by Larry C Johnson and W. Patrick Lang
Republicans and democrats need to put aside partisan differences and take measure of the threat Iran poses to our national security. This threat goes beyond supplying explosives that are trickling into Iraq use against our troops. This threat involves more than a reactivated program to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran, if things continue to go its way, finds itself on the threshhold of controlling vast oil resources that stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. No, I have not imbibed the neo-con Koolaid. And, no, I’m not agitating that we open up a new war front in addition to fighting Iraqi insurgents. But we must come to grip with the following facts and craft a robust foreign and national security policy to counter this emerging threat before we find ourselves literally and figuratively over a barrel (an oil barrel at that). You have to go back to 330 B.C. and the reign of Darius the III to find a time when Iran enjoyed defacto control of such a swath of territory. Unlike the ancient Persians, the current leaders of Iran believe they are fulfilling the call of God in bringing Islamic rule and justice to a world stained by infidels.
FACT 1: Iran is well on its way to achieving de facto control of significant portions of Iraq. Tehran is backing shia cleric, Ali Sistani (a Persian, not an Arab) and Muqtada al Sadr. The Iranians are funneling money and training to supporters inside Iraq. The Iraqi shia control the political process and comprise the majority of the security forces that are deployed and operating with any effect in Iraq. The Iranian leaders and their Iraqi shia counterparts privately must wonder at their good fortune and can only conclude that God (Allah) is really on their side. Where they failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein during a bloody 8 year war that left Iran with more than a million casualties (in fact, Iraq defeated Iran) the Iranian leaders now have their supporters and agents occupying key political positions in Iraq. Best of all, the United States, which had backed Saddam during the first Gulf War, did the dirty work and deposed the Baath party, the Sunni leadership, and Saddam. Iran did not sit by passively watching the change, they jumped into the fray and helped the Shia in Iraq seize the reins of power thru the ballot box.
FACT 2: Iran is in a dominant position in Lebanon. The murder earlier this year of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri has left Lebanon under the de facto military guard of Hezbollah. Iran remains the main benefactor, supporter, and advisor to Hezbollah. If you control the dominant force in Lebanon you are in a good position to control Lebanon itself. Although suspicion fell heavily on Syria for the assassination of Hariri, there is a strong circumstantial case pointing to Tehran’s hand in the affair. Hariri, a Sunni and Wahhabi with close ties to Saudi Arabia, was violently removed. While Syria’s position within Lebanon has been weakened, in part by the withdrawal of its Army from Lebanon, Iran’s position is stronger.
FACT 3: Iran is in a stronger position to reach out to and support Shia minorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran is an experienced hand in fomenting violence in Saudi Arabia, for example. The 1996 bombing of the US military housing complex in Dharan, Saudi Arabia was carried out in part with the logistical assistance of Iranian intelligence operatives. With the addition of a base of operations in Iraq, Iran can work more easily in cultivating supporters in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and develop cadre that can threaten those regimes. While the die is not cast and Iran’s victory not certain, things are certainly going Tehran’s way. Ironically the terrorist leader Zarqawi is a potential ally of ours in gearing up to battle the shia. Remember, it was Zarqawi who described the Shia as worse than infidels. Great! The only people he hates worse than us are the Shia.
There is no easy, painless solution to this threat. Confronting it will require rebuilding frayed relations with Saudi Arabia and Syria. It will also involve building a genuine international coalition, that enlists Russia, China, and Turkey. Despite a show of bravado on our part, the United States lacks the ground military force to intimidate the Iranians into backing down. An air campaign is a possibility but it would require commitment of enormous assets in a major effort and would only set the Iranian nuclear program back a few years. The road ahead will require a clever mix of diplomacy, covert operations, and economic sanctions. While we should prepare for the possibility that we may have to fight to defend the oil resources of Saudi Arabia from Iranian control we should not rely on the false assumption that we can fight our way out of this dilemma.
1. How much help from Iran did Shi’a Iraq need at the ballot box? My understanding is with the majority and the Sunnis staying home they walked to their victories.
2. I didn’t know Sistani was Persian. Still, do you doubt the media portrayal of him as an open minded leader with Shi’a religious motivations but Iraqi national motivations?
3. Which country (Lebanon?) do you mean when you speak of Iran being “on the threshold of controlling vast oil resources that stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.” I wasn’t aware of any Med. country (except the N. Africans) with sizeable oil reserves.
4. You make a compelling case. Still, I wonder which of Davis’ points you disagree with.
The Shia have the numbers in Iraq but Iranian encouragement and assurance that they are going to stand with them against the Sunni Arabs counts for a lot in encouraging their political action.
Elections and constitutions count for nothing if they are not accepted. The Sunni Arabs did not accept the results and the implication that went with it of a permanently subordinate role in Iraq and so the war goes on and will go on until they do so.
Sistani, a Persian who speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, has become the most powerful political figure in Iraq while at the same time denouncing the Khomeinist principle of “Wilayet al-Faqih.”
Jaafari does nothing without consulting him. Who is running the government in that circumstance and how is his position different from that of Ali al-Khamenei?
The point with regard to the potential expansion of Shia power is that internal oppostion combined with direct or subversive Iranian help threatens both the oil regions of the Gulf and the Levantine coast.
I don’t comment on the posts of other people whom I invite to write on my blog whther I agree with them or not.
Good reminder that even if the Sunni don’t vote at the ballots they will continue to vote with IED’s or support for the insurgents.
Amazing that Sistani has a Persian accent. That must annoy the Triangle.
I’m still confused on one point:
1. Does his denouncing Wilayet al-Faqih help reassure the Sunnis, or will they never be reassured?
I wasn’t being sarcastic, if that’s what you were asking.
Given recent reports Cheney wants plans drawn up to nuke Iran, is it possible the Bush administration has a different kind of solution to the iran problem in mind? How far back would using nukes set them back? Are there reasonable arguments beyond morality for Cheney to be bluffing?
Why is there so little fantasy in US foreign policy?
The “threat” of Iran can be defused without confrontation.
1. Start a new “man to the moon” program for energy independence
2. Guarantee Irans security (as long as Iran does not openly attack anyone).
3. Foster democracy in Iran by opening more economic and culture relations.
“The American way of life is not negotiable” is just plain stupid. That way of life is unsustainable as long as its based on hydrocarbons. No bombs on any “threat” will change that fact.
What´s next? China?
It’s not all about oil. It would seem that part of the solution necessarily involves the Palestinian/Israeli situation. The United States needs to examine the U.S.-Israeli relationship in terms of its real strategic importance with a goal of neutralizing the Palestinian/Israeli issue as a rallying cry for Muslim extremists. A truly even-handed approach may well contribute to mending the frayed relationships with Saudi Arabia and Syria. Building a coalition of the countries as suggested would be a daunting achievement and we could look forward to the continued success of imposing solutions on Middle-East countries (for the most part from countries external to the region) as we have in the past. RM
Your tripartite solution for our difficulty with Iran is attractive but it ignores the problem that solutions require acquiescence on both sides.
I have been interested in the Iran situation ever since the famous NIE of 1994 that lit the fuse for the Iran-Contra Affair.
In all this time I have not seen any evidence that the government of the Islamic Republic wants detente with the US. pl
I understand that the directive to STRATCOM to draw up plans for an air campaign includes instruction to provide options for all kinds of weapons.
From a strictly technical viewpoint nuclear weapons set for surface or subsurface bursts would be a very effective way to set them WAY BACK. surface or sub-surface bursts are very “dirty” and would throw up a lot of material that would come down radioactive somewhere. So, maybe they might opt for higher bursts if they went that way.
Arguments “against” not based on morality?
The radioactive collateral damage to friendly neighboring countries would be a factor in deciding. The renewed precedent of the use of nuclear weapons ought to be a big one. pl
About the al-Bira thing, you have to accept that public negotiating positions and private thought expressed to people he thought friendly are different.
Sistani is probably like a lot of people. He can live with ambiguity and what applies to others does not necessarily apply to him because of his exceptional nature. pl
PL – you write:
“In all this time I have not seen any evidence that the government of the Islamic Republic wants detente with the US.”
Has anyone in Iran seen the US wanting detente with them or have the Persians not seen the exactly opposite. An ever increasing agression of words up to the recent CIA/MEK bombs before their election.
US foreign policy has this big hammer with the US military. Now everything looks like a nail.
That mindset poisons the search for alternatives.
Imagine a US foreign policy based on NOT being the bully in the schoolyard. How would a medium power US interact with Iran. In my opinion it would find a much less aggressive and much more effective policy.
You certainly need a Bismark.
Your timescape is much too short. I have watched the USG try to find openings for improvement of relations with Iran for the since’79. some of them were pathetically naive. you do remember North and company, don’t you? pl
PL – my timeframe is too short?
Talked to an Iranian exile in Germany a while ago. His timeline for US-Iran relations starts with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Ajax .
North and company were seen as the cynics they have been – not as an opening.
How about a simple US presidential declaration NOT to attack Iran and NOT to interfere in internal Iranian politics? Some kind of peace agreement? Now that would be an opening and oil would immediately drop $10/barrel.
Yet another view of Shia and Persian Iran
While I have almost always agreed with you, especially as it relates to the Plame affair, I’m afraid I will have to disagree with you on this subject. You make much of the way Iran is subverting US plans in Iraq, but fail to mention the reasons why Iran would feel it necessary to do so. In a matter of three years the US has toppled governments to the East and West of Iran. American forces are conducting operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq, while at the same time pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. As if that were not enough, we named Iran part of the “Axis of Evil”, of which only two original members remain.
In your piece you talk about how Iran believes it is “fulfilling the call of God in bringing rule and justice to a world stained by infidels.” However, you fail to mention the fact that these Shiite Iranians oppose the very enemy we are fighting against, Sunni fundamentalists. You also fail to mention that as such, we share strategic goals in the region, mainly the defeat and containment of this threat whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, not to mention Central Asia.
You also cite Ali al Sistani and the fact that he is of Iranian origin, but fail to mention the fact that he also belongs to a Shiite school of thought that is fundamentally opposed to the Iranian brand of Shiism. Unlike Moqtada al Sadr and Khameini, he does not believe that clerics are qualified to rule over a polity; sure they can have influence, but only indirectly to ensure that people’s rights are respected and their grievances addressed.
Additionally, as you yourself point out, Iran is funneling weapons to the Iraqi insurgency, which are then used against its Iraqi allies to undermine their government (way to make your allies happy!!!). This takes us back to the question above. Why does Iran feel it is in its strategic interest to support an insurgency whose goals are so diametrically opposed to Iran’s? The answer once again is simple. The US has threatened and continues to threaten Iran with military forces to both Iran’s East and West and hence the only way to prevent the US from invading Iran is to keep it busy in already conquered territory.
The truth is, as Thomas Barnett has pointed out time and time again, that the future of Iraq lies in the hands of Iran and the only way we can make it work is to work through and with Iran.
You state in your piece that “ironically the terrorist leader Zarqawi is a potential ally of ours in gearing up to battle the Shia,” but I think you are wrong. Because Zarqawi hates Shiites so much and because Iran and the US both have a strategic interest in preventing him from winning anywhere, Iran is actually (and ironically) our best ally to secure Iraq and defeat (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalism. Iranians do not want Sunni fundamentalists to control Iraq or Afghanistan and neither do we.
You also cite the need to use all of our power, political, economic and military to curtail Iran’s ambitions. While we must do this with every regional and global power, the truth is that with Iran we cannot do it, unless we bring China and India into the fold. The only way to do this is to give them what they want, unfettered access to Iranian oil and natural gas. How to do this? According to Barnett, we must engage Iran (which he sees as being at a similar point as the Soviets in 1988 [near collapse of the system]) and reconnect it to globalization which will ultimately bring the regime down and bring the people to power (a people which currently are the only ones in the Persian Gulf who actually like America).
Bring Iran into the fold and you also gain India and China. Rehabilitate Iran and more oil flows into the system to quench the world’s thirst. In other words, you can manage the threat, or allow it to fester on the sidelines until it explodes. Ultimately, it is our choice.