A reader writes:
Juan Cole apparently cribbed the figure of "a little over $6 billion annually" from Wikipedia, which cites an estimate of 2005 expenditures from the publication 'Military Balance.' Really, that's fantastic scholarship. The latest edition of the same publication provides an estimate of 2007 expenditures at $7.45b; it's doubtless risen since.
But the bigger problem is that this is obfuscation by misdirection. Per capita expenditures are a meaningless metric - the standard way to measure these things is by percentage of GDP, which places Iran at the middle of the pack, between India and the UK. In any case, Iran's real strength rests more directly on the sheer size of its forces, with more than half a million active duty personnel, and almost two million combat-capable reservists and militiamen. It also funds the Quds Force, and through it, groups like Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents who can serve as proxies. And its pursuit of missile and nuclear technology is similarly intended to amplify its regional influence.
Apologists like Juan Cole do tremendous damage to the case against military strikes. He cites out-of-date statistics and misleading metrics; claims that Ahmadinejad merely "hope[s] that the [Israeli] regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did"; and downplays the importance of the enrichment site at Qom. Any reasonable reader would conclude that the case for diplomatic engagement necessarily rests upon tendentious claims, deliberate misreadings, and willful ignorance. Engagement actually requires precisely the opposite - a clear-eyed assessment of Iran's capabilities and intentions, of its strengths and weaknesses. It is grounded in realism, not denial. It's worth debunking myths and aiming for greater understanding, but part of that process is wrestling with uncomfortable truths and areas of genuine disagreement. Cole would rather ignore them. I hope that your readers won't take his essay as representative of the case for engagement. It's not only possible to acknowledge the problems with this regime while pursuing negotiations; it's necessary.