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Iran's Military Modernization and the Regional Arms Race

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.

The United States has vehemently voiced concern about Iran's recent multi-billion dollar arms purchases from Russia, yet without bothering with the regional context of these acquisitions, namely, an unprecedented Middle East arms race in which the U.S. is the chief arms seller and Iran is playing catching up to its neighbors, above all Saudi Arabia.

In terms of the regional military balance, Iran is, in fact, lagging behind considerably, a fact well documented by the various authoritative studies on arms transfers, including the annual reports by the Congressional Research Service and various editions of World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers. These studies show that, for example, the total arms acquisitions by the six countries of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during the period 1987-1998 was in excess of 52 billion dollars, compared to 2.5 billion dollars for Iran. To give another example, during 1995-1998 period, whereas the Saudis purchased close to 8 billion dollars of arms, Iran's figure stood at 1.4 billions.

In retrospect, a combination of factors, ranging from low oil revenues to foreign debt to pressing economic needs and priorities, augmented Iran's financial problems during much of the 1990s to the point where Iran was barely able to rebuild its army, particularly its air force and land-based air defenses. Certainly, Iran's arms purchases during this decade were not no where near enough its need to offset the obsolescence of many of its weapons.

Case in point, many of Iran's surface to air and air to air weapons, e.g., I-Hawk Sams, are worn out and lack updated sensors and avionics. Critical problems with parts and obsolete systems plague Iran's navy. Iran's Chieftain tanks are worn and almost invariably have cooling problems, among other things. Similarly, Iran's fleet of helicopters - Hughes, Bell, etc. - have serious reliability problems as a result of lack of parts and updates. And the list goes on.

Of course, Iran, thanks to sanctions and various other restrictions on foreign arms procurement, has managed to become self-sufficient in many areas, including munitions manufacturing, technical know how to rebuild its jets' engines, assembling light tanks and anti-tank mortars, and various rockets and surface to air and surface to surface (i.e., Oghab, Shihab 3, Fajr-4) missiles. Yet, in spite of such selective gains, the larger picture tells of a huge inventory of worn and decaying or obsolete Western-supplied and low performance Easter-supplied weapons systems.

Add to this the escalating spiral of arms build up in the region since the Kuwait crisis, not to mention Israel which as of late has been projecting power in Iran's vicinity, thus enhancing the "linkage" to the arms race in the broader region nowadays called "the new Middle East." This, together with the gradual reassertion of Iraq's military power in the impending new milieu of post-sanctions, reflect new national security worries for Iran which need to be addressed by its decision-makers.

The U.S. government, which sold 26 billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia alone just during the first two years after the Kuwait crisis, i.e., 1990-1993, routinely uses the threat of Iran to justify its lucrative arms sales to the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other GCC states. This is combined with an Iran-exclusive security architecture in the Persian Gulf region, whereby the U.S. power acts as the pace-setter of regional security. The security 'free ride' of Iran aside, which Iran refuses to acknowledge in view of its official anti-Americanism, in terms of the upward spiraling arms race this situation cannot, however, be said to be conducive to an ideal security environment in the long run. In fact, one has to wonder how much longer the present security framework can last without undergoing major restructuring?

While it is understandable that the Persian Gulf states express anxiety about any news of Iran's military arms build up, it does not serve any them, or any one else's interest, to view this in isolation from the balance of power requirements of Iran's national security interests. For to do so would be tantamount to misperceiving Iran's intentions and, as can be seen by certain media commentaries in the U.S. and United Kingdom recently, resulting in misinterpreting these developments as signs of "offensive threat" by Iran when, on the contrary, a cool and sober analysis may show that they are in fact "defensive" as well as "reactive," namely, represent Iran's reaction to its security environment.

Consequently, if Washington is genuine in its current overtures toward Iran, it must take into consideration the motives behind Iran's belated military modernization connected to its decade-long depression in foreign arms purchases compared to its neighbors, the Iranian fear of an unstable arms race, and the advantages of a militarily strong Iran that can be reliable and dependable in the eyes of Kuwait and other small GCC states concerned about the reassertion of Iraqi power and the (unlikely yet probable) vacuum of U.S. power in the future. On Iran's part, putting to rest these neighbors' anxieties means that Iran must make a much more assiduous effort to sell the notion of security partnership with Iran for a common Persian Gulf.

... Payvand News - 4/10/01 ... --

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