Monthly Archives: April 2011

What Drives Iran?

By Judith Yaphe, PhD


For the United States, any consideration of Persian Gulf security must begin with Iran: its ambitions, perceptions, and behavior. For many in the West, Winston Churchill’s famous quip about the Soviet Union—being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—could apply equally well to Iran given its complex, opaque, and often turbulent politics. And yet the key to understanding Iran is to figure out what it sees when it looks in the mirror. What are the fundamental influences that shape Iran’s view of its role in the world?

The first, clearly, is Iranian nationalism. It is a means of unifying society while assuring territorial integrity and political power. The second is Islam, which is the country’s source of faith and ethical code. The third is Persia as the basis of its historical identity and cultural pride. Taken together, these factors and the aspirations they embody—to secure Iran’s territorial and political integrity while gaining acceptance of the regime’s legitimacy and the country’s status in international relationships more generally—are deeply rooted in Iranian society. But there is also a fourth, latter-day imperative that wields great influence over Iranian attitudes: the quest for strategic self-sufficiency.

Everywhere they look, Iran’s leaders see their country encircled by real and potential enemies—by Iraq, which used chemical weapons and missiles against Iran in their 8-year war; by the Gulf Arab states, which financed the Iraq War, host the U.S. military presence, and are seen as repressing their Shia communities; by Pakistan, which is occasionally involved in hostile skirmishes with Iran on their common border and has encouraged anti-Iranian activity in Afghanistan; and by Central Asia, once pro-Soviet, now a source of economic opportunity, sectarian risk, and host to U.S. military forces. Above all, the United States, a virtual neighbor since the occupation of Iraq in April 2003, and Israel are viewed as enemies: both threaten Iran’s nuclear achievements and deplore its efforts to derail any peace process between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and Syria. Washington, in particular, is seen as keen to keep the Persian Gulf as its militarized zone, maintain pro-U.S. regimes in Baghdad and Kabul, and marginalize Iran.

Iran’s leaders—whether moderate Persian nationalists or conservative Islamists—view the world with a mix of confidence and trepidation. Regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, they most likely share a common view of the threats to the homeland and the measures necessary to protect Iranian interests. This consensus also includes a strong, underlying sense that they may well have to fight alone, again—just as they did from 1980 to 1988—and that Iran must be able absolutely to defend itself without assistance. Thus, Tehran aspires to independence and self-sufficiency in both strategic and operational terms. It believes that it must build its own military industries, reconstitute a modern military force, and have minimal reliance upon foreign suppliers. It also seeks to acquire nuclear technology and, eventually, the wherewithal to produce nuclear weapons, probably as a cost-effective way to compensate for military weakness and relative strategic isolation.

The predicament that all this poses for Iran’s neighbors and the larger international community is not only how military self-sufficiency is defined by Tehran, but also how this self-sufficiency impulse plays into an already strong sense of Iranian exceptionalism—specifically, that the country is endowed with the natural right and historic destiny to dominate the greater Middle East as well as to lead the world’s Muslims.

Iran’s ambitions to be the preeminent power in its neighborhood are longstanding. The quest for regional hegemony began under the shahs and has been continued by the clerics of the Islamic Republic. Iranian foreign policy has always been designed to protect a nation and an empire that were long coveted by more powerful neighbors—Ottoman Turkey and tsarist Russia—and divided into spheres of influence by the great powers of the 20th century—the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Viewed through this historical prism, these ambitions have little to do with exporting its Islamic revolution or expanding its borders, although occasional reminders to the Gulf Arabs of the Shia and Persian-origin communities within their borders prompt those Sunni Arab–led states to recall their vulnerability.

Iran assumes it is by right the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East region. It has the largest population, largest land mass, largest military, and oldest culture and civilization. It believes it is the economic engine of the region and the most innovative in application of science and technology. In the Iranian worldview, that “region” is more than the Gulf or Central Asia. It extends from Afghanistan through the Gulf, Iraq, Turkey, and the greater Middle East (especially anything affecting Syria, Lebanon, Palestinians, and Israel). As the preeminent power, Tehran expects to be consulted on all issues affecting the region, in much the same sense that Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad interpreted his and Syria’s role. Iran believes that all the roads to a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq, to a peace settlement in the Arab-Israeli context, and to stability in the Gulf run through Tehran. Without Iran, according to this view, the country’s leaders believe, there can be no peace, no resolution of conflict, and no “justice.”

Iran wants to expand its influence and authority in the region, but it is not interested in territorial expansion. Rather, it seeks to build its clout through a policy of aggressive outreach short of war—by building and backing support networks throughout the region; providing political support and economic assistance to key actors; bolstering trade and commercial ties with neighboring countries; and signing security and defense agreements. In implementing its policies, Iran operates on two intertwined principles that underwrite its ability to build networks of surrogates, intimidate opponents and critics, influence governments, and make foreign policy: the first of these is plausible deniability, and the second is deliberate ambiguity.

This post is an excerpt from Strategic Forum No. 237, “Challenges to Persian Gulf Security: How Should the United States Respond?”

The document in its entirety may be found here.

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Significance of Colombia’s Democratic Security Policy for Mexico

By Richard A. James, Research Intern, Center for Strategic Research


The former president of Colombia, Dr. Alvaro Uribe Velez recently addressed a group of distinguished military and civilian defense leaders from the United States and Latin America at the National Defense University.  His speech, “Democratic Security and Leadership,” outlined some of the steps his administration took to combat challenges to the Colombian government’s control over its territory.  After eight years, a nation once overwhelmed by violence, corruption, and insecurity is now a thriving and proud example of effective political leadership and national determination.  

President Uribe outlined the three pillars of his policy: 1) democratic security, 2) investor confidence, and 3) social cohesion.  He argued that to implement his policy it was necessary for him to micro-manage the government’s activities while keeping an eye on the macro-level international horizon and strengthen domestic legitimacy by stressing responsibility, integrity, and consistency.

His first priority was to restore security.  He declared that “without security you cannot have social development or investment.” This was not possible without strengthening the nation’s capability to react to adversaries, regain control over territory, and create positive momentum.  He also sought to improve the investment atmosphere in three aspects: physical security (reducing the number of kidnappings, murders, etc.), legal security (ensuring guarantees of the rule of law), and political security (avoiding expropriations of foreign companies).

Uribe became a wartime president commanding the nation’s military forces against guerrilla groups and paramilitaries. His administration sought the support of the Colombian people to ensure public safety and build social cohesion. He maintained the “people’s coalition” by vigorously addressing human rights violations and rewarding citizens who provided valuable intelligence that led to military action against the FARC and other armed groups. He ensured that corruption was exposed wherever it was found.   Once a case could be made against an official or individual, the information was made public in order to destroy the power of impunity provided by anonymity and secrecy.  The high level of government transparency leveraged the trust of the Colombian people and wore down the machine of corruption and lawlessness.

The will of the people was the deciding factor, a point which is not to be undervalued. Uribe stated that “what’s most important is the will to do things – determination – even if you do not get all the results you want – determination is the major engine of confidence.”

President Uribe congratulated Mexican President Felipe Calderon for recognizing his country’s problem and having begun the fight against drug cartels. In Mexico’s situation, the Calderon administration is steadfastly tackling the challenges it faces and promoting democratic legitimacy, transparency, and human rights.  The Mexican military is a capable force that maintains the respect and trust of citizens.  But to unlock the door of stability, Mexico must answer one question: Do Mexicans and their government have the will to take up this fight and stand up to the violence, bloodshed, and fear posed by ruthless drug cartels and organized crime syndicates?

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China’s 2010 Defense White Paper: No Leap Forward in Transparency

By Isaac Kardon, Ross Rustici, and Phillip C. Saunders, PhD
Center for Study of Chinese Military Affairs



Chinese soldiers in formation in front of the Forbidden City, Beijing.

The PRC State Council Information Office released the seventh edition of its biennial Defense White Paper, “China’s National Defense in 2010” on March 31, 2011. The document aims to communicate the latest information on China’s military development, strategy, capabilities, and intentions.

After analyzing the white paper using the methodology developed in a June 2010 INSS study, “Assessing Chinese Military Transparency” – which defined military transparency as “providing information about military capabilities and policies that allows other countries to assess the compatibility of those capabilities with a country’s stated security goals” – we concluded that the 2010 version includes little new information and provides less information than previous white papers about military command structure, strategic national security goals, PLA missions, and China’s military modernization. While there are indications that the drafters of the DWP are sensitive to foreign perceptions and interested in improving China’s military transparency, the new document does not make much progress towards that goal.

This year’s white paper continues to emphasize “informationization”, in keeping with the mission of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mission to “win local wars under the conditions of informationization,” a programmatic and doctrinal objective that flows from the PLA’s New Historic Missions. It also shows that the informationization agenda—developing integrated forces with advanced C4ISR capabilities—has been widely adopted throughout the military apparatus. In parallel with this emphasis, there was an increased discussion of space and cyber as strategic issues.

Discussion of actual military capabilities decreased in comparison to the 2008 white paper, which devoted separate chapters to each individual service and the Second Artillery. This year’s paper contains only five paragraphs on military service modernization efforts. As usual, the white paper focuses heavily on discussion of Chinese intentions coupled with vague references to capabilities – and no mention of any specific weapons systems (e.g., China’s aircraft carrier or ballistic missile defense programs). PLA leadership has long insisted that intentions rather than capabilities are the more important quantity in military transparency.

An INSS analysis of differences between the Chinese version of the white paper and the English translation finds that the English text has been massaged to make it more palatable and less threatening to foreign audiences, while the original Chinese document is consistently more strident, stark and assertive. In several cases, there are notable and substantive differences in the information presented.

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Push for Democracy in the Middle East: Observations from Latin America?

By Alexandra Kerr and Wallace-Joseph Salvador, Research Interns
Western Hemisphere Studies, Center for Strategic Research


Two oppressive administrations have fallen and various other regimes throughout the Middle East face a massive public outcry for resignation. If this trend persists, the political landscape of one of the world’s traditional hotspots may be redefined. This is not the first time a region of the world has undergone social uprising after years of oppression and pushed for citizen empowerment through democratic reforms; Latin America is one such region.

Many societies in our hemisphere were once under authoritarian rule and are now governed by democratically elected leaders. This shift away from authoritarianism in Latin America, which began in the late 1970s and continued until 1990 with the fall of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, is comparable to what we are presently seeing in the Middle East. There are similarities between the aforementioned changes in these two regions that should be explored to help the United States better address present circumstances. Five observations from the Latin American experience are outlined below.

First, it is imperative for the United States to recognize that it cannot treat the Middle East in the same way that it treated Latin America during the Cold War. We are operating under different circumstances and what worked then will not work now.  Current events in the Middle East are not a result of democratic promotion as was the case in the Cold War era; instead, the general public arrived at their own consensus for self-empowerment. For this reason, the United States must approach these states as peers and emphasize that Washington wants to support their democratic initiatives, not dictate what we believe are the next appropriate steps as this will foster resentment because other countries may see it as an affront to their dignity and sovereignty.

Second, a pivotal aspect of ensuring democratic success in a post-authoritarian state is the functionality of social, economic, security, judicial and other institutions. The United States has learned from Latin America that it is more effective to focus on strengthening the capabilities of current government institutions rather than to create entirely new ones. Our interaction has the potential to do more harm than good, so the United States must recognize that democracy functions differently in every region of the world. For example, the judicial system is one of the foundations of democracy and an institution that often proves resistant to change. Judicial systems are influenced by local culture and society and, therefore, will not readily adopt Western approaches to jurisprudence. A complete overhaul of the judiciary would be ineffectual and because rapid reform is not realistic, gradual strategic reform to the existing system would prove much more effective. As current conditions in Latin America have shown, judicial systems are the weakest link in democratic institutions. Therefore, even 30 years after the region’s transition to democracy, policymakers must give greater attention and resources in order to truly strengthen the rule of law and judicial capabilities to achieve fully consolidated democracies.

Third, the United States should encourage that amnesty be granted for a period of time to the military leaders of the Middle East, as it was in Latin America, so that authoritarian regimes will be more likely to relinquish power. The goal is justice, not vengeance and the former comes in time.

Fourth, even decades after authoritarian rule in Latin America has ended, the general public has harbored a distrust of the military. In order to dispel this distrust and stop it from becoming in a problem in the Middle East there must be increased civilian involvement in national security matters and integration of the military into society. Soldiers are citizens too and it is vital that the public be reminded of this.

Fifth, the United States should not exaggerate the benefits of elections as we did in Latin America. Holding elections will not fix all of the country’s problems. However, it does provide citizens with the ability to hold elected officials accountable. 

This is an opportunity for the United States to take what it has learned in Latin America and approach newly democratizing nations in the Middle East in a more informed and effective way. The United States should support these movements for democratization as they find their way ahead. However, there should be no mistake; we cannot do this for them. It is central that the United States recognize that there are limits on what we can do.  The Cold War-era has ended and our foreign policy should change accordingly; we can no longer force state-actors to do as we wish. The United States needs to approach these transitional regimes as equals – supporting them will be more conducive to shaping a positive outcome in the region than preaching to them and criticizing their efforts.

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A New Twist on India’s ‘Cold Start’?

By Adelia Saunders, Research Intern, Center for Strategic Research


Is the Indian army’s new long-range plan, including a “mountain strike corps” along the Chinese border, simply an attempt to increase its offensive capabilities in disputed frontier areas? Or is it the revitalization of the controversial “Cold Start” doctrine?

In January 2011 Indian Army Chief V. K. Singh announced a new Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) for 2012-27 that would enhance the offensive capabilities of Indian forces deployed along the border with China. A new “mountain strike corps” would allow India to more rapidly counter Chinese incursions into disputed areas, part of  an ambitious plan to transform the Indian army into a more offensively-oriented “lethal, agile and networked force.” This announcement came just months after Singh assured reporters that India had abandoned “Cold Start”—a controversial military doctrine intended to give India the option of a rapid conventional strike in response to an attack by Pakistan or its proxies. Yet despite the LTIPP’s clear focus on China, the plan includes what Pakistan sees as some of the most provocative tenets of “Cold Start,” – and its impact on the region could be similarly destabilizing.

The Indian Army’s desire for a “Cold Start” capability dates back to the December 2001 terrorist attacks on India’s Parliament. India blamed the attacks on Pakistan-backed militants, and attempted a military response. But it took weeks move offensive forces from bases in the center of the country to the Pakistani border. In the meantime, the United States intervened with a diplomatic resolution that left many within India’s military establishment profoundly dissatisfied. With a “Cold Start” doctrine in place, Indian strategists argued, their forces would be able to quickly mount a punishing but limited invasion of Pakistani territory in a future crisis.

Unveiled in 2004, “Cold Start” was designed to allow three to five light “integrated battle groups” to launch a limited penetration of Pakistani territory within 72-96 hours of an attack. The doctrine has been blocked by internal political and logistical challenges and has never been implemented. It has also been a point of concern for U.S. officials, who’ve been buffeted by complaints from the Pakistani military, which sees “Cold Start” as a sign of aggressive Indian intent and a major reason why Pakistan’s armed forces cannot shift in greater mass from the Indian border to fight insurgents along the border with Afghanistan. In September, Indian Army Chief Singh formally denied the existence of “Cold Start.”

But Singh’s subsequent January announcement of the LTIPP seems to suggest that the spirit of family:Times New Roman;”“Cold Start” has survived the doctrine’s official repudiation. Like “Cold Start,” the LTIPP would require a dramatic overhaul of India’s military infrastructure to allow for rapid mobilization. This implies a significant reorientation of Indian military strategy from defense to limited offense. Presumably, the new mountain strike corps could be used to punish foreign aggression but not provoke nuclear escalation—a key assumption underpinning the “Cold Start” doctrine.

In a departure from “Cold Start’s” specific focus on Pakistan, Indian military officials say their new offensive capabilities would be directed at China. However, an important component of the LTIPP would allow India to quickly transfer troops and equipment from one mountain war zone to another, making it possible for India to fight both historical adversaries simultaneously. As a result, any increase in offensive capability along the Chinese border has implications for Indo-Pakistani stability.

So, while India’s Pakistan-centered “Cold Start” doctrine may have been shelved, the LTIPP’s emphasis on taking the fight to India’s adversaries will likely exacerbate an Indo-Pakistani security dilemma, just as “Cold Start” did. China’s reaction to news that India is bolstering attack forces along its border could also lead to a greater military build-up on the Chinese side, feeding into a regional arms race, adding incentives for nuclear proliferation, and increasing the chances of armed conflict. As India rises, its more agile military stance is not unnatural or unexpected—but it seems likely to have a destabilizing effect on a region already primed for conflict.

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