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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 27, June 1998

Reassurance versus Deterrence: Iranian Confidence-Building Opportunities
By Eric Arnett


Like many revolutionary governments, that of the Islamic Republic of Iran initially criticized international norms as a fraud that favoured the strong and oppressed the weak. Seeing itself as the champion of the world's oppressed, the revolutionary leadership systematically challenged international norms. Almost immediately upon consolidating power, Iranian officials discovered that norms actually had an important role in protecting the weak from the strong. As Iran fought off Iraqi aggression and chemical and missile attacks, the predominant theme in official discourse shifted from questioning international norms to bemoaning the inconsistency with which they were enforced.

In 1998, almost 20 years later, the Iranian government appears to have advanced its thinking further and is promoting international norms as a means of improving its security and promoting economic development by enabling technology transfer. If this confidence-building initiative is to bear fruit, it will have to address not only Iranian threat perceptions, but also the security concerns of other key actors in the region.

Iran's Record

Iran is a State party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Iran has also submitted information on its arms imports to the UN Arms Register and has made a number of proposals in international forums for other confidence-building measures (CBMs). It has played a generally constructive role in negotiating the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a relatively unimportant measure from Iran's point of view. Iranian officials have also stated that Iran will not deploy ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel in order to avoid creating a pretext for preventive attack (1).

There are limits to the importance of these measures. The safeguards used to verify compliance with the NPT failed in Iraq and the weaknesses have not yet been redressed fully. Even a compliant State party can withdraw with fissile material in its possession. The BWC does not currently provide for verification at all. It is not yet known whether Iran will declare that it possesses stocks of chemical weapons or manufacturing facilities now that the CWC has entered into force. Nor is it known how Iran will react to requests for inspection. Iran's submissions to the UN Arms Register have only contained data regarding exporters who had already submitted their own returns (2). Suspicions that Iran is developing long-range ballistic missiles have increased in the last year.

Iran has taken measures to redress these weaknesses with regard to the NPT. It has allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit sites not covered by its safeguards agreement. The IAEA has accepted this offer three times and as a result suspicions about activities at existing facilities have been laid to rest. (US intelligence officials say that no weapon-related sites worth visiting exist at present.) Iran has also accepted in principle the improved 93+2, Part I safeguards, but has not yet concluded the necessary formal agreement with the IAEA. Similar initiatives related to biological weapons and ballistic missiles would be useful for building confidence in Iran's stated policies.

Iran's Threat Perceptions

Iran faces two major military threats to its security, one chronic and the other acute. The chronic threat emanates from Iraq, the acute threat from the USA. One might expect any future Iraqi leadership to understand the central lessons of the Iran-Iraq war: that Iranian Arabs see themselves as Iranians first and Arabs second, at least when the alternative is living under Iraqi rule; that Iranian strategic depth compensates for any immediate military disadvantages; and that Iran sees forfeiture of any ground to Iraqi aggression as intolerable. Nevertheless, the probability of war with Iraq remains higher than that of any other war scenario for Iran. Iranian military and paramilitary forces must prepare accordingly.

Iran fared poorly in the war against Iraq in the 1980s, eventually restoring the status quo ante bellum as much through Iraqi operational weaknesses as its own prowess. Even after Iraqi ground forces were pounded during the Kuwait war, they remain more than a match for Iran's. The balance in the air may have been redressed by the destruction or defection of most of the Iraqi air force during the 1991 Gulf War and the continuing arms embargo, but Iran's air force is not much improved.

A strong emphasis on the conventional armed forces, particularly ground forces, would be welcome to most observers for a number of reasons. First, it would signal that Iran is more interested in defending itself against Iraq than potential military confrontations with other States. Second, it would mark an increase in the prestige of the professional armed forces versus the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which appears to be the organization most interested in deterrence rather than reassurance. Third, it would place a stronger resource constraint on modernization efforts of greater concern - maritime and unconventional weapon programmes - assuming a roughly constant total military effort limited by low economic growth. At present, however, Iran is bolstering the maritime forces and is suspected of continuing work on unconventional weapons. Despite efforts to bring the IRGC under the leadership of the professional military, they retain independent responsibilities for developing weapons and importing advanced military technology.

Iran's post-revolutionary effort to acquire unconventional weapons can be seen as a response to Iraq's programmes. Iran has developed short-range ballistic missiles in order to launch strikes against Iraqi targets that can only be attacked by piloted aircraft at considerable risk. For similar reasons, Iran imported the Scud-C 500-km intermediate-range ballistic missile from North Korea after the war ended. Iran's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapon programmes might be seen as in-kind deterrents to Iraq's known programmes in the same three areas.

Although biological weapons are viewed with nearly universal revulsion, in-kind nuclear and chemical deterrence has been granted a grudging legitimacy in other contexts. However, Iran's declaratory policy is that it neither possesses nor needs nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (3). In effect, Iran has renounced in-kind nuclear, biological and chemical deterrence. This renunciation promotes norms against unconventional weapons and binds Iran more firmly than if it did not make such a claim, but it has not completely resolved the doubts of hostile observers. In general, strengthening global non-proliferation measures both reassures Iran that it does not require a response to covert Iraqi capabilities and reassures third parties that Iran is making good its claims of non-possession. Neither Iran nor the third parties is ever likely to be fully confident, particularly with respect to biological weapons, which are particularly difficult to monitor.

Israel and the USA have made clear that they regard a nuclear-armed Iran as unacceptable and have spent considerable political capital, without complete success, to prevent China and Russia from transferring nuclear technology to the Iranian civilian nuclear programme. While Israel has long been a champion of nuclear non-proliferation by any means necessary, most informed observers regard the option of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities as too difficult for the Israeli air force. During the debate in the spring of 1995 over Russia's decision to sell Iran two reactors for the Bushehr facility, Israeli officials briefed colleagues in the West to the effect that the USA must be ready to attack Iranian nuclear facilities (4).

The threat of preventive attack puts Iran in a difficult position. According to sources in the Foreign Ministry, Iran has a deliberate policy of reassurance in order to avoid giving a pretext for preventive war. This policy has included the series of invited visits to nuclear sites and the promise to implement the IAEA's 93+2, Part I safeguards. Bearing in mind that US officials accept that Iran's civilian nuclear programme is indeed intended to provide electricity to the power grid, a continued programme of invitational visits should defer the threat of preventive attack for the foreseeable future as long as no concrete evidence of significant progress in a military nuclear programme is discovered. Since the primary US concern expressed in recent public statements is that technology transferred to the civilian programme will spill over into the alleged military programme, the targets of a hypothetical strike would more likely be military sites discovered in the future, not the known civilian sites at Bushehr and elsewhere.

At present, the greatest concern expressed by other IAEA member States relates to what some officials judge to be an unusual interest in uranium enrichment technologies. Iran could increase international confidence by reducing its apparent interest in uranium enrichment.

The alternative to a policy of reassurance is deterrence. Iran cannot hope to defend itself from US air attack, since its predominantly Chinese air defences are much weaker than Iraq's were in 1991. In such a situation, a potent option for retaliation assumes a greater importance. Current Iranian missile and air forces already have the capability to strike US installations in the Persian Gulf and the Arab States on its southern shore. Some observers have concluded that this deterrent has dissuaded the USA from launching attacks similar to the 1986 strike against Libya, whether through its effect on cost-benefit calculations in Washington or among its security partners in the region. If Iranian preparations are limited to short-range options for retaliation and no more evidence of a military nuclear programme is discovered, the purpose of averting preventive war will be better served. If longer range missiles are deployed, missile defences deployed with US land and naval forces will make their presence in the region more popular rather than inducing them to leave, the preference of the Iranian government.

Iran in Others' Threat Perceptions

Iran's position in the international system is such that, no matter what it does to rebuild its military after the war with Iraq and the simultaneous US action against its naval forces, it will be seen as threatening in some quarters. In some cases, concern would seem to be justified. There would be little reason for an Iranian deep interdiction or missile capability in excess of 800 km, for example. Other reactions are exaggerated. Military technology is not in itself a threat to regional stability and security. Few would argue that States should not prepare for their self defence and that viable self defence in the contemporary world requires the application of military technology. Iranian military technology must therefore be considered in the context of plausible scenarios of armed conflict.

The most important source of concern is Iran's maritime build-up. Since seeing the greater part of its navy and the maritime forces of the IRGC destroyed by the USA during the late 1980s, Iran has devoted a remarkable portion of its rearmament effort to maritime forces. Most famously, Iran has bought three submarines from Russia and a variety of antiship cruise missiles from China. Suspicions have been further fuelled by Iranian amphibious exercises and the temporary strengthening of the garrison responsible for three islands in the Strait of Hormuz shared with the Emirate of Sharjah.

The concerns associated with the Iranian maritime build-up vary in plausibility and specificity. A general fear is that it is a manifestation of hostility or at least the desire to intimidate the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States and dominate the Persian Gulf region. A more specific fear is that Iran will expel citizens of Sharjah from the one inhabited island, creating a fait accompli that would be difficult to reverse. Less plausibly, it has been suggested that Iran would use its maritime forces to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz or use the threat to do so as a lever to some unspecified end.

Taking these scenarios in turn: Iran has little hope of intimidating the GCC States given their qualitative military superiority and robust relations with the West. If Iran's intention were to weaken the relationship between the GCC States and the USA, it could not choose a less effective course of action than military coercion. Similarly, Iranian amphibious forces are inadequate to take and hold objectives on the territory of the GCC States, and even the occupation of the three islands could be reversed easily. Finally, it was not possible for Iran and Iraq together to disrupt the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, even with ample supplies of antiship missiles from China (to Iran) and France (to Iraq). Iran relies on Persian Gulf shipping more than the GCC States, and so should be uninterested in indiscriminate measures such as mines against tankers.

On the other hand, limited attacks against shipping and the GCC oil and military infrastructure as a political response to military action by the USA are both plausible and achievable. If Iran's primary goal were to be a credible threat to retaliate against US military action rather than to achieve any tangible war aim, an open-ended military requirement would be created. Each additional increment of Iranian capability would increase the potential damage that could be inflicted and thereby increase the putative deterrent effect. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that, since the scenario in which these forces would be used involves US initiative, Iranian forces are likely to be severely debilitated by the first blow. Coastal defence installations and submarine bases would be hit at the same time as nuclear sites, for example. Further, if the USA becomes convinced that Iran is on the verge of deploying nuclear weapons and is still committed to the security of GCC oil, no Iranian conventional deterrent is likely to be adequate even to raise the threshold of US action.

From the perspective of Iranian self-interest, the futility of attempting a strategy of non-nuclear deterrence against the USA suggests that the strategy of reassurance is a better option. Preparing to deter or successfully defend against a US strike is practically impossible and therefore a poor use of resources. It also suggests that it is somehow possible to pursue deterrence and reassurance strategies simultaneously, but in this case it is not.

Other Measures Promoted by Iran

It is worth considering how effective some other measures proposed by Iran would be in relieving tension in the region. Specifically, Iran has emphasized the importance of regional denuclearization, security guarantees, and transparency in armaments.

Regional denuclearization would require both Israeli nuclear disarmament and a commitment on the part of the nuclear-weapon States not to reintroduce nuclear weapons to the region, but would be unlikely to impose any new restrictions on Iran beyond the NPT-mandated safeguards. Despite this apparently asymmetrical effect, the measure would do little to reduce the nuclear threat to Iran from the USA. US nuclear forces can strike from outside the region and tactical forces could quickly be reintroduced to the region in spite of the agreement. The nuclear threat to Iran will therefore remain in place until nuclear weapons are abolished, a process that will take several decades at least.

In the same vein, security guarantees have little to offer Iran. As a non-aligned non-nuclear State party to the NPT, Iran has already been offered the strongest possible negative security guarantee by all five of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The fact that Iran is at the top of the post-cold war US nuclear target list points up the limitations of the security guarantee: since the USA unilaterally judges Iran to be in violation of the NPT, the guarantee does not apply. To make matters worse, Iran's political position is such that there is no hope of positive security guarantees, as suggested by its lonely struggle against Iraq in the 1980s. Iran's principal adversaries are either transparent in most respects (Western democracies) or utterly dependent on imported arms that are reported by the importers to the UN Arms Register (the GCC States).

Ironically, the State that might be left producing the most new information under a regime of greater transparency is Iran itself, since so little is known publicly about its military planning and infrastructure. Iran could rectify this shortcoming and help generate pressure for more transparency by issuing a white paper on defence and submitting budget information to the UN reporting mechanism, which it has never done.

Notes and references

1. Personal communication, April 1995. See also the discussion in Eric Arnett (ed.), Military Capacity and the Risk of War: China, India, Pakistan and Iran (Oxford University Press, 1997).

2. Then-Defence Minister Mohammad Foruzandeh says that purchases from North Korea would have been reported if there had been any. Xinhua, 31 Dec. 1995, cited in FBIS-TAC-96-001, 26 Jan. 1996.

3. Iranian statements are summarized in Eric Arnett, "Norms and Nuclear Proliferation: Sweden's Lessons for Assessing Iran", Nonproliferation Review, Winter 1998.

4. Personal communication, March and April 1995.

Eric Arnett is the Leader of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Project on Military Technology.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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