. Trade is another key factor, as are broader outside efforts to limit or affect US influence. A wide variety of outside powers both fear the instability that a nuclear Iran could cause and the more immediate threat of any conflict – or Israeli or US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities -- that might affect Iran’s exports or the threat to shipping and tanker movements in the Gulf.

  • Arms exports and arms imports: Only a fine line separates direct military competition from competition in arms control, arms exports, and arms imports. Iran does, however, use arms exports as a key tool of influence in dealing with movements like Hezbollah, AQI, and Hamas. It also works with other powers as diverse as North Korea and Venezuela in cooperating in military technology and arms production – and has been involved in complex missile and technology deals with Syria, North Korea, and groups centered in Pakistan and industrial entities in China. At the same time, it has set up networks of proxy buyers to smuggle in arms and technology from Europe, the US, and other advanced suppliers.

The US, in turn, has sought to limit both Iran’s arms imports and exports.  Particularly imports of advanced nuclear, missile, and other weapons technology like the S300/S400 ATBM/SAM system. It has attempted to make such limits part of UN sanctions on Iran, has worked with a variety of countries in efforts to block arms sales, and actively works to stop arms smuggling from the US and other powers. This has actively involved the US in negotiations with third parties like China, Russia, and Switzerland.

  • Arms control: US and Iranian competition has long extended to arms control, and particularly to the NNPT and operations of the IAEA, with the US pushing for tighter controls and Iran resisting on grounds of nationalism, unfair “monopolies” of nuclear power, etc. Concordantly, Russia and China have become key players in this struggle. At the same time, Iran’s activities put pressure on Israel and the Gulf states to proliferate. This not only involves potential efforts to acquire or produce nuclear weapons in ways that affect the NNPT, but missile development and purchasing activities that put serious pressure on the MTCR.

US and Iranian competition also raises new challenges for the CWC (Iran is a signatory and declared chemical weapons state but has never complied with the disclosure requirements) and BWC – where many of Iran’s activities and facilities raise unanswered questions. Unlike the NNPT, however, the US has not competed with Iran to strengthen enforcement of the CWC and BWC.

  • International diplomacy: Iran has consistently used diplomacy to try to portray the US as unfair, reckless, imperialist, and pro-Israeli in a wide range of forums from meetings in countries as diverse as Japan and Argentina to the UN and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The US sometimes proactively responds and sometimes does not. In general, Iran has steadily expanded its diplomatic role in these efforts with limited response from the US.

Types and Levels of Military Competition

As the four briefings show in detail, the US and Iran are also direct military competitors in the Gulf, Indian Ocean, Central Asia, and Levant – and in steadily wider areas as Iran expands its MRBM and IRBM capabilities. This competition occurs in different ways, and is not restricted to warfighting – important as warfighting capability is to both countries.

Military competition also occurs as each nation plays against the other in ways that seek to deny the other side military options, and in ways that seek to establish or reinforce containment, deterrence, limits on escalation, prestige and status, and using military forces to influence the behavior of other states. In fact, both sides have so far, concentrated more on using military forces in “wars of influence” than actual conflict

Once again, if one looks at this competition in terms of game theory, this aspect of the “game” involves the following major types of military activities:

  • Iran’s conventional forces: As the briefing on Iran’s conventional forces shows, Iran is steadily expanding its regular military forces in ways intended to expand its influence, ability to limit US military options, ability to intimidate its neighbors, and increase its power projection capabilities.So far, Iran has not been able to acquire large numbers of modern armor, combat aircraft, longer-range surface-to-air missiles, or major combat ships. Partly because of US efforts, much of its conventional military force is obsolescent or is equipped with less capable types of weapons.

Iran has, however, made major efforts to develop its military industries, and has long been in discussions with Russia over importing advanced types of modern combat aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and ballistic missile defenses. It actively seeks advanced systems from other countries, and has successfully imported Russian and North Korean submarines, and a variety of Chinese anti-ship missiles. It also has acquired modern Russian and Chinese air-to-air, air-to-ground, SHORAD, and anti-armor missiles. It has modern Russian homing torpedoes, and may have advanced types of Russian and Chinese mines.
These capabilities improve Iran’s ability to threaten and influence its neighbors, to deter US naval and air operations against Iran (as well as those of Israel and other states), and provide it with improved military options against Iraq and particularly against targets in the Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and the GCC states. As the Israeli-Hezbollah War and use of shaped-charge IEDs in Iraq showed, they also allow Iran to strengthen its proxies in other areas.
The end result is a constant and growing challenge to the US in the Gulf region, particularly in terms of air, missile, and naval warfare, as well as a challenge to the US in providing military support and transfer to the GCC states, Israel, and Iraq. It is also a competition that interacts directly with the arms import/export competition discussed earlier.

  • Asymmetric and irregular warfare: As the briefing on Iran’s asymmetric warfare capabilities shows, there is no simple way to describe the lower threshold of Iran’s military development and its ability to pressure, threaten, or attack other powers. Any weapon and any type of force can be used in asymmetric, irregular, or hybrid ways from a terrorist proxy to a nuclear weapon. In fact, Iran has already demonstrated such capabilities in a wide range of ways:
    • Iranian tanker war with Iraq
    • Oil spills and floating mines in the Gulf.
    • Use of Al Quds force in Iraq
    • Series of IRGC and naval/air exercises in the Gulf and Gulf of Oman
    • Iranian use of UAVs over Iraq
    • Funding and training of Hezbollah; Provision of UAVs, long-range rockets, Kornet ATGMs
    • Incidents and demonstrations during pilgrimage in Makkah (Mecca)
    • Transfer shaped charges and other advanced IEDs to Mahdi Army and others in Iraq; training of Iraqi insurgents
    • Arms flow into western Afghanistan
    • Shipments of arms to Hamas and Palestinians
    • Support of Shi’ite groups in Bahrain.
    • Long-range ballistic missile and space tests; expanding range of missile programs. Iranian public description of possible missile attacks on Israel that indirectly demonstrate Iran’s capability to attack its neighbors.
    • Naval guards seizure of British boat, confrontation with US Navy
    • Long series of IRGC and Iranian military exercises in the Gulf demonstrating their ability to attack coastal targets, shipping, and offshore facilities

As the scenario briefing shows, however, the most direct threat to US and allied interests comes from Iranian efforts to build up a mix of military capabilities in the Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman, which give the potential to challenge the US and other Gulf states with threats ranging from free floating mines to small crafts with anti-ship missiles, coupled with  potential air attacks on key targets like desalination plants.
Coupled to the use of Iran’s conventional forces, this gives Iran a theoretical capability to close the Gulf for a short period. It also, however, gives Iran the ability to carry out low level and harassment attacks, with some potential for deniability, over extended periods of time in ways where the US, its allies, and Gulf states may have no easy counter ability or would have to escalate in ways that might not seem justified.
At the same time, this aspect of Iran’s military efforts to compete with the US and its Gulf neighbors by developing capabilities for asymmetric warfare cannot be separated from Iran’s emphasis on missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Both compensate for the limits of its conventional forces and act as a substitute. Moreover, if Iran does acquire – or is perceived to acquire – nuclear weapons, this will have at least some impact in deterring any response to Iran’s use of asymmetric warfare. Iran’s neighbors, the US, Britain, France, and Israel must then at least consider the risk Iran will escalate even if they ultimately conclude it will be safe to ignore it.

  • Weapons of mass destruction: Recent discoveries like new underground facilities and neutron initiators as part of Iran’s nuclear program are simply new events in a process that has been going on since the Iran-Iraq War, and Khomeini’s decision to resume nuclear research once Iran came under chemical weapons attack from Iraq. Iran is also making advances in its centrifuge designs that not only can greatly increase their capacity, but make it far easier to create small, dispersed facilities with compact arrays of centrifuges that will be far harder to detect. Even if Iran should agree to IAEA inspection, or be subject to some form of preventative attack, its growing technology base will create new options to conceal a nuclear weapons program and/or develop a break out capability.

The competition between Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities, and outside powers to prevent them, is only part of the story. Iran is a declared chemical weapons power, although it has never complied with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), nor stated its holdings. It probably has the capability to manufacture persistent nerve gas. Having produced such a gas, it could certainly outfit it in a unitary warhead and probably has some cluster weapon capability.

Iran is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), but there is no firm data to indicate whether it does or does not have a biological weapons effort. It is clear, however, that Iran has the capability to develop and produce advanced biological weapons – and could do so as either a supplement or substitute for nuclear weapons. Iran should acquire the ability to develop even more advanced genetically engineered biological weapons in the 2010-2015 time frame. Roughly the same time frame as it could deploy a major nuclear force.

There is no inspection regime for the BWC, and US studies raise serious questions as to whether such a regime is possible. Accordingly, even if Iran did fully comply with all IAEA requirements, it could still develop and produce weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, there is no enforceable way a true weapons of mass destruction free zone can be established and enforced in the Middle East or any other area with advanced biotechnology.
As Iran’s tests of new solid-fueled missile designs have shown, Iran’s missile programs represent another critical part of its military efforts and expenditures. They still, however, do not exhibit a test program that gives them the reliability and accuracy to be effective without using a weapon of mass destruction as a warhead. Even a chemical missile warhead, however, would be more of a terror weapon than a true weapon of mass destruction. It would risk provoking a massive response that could be far more lethal to Iran even if it used precision conventional weapons.

Moreover, Iran’s leaders must know that they are already involved in a nuclear arms race with Israel. Whether or not Iran ever moves to test and deploy nuclear weapons -- and regardless of whether the US or Israel conduct a preventive conventional strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities -- Israel is already making major improvements in its missile defense programs. Israel has for some time had long-range boosters for its missiles. It seems almost certain that if Israel does not currently have the capability to target Iran with nuclear-armed missiles – a capability that already seems highly probable – it will have this capability soon.

Israel can clearly launch nuclear-armed air strikes, and it is widely reported to be developing nuclear-armed cruise missiles for its Dolphin submarines.  It also has had French fission and fusion design and test data on nuclear weapons for decades. While Iran is still developing fission designs, Israel is probably targeting Iran with boosted and thermonuclear weapons. As a result, there is already an existential nuclear arms race in the region, although at present it is Iran and not Israel that is the target.

None of these Iranian efforts mean that the US cannot compete with, and “win” in dealing with Iran. Iran’s steadily advancing capabilities for asymmetric and proxy warfare still leave it vulnerable to US conventional forces and devastating precision attacks on its military and economic assets. This fundamental limitation on Iran’s conventional military forces suggests that acquiring weapons of mass destruction only acts as a potential deterrent to US conventional attacks on Iran.

Nations and Sub-Regions of Competition

The ways in which US and Iranian strategic competition play out by nation and sub-region are equally complex and vary sharply from one part of the matrix (or level of the board) to another – as does the level of military competition involved. In fact, one of the striking aspects of the US-Iranian competition is just how diverse the elements of competition are in given countries and subregions:

  • Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Iran makes broad efforts to expand its influence, deter US military action and reduce US influence, and establish Iran as the dominant power in the region. The US seeks to counter Iran by working with other Gulf states, allies like France and Britain, and establishing a dominant military deterrent and war fighting capability. The competition is different for each GCC country:
    • Bahrain: Iranian pressure in support of the Shi’ite majority relative to the ruling Sunni elite, coupled to sporadic revival of claims to Bahrain. US basing of 5th fleet; treatment of Bahrain as ally.
    • Kuwait: Iranian influence is reinforced by substantial Shi’ite and ex-Iranian population, and Iran’s geographic proximity, but the US is the key guarantor of Kuwaiti security and has two major military bases thus linking Iran in competition with Iraq.
    • Oman: Oman recognizes Iran’s military presence across the Strait of Hormuz, and has long maintained good relations with Iran, but the US has contingency bases in Oman (Masirah & Seeb) and counters Iranian influence. Britain also plays key role in support of the US. Substantial number of Omanis are members of a Shi’ite sect, but are not “twelvers” --as is the case with Iran.
    • Qatar: Qatar maintains good relations with Iran to maintain the security of its offshore oil and gas fields, and gain diplomatic leverage on Saudi Arabia. The US has a major air base and multiple prepositioning facilities for its Army. No significant Shi’ite population.
    • Saudi Arabia: Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for status as the preeminent Gulf power. Saudi Arabia no longer has US combat forces based in the Kingdom, but has major advisory missions and close security ties to the US. Iran has long tried to use religion, including the pilgrimage, to embarrass the Saudi regime for its ties to the US and sometimes on the grounds that the ruling elite are not properly Islamic. In addition, tensions exist over Saudi treatment of a substantial Saudi Shi’ite minority in the Eastern Province.
    • UAE:  UAE has substantial numbers of Iranians living on its soil, particularly in Dubai, and Dubai is a key trading hub as well as source of re-exports of arms and technology.  The US, however, has growing security ties to the UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi, and UAE as a whole disputes Iran’s seizure of control of Abu Musa and the Tunbs (key islands in the main shipping channels to the west of the Strait of Hormuz). The gap between how the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively perceive Iranian influence may also be exploited by Iran.
  • Yemen: Iran has been accused of supporting a Shi’ite tribal uprising in northwest Yemen, and seeking to use Yemen for proxy competition with Saudi Arabia. It is unclear whether these charges are valid, but they are of great potential importance because Yemen is a key issue for the US because of its internal instability, the role of Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s potential as a broader base for Al Qa’ida and extremist movements, and possible ties between a radicalized Yemen and Somalia.
  • Iraq: Iraq represents a key area of competition for both the US and Iran in terms of energy development, trade interests, and Shi’ite religious influence vs. nationalist and Sunni influence. It is part of a potential competition to establish a “Shi’ite crescent” including Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran has challenged the US’ presence and influence in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. Iran actively seeks to increase its influence over the Iraqi government, over Iraq’s security development, and over its political and economic future. In fact, General Raymond Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, warned in July 2010 that Iran continued to support both Iraqi Shi’ite militias and Shi’ite armed extremist groups that attack both US and sometimes, Iraqi forces.
  • Jordan: Jordan is a close ally of the US, and is deeply concerned that Iraq is becoming a Shi’ite and Iranian influenced state which is losing its Arab character and will have no economic interest in supporting Jordan. There is a significant Iraqi refugee population in Jordan. King Abdullah was the first Arab head of state to make the risk of a “Shi’ite crescent” including Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon a major issue in both regional security and US and Iranian strategic competition matters.
  • Syria: Syria’s ruling Alawites (which are not in any legitimate sense Shi’ites) have had close ties to Iran since the elder Assad’s split with Saddam Hussein, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and the Syrian cutoff of Iraqi oil exports early in the Iran-Iraq War. They have cooperated in missile procurement and development, other weapons purchases and development, and possibly in some areas of proliferation. Both actively supported the creation and arming of Hezbollah that led to the triggering of a major Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in 2006. Syria uses its ties to Iran to put pressure on Israel and sees Hezbollah as a joint proxy with Iran. Syria has its own regional interests, however, and has pursued increasing normalization with Saudi Arabia since 2009 in spite of its ties to Iran. The relationship between Damascus and Riyadh was severely undercut by the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi ally Rafik Hariri in 2005 – a killing that many had blamed on Syria. At the same time, the US is competing to have Syria normalize relations with Iraq and Lebanon, play a more moderate role, and support the Arab-Israeli police process.
  • Lebanon: Iran’s ties to Lebanon date back to the time a Shah imported Shi’ite clergy from the region to help convert his people to the Shi’ite sect. Khomeini strongly opposed the Israeli invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon, and Iran supported the formation of the Hezbollah to resist the IDF. It has since used  Hezbollah as a proxy against Israel and to win support from Arabs who oppose Israel. Playing a spoiler role in Lebanon also gives Iran the ability to threaten Israel with Hezbollah, and less directly, the US with a new crisis in the peace process.
  •  Israel: The US sees Israel as an ally and a successful Arab-Israeli peace process as critical to preserving Israel’s security while ending tensions with the Arab world over US ties to Israel. Iran’s leaders probably sincerely oppose Israel’s existence, but also find a strident anti-Israeli posture as a way of winning domestic and Arab political support, and as a cover for the build-up in Iranian military forces and Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran’s anti-Israeli rhetoric may be more of a cloak for actions that give Iran power and influence over itsimmediate neighbors, and the potential ability to deter the US, than any real focus on Israel either ideologically or in a warfighting sense. Nevertheless, Iran’s actions may well trigger a nuclear arms race between Israel and Iran or Israeli preventative strikes on Iran. This arm race could also lead other regional states to pursue their own nuclear weapons. This would heighten US and Iranian competition far more than the threat that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons

  • Gaza and the West Bank: Iran uses Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian issue to mobilize internal political support in Iran.
  • Pakistan:Pakistan has not been anarea of direct competition, but Iran has accused Pakistan of supporting Baluchi separatists in Iran. Iran does not support any increase in the US role in Pakistan, even to help it fight violent Sunni extremists.
  • Turkey:Iran is now far more actively competing with the US forinfluence in Turkey as Turkey “looks East” in reaction to de facto rejection by EU, tensions with US since invasion of Iraq, and clashes with Israel over progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process and issues like Israel’s boarding of Turkish ships’ attempt to deliver aid to Gaza. This competition is also affected by the Islamist vs. secular tensions in Turkish politics. Iran seeking to exploit this situation – and weaken Turkish ties to US and Israel. In contrast, Turkey continues to build ties with Syria and Lebanon, with an eye on the broader region. Limited success with Islamist government in Turkey, and Turkish anger at US remains an issue.
  • Afghanistan: Iran has built up major influence in northwestern Afghanistan and with the Hazara Shi’ite minority in other parts of the country. There are some indications of arms transfers and Al Quds advisors but these signs are still uncertain and show no overt challenge of the US. Iran is more concerned with Taliban and Sunni extremist threat than US influence, and the US is more focused on Taliban and Sunni extremist threat as well.
  • Central Asia: Iran is seeking to expand its trade and regional influence and is an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Not a major area of competition, but the US is concerned with possible Iranian influence.
  • Europe:Iran seeks European investment in petroleum and industry and to use Europe to deflect or prevent major sanctions and military action against Iran for its nuclear programs. The US seeks British, French, German and other support for sanctions and support of its other efforts to prevent Iranian proliferation, and block arms and dual-use technology transfers. Missile defense has also become an area of competition, although Russian pressure to block US programs has had far more impact.
  • Russia: Iran and the US compete in dealing with Russia over proliferation and sanctions, trade and energy deals, reactor and nuclear technology sales, arms sales, missile defenses in Europe, and US vs. Russian influence in the Gulf and Middle East.
  • China: Similarly, Iran and the US compete in dealing with China over proliferation and sanctions, trade and major energy investments, and arms sales. Emerging tensions over US vs. Chinese influence in the Gulf and Middle East.

Competition versus Conflict

This level of strategic competition is almost certain to continue indefinitely into the future as long as Iran has its present regime. It may become less visible, or be moderated, but the Iranian government has steadily moved away from the promise of change and reform it had under former President Khatami, become more extreme in rhetoric and action, and has seen a steady rise in the power and influence of hardline elements in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards. For all the talk of “grand bargains” between Iran and the US, Iran is committed to different goals and efforts to expand its influence and military power that make any such agreements or offers seem more likely to be the result of Iranian tactics and opportunism than ways of ending US and Iranian competition.

Even if this regime change does occur, Iran still seems likely to challenge the US for influence in many of the same ways. Iran’s interests may not clash with those of the US to anything like the present extent if Iran’s theocratic autocracy loses power, but Iran will continue to pursue its own interests, and these seem likely to include ambitions and goals that continue to challenge the US and involve many of the same instruments of military power.
It is dangerous to assume that US and Iranian strategic competition must end in war or the large-scale use of force. Clashes and the sporadic low-level use of violence seem likely and some already have occurred. As the attached briefings show, however, the US and its allies in the region have a decisive military edge over Iran and are likely to indefinitely retain this superiority into the future. The US has political, diplomatic, economic, and military tools it can use to deter and contain Iran in military terms; and some forms of Iranian gains in diplomatic, economic, and energy efforts would serve both nations’ interests. So would a more stable Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia – as well as a stable Arab-Israeli peace settlement. The US and Iran have already cooperated in some aspects of the Afghan conflict and narrowly defined contentious areas like counternarcotics. They have common interests in dealing with some aspects of counterterrorism.

It is also easy to talk about large-scale US attacks on Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities, but it is far from clear that they offer a better alternative than negotiation and containment. Similarly, it is easy to call for escalation and far harder to achieve decisive and lasting strategic results that are preferable to carefully balance and limit efforts to check a given Iranian action or use of force.

At the same time, this is a “game” without clear limits or rules, and where outside players like Israel can suddenly change the board. It also is far from clear what Iran’s present and future intentions are in acquiring nuclear weapons, or how much restraint its regime or military actors within that regime will show in initiating or escalating the use of force. The mix of vulnerabilities and military efforts described in all four briefings show that “stability” can rapidly turn into large-scale violence. Regardless of the military balance and strategic interests, the law of unintended consequence can all too easy outweigh any efforts at rational bargaining.

Vivek Kocharlakota and Adam Seitz