Until now, the Arab oil producing countries of the Persian Gulf, also called the Arabian Gulf, or to those seeking political neutrality, simply the Gulf, looked at their Persian neighbour with suspicion and trepidation. The fear came from mainly the military superiority that Iran wields over the Gulf, Persian or Arabian, depending on how you prefer to call it.
The reasons behind the animosity between Arabs and Persians are numerous. There is the historic schism of culture, language, tribal, territorial but also religious. For the most part the Arabs are Sunni and the Iranians are Shia. Yet, although being a religious differential opposing the two sides, the schism is not one of theology.
As explains Dr. Fred Donner, professor of Islamic history at the University of Chicago, to say that there is a theological difference between the Sunni and the Chia would be similar to saying there is a theological difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the military balance is important: judge for yourself. In terms of simple numbers, those currently in active service in the following countries, Bahrain, 8,200, Kuwait 15,000, Saudi Arabia, 223,500, Qatar, 11,800, the United Arab Emirates, 51,000. Altogether, that amounts to 309,500 personnel.
Iran meanwhile has some 545,000 active frontline personnel and an additional 650,000 in the reserves. Iran has 2,895 tanks, 1,500 armored fighting vehicles, 310 self-propelled guns, 2,368 towed artillery pieces, 860 rocket launchers, 5,000 portable mortar launchers, close to 1,800 planes and 800 helicopters –though it is questionable how many are still operational. Iran has also an important naval presence in the Gulf, including specially trained units capable of disrupting international oil shipping routes through the very strategic Straits of Hormuz.
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Those are the conventional forces. In addition, perhaps just as dangerous, if not all the more so is the Islamic Republic’s capability to carry out asymmetrical warfare against the United States, the Gulf countries and other Western powers, such as members of NATO or the European Union.
Under the heading of asymmetrical warfare comes two subheadings; cyber terrorism, and electromagnetic pulse, also known as EMP.
The effects of either one alone could be devastating on the infrastructure of a civilized society.
Cyber warfare attacks computers and computer systems and can create havoc in the banking system, the North American electric grid, flight control systems and even find its way into military systems and security computers and intelligence and counterintelligence systems.
The electromagnetic pulse is quite as lethal if deployed properly, something Iran already know how to do according to several sources who closely follow Iran's progress in that field.
Without going into too many technical details electromagnetic pulse works by setting off a high-frequency signal high above the earth that incapacitates an enemy’s command-and-control systems, and paralyzes anything that has an electronic component attached to it. That means airplanes, tanks, cars, ships and so on and so forth, would be put out of action instantly and without the need to deploy military forces.
As if that was not enough to worry about, Iran holds one more trump card: the religious fervor that motivates many of its fighters, who urged by the mullahs are led to believe they are carrying out Gods work.
Yet despite all the above, the religious leadership in Iran today remain fearful of what a popular vote and truly impartial and unhindered elections could do to its grip on power.
As the country prepares for elections next June the regime is taking no chances and sending out not-so discreet signals to anyone who might even think about staging a repetition of the riots that broke out at the time of the last election a few years ago.
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One such a message came in the form of pictures distributed by Iran's official news agency of a specially made machine designed to perform “quick and easy amputation of the fingers of thieves.”
In addition to the amputation, one government official announced that convicted criminals also sentenced to three years in prison and 99 lashes. Western human rights groups have noted that as the elections approach the authorities in Iran are making stronger statements about corporal punishment.
This is no coincidence.
It is also no coincidence that the approach of the election the regime has begun a new offensive to silence journalists who might raise their voices against the government. In the past few days a dozen journalists from six different media organizations have been detained in Iran.
A well-known physician activist Mohammad Nourizad told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that by arresting journalists “the authorities are issuing a warning.” In a separate incident on January 27 authorities raided reformist newspapers and arrested a number OF journalists.
One might say that this reinforces the saying that the ballot remains more powerful than the bullet.
By. Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani is a political analyst and journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia, terrorism and political Islam. His latest book is Islam Without a Veil.” He tweets @claudesalhani