Overall I found the Steyn piece reasonably accurate, given that Mr. Steyn seemed to stop his historical analysis at the eve of the revolution. Steyn makes the same singular mistake I’ve seen in every mainstream analysis on Iran: that Iranian history begins in 1979. I do disagree with current Iranian national security policy, but by knowing the full context I understand where Iran is coming from. With that, I picked out some key words from the Steyn article to formulate my argument: the buffer zone, uniting Islam, military credibility, and democracy.
The first key phrase, the buffer zone, arguably defines Iran’s foreign policy. If you look past the revolution, even past the Muslim conquest of Persia in 650 AD, you’ll find that not only have Iranians reaped the economic benefits of their central location, but Iran has also felt the pain of numerous outside powers carving out its territory. By 1979 the US was just another in a long line of outside actors laying claim to Iran. Indeed, thanks to the foreign pressure Iran formed a cultural solidarity unlike her neighbors in Iraq and Afghanistan (despite the latter’s own experiences with empire-minded foreign powers).
Unlike the tribal nature of Afghanistan or even Saudi Arabia, Iranians identify themselves as Iranians first, then Baluchis, Azeris, etc. Combine this sense of nationalism with Iran’s waxing and waning periods of power and you can begin to grasp why the current regime preaches such an aggressive security policy. Persia used to be a force to be reckoned with, before the Muslim conquest and after, when Persia notably contributed arts and letters to Muslim culture. (For example, as French was adopted as the language of the courts in Medieval Europe, so was Persian made the court language during the Islamic golden years of c.650 AD to the mid-18th century). Iranians are tired of outside powers dictating how they should run their affairs; Iranians want to dictate how they run their affairs.
Thus, perhaps the first crucial lesson of national security studies is that nations will do what they think is best for their own security, despite how ludicrous it seems to outside observers. Don’t think like a Westerner, think like your target country. Is Iran’s desire to become a nuclear power outlandish? From our eyes, yes. But the US doesn’t have foreign and belligerent troops occupying the countries around it, nor do we have to seriously worry about being conquered. Frankly, I’d be paranoid, too. If you felt threatened by another state you really can’t stand up to conventionally, but could fight unconventionally, wouldn’t you consider pursuing alternative routes of defense? (As an aside, also keep in mind Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1967, which allows them to buy weapons-grade material for civilian use.) Concluding this point, yes, Iran is a buffer state, and this status defines their security strategy.
My second point, uniting Islam, is a short one: to quote Steyn, “Who better to unite the Muslim world under one inspiring, courageous leadership? If there’s going to be an Islamic superpower, Tehran would seem to be the obvious candidate.” Not so much — the Sunni world’s in no hurry to have a Shi’a state call the shots; not even the Arab Shi’a are toeing the line. I don’t doubt Iran can aspire to inspire, but they’ll never truly lead.
Third, is Iran a credible threat to the US, and vice versa? As stated above, for a contained state such as Iran, WMDs and the use of terrorism for military policy by proxy are lucrative tools, and witnessing the dismemberment of Iraq did not soften Iran’s stance on its nuclear program. Disregarding WMD, though, Iran still has an impressive collection of military equipment, to include 3rd and 4th generation aircraft, capable armor, and above all, motivated troops: the Shi’a theme of martyrdom has a powerful effect on Iran’s willingness to fight. Remember the waves of unarmed Iranian youth who stormed Iraqi positions during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war?
I argue this will not be another Operation Iraqi Freedom. If we strike first, if we come across as the bully. Iran will stand and fight, and if you look at an Iranian terrain map you’ll notice it’s much deeper than Iraq, with rugged terrain that favors the defender. Finally, just by watching the news, you’ll observe Iran training constantly, and employing combined arms tactics. As we formed a cadre of leaders in Vietnam who vowed, “never again,” so did Iran groom battle-hardened strategists during the Iran-Iraq war. In short, and to use the technical military term, I conclude that a war with Iran will suck.
Finally, Steyn is spot on that Iran is, in fact, the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East. That’s right: Democracy. People vote. Men and women. And women get elected. They vote for candidates who have a say and make a difference in domestic policy. Indeed, what gave President Ahmadinedjad so much political clout wasn’t necessarily his security or religious beliefs, but rather his business acumen as the popularly elected mayor of Tehran.
Of course, what gives Iran’s democracy such bad press is the ultimate veto power invested in the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but given the above-mentioned history of Persian identity, Iranians are far more committed to a national democratic process than their tribal Afghani neighbors. I’ll take my US democracy over Iran any day, but Iran’s sure is better stacked against Saudi Arabia or Egypt. (I think it’d be unfair this early in the game to include Iraq.)
So that’s my assessment in a nutshell. I’m sure some readers will think I’m an Iranian-flag waving traitor, but I do this type of analysis for a living – and what I just wrote barely scratches the surface. My job is to be the devil’s advocate to my boss and tell him exactly how our opponent plans to kill us, and I cannot think like a Westerner if I’m to investigate the issues.