Iran’s military budget increase raises tensions with US
The relationship between the United States and Iran has been antagonistic for a long time. Even after the two sides reached a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, tensions continued over Iranian involvement in Syria, Yemen and other hotspots. The election of Donald Trump, who has openly attacked the nuclear deal as “a disaster”, added to the level of distrust between the two adversaries.
Three things happened recently to increase that tension: 1) the death of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani dealt a blow to the moderate camp and to President Hassan Rohani; 2) an incident in the Strait of Hormuz in which a US Navy ship fired warning shots at Iranian gun boats its commanders felt were too close and; 3) the Iranian government’s passage January 9th of a plan that would increase military spending from 2% of the overall budget in 2015-16 to 5% of the budget in 2016-17.
While the death of Rafsanjani and the close call between the Iranian and US ships were important developments — Trump has said that he would “blow Iranian ships out of the water” if a similar incident happened during his administration — it is the increase in military spending that deserves the most attention.
The Iranian government has quietly increased the funding for the military more than 70% in the three years of Rohani’s term in office. The January 9th increase in military spending is designed to not only boost the regular army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) but also to improve the country’s long-range missile programme. It is this last element that is sure to set off alarms in Washington and, perhaps more importantly, Jerusalem.
Trump has said he would prevent Iran from increasing its missile capacity, although he has not said how he would accomplish this.
“Those ballistic missiles, with a range of 1,250 miles (2,000km), were designed to intimidate not only Israel… but also intended to frighten Europe and someday maybe hit even the United States,” Trump told an American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering last March. “We’re not going to let that happen.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can be counted on to use this to his advantage. He is already counting on an improved relationship with the Trump administration, which seems to share his hawkish views on Iran. The Iranian military budget increase gives the cunning Netanyahu something that he can use to distract the Israeli public from the emerging scandal involving his alleged offer to help one Israeli newspaper get a foot up on the competition if it gave him more favourable coverage.
There is, however, a wild card in this contest: Russia. Moscow could help Trump’s ambitions to deter Iran militarily or thwart his plans to do so.
When Iran and Russia started to work together in Syria, it altered a long-standing principle in Iran since the revolution of 1979 of “No East, No West.” Both sides have a historical distrust of each other’s true intentions (particularly on the Iranian side) but the global political situation means it is to their mutual benefit to work together.
Russia sees Iran as a way to become a significant player in the Middle East. Iran sees Russia as the best way to promote a bipolar world order that significantly diminishes the idea of the United States as the world’s sole superpower.
It will be interesting to see how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bromance with Trump will affect the Russian-Iranian alliance. Putin is the dominant partner in that relationship, so whatever Putin believes is the best way to advance the Russian agenda will be reflected in his dealings with Washington and Tehran.
It is hard to predict how things will change after Trump’s inauguration on January 20th. Trump says (and tweets) a lot of hard-line positions publicly but tends to be more reasonable when dealing with a controversial issue face to face.
One thing you can be sure of, however, is that the US-Iranian relationship is headed for yet another rocky stretch after a relatively peaceful interlude.