Iran's Faulty Toolbox

Every tool at Iran's disposal comes with serious limitations


Iran's Faulty Toolbox
by Matthew M. Reed

Iran's arsenal is familiar by now. It includes the "oil weapon," armies, proxies, and ultimately nuclear weapons. Each tool of leverage is seriously flawed but that does not prevent alarmists from overstating their effect. Upon further review, Tehran's arsenal is generally weak.

Use of the "oil weapon" is unrealistic. According to the US Government Accountability Office, "between 50 and 76 percent of the Iranian government's revenues in recent years" came from oil exports. Limiting output to punish Western economies with higher prices would thus be suicidal for an oil-dependent regime. Saudi Arabia also makes the threat less viable with their spare production capacity and willingness to stabilize markets during crises. Saudi spare capacity (i.e. the ability to pump extra oil as needed) and Iran's total daily crude exports now hover around the same mark: 3-4 million barrels per day. If Iran uses the oil weapon, the Saudis will compensate.

Any threat from Iran's conventional army is also overrated. The Revolutionary Guard Corps and regular army are competent but aging fast. This limits their ability to project power, which is a prerequisite for intimidating neighbors. Provision 8 of UN Resolution 1929 prevents any decisive accumulation of Iranian conventional arms including advanced weapons and spare parts. Perhaps most importantly, Iran's immediate neighbors - Iraq and Afghanistan - are states which Iran sees no gain in attacking; any substantial Iranian force could also never cross the American-controlled Gulf. Iran's armed forces can certainly defend their own borders but the military poses no threat to neighbors enjoying American protection.

It is true, however, that Iran's mastery of asymmetry is problematic. Should conflict arise, Iran could lash out globally with a flourish of small-scale kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings. But these attacks would be disruptive, not decisive. Same goes for Iran's proxies. Tehran maintains no "on-off" switch for Hamas and Hizballah, and their support is specific to resisting Israel, meaning these groups could not destabilize the entire region. Iran's most capable proxies are geographically concentrated, so much so that the threat is minimal.

Beyond this, Iran could disperse explosive sea mines in the Persian Gulf and harass commercial shipping as it did in the late 1980s. Such action would cost too much, however. First, mining the Gulf would be suicidal because the regime - as stated above - depends on oil revenues and could not export its only commodity. Second, doing so would cross an international "red line" and result in the conversion of the US Fifth Fleet into an active force off Iran's shores. Mining vital shipping lanes would be ruinous and invite retaliation.

Finally, nuclear weapons scare many with good reason: Iran's leadership is less predictable because its decision-making process is opaque. Complicating this is the absence of any direct US-Iranian dialogue. But at the same time, recent developments are encouraging. The $60 billion Saudi arms deal received the most attention last month but other Gulf states are arming anew: Kuwait will receive new Patriot interceptors soon and the United Arab Emirates will enjoy the protection of more advanced anti-ballistic missile systems before Iran weaponizes. These deployments, combined with Israel's activation of the Iron Dome and David's Sling anti-missile systems, will cheapen nuclear threats. Cost-benefit considerations matter also: the Islamic Republic will not develop a sizable nuclear arsenal soon, meaning the regime would probably not gamble away the crown jewels if they could be shot down.

Every tool at Iran's disposal comes with serious limitations: the "oil weapon" is self-defeating; Iran's conventional military is too modest; any asymmetric attacks would be small-scale or prompt massive retaliation; and nuclear intimidation is evaporating with the deployment of new anti-missile systems. Iran's leaders might still make rhetorical threats, but their tools are too weak if they wish to convert verbal attacks into physical ones.

First published in

Matthew M. Reed, a research intern with the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.



That is the idea. Once a

by AmirKabir on

That is the idea. Once a long term peace agreement is signed and the countries no longer feel threatened by each others and started economical, technological and other corporations and the governments and people see the improvements and unity, then these minor religious differences will go away and the Sunnis will ban the killing of Shia Muslims and Shia Muslims will treat the Sunnis better and they will put their Billions of Dollars to better use rather than purchasing war machines from west.  

As for the hanging. I am sure IRI has executed more Shia Muslims than Sunni and the Saudi Arabia have executed more Sunni Muslims than Shia.  So this is more a political issue much more than religious one. However, the religious part of the problem will be resolved once the relations improved.

Then when the relations improved, they can form a NATO of their own.

The idea is a regional one and can be used by IRI Reformed or not, However, a reformed IRI would be better for Iran, depending who the reformists are and whether it is a true reform.


Based on some of your previous comments, I know the reform you are referring to is the kind that the new government does as west orders. That is clearly expressed in your name as well.




by Abarmard on

Good political observation. Most Iranians inside think similarly.


One Thousand times more fun, & we pray less bloody.

by bushtheliberator on

USA policy toward Iran remains Regime Change, but Strangleing this Skunk  militarily has never been a necessary,or attractive option.

 It is 1000 times more satisfying to sit back,and wait for Iranians to throw the Thugs out. This will happen because God loves Justice.

Being the Least Informed about Iran Visitor doesn't inhibit me from being as opinionated about Iran as the Shah's grandma.

From my screen in far away Texas,I see the Reformist Movement as the ONLY way that Iranians can obtain their civil rights without risking descent into chaos, and a hellish destruction of the nation.The idea that the USA should fire just the right amount of our new Instant Democratic Republic Bombs at Iran is soul-less madness.As a matter of national pride, no Iranian should wish to be liberated from this Thuggery except BY THEIR OWN HAND.

Do you hate the IRI,all the Beards, and maybe even Islam ,too?!Too Bad,because as I see it, reform within the goals of the existing constitution, and righteous Islam offers the safest way forward.

And if Iran does have a civil war, you can always ask for help from your Good Buddy,Uncle Sam ;but remember that the stuff we're shooting just turns the Living into the Dead.




"Islamist NATO"!!

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

Such futuristic ideas are based contemplated after a complete "reform" - for want of a better word - of both Shiite and wahabbi sects of Islam. In the mean time you might want to shift your focus to condemning the public hanging of Iranian sunnis in baloochistan in front of a jeering shiite mob.  

"Personal business must yield to collective interest."


It might be a good idea if

by AmirKabir on

It might be a good idea if middle eastern countries form their own NATO or at least a permanent peace agreement without Israel in it.  Then west can no longer use the divide and conquer strategy on them.  This way, they will not worry about each other and be more powerful against any threats and the Israeli problem will soon be resolved too.  They can use Iran's experience in becoming less dependent on oil and stop wasting their money on useless western war machines and improve their own science and technology with Iranians help. This will help them to become more independent and prosperous. 


Warmongers will use

by AmirKabir on

Warmongers will use anything to sell Arms and push their agenda. If it isn't Iran's strength, it will be Saudi Arabia's weakness.

Yes, the neocons and zionists have tried for decades to portray a bad image of Iran in the world, but they never really succeeded. Unfortunately, some Iranians in IRI and opposition groups have succeeded under different pretexts.

Today, most of the domestic and international problems can be resolved, if the Justis system stop the illegal arrests, harsh imprisonments, torture and executions of political prisoners and respect the basic human rights of all Iranians. This is what the system should decide and do. Ignoring and wrong answers will not solve the problems and Iran will continue down the wrong path and create more problems and worse image of herself. This is the root cause of our problems just as the expansion of the Zionist regime and their mistreatments of palestinians are for them and the greed and warmongering of the US for the world. 



Iran is weak


But neocons, being the warmongers that they are, need to justify their military spending and aggressive war efforts by portraying Iran as the next Nazi Germany.

Iran is weak. Given time they will undo their own selves. neocon and warmoners are of course helping the regime by throwing them lifelines. 


Of course, sanctions can

by AmirKabir on

Of course, sanctions can effect the economy. whether it is a short term or long term, it depends on the government and people in handling them.  But an oil sanction on west will have devastating effects on western economy. Much more that what all their sanctions have done to Iran. They assume Iran cannot do that since they need the oil revenues to survive. West is gradually working on shifting the oil exports from Iran to Iraq, Russia and a few others producers and use that as an incentive to gain their support.  Iran should have seen this coming. Had they imposed the oil sanctions two years ago, west would have recognized Iran's rights long time ago.  Today economy is more stable, but still very fragile. Once the economy becomes fully stable and strong, then Iran will be in a much bigger hole and it wouldn't matter much if Iran have replace the revenues from crude oil to other products, because west will sanctions those products as well and then an oil sanction won't do no good. Hoping and praying will not change any plans.  The sanctions haven't effected yet, once the revenues fall below the expenses then the troubles will start to emerge and that takes some times and that is what west is waiting for. Then people will not be as patient and no army can stand in front of them no matter how bloody it gets.  Iran should worry about that, unless, there are enough countries that are willing to continue doing business with Iran, no matter what.  Of course, the lower to middle class will pay the price for the most parts, not the clerics, top officials and the upper class.  


Interesting articles on both side of the table

by Abarmard on

Many Iranian writers focus on the facts that sanctions don't hurt while many Western writers focus on the facts that Iran can be attacked. Neither side is correct.


ای سرخرد!


از خود ادبیات ساده اندیشنه و عوام فریبانه بوش استفاده میکنی‌
تا بگویی که غلبه بر جمهوری اسلامی مثل غلبه بر افغانستان و عراق شاید
آسان به نظر میاید، ولی‌ همان طور که این ۲ کشور ثابت کردند هم چین آسان هم
نخواهد بود. خوب، تا به حال در مورد تفاوت بین ایران و ۲ کشور نامبرده فکر
کردی؟ فکر کردی که در عراق و افغانستان قسمت قابل توجهی‌ از ساکنین این ۲
کشور از نظام‌های موجود در آن کشور‌ها راضی‌ بوده و به همین دلیل پس از
سقوط آن دو نظام به مقابله با ساقط کنندگان بر خواستند؟ و اینکه در ایران
۹۹.۹۹% ایرانیان از حکومت استبدادی حاکم بر ایران که اموال مملکت را چپاول و
مردمانش را قتل عام و یا در زندان کرده ( اربابان جناب عالی‌ را می‌گویم)،

خدا آقبیت گردانی را که تو سرگردی میکنی‌ به خیر کنه ‌ای سرگرد تخیلی‌ که خود را عالم در مسائل نظامی میپنداری!

Genghis Khan

Hussein's call

by Genghis Khan on

It would take not more than a week to wipe the IRI off the map if a comprehensive, well-planned military strike ever deployed against the filthy akhunds.

If my body dies, let my body die, but do not let my country die.



by mamadali on

Yawn. Matt's article is probably one of the most uninformed articles I've read even by current poor standards.  Anyone who follows Iranian military development understands Iranian deterrence is why Iran has been standing successfully against bullying.  Proof is in the pudding.  Fortunately Iran's understanding of her opponents is much deeper than the other way around (i.e. this uninformed Matt dude).  Still, it's interesting reading this pulp and puff--albeit tongue in cheek...:).  Keep it up!

Javedan Iran!



by AmirKabir on

Your blog is yet another proof that US military complex is the reason for the wars around the world and you call that enjoying by the Saudis and Kuwaitis? US and England are sticking them with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of war machines that they don't even know how to use and what Americans get from the sale? Dead bodies of their family members and a broken economy and everything else that comes with it. who get rich without losing a drop of blood? The corporations and politicians.

As for the oil. One month of sanctions will take care of the Europe and their economy. Their economic collapse will have a chain reaction throughout the west and even China,japan and many other countries who are dependent to US and European economy. The good thing is that Iran has been sanctioned and doesn't depend on any other country.  Don't forget that crude oil is delivered through pipelines whether Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Kuwait. So don't count on Saudis Arabia, they might even have so much shortage that they end up importing oil from Iran.  That is when a barrel of crude oil will reach $1000

It is obvious that you have no idea of Iran's military power. Iran not only can enter to Iraq and Afghanistan, they will be welcomed to do so  and help to get rid of invaders.  As one commentator wrote, US and Europeans military cannot even handle a few Afghans with basic weapons. It has been several years. I know that it is all a lie by military complex and pretext to sell arms as you wrote, but at the same time Afghans are still fighting and growing in numbers.


Islamist joke of the day

by AMIR1973 on

Non of the countries dare to do a foolish act against the super power of the region. 

"Super power"? Too funny  :-) 


dadash chert nagu

by IRI on

Non of the countries dare to do a foolish act against the super power of the region. You go puke all the garbage you want, non of the decision comes down to any of you because you are no body. The ones who make the decision are aware about the realities. Check...Check...Wake up fools, it's IRAN you are talking about not Egypt or Saudi or Israel, who can't live one day without the oxygen tubes from the West...
Iranians will not give up until even, forgotten Iraq attack already?

Dear author, check your facts again. Iran has much more sophisticated plans if attacked then you can imagine. And Iran CAN survive without any oil trades, economy will suffer but people will manage. Here are the facts:
Fruits and vegies: 95% self sufficient
Grains and meat: 80% + self sufficient
Technology and raw material: 100% self sufficient

Iran HAS ENOUGH to kick the attacker in the balls before anything serious happens to it. Go and wish for God to give you some brains and job so you can be more productive. Go boy. First solve the weak Afghani issue that US can't fix bunch of shoeless fighters...Then come talk about the giant. Go and ask God for some brain.

Having that in mind, I still am not pro Ahmadinejad and his lack of intelligence and management.



by afshinazad on

Thugs have a power to kill own people and rest is the fools joke,every thing they have is falling a part. their power is hollow like their religion and lies.


They write like this...

by Midwesty on

when they hit an impass. That's been a trend!


I keep telling you guys.....

by mahmoudg on

Iran's arsenal is too weak, too old, and its management too incompetent to be able to withstand surgical attacks.  This regime can be finished off quick by attacking its vital sites.

hamsade ghadimi

a picture is worth a thousand laughs

by hamsade ghadimi on

the article failed to mention the ace up iran's sleeve.  yes, the glorious pankeh boats: //

these babies could serve as a tiebreaker, if it comes to that. :D

out of curiosity, any military expert knows the function of the rope/cable attached to the submarine in the picture above? 

mash Ghanbar

Standard and Poor

by mash Ghanbar on

Sit still and Learn something.


Sargord Pirouz

Yeah, it's sooooooooooo

by Sargord Pirouz on

Yeah, it's sooooooooooo easy, little Bush passed on it.

And yeah, Iraq's been sooooooooooooo easy. And Afghanistan has been soooooooooooooooo easy.