Marke Sheffie / Policy on Point – 2012-01-18 00:57:37
Skip the Turban, Check the Brain:
It’s Called the Persian Gulf for a Reason
(December 26, 2011) — Iran just can’t help but make the ‘news’ these days. Whether it’s some used-car salesman trying to whack the Saudi ambassador for the IRGC (ridiculous), the constantly advancing nuclear weapons program (shenanigans), or the hacking and downing of an American RQ-170 (impressive), they just can’t stay out of trouble these Persians.
How dare they take our drone, it’s just uncivilized. Don’t they understand we are the United States the Invincible? That the world is ours thanks to WW2/Cold War victory? That overwhelming military budgets dictate we rule? They don’t seem to be buying it, and we had better come to terms with it sooner than later.
Now that the United States has ‘won’ the Iraq War, it’s time for the West to begin understanding the power taking over. Unfortunately it seems most Americans adopt the ‘Mad Mullah’ approach to Iran, buying into the systematically disseminated propaganda that all sides, including the Iranians themselves, sell for their various political reasons. If only this were true. The Iranians as single-minded fanatical zealots are a much simpler adversary than that which actually exists, one able to be spliced into convenient sound bites by debating Republicans in need of neatly packaged talking points designed for voters’ consumption.
The Iranians, taking a move out of Kim Jong Il’s playbook, gain from appearing trigger happy and erratic. They are anything but. The Bush II administration might as well have been the butlers of Khamenei, serving Iraq up on a silver platter like they did. As it has been in the past, now the lowlands of Mesopotamia (and to a lesser extent western Afghanistan) will serve as the foundation for the strategic depth of the revanchist Persian Empire, an entity we cannot invade or bomb into submission without crippling the global economy.
Before we go to war against Muslims the masterminds should be required to pick up at least one textbook (maybe just learn the difference between Sunni and Shia) and although harping on the Bush administrations’ lack of foresight is too easy and virtually useless at this point, it’s still irresistible. Now we must make an honest appraisal of the so-called enemy, something Americans seem to have little time for. Instead we would be marched lock-step toward another conflict based upon the same overblown assumptions that opened the western gateway for Iran in the first place. Is our memory so clouded that we can’t remember 2003? A trillion dollars and a few thousand sons bought for Iran what they couldn’t purchase for over one million casualties in the eighties.
The longer we rattle missiles, the deeper Iran inroads the Arab world, the more the Sunni-Shia divide is crumbled, and the weaker the American bargaining position becomes. Whoever killed Husayn seems to matter less and less to populations, it’s the anti-colonial message that increasingly rings true regardless of sect. Iranian power has become such that violence in Iraq and Israel can be switched on or off at Tehran’s whim, regardless of whether it’s a Shia shouldering the AK. Instead of realizing Iran is the player that needs to be on the other side of the table, the new blood with the big stack, American and Israeli politicians would have us cower in our closets afraid of being nuked in our jammies.
Iran can’t invade and hold Iraq any more than we can invade and hold Iran. They gain territory through strategic politics based on history and ethnography, violence or the threat of violence via proxy, and above all taking advantage of openings created by our own policy missteps and short-sighted natures. Fortunately for the Iranian government, their totalitarian character allows them to plan for decades, not merely fiscal years and election cycles.
In this respect, democracy is the ball and chain of America (given our incredibly short attention spans). If threatening Iran is politically viable, it will be done (I know it’s painful, but just peek at Republican debates). These threats serve Tehran’s interests, making their propaganda all the more convincing to those sitting on the fence whether they are Sunni, Shia, whatever.
It’s hardly worth running through the laundry list of counterattacks that would be brought to bear if the United States, Israel, the Gulf Arabs, or a combination were to attack Iran. But it is worth mentioning the violence that would be directed against Israel, both internally (from Hamas) and externally (from Hezbollah). In addition, the financial havoc that would result from the unleashing of the Iranian Silkworm missiles buried around the Gulf in conjunction with the already proven swarm attacks (where massive numbers of smaller vessels swarm our larger, more powerful fleet) considerably threaten American naval dominance of the Gulf in the event of war. This economic disaster would be compounded by any successful attacks on Gulf Arab oil infrastructure (significant parts of which are notoriously vulnerable to asymmetric tactics).
What Really Matters
A considerable part of the global economy would stutter should the Iranians ever decide to close the Straits of Hormuz and by any estimate it would take several days of heavy bombing to take out the Silkworms, at which point Iran would unleash its proxies and, most likely, military. Unfortunately for the US, our Gulf Arab allies are relatively weak (no matter how much money the Saudis spend). Their armies have never fought a war, lower and middle ranks are ridden with fundamentalists, and governments are run by families terrified by the resurgent Shia Iran which by definition threatens their regimes’ legitimacy. The Iranians, on the other hand, are battle-hardened professionals, and with Saddam’s removal the United States smashed the only wall Iran couldn’t breach.
The upside to this mess lies in the fact that many of our strategic goals align with those of Iran. They certainly don’t desire destabilization of the Gulf, their economic lifeline. They have no death-wish with regard to Israel, the rabble notwithstanding. They realize that any existential threat to Israel on their part (including WMD attack) would likely result in their population centers being turned to glass. Anyway, at this rate my grandchildren will go to sleep afraid that Iran ‘might’ possess a nuke in less than a year.
Like the US, Iran also wishes to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, but only if we respect their right to play an integral role in the security of their own backyard which is akin to the US taking a keen interest in the affairs of Mexico in the event their state was wrecked by foreign occupation. If we deny Iran legitimacy in Iraq, where they have already effectively annexed the Shia South and large parts of Iraqi Kurdistan (regions where the Iranian rial is often the preferred currency), then we can only expect more of the sectarian violence that rocked Baghdad on the 22nd.
In addition, it would be difficult to find a state that despises al-Qaeda (or similar Sunni extremist forces) more than the Iranians…except for the US. Without Iranian involvement and support, Iraq will never stabilize. Then again, given that it should never have been a country in the first place and Saddam was the only thing holding it together, it might never stabilize at all. One thing is certain, 700 ‘trainers’ aren’t going to pacify the different factions.
Iran craves the respect due to a regional power, and an upcoming superpower. Most of all, they don’t want to be construed as terrorists, strange rantings of Ahmadinejad aside. When the Iranians have conducted what we would refer to as a terrorist attack they, unlike their Sunni counterparts, have almost strictly hit military/diplomatic targets, an important exception being the 1986 Paris bombings.
Where the Sunni taqfiri rationalization of killing innocent civilians seemingly rests on vague notions of ‘weakening the enemy’ (the West, not excluding the Saudi royal family, other corrupt Gulf Arab dynasties, and Israel), Shia mujtahid sanction acts of ‘terror’ if it is deemed to be worthy of accomplishing military or diplomatic goals that cannot otherwise be achieved. After all, they don’t have the ability to sip coffee and unleash payloads from B52s to disrupt enemy supply lines or kill soldiers and statesmen, something surely terrifying for those underneath.
For instance, the Paris bombings, in which 13 civilians were murdered, were carried out in an attempt to stop the French from supplying weaponry to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. And it worked. The Iranians, according to Robert Baer, met with the French in secret and secured what serves as a ceasefire in this grey area of warfare. For many, the suicide bomber is the ultimate smart bomb. And cheap too. The crucial difference comes down to the probability that Iran would never have sponsored something like 9-11, they don’t seem to slaughter for slaughter’s sake. They slaughter for the same reasons we do, to accomplish objectives.
Iran has shown a remarkable ability to modernize their goals, to adapt to changing geopolitical circumstances quickly and effectively. The perfect example is the evolution of Hezbollah from a terrorist non-state actor to a more classical military force, taking and holding ground instead of just blowing it up. Tehran gave orders to Nasrallah to cut the dirty stuff out, to concentrate on conventionally (relatively) fighting Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. ‘Soldiers’ is the operative term. In doing so, Iran delivered the first military defeat the IDF ever experienced (2000), forced an Israeli retreat from Southern Lebanon, and made Hezbollah’s capacity for terrorism a largely latent, reactionary threat.
Iran wants to be regarded by the West as a mature state, a rational actor whose goals do not tend toward destabilization of trade or the destruction of Israel. Their reason for railing against Israel, academic debates aside, seems to boil down to the creation of a standard with which Iran expects to rally the rest of Islam to their side in the battle against what they view (quite rightly) as Western colonialism, rather than any realistic expectation of wiping out the Israelis.
Iran has no intention of sacrificing its two thousand-plus year old civilization to conquer Israel for the Palestinians, or the Arabs in general for that matter. They can’t be said to have gotten along swimmingly all these years. Parts of the US government must understand this, but our hands are so deep in the pockets of the Gulf Arabs that we can’t open our eyes to the realization that our Sunni power base in the Mid-East is crumbling. Pakistan is essentially a military force without a state (or the military is the state), and it seems to be ripping apart at the seams.
The Gulf Arab dynasties are worldly compared to the Iranians, weak and dependent on Western arms and petrodollars. They think as long as they dump billions into American weapons/infrastructure contracts we’ll protect them from the Shia…but not forever. Even the Saudis have made overtures to the Iranians to the point that they will not support an American/Israeli attack, probably because they see the sun setting on the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, ten fingers in the dike. Then who’s going to take over? If Washington doesn’t realize which way the wind is blowing in the Mid-East we’ll find ourselves sucking sand in the Arabian peninsula once the dust is settled in Persia.
The United States is as much to blame for the coming failure of our Gulf Arab allies as they are themselves. We provided the markets for their oil/gas, and security agreements in return. In some ways we fell into one another’s traps. They have become fabulously wealthy, worldly, and in many ways despised by their own populations, which in turn breed small but significant numbers of Wahhabi-style fanatics bent on destruction as a tool for the purification of Islam.
We, on the other hand, have been shackled to corrupt kingdoms that, no matter how much our corporate media praises Saudi Arabia’s ‘improving’ human rights record, are anathema to what the United States should stand for. We implicate each other.
Regardless of our complicity, the US cannot suffer tunnel vision here. Although it is obviously necessary to restart diplomatic relations with the Iranians, this isn’t to mean we should shut out the Gulf Arabs (not that we can) because this would simply be the flip side of unbalanced policy with regard to the the region. Similarly, we cannot back the Gulf Arabs/Israel to the hilt at the expense of potential rapprochement with Iran.
International policy should always be fluid and reflect realities on the ground, instead of relying on rigidly structured Utopian fantasies that the Al Sa’ud will rule until the end of time and ‘containment’ of Iran based upon predatory economic sanctions in conjunction with geographic encirclement will be a lasting solution to the ‘Persian threat.’ What ever happened to the idea of balanced policy? Of constructive policy?
The sheer complexity of Iran makes it easy to be myopic, they are just damned confusing. How could we ever sit down and talk with a nation whose president denounces and threatens Israel with such vitriolic passion? Certainly it’s painful to listen to Ahmadinejad claim the Holocaust is a hoax, but it’s extremely important to understand that he does not control the country, nor does he reflect the general mindset of the population. Indeed, anyone would be hard-pressed to find another country in the Mid-East with such a strong democratic streak; Turkey is the only one that comes to mind.
Although it is important to understand the historical roots of Khomeini’s revolution it seems too many well-intentioned westerners define Iran as a state constantly looking back at 1953, harboring an inextinguishable grudge. The incident is definitely singed into Iran’s collective memory, but casting them as a backward-facing state simply shortchanges them.
Iran looks to the future and for them, the future holds a regional empire, whether we like it or not. Imagine if instead of negotiating with the Soviets during the Cold War we blocked all communication and flipped on autopilot. That’s what we are doing with Iran. There isn’t a single argument I can rationalize in favor of non-negotiation. During the Missile Crisis Khrushchev needed a way to bow out without losing face and negotiations were carried out via back-channels.
Similar back-channel negotiations are what we need now, given the Iranians must not lose face within the region. We must concentrate not on what Ahmadinejad says, but on what the Iranians do, and as of right now they are being quite calm and patient, even downright accommodating, with regard to our belligerence (think Stuxnet, assassination of physicists, clamoring for MEK removal from State’s terrorist list, RQ-170 incursion over 200km into Iranian airspace, etc.). The time has come to act as adults instead of infants, to understand what is at stake and to take a novel approach to negotiation with Iran based upon the fact that they aren’t an evil nation bent upon the destruction of everything we hold dear.
Finally, although this is a somewhat separate area, every day we blackball Iran allows the Chinese and Russians to tighten their grip. There is considerable buzz that the recently acquired (by Iran) Russian Avtobaza jamming and electronic control platform could have been behind the downing of the RQ-170. Sanctioning Iran’s central bank will only drive them further into Russian/Chinese arms.
Although the Iraq War might be the single most important strategic blunder in American history, the imminent failure to bring Iran ‘in from the cold’ could turn out to have even greater repercussions. Iran has shown spectacular judgment in casting aside ethnic and religious divides with regard to alliances with state and non-state actors; Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkey, Brazil. Who’s to say they wouldn’t deal with the United States if it served their best interests and their reputation was protected? They are a pragmatic, goal-oriented power that must be viewed as such.
As our Gulf Arab allies’ grasp on control over their own populations diminishes, the necessity of an alliance (or at the very least an understanding underpinned by real diplomatic relations) with Iran will become all the more apparent. Depending on our relationship with the Iranians, they could serve as either the single most stabilizing, or destabilizing, force in the region. It’s in everyone’s best interests, including those of the Gulf Arabs and Israel, to choose the former. But we just can’t see past the turban.
Mark Sheffield writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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