Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rethinking the Middle East and Iran - Part I

I don't think I can summarize my changing thoughts on the Middle East in one post, so I will have to roll this out over time. A number of things got me started on this. First, I am taking a leadership class and we had a lesson on systems thinking, including how the structures of the human mind are part of the systems in which we live and operate. They used the Cold War example of each side building an ever greater arsenal of nuclear weapons to ensure that the other side did not gain an advantage. The escalation was portrayed as an endless series of reactions to each sides advances. The example was fine, but didn't really explain how the process was broken and de-escalation and arms reduction ever came about. I want to say that I never believed the Soviets to be irrational, I did not believe that they would ever launch a first strike, as long as there was something like parity. However, it was clear to me that they would have taken bolder actions that would have risked war had they believed they were in an advantageous position to do so. So what stopped the process? In my view, it was Reagan's announcement that the U.S. would embark on a Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) coupled with the Soviets own assessment that they could not keep up because their economy was coming apart. As a result, they took some bold moves to reduce their risks. The same cycle of escalation could in turn become a cycle of de-escalation, as one side reduces, the other side matches, and there is verification of that outcome. However, neither side reduced their armaments to zero, because, as the US/USSR stockpiles dropped, the significance of the stockpiles of third parties, such as the Chinese becomes a factor in an equation that could previously be simplified to two variables.

So turning our attention to Iran's potential possession of nuclear weapons, there are those who say that since containment worked with the Soviets, we should do the same with Iran. I had thought that perhaps that was correct, because I see no reasonable way out of the current predicament. But containment worked in a bipolar world. In the U.S., we think that Iran is primarily threatening the west and Israel. But I am not so sure that is entirely correct. I do not blame the Israelis for feeling threatened, because a nuclear attack on Israel might advance the Persian agenda, but I don't believe that is ultimately the Iranian goal.

Historically, the Persians have though little of the Arabs or their predecessor civilizations such as the Babylonians or Assyrians. They see themselves as superior and the rightful leaders of the Middle East by history and geography. With their ancient enemies in Mesopotamia temporarily incapacitated, I believe they sense an historic opportunity. However, the United States presents a problem. The U.S. has a very strong, long term vested interest in the stability of the nation state and the sanctity of borders. It is our means to ensure peace and stability. The full and clear wisdom of this position was brought to our shores on 9/11, an attack launched from a failed state that could not really control its own territory.

As a result, the U.S. will not tolerate Iranian expansionism. Obtaining nuclear weapons, is Iran's way of raising the stakes for U.S. involvement, but also is a way for them to achieve their objectives without firing a shot, because their Arab neighbors to the south, including the Saudis know that they will not be able to militarily withstand the Iranian might. However, Iran also knows that they cannot successfully invade these nations and hope to achieve their ends. So what is their long term strategy?

To understand that, one must understand that state-on-state agression in the region is carried on by quasi-political groups that operate within particular countries but are funded by state actors. Al Qaeda is no exception. We know that al-Qaeda has been infiltrated by the state security services of a number of middle eastern nations. This is not to say that it is under their control, but they have some influence and have provided training, money and arms. But al Qaeda is only one such group. From Michael J. Totten's interview of Lee Smith (author of The Strong Horse):

For instance, Syria’s relationship with Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front, and Jordan’s friendliness toward the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, means that these two states effectively deter each other—if you use Islamists against me, I will unleash Islamists on you. Al Qaeda, as a transnational outfit, seems to be a group that has been supported, manipulated and penetrated by a whole number of Middle Eastern security services, including but not exclusive of the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians, Libya, Pakistan, and Iraq before Saddam’s downfall. This is not to say that any of these regimes have Al Qaeda or any of these terror organizations under their thumb; when you have a group of people with weapons, money and a deadly ideology it is difficult to manage them very closely.
Back to Iran. Given Iran's funding of Hezbollah and similar entities, one could envision a combination of threats the Iranians could use to destabilize the regimes of the region with the long term goal of establishing regimes with loyalties to Iran. This could even take the form of threatening to provide nuclear arms to the non-state actors operating in the Gulf states. The leaders of those states would not feel safe against nuclear armed terrorists. Politically, Iran has paralyzed criticism of their actions by couching the need for their nuclear program in anti-zionist rhetoric. This allows them to shame the other Arab states who are not fully engaged against Israel. Western criticism of Iran only plays into its hands among those who see Arab nationalism through the lens of the past glories of the Muslim Caliphate.

I digress for a moment. I recently criticized the Iranians for murdering a nuclear physicist who was himself critical of the regime. Now, I am not as sure. Considering the manner in which covert activity funded by other nations is a way of life in the region, and the extent to which Iran is a threat to its Arab neighbors, this attack might have been a clever move by the Pakistanis, for example. It simultaneously had a negative impact on the Iranian nuke program, or so it would seem, and discredits the Iranian regime as thuggish. Because right now, regime change in Iran, seems to be the only option, and that is a long shot indeed.

My parting shot on Part I. I was thinking what would be the most diabolical, insanely mad ploy that the Iranians could attempt to further their aims in the Middle East in one quick blow. I believe that if and when they obtain nukes, they will covertly use nuclear weapons to destroy the Dome of the Rock in a manner to implicate the Israelis. Such a move would simultaneously weaken the Israeli government, one of the few counterweights to Iran in the region, as well as bring uncontrollable riots into the major Arab cities in the middle east, leaving the ripe for the plucking by Iranian affiliated groups.


  1. I guess my basic question is... why nukes? Couldn't you take this place out or at least cause significant damage by conventional means?

  2. With the exception of your last parting shot, your thoughts are possibly based on a false premise, but my hope is that you’re accurate in your assumption.

    You’re assuming these folks can be seen as rational. The Soviets weren’t irrational, I agree. But that’s why I find your comparison to this history flawed. At least the Soviets had a degree of self-preservation.

    I don't have the faith that "We will bury you" VS "We will wipe Israel off the map” are even in the same ballpark.

    Khrushchev’s threat was not based on religous ideology. Ahmadinejad may be attempting to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam. I don't have the faith he wants nuclear weapons only to "have a chip in the big game". We have our “Birthers” and “Truthers” you know to be irrational; the “Twelver” movement is the led by their president.

    People of his religious persuasion are strapping bombs in their underwear, shoes and under their burkas. What make you think Ahmadinejad won't forsake the well being of his nation for some greater purpose?

    I don’t believe threats, criticism, bullying, or rhetoric will bring back the type of apocalyptic change seen by Ahmadinejad ushering back the Islamic Empire to glory. Our fear of Arab nationalism is warranted and if it plays into their hands, I guess that’s the unfortunate consequence. His rhetoric is violent, aggressive, and scary.

  3. 'Dawg,
    Wow, that's a lot to respond to. So, I agree that there is an element of religious fervor different from the Soviets, but I notice that religious fervor usually, somehow works to the economic and political advantage of the nation advocating it, if it is a national phenomenon.
    Second, do not conflate Arab nationalism with the situation in Iran; the Persians loathe the Arabs. In fact, the enmity between Arabs, Turks and Persians as well as between Shia and Sunni is what gives us some opportunities.

  4. Actually, I quoted the "Arab Nationism" from your post.

    Muslim Caliphate and the 12th Imam have more to do with Islam than the Persians, turks or Arabs, if I read this stuff correctly.

    I will wait for Part II.

    It just scares the heck out of me knowing the lack of self preservation embedded in the religiosity.