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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 Saudi Arabia.

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.


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