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The Islamic Republic of Hysteria

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To the extent the Trump administration has a discernible Middle East strategy, it is to contain and confront Iran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and President Donald Trump himself have all denounced Iran’s regional activities. (In February, after Iranian ballistic missile tests, Trump tweeted that the country was “playing with fire.”) In October, the White House announced that moving forward, the official U.S. policy is aimed at “neutralizing Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression.”

Trump and his aides appear to have embraced the view that Iran is a potential hegemon poised to dominate the Middle East — and specifically to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf. This logic helps make sense of Trump’s unswerving support for Saudi Arabia, including his endorsements (both tacit and explicit) of the political shake-ups organized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at home and his apparent efforts to interfere in Lebanon’s internal politics. It also explains Trump’s refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal in October.

Yet this ongoing full-court press against Iran makes little sense because it is nowhere close to being a regional hegemon. If anything, the willingness of pundits and politicians to embrace this alarmist fantasy says more about the cavalier nature of U.S. strategic discourse than it does about the actual challenge Iran may pose.

Iran presently lacks the hard power a state would need to dominate the Middle East’s vast and deeply divided set of countries. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran has a population of about 83 million; as of 2016, its GDP was more than $400 billion; and its annual defense budget is almost $16 billion. Its total military manpower (including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC) consists of about 520,000 troops, of of them poorly trained draftees. Many of its tanks, aircraft, and other major weapons systems date from the era of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and are in poor repair. As veteran defense analyst Anthony Cordesman concluded in 2010, “Iran’s........

© Foreign Policy