Iran unveiled the Qaher 313— a modern fighter jet with purported stealth capabilities made in-country. Some have expressed doubt that aircraft is real. Iran has in the past made official announcements through the state run FARs news agency to boost its international image which have latter turned out to be false. In 2011, Tehran claimed to have built an unmanned flying saucer (the Zohal).
Does it matter that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad emphasized that the [real or imagined] Qaher 313 is intended for “defensive” purposes only?
Yes, actually. Weapons development in Iran directly represents its perceived and actual threat calculus. The recent news release of a stealth fighter is not about upping the ante to be on par with the US—a position that Iran could not even hope to achieve with Israel. Instead, the goal is to build weapons that are not too far behind its keepers. Clearly, this is a defensive strategy, as Iran will remain inferior with or without nuclear weapons in the face of their well-defined enemies and the international community at large.
In some cases, belligerent states enter into an arms race because they plan to invade their neighbors for resources and territorial gains, among other reasons. This is not characteristic of Iran’s particular situation. Iran desires respect as a sovereign state and regional actor—something the US is reticent to give them, due to their history, their theocratic form of government, and the US relationship with Israel.
As the US applies more military and diplomatic pressure, the state has consistently reacted like a strict neo-realist around the principles of deterrence. Why else go to such lengths to fake military capabilities, for example? Even before the pressure, however, it was not difficult to find reasons for a nuclear weapons national objective under the Iranian neo-realist frame of mind.
Iran, like the rest of the world, know that Israel has a stash of “secret” nuclear weapons and so why would they not pursue and attaint their own in a similar fashion, just like Israel managed to do? Not many states have accepted the imposed double standards when it comes to the US-EU counter proliferation attempts. Moreover, why is Pakistan’s nuclear armament safer than Iran’s? Most likely, North Korea already has a limited nuclear weapons program, so non-proliferation is unsuccessful against the efforts of ambitious or clever states.
Although the fear of nuclear war is genuine, the responsibility of having nuclear weapons has yielded no substantial gains—nothing has ever been achieved through their use other than the ability to ward off a foreign invasion or reach a standstill with ones neighbors [with the only exception of the US nuclear strike against Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the last World War]. The nuclear terrorist and the destruction of Israel fear appear well overblown. They are legitimate concerns and should be prevented by all methods short of replacing sound political regional strategy.
Iraq at one point was attempting to develop nuclear arms. We now know this was long “before” March of 2003. Pakistan attained the status of having a nuclear arsenal in the 1998—proving for the first time that it was possible for an Islamic state to harness the power of the atom.
Unlike North Korea, Iran is not threatening to use nuclear weapons against the US, even in spite of US hostility. Of course, this could change by any number of ways. By ignoring a state that has nuclear weapons and is threatening it and worrying about one that will not admit and does not threaten it with their use, the US is playing the role of the fireman putting out fires of opportunity rather than priority.
Much of Iran’s actions in both conventional and unconventional arms building must be seen together from a larger perspective from their strategic outlook. Presently, this is the result of being surrounded by the US and NATO forces and bombarded with threats of Israeli airstrikes, but this is not the whole picture. These are examples desperate defensive maneuvers of the state as the world closes in. Within the present context, they are not belligerent actions of offense.
Iran could save time right away and admit to building a nuclear weapons program—which is the real worry—or they could give full access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Instead, they have chosen the path of self-assertion, resisting what they feel as an unequal Israeli advantage and the Western encroachment into Central Asia. These are examples desperate defensive maneuvers of the state as the world closes in. Within the present context, they are not belligerent actions of offense but this does not make them the “good guy” either. It will gain them a larger number of sponsors, however, and turn them against US-Israel-EU.
Six very significant states continue to trade with Iran: China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. Originally, eleven states were reported to be exempt from the US-EU economic sanctions against Iran. Such trade has been keeping Iran afloat, much to the chagrin of the states that are imposing the sanctions. Aside from Russia and China as indirect backers, a strange alliance has been brewing between Iran, Egypt and Venezuela.
There is also the national interest of the Bear from the North to consider. Russia does not want a self-assertive nuclear Iran. They also do not want the US in Central Asia, like Iran, and do not care much for any special relationship with Israel. Thus they have had mixed feelings but have continued helping Iran with civilian nuclear power and trade along with others.
China for one is a big benefactor to the Western oil embargo, as is India. China and Russia do not want to see a US-Israel invasion of Iran. Even the EU will most likely hold out from any military action. Russia and China want the US out of Central Asia and they want to handle the Iranians in their way.
Surely Iran understands that the atom bomb is the mother of all bombs and coul be the jewel to their arms race, but they are not as frightened by as the West. Their view of nuclear weapons is very different from that of Israel, the US and the EU. Iran is definitely playing this key political issue to gain power. Secretly or not, it is used as a clever deterrent against Israel and the West.
For Israel, a nuclear weapon is a matter of maintaining military superiority in the region and its golden egg to insure survival. For the US and the EU, nuclear weapons are seen as the greatest evil of mankind. Their views are distorted by their experiences and encounters with the Soviet Union which shaped from over 40 years of the Cold War—which is the reason for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To some extent the Russian Federation shares these concerns but mostly these are “Western” fears because the Middle East and the East have more fear of the West [and its power projection into their affairs].
Iran halted their nuclear arms program in 2003, according to multiple intelligence agencies. This was a direct response to a US threat of invasion. Recent suspicions of a nuclear program resurged after Iran no doubt calculated Washington’s predicament in Iraq. They stopped out of fear and they are likely firing up the program again out of fear. Libya ceased its nuclear program and look at what happened to that regime—so the Iranian reasoning goes.
Little proof, declining defense spending, and the unwillingness to test Iran and be wrong again, as in Iraq, all resulted in the staling and full-force or even a limited US strike option—more restricted as time passes. Americans are weary of war and the Iranians read this. The rejection to meet with the US has everything to do with North Korea’s recent boldness in standing up to the US and the success of their nuclear weapons testing. It is also embolden by the fact that the US will ignore a nuclear state that is willing to challenge it but does not have the means to do so.
The worries about Iran nuking Israel appear overblown. They do not intend to nuke Israel: one, because of their current situation; and two, because they get more regional points from Muslim states through intimidation, coercion and a possible punishment of Israel if attacked. They may one day provoke Israel on their terms and to their advantage but that plan will only work if there is a clear moral legitimacy and if Israel finally decides to go it alone without US approval or partnership.
What possible victory could be achieved by Iran’s intentional annihilation of Israel? It is the arch enemy that keeps them in power. Their regime would be sure to fall. And if this was a nuclear conflict, Iran would become a martyr to no end. Destroying the Holy Land is very bad for any theocratic regime basing its existence on Islamic legitimacy in the region.
President Ahmadinejad’s speeches are full of emotional hatred but his actions have been self-restrained. This is due to a general understanding that if he ever does strike in the future—even with nuclear weapons—he will be struck down by more powerful states. Iran has relied on small scale reprisals but they are more akin to child lashing out from under two adults than the big anger beast that they are often portrayed.
Playing at such high stakes forces all actors in the area to seek the most advanced form of protection available. The situation must be seen systematically and politically and not through successive tactical gains or losses.
One last factor of the Iranian weapons buildup is the consideration of the Islamic Republic’s ideology. This is the most chilling and the most difficult to understand. Iran desires to be the model state for Islam. Doing something big may not be enough. Once a secret nuclear weapon is available, it may have an uncertain destination at an uncertain enemy. But this is true of all nuclear states, including Russia, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, for example. At some point in time, it may just as easily be Israel or Pakistan that strikes up a nuclear war first within Central Asia.
Russian “loose” nukes are a constant concern. Israel demonstrates a precedent for preventive conventional aerial strikes but has so far continued to keep its “secret” nukes buried in the sands of the Negev. Pakistan has carried nuclear weapons on mobile launchers in wars with India but has never used them or given them to Jihadists. North Korea could sell nuclear weapons to all US enemy states and non-state actors. Yet of all of these, the US and the EU have done little to threaten them over the issue.
Iran has not demonstrated preventive military actions, largely because Israel has always been a superior force but also because it is surrounded by a Sunni Muslim world. Iran has antagonized Israel through domestic militants and regional terrorists. Israel has responded with terror and assassinations on both sponsored agents and on Iranian civilians, among espionage activities. Even the proposed preventive strike has been argued by Israeli experts to be ineffective. It may actually do more to justify building a nuclear weapon in Iran and strike Israel in retaliation.
Iran stands to gain more, if it in fact desires regional political and ideological influence, by keeping a similar program to Israel’s—hidden from public view. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stated that nuclear weapons are bad and that Iran should not pursue them. Of course, this could be the very heart of a secret weapons program. Muslims are allowed to outright lie if they are persecuted, and threatened by infidels. It is a practice that could easily be applied to this situation called taqiyya.
Iran does better to harness bilateral relations with the small gains it has recently made. Hosting influential international summits like the Non-Aligned Movement, in which they are chief host for more than two more years, is also a empowering. This Non-Aligned Movement has 120 member states. Any illegitimate actions on the Iranian part would lose any and all potential political gains from this organization and the international community.
When Ahmadinejad says many times that the new jet fighter is for defense and deterrence, it is likely he means what he says and that position represents his larger reasoning for wild statements (appearing offensive but are actually defensive) and arms building. We may not know exactly when Iran gets nukes if it can keep them secret.
Talks can resolve a volatile situation and military readiness is advisable, but provocation and aggravation have shown themselves counterproductive strategies. This is the reason everybody eventually thinks diplomacy is a useless waste of time—the nature of coercive diplomacy is too rigid and antiquated. Each party relies on unrealistic zero-sum diplomatic wins in short of zero-sum military actions and those attitudes and positions eventually lead to greater and greater separation, conflict and war. The US continues to use coercive diplomacy against Iranian defiance which has the effect of increased hostility, as seen with North Korea.
The US and Israel have been covertly in a low-intensity conflict with Iran for years. Iran will not deal at all until the US stops coercive handling. There is no dialogue here, only positions. When a state wants another state to act a certain way, it is necessary to appeal to power and not force. It must become extremely innovative, imaginative and realistic. Typically, the more aggressive states become the less innovative they tend to be and eventually are likely to give up on diplomacy altogether.
The US is sending Iran mixed signals: the Patriot missile system in Poland, the recent installation of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, the removing one of two aircraft carrier fleets stationed in the Persian Gulf, tough economic sanctions that do not apply to a dozen states, and a recent attempt to meet with the Supreme Leader directly. The White House may be causing more harm than good or they may be preparing to live with a “secret” nuclear Iran instead of a military option that will only delay that possibility and anger the Iranians to a new threshold of hostility. Right now they should read the signs—Iran is even creating fake weapon systems to scare them off.
About the author: Brett Daniel Shehadey
Brett Daniel Shehadey is an analyst, writer, and commentator. His areas of interest include: strategy, political theory, foreign affairs, intelligence and security. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University and a B.A in Political Science from UCLA.