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Hey America, Iran still isn't threat No. 1

Even after the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador on US soil, Iran is not the threat to the US that most Americans – and political leaders – think it is. The mythical Iranian Goliath is still largely a fallacy.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Iran will instigate an arms race, but the arms race in the Middle East began in the 1960s when Israel armed. Since then, over half a dozen countries in the Middle East have sought nuclear capability, but Israel is the only country that has succeeded. A nuclear Iran could very well accelerate an arms race, but it could be contained. By leveraging US patronage to the region and continuing to supply Gulf states with conventional weapons, the US could dissuade other countries from joining the race.

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A second strategic concern is Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran is arming Shiite militia, which is increasingly worrisome considering the drawdown of US troops. But Iran does not want to see Iraq destabilized. Tehran benefits from having a neighboring state controlled by a Shiite majority, and while Iranian influence there is unlikely to be quelled, Iran's ambitions are regional, not global.

The direct and strategic threats have been grossly inflated. The ideological remains – but it, too, is largely hype.

In general, the idea of a theocratic religious state, specifically the Islamic Republic, doesn’t sit well with many Americans. But for most Americans Iran’s most disturbing ideology is its stance on America’s long-time ally Israel. This threat, however, is just that – a mostly ideological one, not a likely action.

Iran and Israel have never directly engaged in combat. Although Iran does sponsor Hezbollah and Hamas, Tehran is not directly calling the shots within those organizations. Israel actually provided Iran with weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. Tehran’s condemnation of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians is primarily a political platform for Iranian influence in the region. Iran happily accepted Israeli aid when it served Tehran’s more immediate interests.

Additionally, the Middle East at large isn’t interested in Iran’s brand of Islam. Iran, as a Persian Shiite state, is the minority in an Arab Sunni region. The Iran doctrine is well contained. But by continuing to label an intractable country as "evil," policymakers in Washington have turned a red herring into a Goliath.

Even now, amid the terror plot allegations, America needs to look at the big picture. All things considered, the mythical Iranian Goliath is still largely a fallacy.

Madison Schramm is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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