At the Crossroads with Iran

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 1 month ago

The U.S. is at a strategic and unique point in history, with Iran and Syria among the top reasons that stability has not been brought to Iraq, Iran aggresively pursuing nuclear weapons, and both countries fomenting the spread of jihadism throughout the region.  Decisions made at the highest levels of government over the coming months will have deep and lasting impacts on civilization for many generations to come.  It is apparent that the general public does not comprehend the momentous and watershed events upon us, and it is equally apparent that this administration is not girded for the struggle.

Recent Data on U.S. & Iran

We are still seeing the ripples of Bush’s address on Iraq.  In a joint press conference with Khalilzad, outgoing General George Casey said that we are “going after” the networks of Iranian and Syrian agents in Iraq.  Casey was backed up at home by the full power of the administration:

The belief that George Bush’s troops “surge” policy in Iraq is also aimed at confronting Iran was strengthened yesterday when the White House declared that it was “going to deal” with the actions of the Tehran regime.

In a series of interviews, Vice-President Dick Cheney, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, struck belligerent notes on Iranian activity inside Iraq. Mr Hadley did not rule out the possibility of US forces striking across the border.

Discord continued between America and Iraq over the arrest by US forces of five Iranians in Arbil, the Kurdish capital. The US claims they are linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and have been funding Iraqi insurgents. The Revolutionary Guards, said the US military was “known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilise the government of Iraq and attack coalition forces”.

The Multi-National Force web site, where press releases customarily point to military operations, has a rather odd press release on what at least some forces are doing in Iraq at the present:

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Coalition Forces continue investigations into the activities of five Iranian nationals detained in Irbil on Jan. 11.  Preliminary results revealed the five detainees are connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), an organization known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilize the Government of Iraq and attack Coalition forces.

According to Coalition Force officials, efforts will continue to target all who break the law, attack the Coalition Force or attempt to undermine the Government of Iraq.

The facility in which the detention took place has been described by various Iraqi officials as an Iranian liaison office, but it did not enjoy the diplomatic status of a consulate according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.    

The Multi-National Force, in keeping with U.S. policy, will continue to disrupt logistical support to extremists that originate from outside Iraq.  These initiatives are part of a broader plan including diplomatic efforts designed to support the Iraqi government, protect the Iraqi people, and seek assistance from neighboring nations, according to coalition officials.

Military sources have said that U.S. forces will ‘go after’ both the Sunni insurgents and the Shi’ite extremist leaders.  According to the Strategy Page, this isn’t bluster:

In the last month, Iran has become aware that the U.S. is deliberately hunting down Iranian agents inside Iraq. For most of the last year, Iran believed that it’s high ranking contacts in the Iraqi government gave its men immunity. Certainly the Iraqi police would not touch them (the head of the national police, and Interior Ministry, was a pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia). But the Americans simply brush aside any Iraqi troops or police who get in the way, and grab Iranians. This is being done without much publicity at all. It’s as if the Americans were just collecting evidence and building a case. A case for what?

Finally, in addition to activity by ground forces, there is a naval buildup taking place to demonstrate resolve to remain in the region for a “long time.”

Assessment and Commentary

Ostensibly, the administration has finally fully engaged in the war that Iran and Syria are conducting on the U.S. by proxy fighters.  Or have they?  Any threat by Iran to conduct conventional warfare against the U.S. is likely a hollow threat, and their biggest threat is still assymetric warfare.  They are conducting this with ease and without apology.  As I have discussed in The Broader War: Redefining our Strategy for Iraq, Iraq is part of a regional problem and thus will require a regional solution.  Iran is part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

Yet after issuing sanctions on Iran, some members of the EU want a more nuanced approach to support for nuclear programs from the IAEA to Iran, believing that this will once again engage Iran rather than “forcing them into a corner.”  Inside Iraq, a top Shi’ite politician, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, strongly criticized the U.S. detention of the Iranian agents, literally calling it an “attack on Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Kuwait has made known their desire that the U.S. engage in talks with Iran, and Iraq’s foreign minister increased the pressure yet again on the U.S. by promising to Iran’s foreign minister to free the detained Iranians.  Iran has all but dismissed any potential hit on its nuclear facilities, telling the world not to take seriously the possibility that the U.S. will follow through with such plans.

In the most ham-handed diplomatic move since the beginning of the war, it seems that the administration cannot retreat fast enough from Bush’s threats to Iran.

Sen. Joseph Biden, now Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman (and a Dem presidential contender), sent a letter to Bush after a question-and-answer confrontation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Biden said Rice had been evasive on whether Bush’s statements meant that U.S. military personnel could cross into Iran or Syria in pursuit of insurgent support networks. He also asked whether the administration believes the president could order such action without first seeking explicit congressional approval—as Biden thinks he must.

Note that crossing the Iranian and Syrian borders in search of safe havens for insurgents and their networks comports exactly with my earlier recommendations, the result of which would be:

  • intimidation
  • regime destabilization
  • denial of safe haven for insurgents, and ultimately
  • fomenting of regime change

But regardless of how far the President has authorized U.S. forces to go in search of rogue elements, the administration cannot even seem to muster the resolve to allow the Iranians to think that we will enter their territories.  Continuing,

 … administration officials (anonymous due to diplomatic sensitivities) concede that Bush’s Iran language may have been overly aggressive, raising unwarranted fears about military strikes on Tehran. Instead, they say, Bush was trying to warn Iran to keep its operatives out of Iraq, and to reassure Gulf allies—including Saudi Arabia—that the United States would protect them against Iranian aggression. A senior administration official, not authorized to speak on the record, says the policy is part of the new Iraq offensive. “All this comes out of our very detailed, lengthy review of strategy from last fall,” he says. Recent intel indicates the government of Iran, or elements in it, have stepped up interference in Iraqi political affairs and the supply of weapons to Iraqi Shiite insurgents, say several U.S. intel and national-security officials, anonymous when discussing sensitive material. “The reason you keep hearing about Iran is we keep finding their stuff there,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace said Friday. Two of the officials, however, indicated Bush had not signed a secret order—known as an intel “finding”—authorizing the CIA or other undercover units to launch covert operations to undermine the governments of Iran and Syria.

At a time when the world is watching for resolve, the President’s handlers are denuding the story and handing him the worst foreign affairs blunder in recent memory.  With a softer approach to counterinsurgent warfare in Iraq possible, along with a strangled story as soon as it leaves the President’s lips, we are kicking the proverbial can down the road in the hope that we do not finally have to deal with it.  But that can will only be kicked so far.  Time is ebbing away.  Failure to engage in the epic battle of this millennium against jihadism might mean that a nuclear explosion in Los Angeles is more than just an interesting story line on a television show.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    At first glance, visible or available information shows us that Iran is unwilling to depart from a strategy of conflict whose line and shape makes it strikingly similar to this of Germany during the 30’s. The way the Iranian ruling elite behaves collectively, or through the voice of its president Mahmoud Amadinejadh, when facing the specter of possible harsher sanctions from the U.N., the United States, or whoever else, exemplifies in a striking manner too a legal tactic Jacques Verges, a French controversial attorney and former Free French Forces guerrilla first invented and coined “procès de rupture.?

    The procès de rupture, an expression I would attempt to translate in English as “trial of breach,? consists, during a trial usually, of opting for a defensive tactic which boldly questions the cogency of an accusation and the law, or the set of laws, sustaining this accusation to such an extent that it takes the exact opposite view of the accusation as a way of defending the validity, and even the merits, of a disputable action.
    The process de rupture is considered by some as the best defensive tactic when one’s case is morally, legally, or even logically, indefensible and hardly justifiable.
    Thus adapted at a larger scale, that is to say to the context of foreign policy in the frame of which the issue is uncertain or is unlikely to be ended by a final verdict, the tactic of the procès de rupture, when unsuccessful, will be perceived by outsiders and/or from exterior as a daring headlong rush. That’s unmistakably the way Iran has chosen under the impulse of its president, seemingly.

    What, I think, is especially demonstrative of this headlong rush is the multiplicity of fronts on which Iran is engaging itself all at the same time. At this regard, one may also notice that the efforts Iran is doing on each and all of these fronts are significantly growing in strength; that the multiplicity of these fronts and the amount of energy spent on each of them appear to be incommensurate with the real power and possibilities of Iran. Recent comments and news from Iran found here and there seem to confirm that some Iranian officials are well conscious of an increase of hostility leading toward dangerous unbalance.

    For the records, the fronts I’m making allusion to are the following:

    -Iran has consistently (and somewhat even hurriedly) strengthened its influence in Lebanon during the last months;

    – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been fastening the development of its alliance with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and attempted to develop similar relations with other Latin American countries with a clear and avowed ambition to attack the interests of the United States from this continent. During this last trip, Mr Ahmadinejad announced he would put $1 billion into an Iranian-Venezuelan fund to help countries “free themselves from the yoke of American imperialism?;

    – Iran is continuing to fuel insurgency in Iraq as it has been regularly reported during the last weeks;

    – Iran conducted three large-scale military exercises last year as tensions with the West and the United States rose and the latest Iranian maneuvers, including short-range missile tests, beginning January 21, also come just days after the U.S. announced it would deploy a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf, the USS Stennis;

    – Iran has recently urged Arab Gulf nations to kick the U.S. military out of the region and join Iran in a new regional security alliance, an offer mostly ignored by the Gulf states however;

    – On January 21, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran will not affect Iran’s nuclear policies “even if ten more of them were ratified?;

    At home, the voice of dissent about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive policy can be heard here and there, including in the highest spheres of the political and religious power.
    For the resolution of Dec. 23 passed by U.N. Security Council with sanctions intended to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been followed by consequences.
    The Iranian stock market, which was already in a slump, continued to decline (falling more rapidly in the past month) as buyers stayed away from the market. The daily Kargozaran reported last week that the number of traders had decreased by 46 percent since the Security Council resolution was passed.
    In a news published on January, 19, Ali Akbar Dareini, of the Associated Press, wrote:

    “Prices for vegetables have tripled in the past month, housing prices have doubled since last summer — and as costs have gone up, so has Iranians’ discontent with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his focus on confrontation with the West.
    Ahmadinejad was elected last year on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. Now he is facing increasingly fierce criticism for his failure to meet those promises.?

    In a sign of the growing discontent the president’s allies suffered a humiliating defeat in December local elections carried by reformists and anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives.
    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being challenged not only by reformers but by the conservatives who paved the way for his stunning victory in the 2005 presidential elections. Even conservatives say Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy.

    Now, back to the nuclear issue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the Security Council resolution as “a piece of torn paper.? But the daily Jomhouri-Eslami, which reflects the views of Ayatollah Khamenei, said, “The resolution is certainly harmful for the country,? adding that it was “too much to call it ‘a piece of torn paper.’ ? The newspaper added that the nuclear program required its own diplomacy, “sometimes toughness and sometimes flexibility.?

    Just one month after the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran to curb its nuclear program, two hard-line newspapers, including one owned by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on the president to stay out of all matters nuclear. In another sign of pressure on the president to distance himself from the nuclear issue, a second newspaper, run by an aide to the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, also pressed Mr. Ahmadinejad to end his involvement in the nuclear program. Mr. Larijani also ran for president and was selected for his post by the supreme leader.

    How far such statements are worthy to deserve our attention? In an article published in The New York Times on January 19, Nazila Fathi and Michael Slackman conjectured: “In the hazy world of Iranian politics, such a public rebuke was seen as a sign that the supreme leader — who has final say on all matters of state — might no longer support the president as the public face of defiance to the West.
    It is the first sign that Mr. Ahmadinejad has lost any degree of Ayatollah Khamenei’s confidence, a potentially damaging development for a president who has rallied his nation and defined his administration by declaring nuclear power Iran’s ‘inalienable right.?

    So far so good, but we will certainly face some difficulty while attempting to guess whether all this noise is merely an effort to improve Iran’s public image by lowering Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s profile or was truly signaling a change in policy. Actually, despite Mr. Ahmadinejad’s harsh language since the resolution was passed, Ayatollah Khamenei has not referred to it directly and only once said that Iran would not give up its right to pursue its nuclear program.

    Another detail underlining our doubts about the real intentions of Iran is that it has been said in the Iranian media that reformist and conservative lawmakers are considering calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before Parliament to answer questions about his nuclear diplomacy and economic policies. But, so far, no date has been set for summoning him.

    Last but not the least, if we are to expect some change toward more reasonableness in the future, we have to bear in mind that the parliamentary debate (and the need for subsequent endorsement by the hard-line Council of Guardians) leaves open an opportunity for Iran to hedge or renege on its commitments.

    That’s why the only reliable clues about this nuclear question is to be found earlier in the history of Iran because, after all, Iran’s nuclear program grew from Muhammad Reza Shah’s vision of Iran as the prime military power in the Gulf region. Sherifa D. Zuhur, Professor of Islamic and Regional Studies and author for the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College explains us in a study titled Iran, Iraq, and the United States: The New Triangle’s Impact on Sectarianism and the Nuclear Threat:

    “In 1967, a five megawatt thermal research reactor at the Tehran Research Center was established and supplied by the United States, then an ally of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. The Americans trained Iranian technicians as well. Nuclear power and weapons development continued with the assistance of Germany, and later China and Russia, though the United States ended all nuclear agreements with Iran in 1979.
    The Bushehr nuclear facility dates to 1974 and was constructed by the German Siemens firm. It was nearly completed by the Islamic Revolution, but bombed during the Iran-Iraq war. Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, finally agreed to finish the planned two reactors in an $800 million dollar agreement, which essentially meant building new reactors. Bushehr was to be a light water facility, with low-enriched uranium to be provided by Russia.
    President Clinton attempted to obstruct the deal and then imposed sanctions on Iran.
    Iran signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Pakistan in 1987 and with China and the Soviet Union in 1990.
    In 2002, an Iranian opposition group, Mujahidin-e Khalq, held a press conference to reveal news of two facilities in Iraq, a heavy-water production plant at Arak and a uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. The very fact of a uranium enrichment facility implied Iran’s possession of gas centrifuge technology.
    In spring 2006, the Iranians defiantly revealed that they had enriched uranium. The IAEA documented that Iran had produced uranium hexafluroide sufficient for 20 nuclear weapons and that it had moved from 10 machine and 20 machine cascades up to a 164-machine cascade (the feeding process of UF6 into centrifuges), assembling two more 164-machine cascades. Despite these and other accomplishments, experts point out that Iran cut corners in its research and development process, and therefore would require more time now for development and testing. At issue is the perception that Iran wished to give that its progress in enrichment was inexorable, and, second, that the time frame towards an actual weapon might be further off than thought. David Albright projected about 3 years toward a single nuclear weapon (2009), whereas John Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence, has suggested a lengthier waiting period.?

    To which I will add that, in a effort most likely done in the endeavor to raise concerns on behalf of their cause, some Israeli intelligence experts recently alleged that Iran will be capable to build an atomic bomb within the next two years.

    To be honest, given its history and its turbulent neighborhood, Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not reflect a wholly irrational set of strategic calculations. Here is the point of view of a group of renowned experts, which includes Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert M. Gates, previously expressed in Iran: Time for a New Approach. Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations:

    “Nonetheless, the rationale behind Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear option can be elucidated from the rich literature on security issues that is present in Iranian academic journals and the press. Despite the clerics’ frequent rhetorical invocations referencing the Israeli nuclear capability, this is not one of the primary drivers for Iran’s own program. Rather, in addition to the prodigious sense of insecurity inculcated by the Iraqi invasion and the experience of the war itself, there appears to be widespread consensus surrounding two other important consequences of weapons of mass destruction: prestige and leverage. The former reflects the deeply held national pride that is a distinctly Iranian characteristic; it is simply inconceivable to Iranians across the political spectrum that neighboring Pakistan, a country considered to be exponentially inferior in terms of its economy, society, and political maturity, should have access to more advanced military technology. The second factor that pervades Iranian consideration of its nuclear options, leverage, further exposes the fundamental strategic deficiencies of Iran’s continuing estrangement from the United States. For many in Tehran, maintaining some sort of viable nuclear program offers the single most valuable enhancement of the country’s bargaining position with Washington.
    The elimination of Saddam Hussein’s regime has unequivocally mitigated one of Iran’s most serious security concerns. Yet regime change in Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its vulnerable western borders, as well as with an ever more proximate U.S. capability for projecting power in the region. By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam’s rule has not yet generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with U.S. statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a “strategic weapon.?
    “Unlike Iran’s other provocative policies, which have provoked intrafactional debate and thereby played into the internal power struggle in the country, the nuclear temptation is widely shared across the Iranian political spectrum.?

    All this invite us to keep in mind two important things, I think. The first is that possible disagreements between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and some prominent conservative clerics, or even similar disagreements between other members of the Iranian ruling elite, are unlikely to question Iran’s will to resume its nuclear program. The second is that not only Iran is equally unlikely to renounce to its ambition to acquire military nuclear capacities, but from the point of view of people for whom the notions of pride, grandeur, and honor are so important, the mere idea to step back from this ambition would certainly tantamount to no less than surrendering one’s sovereignty. We reasonably cannot expect that from a country such as Iran, and that’s the biggest problem among all the others I previously enumerated and presented as Ahmadinejad’s fronts.

    One important point too often neglected in accounts, news and reports about Iran’s nuclear program and the perspective of Iran as military nuclear power is that it cannot but encourage proliferation elsewhere. In other words, the most obvious concerns about Iran’s nuclear program have perhaps little relationship to the ideological character of the state (a point which deserves to be evocated since one may reasonably wonder whether Iran would run the risk to kill Palestinians in an attempt to launch an atomic bomb on Israel?). Should Iran proceed to nuclear capabilities, some experts believe that Saudi Arabia or Egypt may heighten efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, thus making in turn the Middle East a region out of control in which anything may happens.

    That’s why I believe that the Iranian nuclear question is a problem that might be treated separately from all aforesaid others, even though, as seen from the Iranian side, there is at some point an obvious advantage to be found in refusing to dissociate the nuclear question (as a mean of pressure during negotiation) from all others ambitions and means of leverage. The intervention of the U.N. and the recent passing of a resolution followed by an array of sanctions makes the matter somewhat tricky, though the influence these sanctions have had on the Iranian economy are byproducts.

    All other problems and warmongering demonstrations are certainly likely to be solved, for example, through the simultaneous recourse to an array of aggressive measures (which, obviously, excludes large and overt military intervention) and negotiations through which Iran (and the United States) might found an honorable, and even advantageous, exit.
    On the one hand, Iran’s ambitions are in fact multiple in the Middle East, and on the other hand an overwhelming Iranian majority, which encompasses the ruling elite and the whole Iranian population, is increasingly in need of a return toward economic normalcy, let alone psychological pressure.

    Now, anyone thinking about negotiating with Iran has to bear in mind that the effects of economic sanctions are far from certain, as some experts allege, since there is no reason for certain countries to comply with them. European nations such as, specifically, Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as Japan, Russia, and China would likely lose a great deal of money if they ceased exporting to Iran and importing oil from it. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to support sanctions, though for strategic rather than economic reasons. Existing sanctions against Iran in place since the revolution did not accomplish their goals and, accordingly, despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not yet on the verge of another revolution.

    However, I believe that we may reasonably assume that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ventures in Latin America are not unanimously appreciated in Iran and are unlikely to be of any further significant help for the Iranian interest.
    First, Venezuela is much more an Iranian competitor than anything else. And second, one cannot make one’s own policies on the most vital securities issues dependant on internal events in another country, or sacrifice one’s own interest for their sake (even for the sake of an anti-imperialist crusade). One cannot do this because one cannot forecast the issue of such enterprise accurately, let alone control it. Nor can one foresee its long term consequences.

    Now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did face important facts already, which are mainly, higgledy-piggledy:

    -Iran definitely lost any hope of broad Islamic united or pan-Arabic consensus centered on an anti-American crusade.

    -Growing feuds between Shi’a and Sunni factions might be seriously damaging for the U.S. mission in Iraq, but it is equally likely to propagate throughout the whole Middle East and to be seriously detrimental to the Iranian interests and image. In summer 2006 the war with Israel emboldened Hezbollah just as it divided Lebanon along sectarian lines. And since 2003 Shia-Sunni conflict has emerged as a major divide in Middle East politics. But since the war Lebanese politics has taken an increasingly sectarian tone as Hezbollah’s drive to topple the Lebanese government has viewed as a Shia power play by Lebanon’s other communities; and since the regional reaction to developments in Lebanon has pitted Iran against the traditional Sunni power brokers in the region: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

    -Any increase of Iranian pressure in the Middle East or against the United States and its allies is followed by harsh economic sanctions that fuel, in turn, resentment among the Iranian population toward its ruling elite, and more especially toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accordingly.

    In his recent Prepared Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Vali R. Nasr, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, says “Iran today has hegemonic ambitions in the Persian Gulf and sees itself as a great-power, and it views nuclear capability as the means to attain that goal. What Iran seeks is for the United States to accept Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf as Iran’s ‘near abroad’—a zone of influence in which Iran’s interests would determine ebbs and flows of politics –and to recognize Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon. (….)
    The specter of Iranian hegemony has been a source of concern for Iran’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia in particular has viewed Iran’s gains in Iraq and its growing influence in Lebanon and over the Palestinian issue with alarm.?

    So, instead of a broad pan-Arabic consensus against the occident, and more especially against the United States, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policy led, seemingly, to the exact opposite effect. Equally, Iran misses to count of any backing from Russia. Russia has another agenda of its own and is not in position to overtly support Iran. Russian-Iranian relations are driven by Russian interests rather than mutual goals. Nearly the same may be said about China for reasons still more obvious.

    To some extent, this explains the real motives underlying his renewed interest and visits to Venezuela, and, at the same time, it suggests that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is perhaps truly more interested in the United States’ defeat than in his country’s interest. Such ambition calls for an overwhelming public support at home which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not have, contrary to what was the case for Hitler during the 30’s.
    These last details cannot but confirm, in my own opinion, that under the leadership of its enterprising leader Iran has shifted from a long term aggressive strategy to a headlong rush. The factors that favored such evolution may be easily found in the stalemate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions but, still in my opinion, they are more likely to be found in the unexpected turn of events triggered by the growing feuds between Shi’a and Sunni. As ironic and surprising likely outcome of this new problem Iran may have to face the possibility of being, in an undetermined but near future, the next target of Al Qaeda.

  • Herschel Smith


    You have given an extremely detailed and thoughtful account of Iran and their nuclear ambitions, the end result of which is the bifurcation of their nuclear program with all other considerations about Iran. The Threats Watch website has an analysis that argues to the contrary. I’ll leave you and the readers with it to consider both sides of the argument.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    Thank you for the tip on ThreatsWatch, a blog I didn’t know until then and which appears to be as serious as interesting.

    Yes, I have made my comment quite long and some of my suggestions may seem somewhat elliptic. Actually, I just had the sentiment (as always) that my comment would seem weird if I had missed to provide an argumentation sustaining my point.

    Now, the reasons for which I suggest to dissociate the nuclear issue from all others owes to my perception (based upon sound reports and studies I named) that the nuclear issue is something deeply embedded in the Iran national interest while, to a large extent and on a more personal basis this time, I attribute all others demonstrations of aggressiveness to the sole responsibility of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some may consider that I’m mistaken about that and I understand it.

    Actually, I was suggesting an idea which holds that in accepting to consider things under this angle Iran might find an honorable way to get out of the ominous rut in which we have all got into now. It implies, of course, that Iran’s ruling elite has to reconsider the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If ever they did so then everybody might completely reconsider the situation and even accept the idea to meet at a round table; even though the nuclear issue seems insoluble. I hardly accept the idea that Iranians are that fanatic or stupid and I think that many of them fully understand that following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s logic will inescapably lead all of us (them, their allies, and us) toward the biggest crisis of history since WWII. Nobody wants that.

    At some point, the ThreatsWatch’s article you recommended me states:

    “While reviled and despised in the West, it is precisely Ahmadinejad’s lack of ability or desire to cloak his inner thoughts that makes him particularly useful to the West. Should he be unseated in a move to replace him as president, it is this quality that will be sorely missed, though few in the West realize it just yet.?

    Well, isn’t this statement another way to say the same as I do?

    I make profit of this answer to say as an aside that I do not find Iran that difficult to understand since this country, its political system and way of governing, its self perception and its role on the international stage, share, I find, much in common with a country such as France. It may be a helpful tip for anyone is interested in Iran decision-making and negotiating behavior, I think.

    Best regards,

  • Barry Black

    As concerns Iran, the best form of pressure that can be applied to the autocratic, theocratic regime in power is to foment and support internal opposition. Such regimes fear internal opposition more than external which only serves to rally the population—-case in point is the original coup in 1953 that placed the Shah in power and was orchestrated by the Eisenhower administration—-an external influence. The Shah was never a popular leader and the constant fear of being overthrown made him instigate repressive actions while being supported by the US. Though it did take 25 years to remove the Shah, incredibly a medieval cleric was able to parlay that dissent into a revolution though it can be argued the Carter administration, by inaction and ineptness accelerated that revolution.

    To get a stable regime change in Iran the US must support internal opposition groups and that may in itself change the way the current regime responds.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    That’s an option I have previously suggested elsewhere; and this suggestion (to overthrow the Iranian government by a way or another) seems to gather relatively broad approval. But in order to make it an elegant and justifiable solution as seen from the whole international stage in our new era of information I expressed it in the frame of a concept of my own which I named “mutual deterrence applied to insurgency.?

    In short, my idea consists of borrowing from arms of massive destruction the concept of deterrence and mutual deterrence each time counterinsurgency is clearly identified as a form of warfare by proxy.

    Actually, after I mulled over the tricky problem of fuelled insurgency in Iraq, I reached to the conclusion that, as seen under this angle, recourse to deterrence and mutual deterrence would be justified by the notion that insurgency can be qualified as weapon of “massive social disruption? (and of massive destruction as well) much likely to create mayhem in any given country, exactly as a nuclear bomb or missile is a weapon of “massive destruction? (and of “massive social disruption? as well) much likely to create mayhem in a given country, even though by other means.

    From this postulate on there is reasonable ground for to argue that insurgency, when deliberately used as a means of warfare, and an atomic bomb are both capable of making similar numbers of casualties and material destruction; the only perceptible difference between these two means of warfare being the laps of time required to reach the same outcome. An atomic bomb can kill thousands of people within a few seconds; while insurgency can kill the same number of people within a handful of years.

    This short explanation is extracted from a longer exposé you can find, published under my name, at the following link:


    I have to confess that, in my opinion, a diplomatic solution is always better than recourse to such means, which I would fully approve, however, if ever, until the last minute, there was no possible negotiation with Iran. That’s why I attempted to find a softer alternative, which I published here.

  • Denis Murphy

    I remain really confused by all this bellicose rhetoric about Iran.

    First of all, Iran was rarely mentioned in the context of Iraq until just a month or two ago. What did Iran do differently in Iraq a month or two ago that it had not been doing in Iraq ever since the U.S. invasion?

    Next, if Iran is really the overarching bad guy to be stopped at all costs, why was Bush giving the royal treatment to Abdul Aziz al Hakim back in December? Hakim is head of SCIRI and the Badr Brigades and makes no secret of the fact that he and his organizations have been sponsored and funded by Iran right from the git go. If Iran is really the baddest bad guy in the region, why isn’t the U.S. teaming up with Moqtada al Sadr, who makes no secret of the fact that he opposes all interference in Iraq by Iran as well as the U.S.?

    Right from the beginning, by far the most American casualties and pretty much all the sickening mass murders of Shiites by car bombs and suicide bombs have been commited by Sunnis. Why all this administration stuff about Iran equipping the “insurgents?” Until very recently, the term insurgent applied to Sunnis trying to destroy the government and terrorize Shiites. Why on earth would Iran support Sunnis killing Shiites?

    These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really and truly don’t understand what our government is doing over there. — Denis

  • michael ledeen

    Denis, first of all Iran was a charter member of the Axis of Evil, so don’t be surprised if it shows up wherever the terror war is going on. Second, you are entirely right, Iran has not changed its behavior, but the attempt to deny what Iran has been doing all along–that coverup fell apart in recent months, apparently because the military got tired of seeing our kids blown up by Iranian-manufactured shaped explosives, about which we have known for at least a year and a half.

    Why would Iran support Sunnis killing Shi’ites? For the same reason Iran has supported both sides in other sectarian battles in Iraq and elsewhere: Kurds vs Turkamen, Arabs vs Kurds, and so on. There is nothing new in Iran killing Shi’ites, they do it every day in Iran.

    That said, I am with you–I find our behavior over there unconscionable. Understanding is different from forgiveness.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    Your confusion is understandable and is representative of a dominant trend anyone may notice here and there. The cause is a concern of our leaders to do their best, in a consistent manner, to avoid always possible escalation from incidents on; and even grave incidents sometimes.
    This fully applies to the case of those old and long lasting frictions between the United States and Iran. Very soon after Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran, in 1979, terrorism hit the occidental world. It was soon to be discovered that Iran was the main responsible of the terrorist trend occurring during the early 80’s. From those events on things got quite difficult to understand for the layman since most of the interests and down-to-earth strategic considerations underlying them would have inescapably led to graver crisis if they hadn’t limited themselves to the appearance of religious, regional, ethnic and tribal limited conflicts largely reported on the media. Therefore, nearly everything you have been able to perceive and understand metaphorically limited to the crest of the waves buffeted by the wind, that is to say relatively minor incidents comparatively with the depth of the sea below the surface.

    War in Iraq may be compared to a “tempest? and waves are high, but there is no “tsunami? however because people in command are doing their best to avoid such greater and devastating trouble. People in command proven unable to avoid two “tsunamis? during the XXth century. These tsunami were of such amplitude and so devastating that we use to nickname them “WWI,? and “WWII.? Since people in command at those earlier times had never seen or heard of a tsunami before, they failed to take all appropriate measures and wise decisions to avoid it. That’s why people in command are much more diplomat today than they were before.

    It inescapably ensues that it is much harder for the layman to understand foreign affairs and war today since an overwhelming part of the publicly available information about the issues at stake limits itself to pictures of bombings, casualties, mourning and crying women bemoaning the death of their children, burning of American flags, terrorist attacks and plane hijacking, peace demonstrators striking in streets, and elliptic or absurd political speeches. How those events appear to be absurd and incoherent, isn’t it?

    As predictable result, in America for example, the great poverty and sadly reductive presentation of this available information renders thing hardly understandable, if not absurd, for most of us. But if things (that is, what happens bellow the surface of the sea) were bluntly and unrestrictedly explained to everyone, then many, if not all of those peace activists would instantly transform themselves into an ominous crowd of war activists which would hurriedly encourage their leader to give a highly seasoned trash to those who have so consistently undermined their interest during so many years, unbeknownst to them.

    History, once more, shows us the bloody extremities to which a popular crowd is ready to go when directly involved in state affairs. As best example of this that come immediately to my mind, read about the French Revolution of 1789 and how was it carried on, as Hyppolite Taine teach us his in authoritative Les Origines de la France Contemporaine.
    People are more driven by passion than by reason, and passion is anything but logic and thoughtful. Passion (and true believers) has been the largest contributor to the bloodiest massacres in world history.
    You find war is disgusting? Wars waged by soldiers under the command of generals are polite and self restrained demonstrations of violence when compared to popular wars waged by popular crowds.

    That’s why, for example, the layman does not understand why, during a summit or an important meeting, a president ostensibly pats friendly another one in the back in front of the camera while, truly, known facts seem to contradict such warm demonstration of friendship. It’s all about something we call diplomacy. “Diplomacy is the art of the possible?, as wrote once Henry Kissinger which I hold as one of the best experts ever in this field. True and competent diplomats are ready to go to great lengths and sacrifices, and uncommon renouncement to their self esteem and this of the country they serve in order to avoid war. That’s also why diplomats lie; everyday.

    Below is an extract from of mail I sent once to a relative of mine who, at some point of our conversation, pleaded in favor of universalism and a more peaceful world. It completes my answer to your question.

    “From this on stems what seems to be generalised hypocrisy about peace, world community, and also about other subjects such as global warming, aids to third world countries and so on and on. There is a sharp divorce between what we can call the formal meaning, the formal aims and arguments, and the real meaning, the real aims and argument (if there is, as there is usually not, any real argument).

    The formal aims and goals are for the most part or altogether either supernatural or metaphysical – transcendental – in both cases meaningless from the point of view of real actions in the real world of space, time, and history; or if they have some empirical meaning, are impossible to achieve under the actual conditions of social life. In all cases, the dependence of the whole structure of reasoning upon such goals make it impossible for the writer, or speaker, to give a true descriptive account of the way men actually behave. A systematic distortion of the truth takes place. And obviously it cannot be shown how the goals might be reached since, being unreal, they cannot be reached!

    From a purely logical point of view, the arguments offered for the formal aims and goals may be valid and fallacious. But, except by accident, they are necessarily irrelevant to real political problems, since they are designed to prove the ostensible points of the formal structure (points of religion or metaphysics, or the abstract desirability of some utopian ideal).

    We think we are debating universal salvation, a unified world government, and the relations Church and State, when what is really at issue is whether the Florentine Republic is to be run by its own citizen or submitted to the exploitation of the reactionary foreign monarch. We think, with the delegates at the Council of Nicea, that the discussion is concerned with the definition of God’s essence, when the real problem is whether the Mediteranean world must be politically centralized under Rome or divided. We believe we are disputing the merits of a balanced budget and a sound currency when the real conflict is deciding what group shall regulate the distribution of the currency. We imagine we are arguing over the legal and moral status of the principle of freedom of the seas when the real question is who is controlling the seas. From this follows that the real meaning, the real goals and aims are left irresponsible.

    The real aims are accepted, even if right, for the wrong reasons.?

    On January 29, Reuters released the following news:

    “TEHRAN, Jan 29 (Reuters) – Iran and Russia could start up a gas exporting group like OPEC based on their command of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was on Monday quoted as saying.
    Forming a grouping of producers to control gas prices has been mooted in the past but officials in gas producers, including Russia, have tended to play down its prospects, partly because the gas market is dominated by long-term contracts.

    “Iran and Russia can establish the structure for an organisation of gas cooperation like OPEC as half of the world’s gas reserves are in Russia and Iran,” Khamenei was quoted by state television as saying.

    He was commenting during talks on Sunday in Tehran with Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov.

    Russia and Iran are the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 holders of gas reserves respectively. Iran’s reserves are estimated at 940 trillion cubic feet or more and Russia’s is estimated to hold between 1,680 trillion to 2,360 trillion cubic feet.?

    Well, all this sounds quite innocent, right? It seems it’s all about peaceful business. All right, but what then when we put this fact side by side with the controversial attempts of Russia to exert pressure on European countries through gas monopoly in this region, as it has been largely reported?

    This latest example pictures quite well the explanation of the previous paragraph I wrote, I think. Don’t you think so?

    To which I will add two more little things as a conclusion. The first is that there are geopolitical realities that overwhelm fashionable reveries about universalism. And the second is that we may attempt to forget chaos; but chaos never forgets us.

    P.S.: To Hershel Smith,
    I have the feeling to have quite largely contributed to this post; perhaps too much, I don’t know. I developed a sincere passion for the matter at hand and I hope I didn’t go beyond the limits reasonableness command. I apologize for this if it has been perceived at some point that I somehow “hijacked? the subject.

  • Herschel Smith


    Your thoughts are always welcome here. You haven’t ‘hijacked’ the subject. Iran (and ancillary and associated issues) IS the subject.

  • Denis Murphy

    Dominique, I agree that there is a tsunami beneath the tempests we see in the Middle East. My fear is that the current governing team in Washington is either not aware of the tsunami, or is aware, but does not have any idea of how to deal with it.

    Am I being too pessimistic? Who in Washington grasps what’s going on?
    — Denis

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    On the basis of the latest news, I don’t think so Washington doesn’t know how to handle the situation about Iran; and, indeed, I wouldn’t question one second the awareness of people who are in command over there.

    Now, in my own opinion, you have no reason to worry if you feel pessimistic. It’s a salutary feeling when dealing with such matters, I think.
    I hold pessimism is a prerequisite to assessment and future forecasting in foreign affairs since entropy is the main governing force affecting our world, and the whole universe in the scientific and general sense of the term. From need for a general well being is born the need to exert a permanent action on things and events. Action allows us to counter entropy since entropy breed chaos, ultimately. It just happens that a large majority of us feels better in an organized world than in a chaotic one.
    Beyond that, people may disagree over the way we must choose to organize things and exert control on events in our world, of course. But that’s not all, and I’m afraid some may disagree with me about what I am going to say.
    Our world, or things that are parts our world, may be metaphorically compared to a cake at some point. A cake that is not extensible or likely to grow up that much. A cake whose mere existence is greatly responsible of our disagreements and discontent, sometimes, often.
    Even though one may choose to exert the full extent of one’s power in order to avoid a conflicting situation about the share of a cake, nature, or God, made us so different in our way of perceiving things and so unequally served that covetousness and subsequent warmongering attitudes are unavoidable. Today, a very aggressive and ambitious one in the Middle East is attempting to steal the whole cake; and even more. Just that.
    I would like to elaborate further about that but I would frankly wander from the subject in doing so. I just hope I already said enough to explain why you have to be pessimistic. We have to find solutions to avoid chaos, and pessimism is indeed the drive that gets us doing our best to arrive at these solutions. Pessimism makes us smarter and more thoughtful, I think.

    There are two ways to analyze the situation and hazard some guesses about future developments of this issue (since previous and current actions done by Iran make this country the issue of the day, of course). The first (most commonly encountered in the media) consists of focusing one’s attention on the Middle East; and the second, which constitutes in itself a harder exercise, consists of seeing things under a much wider angle, but it would make news ten times longer and intellectually indigestible. But the second way is the right one in the sense that it offers an “almost exhaustive? array of factors and variables, each of varying amplitude likely to affect the course of the events in this region. What may happen in Iraq or in Venezuela, or in Russia, may influence what will happen in the Middle East, to a great extent in some instances. But, what may happen in Poland or Czech Republic, or even in Japan, is likely to influence to a lesser and perhaps more subtle extent what will happen in this region.
    That’s why most of us focuses on the obvious and the immediately visible while neglecting the hypothesis that two or three events of lesser importance happening in other regions or countries may have greater effects on the future of the Middle East than one significant event happening in one country located near Iran, for example; if ever these minor events happen “simultaneously? or almost “simultaneously? (here, my definition of simultaneousness between two or three events lies in the surrounding of six months or so). This constitutes an important notion; a notion one not only has to bear in mind, but to which one has to add to another likely thing. This thing is an event said-to-be of lesser importance which itself may be the cause of another greater and still more unexpected event.
    That’s not all since we have also to bear in mind that because of a need to impose order on our environment, we seek and often believe we find causes for what are actually accidental or random phenomena. People overestimate the extent to which other countries are pursuing a coherent, coordinated, rational plan, and thus also overestimate their own ability to predict future events in those nations. People also tend to assume that causes are similar to their effects, in the sense that important or large effects must have large causes. When inferring the causes of behavior, too much weight is accorded to personal qualities and dispositions of the actor and not enough to situational determinants of the actor’s behavior. People also overestimate their own importance as both a cause and a target of the behavior of others. Finally, people often perceive relationships that do not in fact exist, because they do not have
    an intuitive understanding of the kinds and amount of information needed to prove a relationship.
    Richards T. Heuer, a renowned U.S. analyst, says

    “One bias attributable to the search for coherence is a tendency to favor causal explanations. Coherence implies order, so people naturally arrange observations into regular patterns and relationships. If no pattern is apparent, our first thought is that we lack understanding, not that we are dealing with random phenomena that have no purpose or reason. As a last resort, many people attribute happenings that they cannot understand to God’s will or to fate, which is somehow preordained; they resist the thought that outcomes may be determined by forces that interact in random, unpredictable ways. People generally do not accept the notion of chance or randomness. Even dice players behave as though they exert some control over the outcome of a throw of dice. The prevalence of the word “because? in everyday language reflects the human tendency to seek to identify causes. People expect patterned events to look patterned, and random events to look random, but this is not the case. Random events often look patterned. The random process of flipping a coin six times may result in six consecutive heads. Of the 32 possible sequences resulting from six coin flips, few actually look “random.? This is because randomness is a property of the process that generates the data that are produced. Randomness may in some cases be demonstrated by scientific (statistical) analysis. However, events will almost never be perceived intuitively as being random; one can find an apparent pattern in almost any set of data or create a coherent narrative from any set of events. Because of a need to impose order on their environment, people seek and often believe they find causes for what are actually random phenomena. During World War II, Londoners advanced a variety of causal explanations for the pattern of German bombing. Such explanations frequently guided their decisions about where to live and when to take refuge in air raid shelters. Postwar examination, however, determined that the clustering of bomb hits was close to a random distribution. The Germans presumably intended a purposeful pattern, but purposes changed over time and they were not always achieved, so the net result was an almost random pattern of bomb hits. Londoners focused their attention on the few clusters of hits that supported their hypotheses concerning German intentions—not on the many cases that did not.?

    In order to illustrate this last point in the frame of the matter at hand: in my first comment you may find above in this same page I expressed further caution about repeated demonstrations of discontent and disapproval toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among the Iranian governing elite. Events following this comment tend to demonstrate that our interpretation of these disagreements may be, at the same time, valid and invalid. Openly expressed feelings of discontent about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad within the Iranian circle of power neither constitutes a deception attempt, nor do they constitute a valid basis on which we may expect a repudiation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s leadership. So, I was wrong since I missed to propose a combination of the two possible options.
    Similarly, the following course of events demonstrated that I was wrong, once more, when I stated in this same comment that “Russia has another agenda of its own and is not in position to overtly support Iran.? Now we know that, due to a considerable effect U.S. attitude exerted on Iran, seemingly, Iranians turned hastily toward Russia, which country immediately understood the profit it might get from this opportunity. This quick event had had further tremendous influence on the course of events because, since then, Iran’s state-run radio said that Tehran wants Moscow to help mediate the standoff and is looking to Russia for new proposals, such as enriching uranium on Russian soil:

    And that Russia and Iran are in talks on gas cartel:

    And, at the very same time, Vladimir Putin formulated aggressive declarations during his annual news conference at Moscow:

    Events about Iran are going apace, thus making harder one’s attempt to accurately forecast what next about this issue.

    Actually, we have a natural tendency to bargain in term of time when attempting to hazard estimates about future events while, in fact, we are able to make forecasts on the basis of a succession of events and the likely branches connected to each of those events. Thus it is much easier to make (relatively) long term predictions on social trends or on foreign affairs during (relatively) stable periods because each of the major likely or expected events constituting, once pieced together, a relatively sound basis on which we can attempt to submit forecasts succeed each to others along longer laps of time. The laps of our long termed forecasts shrinks tremendously during crisis because one major event may very quickly follow another (within a single day, sometimes). One of the best examples picturing this difficulty and which spontaneously comes to my mind is the Cuba Missile Crisis, I think. At the beginning of this crisis, no one was able to guess what would happen only 13 days later; and no one even knew the whole crisis would be over within 13 days!

    I am sorry to say I don’t have much more to say about the issue, now. The best observation I can formulate about the latest move at Washington is that a moderate decision, or a concession (if ever there are any in that case), requires far greater political courage than confrontation. This is particularly true when relations with a political adversary are involved. Often many miss to see that inaction is a form of action, indeed. The exceptional advantage of the United States is that it has the true and rare power to attempt a bluff if it wants to, and to be true to its word alike, or to defend itself against any kind of threat anytime thanks to an unchallengeable array of means and measures.

    At least, I have had the opportunity to make a profitable use of a subject I find enthralling as a way of making a contribution to The Captains’ Journal.


  • Denis Murphy

    Sorry, Dominique. All I see coming from the White House is confusion, incompetence, and bellicose rhetoric. I hope your optimism turns out to be correct. — Denis

You are currently reading "At the Crossroads with Iran", entry #451 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Iraq,Syria and was published January 18th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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