Home / Robert Farley / Threat Exaggeration, Not Underbalancing

Threat Exaggeration, Not Underbalancing

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Turkish Air Force F-16C Block 50 MOD 45157793.jpg
“Turkish Air Force F-16C Block 50 MOD 45157793” by Photo: SAC Helen Farrer RAF Mobile News Team/MOD. Licensed under OGL via Wikimedia Commons.

This is an odd claim:

According to balance-of-power logic and by its “balance of threat” alternative, the region should have witnessed a Turkish-Saudi-Israeli alignment aimed at Iran. Pooling resources makes sense since no single state can match Iran’s power. Israel and Saudi Arabia both seem to identify Iran as their major threat, and although Turkey may not be as focused on Iran, it still worries about Iran’s growing regional reach. A Turkish-Saudi understanding makes perfect sense by the sectarian logic that many believe is driving regional politics, as both are Sunni states. But neither the trilateral nor the bilateral balancing alignment against Iran has emerged.

2015 Defense Budgets (estimated):
Saudi Arabia: $80.8 billion
Israel: $23.2 billion
Turkey: $22.6 billion
Iran: $10.2 billion

The author, Greg Gause, goes on to argue that a variety of ideological factors are leading to “underbalancing,” and thus preventing the expected anti-Iran alliance to form. I’d suggest that before we conclude that “underbalancing” is happening, we need to have some explanation for why the massive military superiority that each of the potential coalition partners enjoys over Iran isn’t actually massive military superiority. Gause doesn’t offer one; I’m guessing that maybe he thinks the Saudis don’t actually fight and thus don’t really count, but nobody seems to believe that about the Israelis or the Turks. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone plausibly argue that Iran enjoyed a military advantage over either Israel or Turkey. And lest we forget, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are all clients of the world’s largest military power, while Iran has no serious patron.

Thus, I’m inclined to think that there’s no puzzle here. The major Middle Eastern states have not formalized alliance arrangements to balance against Iran because they don’t need to; each enjoys presumptive military superiority over the potential aggressor, making multilateral efforts pointless. See also this discussion of Iran’s foreign policy failures.

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  • maybe he thinks the Saudis don’t actually fight and thus don’t really count

    The Saudi military juggernaut seems to cope with crushing civilian dissidence in Bahrein and bombing refugee camps in Yemen, but I am willing to believe that the primary purposes of Saudi military spending are (a) to keep US lobbyists on-side, and (b) to enrich local kleptocrats with kick-backs.

    • Murc

      The Saudis would probably fight if they ever had to, but who is going to invade them, realistically? Iran driving across the desert towards Riyadh is a Clancyish fantasy.

      It’s true they did jack and shit during both Gulf Wars, but why should they have done? We were doing all the heavy lifting for them.

      • CP

        Literally, in fact, as one of Tom Clancy’s novels did in fact involve his own reimagining of the Gulf War with Iran as the bad guy.

      • No matter, I am sure that all three powerful militaries will step up to play a part in the Global War against ISIS.

      • joe from Lowell

        The Lowell Sun published a letter from a guy talking about Iran wanting to reestablish the Persian Empire.

        I swear to God. They ran it.

        • AB

          H.I.H. the Crown Prince is available but he’s a long-shot for the job.

        • Warren Terra

          We need to defend ourselves! We must immediately recruit 300 Spartans (plus many more helots and allied Greeks who are somehow never mentioned)!

          • rea

            We need 700 Thesbians–call Hollywoood!

            • William Berry

              “Thesbians”

              Gay,female thespians? :)

        • My plot is revealed! Damn it!

          — Shah-in-waiting Bijan “Look ye at my works and cite the so my H-index will make you despair”
          I

          • elm

            Holy hell, Bijan. I just looked it up and you H-index already makes me despair. It’s nearly 5 times mine and I thought I was fairly well cited. (Totally different discipline, so it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, but still…)

            • A bit of luck with a standardization paper and a tool paper made a world of different. Plus, there’s a couple of sub areas which I did do some key work but my follow through (ie being on the consolidation paper) didn’t happen.

              I’m not complaining, mind you! But I know the value of that metric ;)

      • Thlayli

        The major Saudi oilfields are on the Gulf side, aren’t they? And easily within Iran’s reach?

        They appear to be the the main prize for an invader. Riyadh has little-to-no strategic value in itself, and Iran surely isn’t stupid enough to attack Mecca.

        • Warren Terra

          The oil fields are presumably incredibly vulnerable to all sorts of destruction (planes, missiles, boats, raids, etcetera). But I think an actual ground invasion, and possibly an amphibious one at that, might be more challenging.

          • Plus the Iranian military would need to be able to project power outside their borders, which I doubt they’re capable of.

            • They do a great job of projecting power within Republican skulls. That’s not nothing.

              • Woodrowfan

                So they can definitely project power into a vacuum.

        • catclub

          and Iran surely isn’t stupid enough to attack Mecca.

          This is the kind of unequivocal statement that is later proved prescient.

          1914: The European Powers surely aren’t stupid enough to get involved in war.

          1940: Hitler surely isn’t stupid enough to invade the USSR.

          1980: The US surely isn’t stupid enough to elect a grade B actor.

          2004: The US surely isn’t stupid enough to re-elect that idiot.

          I could go on.

          • Murc

            2004: The US surely isn’t stupid enough to re-elect that idiot.

            You mean “elect.”

            You can only be re-elected if you actually won an election prior.

            • Lee Rudolph

              Hey, Bush won the 2000 election fair and square, 5 votes to 4.

      • John F

        The Saudis would probably fight if they ever had to

        Actually that’s an interesting question, is the average Saudi citizen really willing to fight and die for the House of Saud? I mean yes there are dynastic regimes that do inspire fanatical suicidal devotion among their subjects, but is the House of Saud one of them?

        If invaded by non-Arab Shiite Persians, then yes I suppose the Saudi troops will fight, because most people will fight foreign invaders (if physically able) no matter how vile and reprehensible their own rulers are. OTOH if large numbers of Saudi troops are sent to Yemen to fight the Houthis (sp?)- would they have any stomach/willingness to do that?

        • Captain Haddock

          The Saudis fought the Iraqis inside of Saudi Arabia at Khafji in 1991. It was a bit of a goat rope, as you might expect, but it was a battle nonetheless.

        • Murc

          OTOH if large numbers of Saudi troops are sent to Yemen to fight the Houthis (sp?)- would they have any stomach/willingness to do that?

          Probably not, but that’s why I included the qualifier “if they ever had to.” You sort of have to fight if foreign invaders cross your borders with the clear intent of reducing you to a subject people. You do not have to fight a nasty little brush war in a foreign country.

  • Murc

    I’m not sure I’d describe either Israel or Turkey as a US client state.

    Mr. Gause seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid with regard to Iran as both an massive military juggernaut and ambitions to export its revolution. Reminds me a bit of Kremlinogists late in the Cold War who saw everything through a lens of the Soviets being barely restrained from rolling through the Fulda Gap and still being run by zealous revolutionaries.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Good parallel: Iran really looks pretty weak compared to Turkey, let alone Israel.

      And from observed behaviour, I think the US is actually an Israeli client state

      • Alan Tomlinson

        ” . . . I think the US is actually an Israeli client state”

        Anyone want to argue the contra?

        Cheers,

        Alan Tomlinson

        • Thlayli

          I would think an “Israeli client” would have invaded Iran by now, considering how long Netanyahu has been screaming about it.

          • joe from Lowell

            But even more so: we aren’t merely failing to invade Iran, but engaging in talks over arms reduction, the lifting of international sanctions, and ultimately, ending Iran’s status as an international pariah.

            I’m trying to picture East Germany or Cuba negotiating a bilateral treaty with the United States, while Moscow keeps screaming at them to stop.

            I can’t do it. It’s simply impossible to picture a client state (the US) entering into talks with an enemy (Iran) of its patron state (Israel), against that patron state’s wishes.

        • Murc

          ” . . . I think the US is actually an Israeli client state”

          Anyone want to argue the contra?

          Despite being the instigator here, I kinda do.

          The reason I’m not sure about describing Turkey as a client state is that I see them more in terms of an ally. I admit the distinction can be blurry, and the relationship is certainly not one of equals, but I just don’t see Turkey as enjoying a patron/client relationship with the US. They’re aligned with us, certainly. And I’m prepared to be convinced they are a client. But I’m just not sure.

          With Israel it is murky, and it is murky for reasons that, I think are more our fault than Israel.

          Our insane-ass divided government structure means that, despite foreign policy power formally laying largely within the Executive Branch, it is possible for different parts of the U.S government to have diverging and indeed mutually contradictory foreign policy goals all at once, and for those goals to actually all be “legitimate” in the sense that they’re the end result of the political process and no side can enforce their orthodoxy on the other.

          A lot of talk over the past few years has been focused on the Israeli government telling the US government to go fuck itself while still suckling at Uncle Sugar’s engorged teat. Only that isn’t really entirely true, is it? They’ve been telling the executive branch to go fuck itself. Within the legislative branch, the Likudniks enjoy enormous, overwhelming support for their ongoing agenda of ethnically cleansing Greater Israel and leveling Iran to the ground. Indeed, Congress as a collective regards these as important US priorities, not just Israeli ones, and it is their votes that continue to deliver enormous aid packages to Israel, often with vote margins or in political contexts that make it impossible for the executive branch to say “no.”

          So Israel is, in that sense, continuing to act as a US client, in that they’re pursuing an agenda deemed important and supported by a large and powerful part of the US government which has the power to continue supporting Israel even though another part of the government thinks that is insane.

          Traditional analysis of the client/patron state relationships fall down here, I think, as it doesn’t account for the possibility of that kind of schizophrenic foreign policy; that’s a real rarity.

      • ajay

        And from observed behaviour, I think the US is actually an Israeli client state

        The patron-client relationship is that the patron supplies protection, contacts and/or favours, and the client in return supplies loyalty and political support. I am your patron; I make sure that your court cases get friendly judges, and that your business partners are compliant. In return, you vote for the Senate candidate that I tell you to vote for, and if I need to stage a spontaneous public demonstration in my honour in the Forum, you’re in the front row shouting “Io ajay triumphans!”

        Micronesia is an Israeli client state in this sense; Israel provides aid, Micronesia provides UN votes. If Israel is a US client state, it’s easy to see what the US is providing, but it’s rather more difficult to see what it gets in return.

        • Alan Tomlinson

          “If Israel is a US client state, it’s easy to see what the US is providing, but it’s rather more difficult to see what it gets in return.”

          A puppet state? A proxy state? A yes-man state? A toady state?

          Cheers,

          Alan Tomlinson

          • joe from Lowell

            Yes, when I look at the American-Iranian nuclear talks and the Israeli response to them, I think “Israeli puppet state.”

        • Zamfir

          I don’t think every client has to “profitable” to the patron. If anything, the patron is supposed to be generous in good times.

          I would say that Israel is an adopted client of the US – a pro bono client if we mix metaphors. The US supports Israel because Americans on the whole like helping Israel. And the point of being powerful is that you can do what you want to do, instead of just what you need to do.

          As fas I know, Israel does typically vote American when there is some vote, but that’s not why the US supports Israel. And Israel is presumably more pro-US than any other state that might realistically govern that piece of the world.

    • Warren Terra

      I’m not sure I’d describe either Israel or Turkey as a US client state.

      Well, certainly the definition of terms is important (1). But I think we can agree that the Israeli and Turkish militaries have received and expect to receive in future enormous cooperation from the US military in terms of equipment, training, and access to technology and other resources they lack, including as aid from the US. I’m not aware that Iran receives comparable benefits from anyone, especially free of charge or as a gift.

      (1) Terns are seabirds in the family Sternidae that have a worldwide distribution and are normally found near the sea, rivers or wetlands.

    • Ronan

      Gause knows what he’s talking about in general , he just (afaict from previous work such as “the international politics of the Persian gulf”) thinks that conventional measures of power have less explanatory power in the Middle East , where the ability to influence the domestic politics of neighbouring countries (through sectarian networks, militias etc) is more important than traditional measures of military power. By this reading Iran has more influence than Israel or Turkey, who can’t utilise the same confessional/ethnic groups in the region.

  • I don’t think Iran is anywhere close to being a match for Turkey. Which is probably why Turkey isn’t all that worried about them.

    • deptfordx

      Turkey is still in NATO right? Wouldn’t an attack on them by Iran literally be an article 5 violation and “Whoops, now we’re at war with the whole of Europe and North America.”

      • elm

        I think Article 5 limits the collective self defense measures to attacks in Europe and the North Atlantic. So, as long as Iran avoids Istanbul, they don’t have to worry about NATO.

        • deptfordx

          That’s a real hair splitting play on the word ‘Europe’. I bet the Turkish think they’re covered by it or else what would be the point of there being in it.

          • Warren Terra

            I’m inclined to agree with you about the hair-splitting, but it’s not hard to see a reason for Turkey to join NATO that has nothing to do with their Asian territory. Remember, Turkey’s main defense concern for about four hundred years has been an attempt by Russia to seize the Bosporus. That fear alone would be plenty of reason for Turkey to join NATO.

        • Marek

          When Turkey joined NATO, a protocol to Article V went into effect specifying that an attack on Turkey “counts.”

          Article 2

          If the Republic of Turkey becomes a Party to the North Atlantic Treaty, Article 6 of the Treaty shall, as from the date of the deposit by the Government of the Republic of Turkey of its instruments of accession with the Government of the United States of America, be modified to read as follows:
          In part:

          For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

          on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France, on the territory of Turkey or on the islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

          • elm

            Huh. Did not know that. Though that they had to add the protocol suggests that my hair splitting above would have been accurate with the original language.

    • John F

      FWIW Global Firepower ranks Turkey as the world’s 10th strongest military power…Israel #11…Iran 23rd and Saudi Arabia 28th.

      Iran has 3X the # of people and 2.5X the number of active military personnel… they are pretty even in terms of the # of various hardware items (Tanks, planes helos etc) though I suspect the stuff the Sauds have is MUCH higher quality- whose troops are better able to use that stuff? Well I couldn’t even begin to guess.

      As against Turkey, well Iran has no manpower edge and Turkey has a LOT more hardware (which again I assume is of better quality than Iran’s stuff)

      As against Israel… Iran has a huge manpower edge and Israel has a major hardware edge, and I have zero doubt that Israel’s hardware is not only better, but I have no doubt that Israeli soldiers know how to use that stuff effectively as well (And Jeebus does Israel have a shitload of armor for such a small country)

  • CP

    The Iranian “threat” is the most ridiculous joke since Reagan scared us with stories of the Sandinistas invading Texas.

    Iran is not crazy.

    Iran is in no condition to whack any of our allies in the region even if it wanted to, definitely not with us in the way.

    (The only countries where they’ve gained a foothold in the last fifteen years are the ones we obligingly knocked down for them, i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan).

    This pissing match should have been laid to rest and full relations restored a decade and a half ago, when the 9/11 attacks clarified for everyone with half a clue (this included me, and I was thirteen fucking years old at the time) that we both had way bigger threats to worry about than each other, largely the same threats.

    • Warren Terra

      The Iranian “threat” is the most ridiculous joke since Reagan scared us with stories of the Sandinistas invading Texas.

      Well, hold on there. Iran has the potential to cause a lot of trouble by sponsoring Shiite militias (in Lebanon, Yemen, possibly elsewhere), by controlling the Iraqi government, or by threatening direct military action on the world oil market (they could easily bombard a lot of oil infrastructure in all of the gulf countries, or threaten shipping). So: Iran can if it wishes cause very real problems, in a way El Salvador cannot; moreover, some of this it has done in the past (with Hezbollah) and is accused of doing in the present (Saudi accusations regarding Yemen, for example).

      An irresistible tide of armored juggernauts conquering territory it’s not, and we hear a lot of baseless nonsense along those lines, but Iran can be a threat to local balance and to global prosperity. And that’s leaving aside any questions of its nuclear ambitions entirely.

      • Kurzleg

        in a way El Salvador cannot

        Did you mean Nicaragua?

        • Warren Terra

          mea culpa.

      • CP

        Which makes it basically like the actual Sandinista threat (as opposed to the Reaganite fantasy): they support guerrillas in neighboring countries, and are not far from a major point in the world economy (Panama Canal in the Sandinistas’ case). I’d say the ratio of actual threat to baseless nonsense is pretty similar.

  • celticdragonchick

    Actually, one of the strangest things I saw a couple years back (during the Israeli/Turkish dust-up over that Turkish flagged ship the Israeli’s boarded) was a bunch of Israeli dude-bros on Haartz bragging how Israel was going to fuck up Turkey in a war.

    I thought that would go about as well as poking a rabid wolf with a stick.

    • wengler

      More like a team that has been playing against the Washington Generals all their lives going up against a NBA squad.

    • Warren Terra

      Given that they are nowhere near having a common border, it would presumably have to be a naval and air campaign, and though I’m not well informed I can see the relatively richer and better supported Israel having an edge in those spheres, even though the Turkish army is far larger and is well regarded.

      The whole idea is lunacy, though – even if it “won” Israel would lose, the political and diplomatic damage would be immense.

      • celticdragonchick

        I did a google search of the relative strengths of the Israeli and Turkish air force and naval forces back at that time.

        Air force…about a draw. Both have top line NATO standard equipment and training.

        Navy…not even close. Israel has 2 corvettes, some littoral gunboats and a handful of submarines. The Turkish Navy was designed to go toe to toe with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. Israel could not even remotely hope to challenge the Turkish Navy.

        Sorry, but Israel would have a seriously rude awakening if she thinks that sparring with Turkey would be a reprise of 1967.

    • What’s really strange is that the two were allies for a very long time, although neither advertised the fact for obvious reasons.

      • CP

        Israel used to have a shit ton more allies and more sympathizers than it does now. Alienating them has been a long and arduous process, fed by the Israeli certainty that it didn’t matter how many people they pissed off because America would always have their backs. Bibi’s now trying to push that strategy to reducio ad absurdum by replacing “it doesn’t matter if we piss off all these other countries because America has our backs” with “it doesn’t matter how many American politicians we piss off because the right wing has our backs.”

  • In what alternate universe would the Saudis, let alone Turkey, form an alliance with Israel over anything?

    • ajay

      In what alternate universe would the Saudis, let alone Turkey, form an alliance with Israel over anything?

      This one. At least until recently – relations took a nosedive after the Gaza flotilla incident.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel%E2%80%93Turkey_relations

      Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel.
      Military, strategic, and diplomatic cooperation between Turkey and Israel were accorded high priority by both countries, which shared concerns with respect to the regional instabilities in the Middle East. According to a New York Times report in 1999, the strategic partnership between the two countries had the potential to alter Middle East politics: Trade and tourism were booming, the Israel Air Force practiced maneuvers in Turkish airspace and Israeli technicians were modernizing Turkish combat jets. There were also plans for high-tech cooperation and water sharing…In 1996, Turkey and Israel signed a free-trade agreement. In 1997, a double-taxation prevention treaty went into effect. A bilateral investment treaty was signed in 1998. Turkey is Israel’s sixth-largest export destination. Chemicals and oil distillates are the primary exports. Turkey purchases high-tech defense equipment from Israel, whereas Turkey supplies Israel with military boots and uniforms.

      • That says nothing about the Saudis, who were the main emphasis of my comment.

        • John F

          In what alternate universe would the Saudis, let alone Turkey, form an alliance with Israel over anything?

          This one where “anything” = Iran

          The Sauds do not see Israel as a [direct] threat to THEM (the House of Saud) The Sauds do not give 2 shits about the Palestinians, they pander to those who do, but that’s about it.

          The Sauds do genuinely see Iran as a threat to them, if there comes a time when they perceive that threat as being worse than the downside political repercussions of publicly buddy-ing up with Israel, they will from an alliance with Israel to deal with Iran

  • Gwen

    I think what is really being said here, is that no single regional power can voluntarily wage war against Iran without getting their hair mussed.

    It’s not about winning — goodness knows all of the so-called Axis of Evil could have been crushed in a matter of months in conventional combat. It’s about driving casualties down to approximately zero and ensuring there are no serious diplomatic consequences or long-term obligations to engage in nation-building.

    And that’s reasonable, I guess, to a point. The problem is as soon as you adjust the Balance Of Comfort to its equilibrium point, it gets exceedingly easy for the stronger powers to wage wars-of-choice.

  • CSI

    The Saudi military budget is so high? Do they get value for money – is the Saudi military very good. Or is their military top heavy with superannuated officers and with a lot of that budget siphoned off by corruption?

    • ColBatGuano

      They buy a lot of expensive equipment from us. No one is sure if they could actually stand up to an actual military foe. Protesting civilians? Yes.

      • deptfordx

        From what I’ve heard they have all the unfortunate institutional traits Arab armys seem to suffer from, only turned up to 11.

    • Zamfir

      As I’ve understood this, there is an element of tribute in there. Or at least, greasing the relationship with Washington

      Saudi Arabia buys lots and lots of US arms, and does not negotiate much on price. Same for Saudi-Aramco and oil equipment, and for Kuwait and the UAE states.

      They could simply wire cash instead, but that would be embarassing for everyone involved.

      • Warren Terra

        Yeah, this, plus by overpaying there’s more room for kickbacks.

        • Zamfir

          Is that a major factor? The overall Saudi defense budget will be approved by the very upper layers of Saudi power – do those people still need kickbacks? Or does the money end up with them anyway? I honestly don’t know.

          I guess even Saudi princes can’t just loot All The Money without cover story.

          • Look at Qatar. You’d think the leaders would just hand out the money to their mates, but instead it goes through FIFA construction contracts.

      • Todd

        They could simply wire cash instead, but that would be embarassing for everyone involved.

        That was pretty much Gulf War I, no? It may not all have been paid in the form of cash, but the Bush administration essentially presented a bill for $75 billion to King Saud.

        • Zamfir

          Yeah, and Germany and Japan paid money too, with their constitutions against sending troops abroad. I think that was indeed considered as embarassing all around. Uncomfortably close to paying tribute to the hegemon (both for the payers and for the US), or alternatively as rich countries hiring US mercenaries to fight their wars for them. I suppose that historically, those are not necessarily conflicting views.

          And at that moment, there was still actual US expense to vaguely justify the arrangement. It would be doubly weird in other years. So my undocumented impression is that they cut a deal for the future: instead of more cash, Saudi-Arabia and the gulf states would beef up their military in a highly profitable way for the US.

    • We used to train their pilots, and for all I know we still do.

      Most of them were pretty bad. I had more than one try to kill me when I was a T-38 instructor.

      Their pilot candidates were chosen for political and family connections (same thing in Saudi) rather than for aptitude.

      They were very difficult to critique because it would cause them to “lose face”.

      Usually we’d just do our best to get them through the program and then send them home where they’d be someone else’ problem.

  • ajay

    2015 Defense Budgets (estimated):
    Saudi Arabia: $80.8 billion
    Israel: $23.2 billion
    Turkey: $22.6 billion
    Iran: $10.2 billion

    …and today we are going to learn about the concept of Purchasing Power Parity.
    Also, adding up the numbers and saying “well clearly Saudi Arabia is almost eight times as militarily powerful as Iran, and more than three times as powerful as Israel” is not serious thinking. Iran’s armed forces are twice the size of Saudi’s, Iran has more MBTs, and Iran doesn’t suffer from the Arab discount that has caused so many Arab armies to lose wars to smaller enemies over the last sixty years. And the Saudi armed forces, in particular, are legendarily inept.

    Apart from anything else, notice that this argument shows that Saudi Arabia ($80.8 billion) also overmatches Russia ($70 billion). Anyone (not Farley) want to argue that that would be anywhere close to an even match?

    • Iran and Iraq fought each other to a standstill, even though Iran had greater numbers.

      Unless the Iranian military has improved quantitatively since then, they would be no more of a threat than the Arab armies.

      • ajay

        Yes, but Iraq had more tanks, more aircraft, more artillery, and support (intelligence, supply, financial) from the USA, France, China, the USSR, and most of the Arab world. Iran was backed by the military might of North Korea and Syria (and the USA, a bit).

        • Robert Farley

          And Turkey and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Israel) would probably enjoy even *more* significant advantages in these areas that Iraq did during the Iran-Iraq War.

        • Neither one had a particularly good Air Force, although the Iranian Air Force was better equipped (US hardware) and trained (US again).

          Neither one ever really conducted large scale operations. The Iraqis claimed 180-plane raids against Iranian cities but that number is highly doubtful. Most accounts have both sides putting 10-20 planes in the air at any given time.

          Compare that to the first night of the Gulf War when we launched close 1000 sorties.

          There’s a big difference between a regional power and a superpower.

          • John F

            Neither one had a particularly good Air Force, although the Iranian Air Force was better equipped (US hardware) and trained (US again).

            From what I’ve read there was a very small cadre of Iranian pilots who survived the various purges that took place after the fall of the Shah, who basically eliminated the pre-War Iraqi airforce 2-3 times over, but there was always rough parity because Iraq could replenish their airframe losses and Iran couldn’t.

    • Robert Farley

      Oh my…

      Let’s grant that defense budget is a poor proxy for military capability. We should then grant that raw numbers of soldiers and main battle tanks are also poor proxies for military capability, especially given that Saudi MBTs are a full generation ahead of Iranian MBTs. It should then become clear that evaluating military capability by counting MBTs is, as you say, not serious thinking; it is considerably less serious thinking than evaluating military capability by comparing defense budgets.

      And, as you say, we would not want to seriously entertain the idea that Saudi Arabia is more powerful militarily than Israel or Russia (although SA is almost certainly more capable of carrying out a long term air campaign than Russia). But then the point of the comparison is to indicate the absurdity of the suggestion that Iran holds presumptive military superiority over Saudi Arabia, so far that the lack of balancing alliances needs to be explained by resort to non-traditional variables.

      Incidentally, accounting for PPP drops the Saudi advantage from 8-1 to something closer to 4-1.

      • ajay

        “Let’s grant that defense budget is a poor proxy for military capability…the point of the comparison is to indicate the absurdity of the suggestion that Iran holds presumptive military superiority over Saudi Arabia.”

        One of these sentences can be true, but not both. If comparing budgets is a meaningless way to compare military capabilities, then why did you do it? Why not use a better way?

        And, yes, just counting tank numbers is not perfect. But it’s better than what you did. That’s why people who have to do this kind of thing for a living pay a lot of money for the Military Balance figures instead of just looking up the defence budgets on Wikipedia.

        • elm

          Not to wade too much into this, but “poor proxy” does not mean “meaningless.” Surely military spending imparts some information about military capabilities?

          • Robert Farley

            Bingo. And no, counting MBTs is *not* a better proxy than defense budgets; it’s a much, much worse proxy, as any serious professional in the field would tell you without even bothering to charge you. Indeed, in the comparison in question, I suspect that the people who study this thing for a living would beat you about the head and shoulders if you tried to argue that you can ferret out something useful about the military balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran from raw numbers of main battle tanks.

            • Gwen

              It’s worth keeping in mind that the Korean People’s Army has roughly the same number of active duty personnel as the United States Armed Forces.

              I don’t think anyone seriously believes North Korea is an existential threat, much less a competitive opponent, of the U.S. military.

  • so-in-so

    Granted, what SA spends on military probably isn’t a good guide to it’s actual capabilities. Do you prefer to argue that Iran could walk over SA and the US would sit on it’s hands?

    • elm

      This. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey have no need to ally with each other because, even if they are weaker than Iran (and I doubt Israel and Turkey are) because all of them are allied with the U.S. This seems to be the fundamental flaw in Gause’s argument.

      • mds

        This seems to be the fundamental flaw in Gause’s argument.

        Deliberately or not, the flip side of “The Iranians are a military juggernaut threatening to sweep all before them” is usually “Obama is too weak to protect American interests in the region.” Now, Gause isn’t merely a saber-rattling hack (he’s previously dismissed hysterical fearmongering about Iranian influence in Yemen), but it would be easy to infer from this article that the US might not act sufficiently decisively in the defense of our allies.

        • Gwen

          “Because Democratic women are men and Democratic men are women.” ~ well known fact, according to pundits-who-enable-neocons.

  • joe from Lowell

    I don’t think Farley’s numbers-based analysis is actually the reason this anti-Iran alliance hasn’t formed. While Turkey doesn’t seem terribly afraid of Iran, the fact is that both Saudi Arabia and Israel are. Perhaps not for very good reasons, but nonetheless, they have made Iran-containment a core element of their foreign policies.

    So we still need a reason, and so-in-so and elm have a better theory: those countries do consider Iran to be a threat worthy of creating an alliance to contain, but they already have one.

    The threat exaggeration that Gause engages in is already baked into the pie.

    • mds

      While Turkey doesn’t seem terribly afraid of Iran, the fact is that both Saudi Arabia and Israel are.

      Saudi Arabia probably is, but Israel is split at best. From Tzipi Livni’s closed-door remarks when she was Sharon’s foreign minister, to various statements by ex-Mossad, ex-Shin Bet, and ex-IDF chiefs, plenty of the grownups in Israel are aware that Iran isn’t an existential threat. Does Netanyahu believe his own hype, or is he merely cynically exploiting it for electoral advantage? Hint: If you spell “Netanyahu” backwards in modern Hebrew, it reads “Mendacious powergrabber.”** So Israel is afraid of Iran in the way America is afraid of ISIS, and for similar reasons.

      **Not intended to be a factual statement.

      • joe from Lowell

        But saying that Iran isn’t an existential threat doesn’t mean they don’t still view Iran as a strategic threat and competing regional power, that they would wish to contain and consider an important foreign policy priority.

  • Nobody has mentioned the fact that Saudi Arabia has Chinese CSS-2 missiles that are capable of hitting Tehran.

    • Warren Terra

      But we’re supposed to be scared of disruptive acts by Iranians, not Saudis! When’s the last time a bunch of (mostly) Saudis committed a significant terrorist act against the USA?

      • John F

        ? That morning 13 and a half years ago when a very large building nearly fell on me as I was walking to work?

        • Warren Terra

          The tip that I was very much aware of a specific event – indeed, that specific event – was in the parenthetical “(mostly)”.

          • joe from Lowell

            See, I missed the “mostly,” but I was going off the choice of “Warren Terra” as a screen name.

            I figure, you’ve probably heard of the 9/11 attacks.

        • JR in WV

          This!

          The most damaging attack against the USA since Pearl Harbor was funded and conducted by Saudi Arabian forces. Whether they were supported by the SA government is another issue, but the men and money were Saudi Arabian, and there is no question about that.

          So then W attacks Afganistan, to capture Osama bin Laden, no dice.

          Then W attacks Iraq, to capture Osama bin Ladin for mumble mumble reasons also too. He is barely able to capture Saddam, after owning the whole country for months, and never does capture Osama, even admitting that he isn’t really even looking for him any more.

          And the actual country that attacked us? W is kissing and holding hands with the Prince the Saudis sent to tell George what to do next. How is this explained by the Republicans? They don’t even bother to try, which is probably their best option, really.

          The Republicans are tools of other nations, and have no respect for the founding documents of our nation. They have no intention of improving the lot of the people who don’t own the Republican party, rather they intend to drive them into peonage under their Republican feudal lords.

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