The White House announcement of the alleged Iranian terror plot to target the Saudi ambassador to the United States has renewed the American debate: How significant is the Iranian threat?
Well before Attorney General Holder announced the thwarted assassination plot, in two recent Gallup polls, Americans ranked Iran as enemy No. 1 – in front of the two countries the US is at war in; before China, which owns over $1 trillion in US treasuries; in front of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found; ahead of Yemen and Somalia where some of the most recent terrorist attackers hail from; and even before unpredictable, weaponized North Korea.
The facts surrounding the recent plot remain hazy. The US has accused two individuals and the Quds Force, a wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, in the plot. It is not known to what extent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei may have been involved, if at all.
But let’s start with what we do know about the danger Iran poses to the United States. You may be surprised that it’s not nearly as great as most Americans – and US political leaders – believe.
George Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002. Rick Santorum said in the Ames Republican presidential debate a little over a month ago, “anyone that suggests that Iran is not a threat to this country or is not a threat to stability in the Middle East is obviously not seeing the world very clearly.” But clarity is not prevailing in the calculations of Mr. Santorum and others. The Eurasia Group’s 2011 Top Risks Report included Iran in the "Red Herring" category.
And this latest furor over Iran may fall into that category as well.
Of course, Tehran has denied any knowledge or involvement in the alleged plan – and the US is only accusing those individuals arrested. US officials, government buildings, and US civilians were apparently not a direct target in this plot, though the planners were not concerned about civilian deaths that might have resulted.
In any case, such a plot would seemingly go against Tehran’s most basic political interests. The last thing the Iranians would want is to empower the US-Saudi relationship. Several pundits have pointed out how the alleged plot also runs counter to Iran’s past behavior. Former Middle East CIA case officer Robert Baer even said, "this is totally uncharacteristic of them.”
More broadly, any threat from Iran can be broken down into three categories – direct (military /economic), strategic (challenging broader US interests), or ideological.
Iran’s military capability never bounced back after the Iran-Iraq War, and Iran only ranks 61st internationally in military expenditures. As for being an economic threat, Iran is ranked 104th internationally in terms of GDP per capita and most certainly will not be giving the US (ranked 11th) a run for its money anytime soon.
It’s fair to say that Iran won’t launch a conventional military attack on the US or have the weight to throw any economic punches at America, but Washington’s strategic interests have fared a bit more precariously.
Iran's nuclear program is a strategic, not a direct, threat. Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's annual performance at the UN General Assembly, the leadership in Tehran is rational and would be highly unlikely to actually deploy nuclear weapons. Doing so would ensure the obliteration of Iran, and the leadership in Tehran is eccentric, not suicidal. In September, Ahmadinejad offered to stop uranium enrichment at 20 percent enrichment (90 percent is considered weapons grade) if Iran were guaranteed fuel for a medical research reactor.
Yes, Iran has almost hit the nuclear capable mark, at which point it would possess the technical expertise and materials to move quickly to create a weapon. But if Iran manages to cross that threshold, it will be in the company of the estimated 40 states already in the nuclear capable club. Were the Iranians to gain capability and then to arm, Washington would need to prepare for some muscle flexing – not Armageddon.
The United States is also concerned that a nuclear capable Iran would be emboldened to further support Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations in the region. But Israel’s superior conventional military (ranked 6th internationally in military expenditures), nuclear weapons capability, and unwavering support from the United States would counterbalance any extremes on this front. Further, both Hamas and Hezbollah hold elected positions. They may get military support from Iran, but Iran doesn’t have the power to unilaterally dictate terms.
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.
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.