Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Stratfor examines prospects for a US/Iranian alliance

The United States is coming to terms with the fact that there are no military or sanctions options that would plausibly prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapons capability. In one respect it feels like a slow process because it became public knowledge early in 2009 that Israel had requested permission to attack Iran but was denied during the Bush administration. By that time it was, or should have been completely clear that there is no practical military option regarding Iran. But on the other hand, maybe since late 2009, it is becoming the consensus in the US foreign policy community that the military option would not work (and an option that you know in advance would not work is not an option) and also that there is no chance of effective sanctions, so the US now has to answer the question of how to deal with an Iran that will not be prevented from developing a military nuclear capability.

In line with the process of coming to terms with the fact that the US does not have effective coercive power over Iran, we see the latest article by George Friedman of Stratfor.
To recap, the United States either can accept a nuclear Iran or risk an attack that might fail outright, impose only a minor delay on Iran’s nuclear program or trigger extremely painful responses even if it succeeds. When neither choice is acceptable, it is necessary to find a third choice.

Redefining the Iranian Problem

As long as the problem of Iran is defined in terms of its nuclear program, the United States is in an impossible place. Therefore, the Iranian problem must be redefined. One attempt at redefinition involves hope for an uprising against the current regime. We will not repeat our views on this in depth, but in short, we do not regard these demonstrations to be a serious threat to the regime. Tehran has handily crushed them, and even if they did succeed, we do not believe they would produce a regime any more accommodating toward the United States. The idea of waiting for a revolution is more useful as a justification for inaction — and accepting a nuclear Iran — than it is as a strategic alternative.
Stratfor is joining the consensus in searching for ways to adjust to the reality of Iran's improving strategic position, and paints a picture that is bleaker for US regional interests than I've held up to now. First though, George Friedman brings up one of the two major revisions of history that the US presents in its own narrative of the invasion of Iraq.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 assumed that once the Baathist regime was destroyed the United States would rapidly create a strong Iraqi government that would balance Iran. The core mistake in this thinking lay in failing to recognize that the new Iraqi government would be filled with Shiites, many of whom regarded Iran as a friendly power. Rather than balancing Iran, Iraq could well become an Iranian satellite. The Iranians strongly encouraged the American invasion precisely because they wanted to create a situation where Iraq moved toward Iran’s orbit. When this in fact began happening, the Americans had no choice but an extended occupation of Iraq, a trap both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to escape.
There was no Iranian trap. Iran did not strongly encourage, or encourage at all and in fact strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq.
Although the clerical regime’s fears about being attacked were the chief factor behind its stance towards the invasion, it is clear from the Iranian government’s pronouncements that, even if the United States did not follow up the invasion of Iraq with an attack on Iran, it would still be opposed to the invasion. Iran feared that the United States would take advantage of its control of Iraq to install a client regime in Baghdad, just as it had done a year earlier in Afghanistan.
The second revision of history, which is not present in the Stratfor piece but that I mention just because it is so commonly repeated by now, is that Iraq pretended that it still had chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons in order to deter Iran before the US invasion. Once again, this is completely false. Iraq by 2002 was as clear as it possibly could be that it had disarmed.
[Dan Rather, interviewing Iraqi spokesman Tariq Aziz in 2002]: Let me come directly to point. Does Iraq possess nuclear weapons?

Aziz: No. No we do not possess any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. We are not interested in them. My president has made it clear. We don't have, and we are ready to challenge anybody who makes allegations contrary to what I am saying. But it should be done in a perfect manner, not done by the means of UNSCOM and by the means Mr. Blix is suggesting because they will not report the truth. They will not reach a conclusion about realities. Let us think if the American government is genuinely concerned about that let them come and propose any credible manner to come and inspect and search and then reach the conclusion about the reality. We are ready to discuss with them, with the American government, all reliable efficient means to reach the conclusion.
It is a reflection of the acceptance in the US that the invasion of Iraq was a failure that these narratives have emerged that the US was manipulated carrying out that invasion by Iraq itself and by Iran.

But besides the false idea that Iran encouraged the US invasion of Iraq, Friedman offers a vision that the US is attempting to avoid of Iran with an allied Iraq actually invading or occupying oil producing countries in the region. I've never seen this as a realistic possibility for the short or medium term. But once Iran is nuclear-capable, permanently deterring any Iranian desire to exert itself over the region militarily (including preventing any Hussein-like territory grabs) will require allowing Saudi Arabia, at least, to become a military power itself. Saudi Arabia's military potential does not dwarf that of Iran, but it does dwarf that of Israel. A natural balance in the region would render the project of securing a majority state for the 5 million Jewish people in Palestine non-viable.

Friedman predicts that Israel would not approve of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States:
Israel would also be enraged. It sees ongoing American-Iranian hostility as a given. And it wants the United States to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. But eliminating this threat is not an option given the risks, so the choice is a nuclear Iran outside some structured relationship with the United States or within it. The choice that Israel might want, a U.S.-Iranian conflict, is unlikely. Israel can no more drive American strategy than can Saudi Arabia.
Now, Israel does have more influence over US strategic decisions in the region than Saudi Arabia. But the relationship the US seems to have publicly chosen for Iran is containment along with waiting for the possibility that Iran may one day become more accommodating to US objectives. I see that as a more likely outcome than a formally structured agreement. But the US seems to accept that as this containment goes on, Iran will have some nuclear capability. Friedman is right that while Israel opposes this outcome, and would rather see the US take huge risks and commit huge amounts of resources on its behalf, but it will not get that.

The invasion of Iraq has clearly demonstrated the limits of Israel's influence on US policy. Probably on Turkey's behalf primarily and also for Saudi Arabia and to a much lesser degree, Iran and Syria, the United States refrained from dismembering Iraq into three countries, despite advanced preparations to do that after it realized it could not install Chalabi as a puppet. We can add attacking Iran and engaging a large part of the Muslim world in active hostilities from Iraq (or possibly Lebanon and Syria) through Pakistan to the list of things the United States is not willing to do for Israel.

Most analysis I've seen in 2010, especially after the opposition failed to present a threat to the continuation of the Islamic Republic as a regime in mid-February tends toward an acceptance that Iran's nuclear program will not be prevented. This piece is further confirmation of this trend that seems on its way to becoming the US consensus.


Lysander said...

Very well put. I also think that much of these articles (did you see the O'Hanlon essay in the Financial Times?) is meant to change the public perception. The public has been told repeatedly that Iran would never have a nuclear capability. Now it has to be told that Iranian nukes are no big deal.

To be honest, I always thought war, while unlikely, was still a real possibility. Happy to see I was wrong.

lidia said...

Thanks, Arnold. I second Lysander about the threat of war (even though I still cannot exclude the possibility of Israel trying to do something criminally stupid against Iran)

In Friedman article I loved the most the proposition to dupe Iran by pretending to let it have power in the ME and than let Turkey to snatch it - and USA would be innocent-looking :) Really, if one hopes to dupe somebody, one should NOT publish one's plans, esp. if one is going to dupe somebody who is not fool

The second lie by Friedman is about Sunni-Shia division. Yes, USA, Israel and Saudis forment it, but in reality it is NOT a real problem. Iran supports Sunni Hamas, to cite only one example.

Arnold Evans said...

Exactly Lidia. Turkey taking over Iraq in the long term is a very weird idea. I'm not sure how to respond to it just because it is so crazy.

About this supposed Sunni-Shia division - that's, I guess how the US likes to look at the region. It also probably makes the Egyptians and Saudis feel more valid.

At the Damascus conference, Ahmadinejad spoke of the free countries of the region, as opposed to the colonized countries.

I mean, the Shah was Shiite. Somehow the Shah didn't have problems with the the Israelis, the Americans or their Saudi colonial subjects. Nasser was a Sunni. Somehow the Saudis never formed an Sunni alliance with him.

I really should write a post about how this free/colonized dichotomy is euphemistically described, because it superficially happens to match today, as a Sunni/Shiite division.

Arnold Evans said...

Lysander: I still think war is a possibility, but something would have to change about the fundamental strategic situation, and people who watch closely (I'll humbly include myself) will see those strategic environmental changes before any war happens.

As things are going now, I feel safe saying that the US will not be in a position to attack Iran for at least 5 years, and over those 5 years Iran will develop defensive capabilities that have a very good chance of giving it a permanent deterrent. There is an element of hopeful thinking, so I have to consider contrary evidence especially carefully, but the situation on the ground today would not allow a US permitted or executed attack on Iran.