Is Iran dangerous, or a paper tiger?

Why has starting wars – aggressive wars, for conquest – usually proved fruitless in the modern era, the past few centuries (even back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648). Perhaps because so often the aggressors know so little about their targets, their designated victims. Japan’s elites knew little about America in 1941 – neither its industrial strength nor the determination of its people. Their education proved expensive.

Now the drums of war are beating as hawks urge war with Iran.  I see two questions unasked and unanswered in most articles by Iran.

(1)  How to respond to a threatening but dying nation? Containment seems to me the preferred method, but this is a complex question.  Esp given Iran’s demographics — which are if not the destiny of nations than a major contributor to it.  China’s bumper crop of single men – with no local women to marry.  Iran with a surplus of unemployed men, followed by a population collapse.  These are the hidden trends that shape the world in ways difficult to predict.

(2)  How much do we know about Iran?  Some recent works suggest that we, as so often true in life, know far less than we believe.

The following articles discuss these questions.  {This post was updated 6 September 2009}


  1. Spengler sees a dying regime in Iran
  2. Iran’s ugly demographics are good news
  3. George Friedman of Stratfor looks at Iran (update)
  4. For more information

(1)  Spengler sees a dying regime in Iran

First, 5 articles by the provocative “Spengler”, writing for the Asia Times.  The first 3 describe a dying regime, dangerous as it might strike out while it still has strength.  The last 2 describe a sad, even pitiful, picture of Iran’s inner life.  This is a nation than in a single generation has seen its fertility rate drop by 90%, from 6.5 to .66 – amongst the lowest in the world.

(2)  Iran’s ugly demographics are good news

This was discussed briefly in Spengler’s 13 November article above. Well worth the read.

… Iran is experiencing what you might call the reverse-Children of Men effect. Just like in the post-apocalyptic film, Iran is, increasingly, a society devoid of children. But the real-life outcome of this birth dearth is far less grim than the police state depicted onscreen. In fact, there’s a good chance that declining fertility rates will usher in a new era of stability–an Iran that is bourgeois, secular, less like Children of Men’s bombed-out Britain and more like – Denmark.

… The connection between fertility rates and political stability is still not fully understood, mostly because the human race has never, in its entire history, reproduced at below-replacement levels, and we simply don’t have the longitudinal data to see what that could mean. Still, when you notice that some of the highest birthrates in the Islamic world are in places like Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Gaza, whereas the world’s lowest birthrates are in nations like Italy, Japan, and Germany, it’s clear that Iran’s lower birth rates could signal some unheralded, and very positive, changes.

… Obviously, Iranian culture doesn’t bear many similarities to the world’s other low-fertility belts, like Scandinavia and the northern Mediterranean. But there’s some evidence that Iran may begin to resemble those regions once it begins to realize the effects of its baby bust.

Demographic changes don’t show their full effects for years–the children born into Iran’s new social configuration won’t graduate college until the 2010s and 2020s. But already Iranians have become familiar with expectations about gender, autonomy, and the individual that are very different from those offered by the clerical regime. Given another decade or so of uninterrupted development, trends make it very likely that Iran could approach high levels of stability and even political pluralism. Of course, that’s if Ahmadinejad doesn’t scotch it first.

Philip Jenkins is the author of God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis.  See his Wikipedia entry for more information.

(3)  George Friedman of Stratfor looks at Iran (update)

These don’t read well in retrospect.  As Stratfor provides a window into the thinking of the upper levels of the US government, a close reading of these shows their limited understanding of both Iran — and the nature of the US – Iran relationship.  For example, they see Iran’s leaders as seeking a negotiated settlement with the US — largely due to Stratfor’s perception that the US position in the Middle East is strong, and Iran’s as weak.  Events have not been kind to this view.

  1. The Iranian Game, 24 April 2003
  2. An Unlikely Alliance, 2 September 2003 — Yes, he means the US and Iran.
  3. The Unnoticed Alignment: Iran and the United States in Iraq, 19 November 2003
  4. Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, 3 June 2004
  5. War Plans: United States and Iran, 30 October 2007
  6. The NIE Report: Solving a Geopolitical Problem with Iran, 3 December 2007
  7. The U.S.-Iranian Negotiations: Beyond the Rhetoric, 12 February 2008
  8. Iran Returns to the Global Stage, 10 November 2008
  9. Iran’s View of Obama, 23 March 2009
  10. Western Misconceptions Meet Iranian Reality, 15 June 2009
  11. The Iranian Election and the Revolution Test, 22 June 2009
  12. The Real Struggle in Iran and Implications for U.S. Dialogue, 29 June 2009

(4)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.

For more information about Iran:

  1. Is Pakistan’s Musharraf like the Shah of Iran? (if so, bad news for us) , 8 November 2007
  2. War with Iran , 9 November 2007 — Why Iran is not necessarily our enemy.
  3. The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State , 10 December 2007
  4. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  5. Iran – a key state to watch as the new world order evolves, 3 March 2009



6 thoughts on “Is Iran dangerous, or a paper tiger?”

  1. Well given that Iran hasn’t started a war for, what, 200 years. Doesn’t look like anything to worry about.

    The demographic numbers look funny. Not sure where the 0.66 for Iran is. Neither the UN or CIA numbers are anywhere near that (CIA is 1.71, UN 2.04). This has also been a deliberate Gov’t policy, by increasing family planning and contraception over the last 10 years or so.

    From wiki:

    “In 1993, Iran dropped certain maternity benefits for couples who had more than three children. According to the BBC, Iran is believed to be the only country where men and women are required to attend classes about contraception before they can obtain a marriage license.
    In addition, Iran has made both condoms and contraceptive pills widely available. Contraceptive pills are available at pharmacies across Iran, and the government gives away condoms at health clinics around the country.”

    Another (and more logical) interpretation would be that they are trying to get their population down to maintain a decent standard of living when the oil runs out.

    The neo-crazies are really trying to talk up the militaristic, expansionist Iran spin. Trouble is that there is not a shred of evidence supporting it. If they were really like that then:

    – Their armed forces would be very much larger. Turkey would smash them to bits, let alone nuclear armed Pakistan.
    – They would by trying to increase their population, not reduce it.
    – The US would already have a carrier group at the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
    – The US would be negotiating with Iran to get its captured 150,000 soldiers in Iraq back.

    Doesn’t add up.

  2. Good analysis there OS. Interestingly the points about population control, linked to future prosperity, including the last paragrpahs, also applies to the new World SuperPower that’s well along the road to supplantly the USA, China.

    What I find irronic, is that Americans themselves maybe the very last to realise when they’ve been overtaken, and quite likely by more than one world entity. The good news being that if the US can get through this era of fatefull, inexorable, and self expidited decline intact, “the average schmuck,” from NJ, to Bejing, might actually end up far better off for that.


  3. Irans demographic decline would be simple to correct, the mullas could easily promote a high birthrate if they wanted to… but they don’t want to. It would swiftly mean a lot of people disatisfied with their 4 to a room living conditions, this along with unemployment is a social time bomb that Iran’s leaders would rather not be sitting on.

    Someone should tell Spengler that Israel has more Nuclear weapons that the UK.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. They already have far more young people than they can find jobs for.

  4. Iran’s leadership may simply be far sighted enough to realize that a) their oil wealth is finite, and b) it will be much easier to deal with a demographic shift from baby boom to below replacement levels while they still have oil wealth to cushion them than it will be afterward. Frankly, that should be the most frightening scenario for people planning for a conflict for Iran, since it indicates a level of maturity and intelligence in the Iranian leadership utterly absent in the western world.

    My impression of the Iranian leadership and Iranian people in general is that they are desperate to avoid a repeat of the revolution. My current boss is an Iranian expatriate, he’s easily the smartest and best educated man I’ve ever worked for, loosing an entire generation of men and women of his caliber would be an inconceivable blow for any country, and AFAIK that’s what happened during the Iranian revolution.

    So how should the West deal with Iran? Probably offering them full normalization of relations and trade. Fabius has mentioned “The Rise and Decline of the State” before and in an age where the State in general is in decline, it’s in the interests of existing states to shore up and stabilize other states, especially in areas like the middle east where the structure of states is in decline. Israel will bitch and moan to no end, but Israel’s paranoia about Muslim majority states will not be satisfied until they’re all reduced to the level of the Gaza strip. This puts them in opposition to the interests of the western world, who would be best served by strong, prosperous Muslim states covering the entire middle east.

  5. As oil fields deplete, first you have to pump water down to chase the oil out, and later, you have to inject steam thus lowering viscosity to help the stubborn oil to drain toward the removal points. The hot set up (pun intended) is to use nuclear power to make the steam. Think of it as a nuclear to liquid fuels conversion. A French official from Total made the mistake of suggesting this up in Canada for SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) recovery of bitumen, and environmentalists threw their shoes at him (figuratively), so they continue burning insane quantities of natural gas to make steam instead.
    Iran has the same problem. Howls of derision go up excoriating Iran for suggesting an oil power needs to generate electricity from nuclear. The leadership cannot admit they might be planning for when the oil requires thermal extraction.

  6. The demographics are telling, and the unrest over the latest election even more so. I think Iran is growing more secular by the minute, but the clerics will fight a prolonged and desperate rear-guard action. Pressure to open the economy should have the same impact it had in Eastern Europe, steadily eroding ideological authority. Still, apart from their support for external terrorist organizations Iran under the clerics is a geopolitically conservative regime and I don’t see anything changing that.

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