On How Iran is a Military Nothing despite What Propagandists Say; and on How Even Israel Dwarfs Iran Militarily in Every Way that Matters

Some random anonymous person got posted over at Daily Dish who critiqued my column on the top things you think about Iran that are not true. This person pretended to refute my column, but as is typical in propaganda, he really only harped on a few minor details and said nothing about the column’s larger point.

The source of some of my statistics was Globalfirepower.com. The poster at DD maintains that the estimate for Iran of the annual military budget is out of date and that it should be “a little over $7 bn. per annum” instead of “a little over $6 bn.” But my point was comparative, to countries like Norway and Singapore, who also likely increased expenditures over time. Given that the true US expenditure on things military is about $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) a year, I think we may conclude that a difference of a billion isn’t fatal to my argument. Besides which, these comparative estimates are always slightly out of date and potentially misleading. Was the poster’s estimate of $7.4 bn. calculated in terms of purchasing power parity? What was it in riyals? Given that Iran had 30% inflation last year, anything calculated in riyals would be worth substantially less this year in real terms than last.

The individual argues that military expenditure as a percentage of GDP is more telling than a per capita figure. But actually both ways of figuring have drawbacks. Figuring expenditures per GDP means that poor countries look more militaristic than they really are and rich countries look pacifist when they are anything but. The CIA listing of countries by military expenditure as a percentage of GDP puts powerhouses like Oman, Eritrea, Burundi, and the Maldives at the top of the world list. The US, which spends more on the military than the next 40 countries combined, comes in 27th on this list behind the countries just mentioned. Of what use is that? Doesn’t it just tell us that many of the countries at the top of this list are poor and if they buy so much as a rusty artillery piece, it is a big part of their income? And by the way, if we figure it this way, Iran is 67 in the world. While the poster puts that between India and Vietnam, it is also between the Congo and Portugal. My original point, is that a country that spends $6 or $7 bn a year on military affairs doesn’t amount to much of a military threat to the US, is not damaged by this rather silly argument.

The poster also points to the sheer size of Iran’s army and reserves, which globalfirepower.com puts at 875,000. But it estimates Israel’s active military and reserves at about 600,000, and if we wanted to pull a Jonah Golberg and make a bet on which of the two would win if they went to war in 2009 I’d put my whole life savings on Israel’s 600,000 versus Iran’s mangy 875,000. Iraq was also puffed up by American hawks as having had a “million-man army,” but I think we all saw in 1991 and 2003 what that really amounted to.

Demonizing and building up as threats to the US small third world countries like Cuba, Grenada, Libya, Iraq, Venezuela, and Iran has been a cottage industry since the fall of the Soviet Union and the adoption by the Chinese of the Capitalist Road deprived hawks of any credible great-power rivalry with which to scare Americans into allowing themselves to be fleeced by the military-industrial complex. It is natural that I should be attacked for puncturing the illusion of menace that the American Spartans (slogan: live poverty-stricken in barracks but own Big Spears) want to project about Iran.

When Andrew Sullivan first linked to my post, he asked what the comparison would be to Israel. First of all, Iran ranks much higher on the Global Peace Index than does Israel. Then, here are some comparative statistics as between Iran and Israel, in answer to the question. But note that the comparisons are misleading. Israel has 1220 aircraft and Iran has 84. But Iran’s include a lot of things like old F-4 Phantoms from Nixon in the 1970s whereas Israel’s are state of the art. And, while Israel’s military budget is now estimated at a little over $13 bn. annually, it should be noted that over $2 bn. of that is extracted from us Americans and handed over directly with no oversight to Tel Aviv every year, so it isn’t exactly all Israel’s money (and of course these are only the official figures, ignoring a lot of informal tariff and other tax breaks and transfers of resources). Israel’s massive nuclear weapons industry is not counted in the $13 bn. Again, the figures for what they are worth are from Globalfirepower.com. You’ll have to scroll down because somehow my table formatting is making an unsightly gap between this text and the table, below.

Population Israel: 7.2 mn. Iran: 70 mn.
Wars launched on neighbors: Israel: 1956, 1967, 1982, 2006, 2008-9 Iran: 0
Nuclear Warheads Israel: ~200 Iran: 0
Military Budgets: Israel: $13.4 bn. Iran: $7.4 bn.
Per capita military expenditure: Israel: $1,805 Iran: $105
Total Aircraft Israel: 1,220 Iran: 84
Active Military and Reserve Personnel Israel: ~600,000 Iran: 875,000
Total land-based weapons: Israel: 14,200 Iran: 5,499

End/ (Not Continued)

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Responses | Print |

22 Responses

  1. "…it should be noted that over $2 bn. of that is extracted from us Americans…."

    "Extracted" might, given its connotations, not be the ideal choice of word here, although, of course, that could easily become a political argument, and thus I'll simply leave it at that.

    Personally I find the Sullivan blog's technique of never identifying who the "reader" is that they're quoting to be quite annoying.

    It would be one thing if they were responding to a specific request for anonymnity: that would be fine. But they seem to have a blanket policy of simply never bothering to ask their letter-writers, and never given their names, which is another thing.

  2. I also saw that ridiculous post at the Daily Dish and had to laugh.

    One other thing you forgot to mention, in my very humble opinion. Isn't it the case that the larger the army, the less there is left for the "Big Spear"? A larger army means uniforms, training, camps, equipment. The more money you need for that, the less there's left for any "Big Spear"?

    And can't we all agree that any ‘threat’ towards Israel is not an invading army (which would have to cross several borders) but in the form of technological military prowess?

    The anonymous poster's scaremongering about the Iranian army's size actually undercuts his fearmongering, in my extremely layperson's opinion.

  3. Wars are not clear forward mathematical formulas, there are other factors to be considered, otherwise the US should have won the Vietnam war, the Soviets the Afghanistan war, and Israel would have crashed HizpAllah in 2006 war.
    Hadi Al Bahra

  4. the list of wars launched on neighbors missed:

    1978 Op Litani

    1993 Op Accountability

    1996 Op Grapes of Wrath

  5. Juan, I don't believe you understand the difference between conventional warfare and state sponsorship of unconventional warfare. These non-state actors Iran supports do not use military superiority. They use death and destruction to foment chaos and super-infect local racial and political issues. Time is on their side specifically because they don't have a large military to support. Timothy James McVeigh was a military nothing. He had no army and no airforce and yet be managed to kill 168 people and injure many more. The concern is not about Iran conquering anybody. It is about a regime that supports elusive non-state groups having access to destructive powers that make Timothy McVeigh's tools look like bear skins and bone knives.

  6. Right-wing American war-lovers like to fiddle numbers to make the US and Israel appear victims. It's a species of the thinking that has the US suffering more with some 3000 dead on 9/11 than the Iraqis with hundreds of thousands of dead in the years of American war crimes.

    But if the tables were turned, and the US or Israel really were victims, we know how the measurements would be taken — ala Stanley Kubrick and George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove — in MegaDeaths.

    The basic, raw fact is that Israel can slaughter every last person in Iran several times over, as the US can every last person on Earth.

    Someday, if our species survives another few centuries (questionable), the US, Israel, Britain, and their cohorts will be seen for the militaristic monsters they have been.

    Today, I have to take a charitable view and conclude that the sheer burden of guilt is too great for war's idolaters in the US and Israel to admit without losing their sanity (if they haven't lost it already).

  7. Hey Juan,

    I have a statistic you neglected. American, French, Argentineans and Israelis killed by Iranian backed militias and terrorists organizations. The number of murders in Lebanon and Argentina are 242 and 90 plus respectively. I am not sure what the numbers are in Israel but they are much higher. If you are an honest pundit post my comments. I look forward to seeing my post.

  8. Your analysis on Iran and Israel are hard to reconcile with the stalemate that Hizbulla caused with just a few Iranian weapons, and the widely parroted view that in the case of an attack on Iran the US forces in the Gulf would be in harms way. If Iran is so weak, why the concern about their response?

  9. Juan, I could tweak that number provided for Iranian combat aircraft up just a little, but it would have no impact on your argument whatsoever. There is absolutely no comparison between today's IASF and the IRIAF. No way.

    What you're saying is absolutely true.

    Iran's military is fundamentally a defensive force. It is inherently lacking in offensive capacity, which was one of the reasons Iran did not invade Afghanistan when seriously provoked by the Taliban in 1998. (Some would say they showed a lot more sense than the US in 2001!) What's more, the Iranian military is in definite need of modernization. Instead, they simply make due with renovation efforts, and a deterrent force comprised of indigenously manufactured SRBMs and MRBMs.

    -Mark Pyruz
    link to uskowioniran.blogspot.com

  10. Dr. Cole:

    [style type="text/css"].nobrtable br { display: none }[/style]
    [div class="nobrtable"]

    (change all the brackets to > <)

    I believe if you insert this between the text and the table, the blank space should disappear. I've used it successfully in my blogger blog, for example, in this post here where I created a large table to compare two texts.


  11. all posters about "Iran's support for terrorism" and such should be more careful. USA and Israel are the main supporters of terrorism -for. ex., Contras – (and main terrorists, including black-ops with mass civilain victims), including anti-Iranian ones. Al Qaida was made in USA, nuff said.

    Israel and USA also support so called PA "police" – really – a lackeys of Israel occupation against their own people. Anyway, PA has NO legitimity, because its "president" term was till 9 of Jahuary this year :)

    On the other hand, Hizballah are legitimate anti-foreign occupation resisters, and support for them is not a support for terrorism.

  12. "Your analysis on Iran and Israel are hard to reconcile with the stalemate that Hizbulla caused with just a few Iranian weapons"

    What does that have to do with the article? In terms of damage done to the enemy, Israel wiped the floor with Hezbollah. Hezbollah "won" simply by surviving. As should be abundantly clear by now it takes a lot more than military might to take over an entire country.

    In the case of Hezbollah, Israel could not politically manage an all out invasion and takeover, but it certainly could manage causing mass destruction and chaos.

    Juan's point is that Iran does not have the offensive force required to manage something like even this "loss" by Israel you refer to. Sure, you can hand over some missiles and have them launched into Israel, but that is a far cry from an invasion.

    The only credible offensive threat from Iran is the potential for a nuclear weapon. And that is not a threat to the US. Only to Israel and Europe. That doesn't mean it should be ignored of course, but it should provide some perspective.

    USA calling Iran a threat is like the Yankees worrying about facing the Little League World Series champ!

  13. It is beneath you, or should be, to strat your rebuttal with the belittling characterization "random anonymous person". The letter was written to ANdrew and the writer was anonymous simply because Andrew made him so.

  14. Given that the DD poster's arguments were invalid, and that you responded effectively to those arguments, why was it necessary to lead off your response by slamming "some random anonymous person"? It is the sort of thing that gives arguments from authority a bad name.

    Had the person's arguments been valid, they would have suffered no damage from the person's anonymity. Anonymity is what makes an open conversation possible under circumstances where people's private lives are so vulnerable to reprisals by the powers that be.

    That said, I am truly glad that you have the job security to be able to post under your own name. I wish that more of us did. And I know that it takes great courage to present an identifiable target to the crazies, even with tenure

    So please don't hold our dearly prized privacy against those of us for whom our anonymity is the only way we are able to participate in the discussion.

  15. A look at a map will provide the Straits of Hormuz.
    Iran can be a weak military power in a regional conflict against the US, Israel, & its client thugs in the region (as reliable as such are) but it has a very good antishipping capability & several major cargoships sunk in the Straits will do what, to the world economy?
    So, yes: their threat is overbloated by the same hacks & neonut thinktanks. At the same time doing what these multiply proven insanely wrong forces WANT to do will actually be (another) disaster.
    Can any of you remember the Grenada invasion? One of the many fear campaigns for that bit of State-sponsored performance art was the irrefutable fact, as broadast by groups such as Citizens for America- Granma & granpa Teabag-that Libyan bombers were gonna refuel there on thier way to bomb Cleveland.
    Between that, the undersea Russian sub base off shoe & the missile silos, we HAD to invade!!
    And if you didnt believe this, you were a sissy commie dupe traitor.
    They have only gotten worse, and the State murder sprees grown like The Blob……

  16. Wag the dog is the name of the game. Ignore the man behind the curtain.

    Iran's strategic position (including nuclear development) is more in opposition to Arabia than with Israel. Mr. Nijad uses Israel as rhetorical leverage, but like the AQ/Brotherhood, the real target is the Saudi hold on Gulf power and policy. Even Iran's aid to Hez-Lebanon is as much about Arabia as israel. Note the hot Shiite-Sunni war in Yemen.

    Likewise Israel rattles their huge nuclear-tipped saber against Iran, and may even go postal, with an impossibly long range attack of limited effect. But their real imperative is to maintain their primacy in US politics and economics. They already live with Arabian and Pakistani nuclear islamist states.

    Given that Iran is close-threatened on 3 sides by US land and naval (nuclear) forces, and that she is struggling for strategic depth against nuclear armed Arabia and Pakistan (both US allies), her strategic need for nuclear arms capability is almost overwhelming. (Obama may be followed by a neocon admin that is no longer pinned in the current Asian land wars.)

    That puts the already-nuclear states of Israel, Arabia and Pakistan in a good position to fan the flames, keep the pot percolating, and the arms-aid flowing.

  17. Those arguing that the threat is Iranian backed militias and terrorists organizations are proving the professor's point I think. Senator Graham just this weekend advocated military action against Iran and destroying their ability to make conventional war. It distracts from our diplomatic efforts and does nothing to combat what you understand to be the only real threat which can only be reduced through international cooperation and intelligence efforts. Good article from Zakaria at link to newsweek.com.

  18. How Even Israel Dwarfs Iran Militarily in Every Way that Matters

    There's got to be more to military success than this, Dr Cole. Compare US + NATO vs Aghanistan on a dollar for dollar basis. Compare Israel vs Hezbollah in 06. Hezbollah sent the Israelis home in tears, literally, shortly after they made the mistake of believing their own invincibility myth. It is a serious error of judgment to confuse budgets with committment, strategy and tactics – as the Vietnamese demonstrated.

    I am supremely confident that Iran won't be attacked by either Israel or the US. Their militarists MUST be aware that 70 million angry Iranians committed to the hilt will eventually prevail over a few hundred thousand deluded self-deceiving military hobbyists. I'm also supremely confident that an attack on Iran would bring a speedy, merciful, and timely end to the Israel Project. The Iranians would have no other choice – nor would they find themselves friendless once the die were cast.

  19. Mr Cole,

    I have to agree with Bilbo above, not to mention the continuing logic of Zakaria that he cited.

    What I see is the sîmple agenda-based propoganda which frankly speaking is a very human habit. The US has been a great friend and supporter of Israel from creation and with a very strong Jewish lobby there, the spouting of Israel's might will continue. Similarly, the great military machine of the US to so-many is indestructable and cannot be defeated, and that simplistic view comes mainly from patriotism.

    It takes study, the capacity to sit outside the sphere and to not be part of that agenda to realise what it actually takes to do something like wage war.

    Any war between Israel and Iran is a disaster for both, probably much more for Israel. As someone said it simply and correctly, one nuke on Tehran and the macine goes on, one on Tel Aviv and the game is over. Though again simplistic, the point is that they do not share neighbours, thus land-war is out and logistics commands most of the considerations and we have not even then considered the influence or involvement of neighbours either way, and so on and so forth.

    What is important is placing the facts that are known, understanding the realities around and not colouring them or skewering them because of agendas.

    Juan Cole, you have done very well in not playing the agenda-card and your facts placed are very logical and only those with some "other reason" will ever bother to dispute.


    (Solkhar is retired western diplomat and a liberal-Sunni Muslim by choice since the age of 17. Currently a consult on the tracking of terrorism-financing in North Africa, he now permanently resides in the historic Moroccan city of Marrakech).

  20. There are always three facets to waging war – the first is the capacity to wage it, the second to be able to have support/control of the population in the land were the war is waged and the third is supoort and complicity of the population of your own country.

    Vietnam was lost because the second and third facets were never there, as was the USSR's attempts in Afghanistan (and some would argue why things are going to plan there now as well).

    Basing this classic theory on say the Hezbollah success against Israel, we can see that also the two latter facets had failed.

    Any theoretical conflict between Iran and Iraq has to consider all three facets for any real long lasting success. Israel logically is not interested in invading and conquering Iran but a simple and strategic attack on Iran's capacity to wage war and a particularly nuclear one. The cost of such an attack though would, arguably galvenize support and nationalism in Iran giving it the third facet to retaliate.

    If one thinks in the basic principles of waging war and the stakeholders etc, you start to notice one undeniable fact – the ability to wage war, or the first facet, is not only a complex issue of arms/money/technology/logisitics but it is only one third of the equation.

    I liked Mr Cole's analysis because it did not make many presumptions nor did it follow a particular agenda – it looked at one facet and expressed it. For that it is very good and I would be very interested in Mr Cole's opinion about the other two-thirds of the equassion on the topic of conflicts with Iran.

    A last comment, I also believe, from professional experience, that Iran's brinkmanship and desire to grow militarily has not Israel as its core desire to do so. The desire is based on the Shi'ite theological control over government, a hugely strong Nationalism that has grown up along side the Revolutionary Guards and a national feeling to tell the rest of the world to "go to hell". Basically, they want to be the local dominant power both militarily, socially and via religon – culturally. There enemies on this side is in fact Saudi (Sunni) dominance and Turkey/Turkic culture.

  21. "In terms of damage done to the enemy, Israel wiped the floor with Hezbollah. Hezbollah "won" simply by surviving. As should be abundantly clear by now it takes a lot more than military might to take over an entire country."

    While I accept your general point – that when fighting against a guerilla movement, it's possible for a conventional force to inflict extreme damage on the enemy and yet still lose the war (US vs VietCong is perhaps the prime example of this) I'm not sure that what yu're saying is accurate in the case of the 2006 Lebanon war. I'm inclined to agree with the WarNerd: Hizballah didn't just 'win' by not losing; Hizballah won full stop. Most of the Israeli victims were military, while most of the Lebanese victims were civilians. The IDF did not inflict a crushing blow on Hizballah's manpower or resources. They just pulled out because they discovered what any fool could have told them all along: they had little chance of achieving anything approaching a real victory, at least not without sustaining a number of casualties which would be unacceptable to the Israeli public, which likes its 'wars' to be virtually pain free (for Israel, of course).

  22. Israel does not possess 1220 active combat aircraft.

    The Israeli air force has 90 F-15's in service, 65 of which are incapable of ground attack, and among its active fleet of 300 F-16's only 100 are armed with top-of-the-line hardware. (block 52)

    125 of the F-16's are the garbage models manufactured in the 1970's whose airframe are not compatible with the new avionics that the more recent models benefit from. (blocks 1-10)

    You also didn't mention any of Iran's air defense systems such as the JY-14 or Tor M1, (among many others) nor did you mention Israel's indubitable logistical incapacity at airlifting its ground forces from Israel to Iran.

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