For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States treated Iran as if it were a major rising power in the world dominating the Middle East. But Iran is not a First World or even Second World power. Iran, as a Third World country, is far weaker than either the superpower United States or the rising First World power Israel.
Look at the figures. The American GDP of over $18 trillion is more than 40 times the GDP of Iran ($450 billion). American GDP/capita is $53,000 while Iranian GDP/capita of $4,800 is not even 10 percent of that figure.
On the military front, there is no comparison. The United States spends over $600 billion a year on defense while Iran spends a paltry $6 billion. The United States has over 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons while Iran has none. The Business Insider rates the American military the best in the world and Iran is not even rated in the top 20.
The United States has 10 high end aircraft carriers while Iran has none. The United States has 72 destroyers, Iran none. The United States has a staggering 14,000 planes to Iran’s 480 planes. The United States has 62 destroyers while Iran has none. The Americans have 72 submarines, Iran has three.
The Iranian military is weak, with very limited naval and air force capability. In the eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s the Iranian military was unable to beat Saddam Hussein’s military. By contrast, in 2003 the American military destroyed it and took Baghdad in only 22 days. Iran has been struggling, sometimes slowed by sanctions, to build nuclear weapons ever since 1984. After 33 years it still has not yet succeeded.
The United States can also likely count on help from three regional powers-- Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Israel, rated #8 in the world in a recent survey of military power, has 700 advanced fighters (including the F-35), 5 German Dolphin class submarines, 4,200 tanks and 100-200 atomic bombs. It has one of the world’s top 5 intelligence services in Mossad and Shin Beth. Bloomberg rates Israel #2 in the world for its anti-missile missiles (Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow 2 and 3). Having fought 11 wars since 1948, Israel has the most experienced military in the world.
Egypt, direly afraid of Iran, has 470,000 troops, 4,600 tanks and 1,100 planes. Saudi Arabia, a limited military power, has announced it will go nuclear if Iran develops atomic bombs.
Iran lags far behind in strong universities that are important on the field of battle. The United States has 15 of the top 20 universities in the world (including Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the University of Chicago). By contrast, Iran does not have a single university in the top 100 or even the top 800 universities in the world. Iran’s four best universities are rated #895 (Iran University), #2,273 (Iran University Medical University), #3,363 and # 5,142 in the world! In education they rate 112th in the world alongside lagging African countries.
In global innovations, while the United States is a world leader with Silicon Valley, Iran rates 120th out of 143 countries. Iran takes 58th in the world in research and development. In business Iran rates 137th in the world for ease of doing business and 67th for entrepreneurship. Fully 20% of the adult population is illiterate. In doctors per thousand patients it runs in at 138th in the world and its national health system rate 93rd in the world. Women do especially badly with a 103rd rating of 109 countries for gender empowerment.
Finally, there are key domestic problems for Iran. Beset by massive corruption, blatant authorianism, strong opposition group (the Green Movement), large-scale emigration (4-5 million Iranians) and a rising young generation not enamored of isolation from the world, the future does not look bright.
Given all this the fear of Iran getting nuclear weapons still remains real. But, even more real is the notion that the biggest power in the world, plus three significant regional powers, could handle Iran if they would put their minds to it.
Only time will tell if that will happen in the days of the new American administration.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Adelman has written several books on Russia and was Condoleezza Rice's doctoral adviser.