By William Hartung. Originally published in Huffington Post.
The historic Iran nuclear deal is a positive development in its own right. It puts strict, detailed restrictions on Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon for ten years, with certain limits continuing for 15 to 25 years. This is a huge step away from the ill-considered calls for military action against Iran that have emanated from U.S. neoconservatives. It’s good for America, good for Iran, and good for the region.
But there is one potential obstacle to the approval of the deal that needs to be cleared up. Opponents of the deal in the U.S. Congress and the region are likely to cry foul over the proposal for a phased elimination of the United Nations embargo on conventional arms transfers to Iran, alleging that it will embolden Iran, thereby increasing security threats to U.S. regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. This concern is misplaced, for two reasons.
First, as Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis have pointed out in a recent piece in Foreign Policy, Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states currently have massive conventional superiority over Iran, a gap that it would take years, if not decades, for Iran to close, if it could do so at all. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts Saudi Arabia’s military budget at $80 billion in 2014, four to five times what Iran spends. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has summarized the situation in a recent report on the strategic balance in the Middle East:
“[T]he present forces of the Arab Gulf states have improved strikingly over the past few decades as the GCC states have made massive investments in improved land, air, and naval weaponry. In contrast, Iran has been unable to compete in terms of both investment and access to advanced foreign systems.”
The second reason an Iran deal is unlikely to tilt the military balance in the region is that the nuclear deal keeps the United Nations arms embargo on Iran in place for five to eight years, further delaying any possibility that Tehran could build forces that would be a conventional threat to U.S. forces in the region.
The real challenge posed by Iran comes through “asymmetric” capabilities – threats that don’t seek to match its adversaries’ tank for tank or plane for plane, but which seek to exploit particular weaknesses. These threats basically boil down to Iranian support for the Assad regime in Syria and non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, which is Israel’s primary adversary; and the potential development of ballistic missiles that could hit Saudi Arabia or Israel with non-nuclear warheads.
There are two points to be made regarding Iran’s “asymmetric threats.” The first is that increasing Saudi Arabia and Israel’s already heavily stocked conventional forces will not eliminate the threats posed by non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. The second is that the Iran nuclear deal prevents the sale of components that could be used by Iran to build a long-range ballistic missile by eight years. So, if anything, the nuclear deal will reduce the potential conventional threat that Iran poses to U.S. allies in the region.
There is also the possibility that once an Iran nuclear deal is in place, diplomatic initiatives on Syria and the arming of non-state groups could be pursued, perhaps involving the same nations that worked to craft the nuclear deal, supplemented by the key players in the region. It’s a case of first things first – the nuclear deal needs to be nailed down before other regional issues are addressed, as it is beneficial in its own right.
Part of any broader diplomatic initiative should involved a clear-eyed look at the impact of U.S. arms sales to the region. For example, Saudi Arabia’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons in its bombing campaign in Yemen has seriously undermined the stability of the region, creating a desperate humanitarian emergency even as it opens space for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to strengthen its position in the country. And in Bahrain, U.S. weapons have been used to put down the democracy movement there. U.S. weapons sales to the region should be assessed in their own right, not in response to an Iranian conventional threat that does not currently exist.
Once the Iran nuclear deal is in place, the remaining, serious security issues in the region should be addressed diplomatically, not by pouring more arms into an area already wracked by conflict.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.