Something funny happened on the way to war between the United States and Iran: Iran realized that it couldn’t fight it.
This was by no means obvious to outsiders and perhaps also to the leadership in Tehran. Up until a week ago, Iran had waged a quasi-war with attacks on tankers and Saudi oil plants, with seemingly increasing self-confidence. Analysts warned that the Iranian influence network is growing in the Middle East and “Iran is winning the fight for the future of the Middle East”.
What Iran learned last week when it faced the United States is the hard lesson of geopolitics: you can’t be a regional power, let alone a global power, if you don’t have the economy and technology to secure it she. Militias, fast attack boats and even armed drones only get you this far.
Being a real power – subsidizing allies and proxy, redirecting arms production resources, and developing the high-tech weapons of modern warfare – is something a secondary economy like that of Iran cannot stand for long.
It is true that the “resistance economy” offers many jobs because Iran can no longer import things. But it also creates an inefficient economy and thereby breaks the state budget.
Govern by remote control
Trump’s sanctions have caused terrible costs to the Iranian economy. The International Monetary Fund estimates that gross domestic product will shrink by 9.5% this year alone, and that was before the White House announced on Wednesday that it was increasing Iran’s suffering by imposing even more sanctions.
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But even if Trump hadn’t acted, Tehran would have struggled to maintain its drive to expand for much longer, and would certainly have had nothing to do with the financial and military sources needed for more than an occasional pinprick attack on U.S. interests.
Sanctions or no sanctions, Iran is a secondary economy. The IMF estimates that its gross domestic product in 2019 was only $ 496 billion, making it the 28th worldwide. Israel and Switzerland, each with a tenth of the population, are No. 33 and No. 20, respectively. The countries with real superpower status are the United States ($ 22.2 trillion) and China ($ 15.5 trillion). Dollar).
No country with Iranian economic metrics has the chance to keep an empire afloat or engage in a real war. Even Russia (# 12 at $ 1.67 trillion) is struggling to lose weight.
In terms of technology, Iran is even lower in the world rankings – at number 61 in the global innovation index for 2019, just below Moldova and Northern Macedonia. Iran often boasts of new high-tech weapons in the form of UAVs, missiles, and even a fighter jet, but when these weapons were tested on the battlefields in Syria and Yemen, they proved to be less than world-class.
Without the economic resources, Iran imagined it could transform itself into a regional hegemon, wage war, and support allies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen through remote control with militias. But that has also burdened Tehran economically. An estimated $ 16 billion has been spent to support the Bashar Assad regime in Syria in 2012-18. Hezbollah’s subsidy costs Tehran $ 700 million annually. The arming and training of militias in Iraq and aid to the Houthis in Yemen have contributed to the bill.
Defense spending in the past few years has ranged from $ 11 to $ 13 billion, although this is likely to underestimate the amount as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council is likely to generate other revenue from its business empire and from smuggling. In terms of the great power, it’s not a lot of money (Israel spent $ 16 billion), but that was all Iran could afford.
And that is the direct military cost. The Iranian allies in Iraq and Lebanon are all in bad shape economically. Before General Qasem Soleimani left this world, the empire came under pressure. There is nothing Tehran can do to help other than encourage local leaders to mow the protesters (Iraq) or detain them (Lebanon). It has neither the aid money nor the technical ability to solve its allies’ economic problems.
Iran’s bitter experience seems to be a lesson to anyone pretending to be great power, but delusions of grandeur seem to surpass geopolitical reality more than it should.
The Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be careful to follow the Iranian traces in the regional abyss of power. Using a similar strategy to exploit regional crises and weak governments, Turkey has expanded its military presence in Syria and is now deploying troops to Libya to support the contested core government.
Erdogan has a stronger economic base to continue his adventures than Iran. The Turkish economy is the eighteenth largest in the world ($ 810 billion) and, unlike Iran, has significant conventional powers and the advantage of NATO membership. But its economy is nowhere near large or strong enough to pay a quasi-empire for economic disasters like Libya and parts of Syria. In any case, Erdogan is wasting his economic fortune, not only for military expansionism, but also for a misaligned economic policy.
Erdogan did not commit Turkey to the empire to the extent that Iran did. he can still reverse course. If he cannot or does not want it, the Turkish people (so far) have the advantage over the Iranians of being able to vote out their leaders. Hopefully one of them will come to his senses.