Archive for category Iran
The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining. To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast. However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS. Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.
When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world. President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy. So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.
Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path. President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012. President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.
When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely. It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control. The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government. Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning. Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force. Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.
Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad. But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.
The US cannot defeat ISIS alone. The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power. But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem. The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.
The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court. The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.
NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around. Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki. Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.
The rest of the world needs to step up too. Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS. This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe. Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense. This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.
With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization. Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism. ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.
So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West. That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered. But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.
Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration. Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.
The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th. The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons. If the process stays on track sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.
This is a success for the Obama Administration. The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy. An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences. The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.
Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism. Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem. There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy. They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.
There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading. Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.
The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation. Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence. Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence. More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.
Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case. Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia. Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate. If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.
No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia. That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best. But Putin is not stupid. He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.
Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts. That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be. But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west. They won’t be tied to Russia.
The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary. They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east. Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.
Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd. Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states. That day is long gone. Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.
For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying. Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion! But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy. In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat. That’s why patient diplomacy can work.
President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast. While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied: The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that. The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.
One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran. The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons. The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.
Both states straddle the Persian Gulf. Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows. With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them. In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government. Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!
In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government. As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain. And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.
First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia. Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole. Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda. The reality is quite different. Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam. Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present. They can’t even shop in stores which have men! Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia! The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.
In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men. In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them. We do business with them because they have oil. Lots of oil.
Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be. The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades. Last year, the US took their place. Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago. That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened. We can afford to have them a bit upset.
Beyond that, they have no real alternative. Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies. That affects everyone, especially the Saudis! They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat. They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population. When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades. The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune. Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have. It will not last deep into the 21st Century.
Therein lies the dilemma for the US. Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American. That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79. Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis. So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.
Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world. The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest. Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.
So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously. He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye. If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe. But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.
Right now 30 countries are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to talk about the future of Syria. It’s dubbed Geneva II, as it seeks to find a way to implement the path towards an end to the Syrian civil war and transfer of power outlined in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012. The impetus for this meeting came from increased Russian and American cooperation about Syria after the historic agreement to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, one of the major victories of Obama’s foreign policy.
100,000 have been killed in fighting that has lasted almost three years. 9.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, a country of just under 23 million. The Syrian government and main opposition parties are taking part in the talks, though the rebels doing the fighting so far refuse.
The war is unique. First, it appears deadlocked, neither side has a true upper hand. The government has some nominal advantages, but the rebels are strong enough to resist. Second, the opposition forces are themselves splintered, with extremists alongside secular forces and no obvious alternative to Assad. It’s not clear what a democratic election could yield, many fear that the winner might be friendly to al qaeda. In that context, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon invited Iran to join the talks. It was hoped that the Iranians might help bring some realism to the Syrian governments stubborn refusal to hand over power.
In the politics of the Mideast, one of the most important and troubling alliances has been that of Iran and Syria. On paper they look like they should be rivals. Syria is majority Sunni Muslim led by a former Baath party (now renamed the National Progressive Front). The Baath party is a secular Arab socialist party, originally was aligned with the Soviets in the Cold War. Saddam Hussein’s ruling party in Iraq was a Baath party. Meanwhile Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government is completely opposed to Baath party ideology. So why are the two so closely allied?
Although 74% of Syria’s 23 million people are Sunni Muslim, they do have a sizable Shi’ite minority. This includes the Assad family, which is Alawite Shi’ite. That’s a different Shi’ite sect than the leaders of Iran, but it’s a connection. Still, up until 1979 Syria’s biggest ally was Egypt – indeed, the two countries merged from 1958 to 1961. But once Egypt made amends with Israel, and Iraq’s regional ambitions grew, Syria forged an alliance with post-Revolutionary Iran. The Syrians feared Saddam’s regional ambitions and were loathe to make peace with Israel, which still held a part of Syria, the Golan Heights.
During the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 Syria sided with Iran, earning the ire of the Saudis who supported Saddam Hussein. The Syrians and Saudis found themselves on the same side after Iraq invaded Kuwait; both participated in President Bush’s coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Meanwhile, Syria’s proximity to Lebanon made it possible for Iran to build up Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, pressuring Israel and contributing to Lebanon’s disintegration.
Bashir Assad took over leadership in Syria when his father Hafez Assad died in 2000 and the Syrian-Iranian alliance deepened. When it was done the US was the net loser, while Iran and Iraq became moderate allies – something which drew Syria even closer to Iran. Going into 2011 the Assad regime looked stable and effective. Then came the Arab Spring.
Mubarak resigned in Egypt, NATO assisted the rebels in Libya, but in Syria the uprising led to a drawn out and bloody civil war, full of complexities. Early on, with Russia and Iran both siding with Syria, international pressure was limited. After the landmark agreement between the Russians and Americans, the tide seemed to be swinging against Assad.
Inviting Iran to the talks was a masterstroke. The Iranians, who recently agreed on a plan to limit and allow oversight to their nuclear energy program, could be further drawn into the diplomacy of the region. In realist terms, they could be brought to become a status quo power rather than a revolutionary one, learning that there is more to gain by working with the international community than being a pariah.
In so doing, it was hoped that Iran could help the Syrian government find a way to give up power gracefully. Iran would be there as Syria’s ally, and could aid the negotiations. Alas, it is not to be. The US criticized the Secretary General, arguing that Iran should not be there unless it agrees in advance that Syria’s government must step down. That, of course, could not be Iran’s position going into the talks; it’s certainly not the Syrian government’s position!
The reality is that there is so much anti-Iranian bile within the US government and Congress that any sop to Iran would lead to a backlash that could harm the nuclear energy agreement, or induce votes for more sanctions against Iran. As it is, the removal of sanctions in exchange for that agreement is yielding billions of dollars of new Iranian trade with the West. Still, Iranophobia runs deep in the US and Israel. Moon had no choice but adhere to the wishes of the US; the Secretary General is not as powerful as permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In so doing, the job of creating a peaceful transfer of power in Syria has become more difficult. It would not have been easy if Iran were there, but Iranian participation created new options. Moreover, Iran’s public is increasingly opposed to their hard line rulers, and increased trade will bring Iran closer to the West. Right now there is a chance for a game changer in western relations with Iran, one that could save lives in Syria. It appears, sadly, that too many in the US are far too comfortable with the image of Iran as a permanent enemy. And the Syrian civil war drags on, with the extremists growing stronger as the fighting continues.
Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran? From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches. President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach. If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria. Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.
Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran. A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform. Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad. No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms. This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.
That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy. Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round. If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting. Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority. From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.
In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency. It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory. In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq. As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.
So what next?
With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion. That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south. Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.
If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast. He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic. The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran. The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.
The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important. Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.
Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself. The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern. The youth are demanding change. The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population. It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.
In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane. Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy. A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.
We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident. He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.
Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good. The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing. Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration. In politics, timing is everything. However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.
Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work. The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one. There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.
The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest. A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.
If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating. Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election. President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war. The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse. And that’s a best case scenario!
In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region. The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.
Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.
From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran. The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small. Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing. And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil. Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it. There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.
Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations. That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control. Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!
Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk. The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases. None of that turned out to be the case.
The main dangers in striking Iran: 1) There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3) After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.
In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran. This would cause unrest in the US. Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression. In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.
To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding. That’s the best case scenario. The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.
I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran. I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.
The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era. Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.
But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran. If so, will Iran be like Iraq? Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?
Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out. He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.
Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided. If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.
They key is to figure out what a state is. German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism. Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system. Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.
In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system. However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war. In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.
Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists. Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.
The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s. Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow. Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states. Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.
As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power. The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil. Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold). China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region. Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.
So what’s going on? First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs. The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely). It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack. The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.
War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown. The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk. Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.
US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts. The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war. If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.
Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring. The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state. This would play into the hands of extremists. Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later. One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.
I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.
In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson. One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory. Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks. It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq. The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.
So war with Iran in 2012? I doubt it. I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.
The Obama administration is being faced with one of its most difficult foreign policy dilemmas yet: how should the US react to an IAEA report that Iran may be close to producing a nuclear weapon? Iran, of course, continues to insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. To be sure, it is rational for them to pursue nuclear power. Due to refining limits Iran often suffers energy and gas shortages, despite being one of the major producers of crude oil. Russia, Iran and other states have claimed the report to have been ‘politically motivated.’ But what if it’s accurate?
Pressure is growing on President Obama to do something. Sanctions haven’t worked, Israel is threatening to act on its own unilaterally (Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused former high level officials of leaking Israeli plans to attack Iran to the press in order to force him to scuttle attack plans), and Republicans on the Presidential campaign trail are sounding a hawkish tone. Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia quietly urge action, and plans no doubt exist for precision strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites. However, President Obama would be wise to avoid such pressure; bombing Iran is not in our national interest for four main reasons.
1. The US would be acting virtually alone. China and Russia are almost certain to oppose any action against Iran. They’ve publicly warned against such action and reinforced that with criticism of the IAEA report. This means an attack would not be authorized by the UN Security council. European allies also oppose military action. If something goes wrong and the operation is anything but a clear success the US will be responsible for the consequences. If the UN Security Council were to approve action and there was a broad multi-national coalition that would would be a different situation, but that’s not going to happen.
2. The Risks are immense. Let’s face it, US power is not what it used to be. While America can project military powerthere is strong domestic opposition to anything that isn’t a clear and decisive cheap victory, and with domestic wrangling over debt the danger that Iran could lead to a budget busting barrage of spending is very real. US clout on the world stage comes from economic strength more than military power. Iran could push the US further into the economic abyss, while China might see it as a rationale to shift even more towards Euros from dollars.
Moreover, Iran could respond to the attack by unleashing a wave of terrorism in the region, perhaps evem in the US. They could try to block the straits of Hormuz in order to cause a major oil crisis at the very point the economy is pulling itself out of the depths of the worst recession since WWII. Any military action is sure to see a spike in oil prices, even if it were successful.
Iran could also increase weapons flow to Hezbollah in Lebanon, potentially creating another crisis between Israel and Lebanon. All of this could unravel into one of the worst geopolitical disasters of history. Now the odds for a worst case scenario may be low, but President Obama should recall how the optimistic assumptions made about Iraq by the Bush Administration turned out to be very wrong. In war you control only the first shot — after the bombs hit, anything can happen.
3. The risk of doing nothing is mild. Even if Iran produced a bomb, it couldn’t produce many and the weapons would have limited value. Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Iran knows an attack on Israel would lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s decision makers have been rational (if also ruthless) in pursuit of their goal of having regional power, they are not suicidal. Deterrence works. Moreover, Iran operates in a regional framework that includes China and Russia, who have a goal of assuring Iran does not upset the balance. They already calculate that they can live more easily with a nuclear Iran than with a major war in the region.
Iran as a stronger regional power would be a nuisance to the US, but not a major threat to our national interests. We could contain Iran and work to maintain a regional balance at far less cost then trying to make the problem go away with bombs. The US will have to accept that losing prestige and influence in the region, but that’s already happened — US power and influence isn’t what it used to be. The remedy for that is more cooperative ventures with the EU, Russia and China to help maintain stability and the flow of oil. The US could even consider a diplomatic ‘charm offense’ with a post-Ahmadinejad Iran, remembering how the “evil communists” became more malleable after Nixon and Kissinger started to work with them.
4. Iran is changing anyway. Iran has had a growing movement against its authoritarian rulers for some time, and it remains nominally a democracy with contested elections. Due to the power of the Guardian Council it’s only semi-Democratic, but with half the population under 24 and change already sweeping the region there is reason for optimism. Even if Iran’s conservative regime doesn’t fall there is immense pressure to liberalize and be more responsive to the people. A war with the US threatens that process. It would allow Iranian leaders to demonize the US and create anger throughout the region. The Saudi Royal family might welcome it, but they’re increasingly out of touch and vulnerable anyway. It will play into the hands of the already weakening anti-American Islamic extremist movements and risk exponentially expanding threats to the US and the West.
The bottom line: an military strike would have high risks, the potential benefits are low, the risks of not acting are low, and the unintended consequences could include undercutting domestic change already underway in Iran. Indeed, the conservatives in Iran may be hoping for a US attack in order to deflect attention away from their growing domestic problems. A staggering virtually leaderless and weakened al qaeda could use US aggression to regain attention stolen by the “Arab Spring” movement!
With the economy the main issue at home, adventurism abroad is dangerous. The public would not rally to support such action, and Obama’s core supporters would feel once more betrayed by a leader who would be acting more like what they would expect from President Bush than the candidate who promised a new path. Electoral concerns can’t shape foreign policy, but domestic support is essential for any successful foreign policy venture.
So while speculation about a war with Iran may grow, the arguments against it are so strong that I find it extremely unlikely that President Obama would support unilateral US military action. Beyond any moral or political concerns, it simply is not in the national interest.
Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is dead 42 years after he took power. Having already lost Libya he was holed up in Sirte, his stronghold, fighting to the last minute. Gaddafi was the Osama Bin Laden of the 1980s for Americans. He was an organizer of state sponsored terrorism, a supporter of radical anti-American movements around the globe and had ambitions to control all of northern Africa.
The only bad news in this is that he lasted so long. He was one of the most heinous criminals on the world stage and while there is justifiable celebration over his demise, his brutal criminal regime terrorized the Libyan people for over four decades. In 1986 the US attempted to kill Gaddafi in bombing raids, seeing him as the most dangerous dictator on the planet. This was a response to Libyan backed terrorism in Germany in which the LaBelle nightclub in West Berlin was bombed, killing three and injuring 229. That was a nightclub known to be frequented by US military personnel so the US felt justified in trying to take out Gaddafi. It failed because he was warned (either by the Italian or Maltese Prime Minister) ahead of time.
Two years later, on December 21, 1988 Gaddafi got his revenge as Libyan agents caused a bomb to go off on Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Lockerbie, Scotland. 259 passengers and crew members died as well as 11 people on the ground who got hit by falling debris. Calls for Gaddafi’s ouster intensified, but he hung on.
But his geopolitical ambitions were already on the wane. Libya had lost a war to Chad in 1987 and within a year of downing Pan Am 103 the Soviet bloc disintegrated. The world was changing, and Gaddafi’s influence declined. After having tried to become a nuclear power in order to cement his leadership position in northern Africa, his WMD programs became a drain on the economy and increasingly meaningless. As his political ambitions waned his family became more liked an organized criminal syndicate running a state. They siphoned wealth from Libya’s oil revenues, controlled economic relations internally, and ruled with an iron fist.
In 1999 they gave up their WMD program as part of a strategy to gain favor with the West. It was a cynical shifting of position in recognition to the fact that Gaddafi and his family now had more to gain as a friend of the West rather than a foe. They then settled the Lockerbie bombing case and promising to work with the West against its newest foe, al qaeda. Unfortunately leaders in Europe and the US were all too willing to “forgive and forget” Gaddafi’s past. By 2001 he had been weakened but now used better connections with the West to enhance his grip on power and buy support.
Yet he remained what he always had been: a ruthless tyrant.
Then on February 15, 2011 the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel sparked a riot in Benghazi. The unthinkable happened – the Libyan people rose up and defied Gaddafi, starting a revolt. They had early gains; emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt they hoped to bring down the repressive regime. Gaddafi, seeing how Mubarak folded and was humiliated, decided to do everything in his power to defeat the rebellion. He used ethnic rivalries, his control of resources, and the Libyan military to strike back. Soon the rebels were losing ground. Gaddafi, believing that the West would simply stand back, promised “no mercy” as he moved his military in position to crush the rebellion completely. Most observers were expecting harsh retribution against those who had dared challenge his authority. Gaddafi’s sons, once seen as reflecting hope that perhaps the next generation would bring more enlightened rule, echoed the threats.
On March 17th after Gaddafi’s forces took back most of Libya and were advancing no Benghazi the UN Security Council ordered a no fly zone over parts of Libya and authorized air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces. On March 19th those airstrikes began and the government offensive was halted. Slowly the rebels started to regain ground. At first there was intense criticism of the UN action, enforced mostly by NATO airstrikes. President Obama was criticized by some for acting too slow, but by many for doing anything at all. As the fighting dragged into summer people accused the President of entering a conflict that could not be won.
NATO leaders knew that it was a matter of time. With NATO air support the rebels would defeat the government, and it would be months rather than years. They were right. In August rebel forces entered Tripoli, and with Gaddafi’s death the rebellion is complete.
Was this a success for President Obama? Undoubtedly yes. A dictator just as heinous and brutal as Saddam was overthrown, yet by his own people thanks to assistance from the West. No American lives were lost, and the cost was far less than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This proved that the West will not always side with oppressive regimes if their people rise against them, and that the West is powerful enough and patient enough to offer effective assistance to those fighting oppression. Moreover without western help it was clear that Gaddafi was going to crush the rebels with brutal force.
This also showed that the US was still relevant in the region; many thought that after the Iraq war’s high cost and ambiguous conclusion (still being played out), the US would be sidelined for quite awhile. No way would the public support another foreign intervention. Perhaps more important is the message this sends to other dictators. The times are changing. Being pro-western in your policy does not buy you a free pass to oppress your people without mercy.
President Obama’s foreign policy is a mix of realism and idealism. He doesn’t sacrifice democratic principles for raw self interest, but he’s been willing to act even if it goes against international law. Such “principled realism” has marked American foreign policy at its most effective, and for all Obama’s economic woes at home, his foreign policy has been strong. Gaddafi and Osama are dead. Clinton and Karzai are in Afghanistan planning how to end NATO involvement there, while there is serious talk of the US being out of Iraq completely by next year (except for military guards at the US embassy). US status abroad is much higher than it was in 2008, and relations with important powers such as China and Russia have been smoother than expected.
Recent US allegations of Iranian plots to assassinate the Saudi ambassador have led to Iranian bombast against the US and Saudi Arabia. But the Iranians know that Obama is not one to be pushed around, and instead of provoking an Iranian challenge to the US, there has been an internal challenge to Iran’s hardline leadership. It’s not inconceivable that Iran’s hardliners will be pushed aside by a more moderate faction. The patient but real successes of Obama’s foreign policy have been a relatively untold story thanks to economic woes, but it appears that one area where Obama will not be vulnerable next year is on foreign policy.
When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya. Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support. His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up. President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change. It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?
President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy. He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order. The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century. Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists. This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.
Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled. What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?
The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends. The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events. Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed. By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy. Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests. President Obama has continued that policy.
However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play. These dictatorships are not going to last. Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms. But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.
President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left. Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels. That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.
Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort. Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong. Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.
The strategy is subtle. Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk, patient, longer-term strategy. If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master. But will it work? Is this really a better form of regime change?
President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources. President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates. It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism. While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests. The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow. The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.
So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition. Dictators cannot run the country on their own. Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors. In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator. This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations. However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.
The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual. The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue. As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.
For this to work a number of things must happen. First, a stable government must emerge in Libya. It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists. The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime. Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up. There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes. Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life. Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.
If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran. If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability. Has President Obama found a better style of regime change? Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.