A Few Tanks for Iran
By Michael O'Hanlon
The Washington Post
December 5, 2000
Early in November, Moscow informed Washington that it intended to withdraw
from a 1995 U.S.-Russian agreement limiting sales of advanced conventional
weapons to Iran. Under the terms of that accord, Russia had promised to
stop exporting arms to Iran by the end of last year. In exchange, Washington
agreed not to impose sanctions on Russia for its existing arms contracts
with Iran. Now Moscow says that because the 1995 agreement was supposed
to be secret, but has recently become public in the United States,Russia
will no longer be bound by its terms. That Russian argument is bogus,
and U.S. policymakers are right to reject it. But Moscow will probably
sell arms to Iran anyway. It is not surprising that a cash-strapped country
such as Russia would continue to sell weapons abroad--and the United States
is hardly beyond the temptation of making arms sales for largely economic
reasons itself. So, rather than try to prevent all sales, Washington should
focus on making sure that Russia does not sell Iran truly dangerous weaponry.
U.S. policymakers have correctly put a great deal of pressure on both
Moscow and Beijing to curtail transfers of nuclear technologies to potentially
dangerous countries, and they should continue doing so if necessary. Were
such states to acquire nuclear weapons, even in very limited numbers, they
could acutely threaten large numbers of American, Israeli or other allied
citizens. Next on the hierarchy of dangerous military materials are ballistic
missiles, antiship cruise missiles, submarines and advanced sea mines.
If Iran's hard-liners remain in control of the country's security institutions,
and again become aggressive in the future, they could use relatively modest
numbers of these types of assets to terrible effect. Iran could use ballistic
missiles to strike Israeli or Saudi cities, or U.S. bases in the region.
It could use submarines, antiship missiles and mines to sinkships in the
Persian Gulf or Strait of Hormuz, and possibly even to attack U.S. warships
in those waters. The region's stability, and secure global access to Persian
Gulf oil supplies, could be put at serious risk.
However, most of the systems Russia is selling Iran are tanks, armored
personnel carriers, artillery and related ground combat equipment. They
are not particularly dangerous in limited numbers. For example, although
a single Iranian submarine might sink a U.S. warship, even a few hundred
modern tanks would have a hard time seriously threatening American interests
in the region. To do so, they would need to conduct a large-scale invasion
of a country such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, opening themselves up to rapid
and massive retribution from U.S. combat forces that remain nearby and
that have already demonstrated their prowess in open-desert warfare.
Moreover, Iran's interest in strengthening its army and air force may
be legitimate. Living next to Saddam Hussein, its government and people
have sound reasons for wanting a strong defense. At present, even after
the effects of the Persian Gulf War and a decade of sanctions, Iraq continues
to have more military equipment than Iran. For example, Saddam's armed
forces are equipped with some 2,200 tanks, 3,400 smaller armored vehicles
(light tanks and armored personnel carriers) and about 320 combat aircraft.
Iran is behind in all categories: It owns roughly 1,150 tanks, about 1,000
smaller armored vehicles and 290 combat aircraft. These "bean counts"
do not prove that Iraq is militarily superior to Iran. But they do suggest
that Tehran may have defensive motives when it buys tanks and similar weapons.
Nor have Tehran's recent arms purchases been egregiously large. Since
1992, Iran has imported about $5 billion worth of weapons--less than the
totals for Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and of course
Rather than hinge everything on convincing Russian president Vladimir
Putin to stop all arms sales to Iran, U.S. policymakers need a fallback
position. They should be prepared to tolerate limited sales of weapons
that Iran may want for self-defense and save their fierce objections for
destabilizing weapons that have little legitimate military purpose in the
Persian Gulf context. Sales of a few tanks may not be such a bad thing.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.