Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Next Moves In An Existential Chess Match

The situation regarding Iran has changed – and changed again – since December, 2007. Iran continues to increase the stakes with its deadly proxy wars throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq, and with its drive towards a nuclear arsenal. Four months ago, it appeared that our hands were completely tied in dealing with Iran, compliments of a State Department coup wholly undercutting the President. But that is no longer the case today. So what is the next move?


Iran is the single most destabilizing influence in the world today. Sec of Defense Robert Gates had it right when he said not too long ago

Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents - Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. . . . There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.

And, as Stuart Levy, Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence recently testified before Congress, Iran is the "the central banker of terrorism." It "uses its global financial ties and its state-owned banks to pursue its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and to fund terrorism."

To tick off the list of Iran’s threats:

- Iran is clearly doing all it can to prevent peace between Palestinians and Israel. And in rearming Hamas, it is doing so with substantially stronger rockets that can reach further into Israel, virtually insuring that Israel will have to take extreme measures to stop the daily attacks.

- Iran’s meddling in Lebanon has created a situation where both the Shia population and the country as a whole are dominated by Hezbollah, an army trained, armed and directed by Iran. Indeed, Hezbollah is now demanding veto power over acts of the Lebanese government. In the wake of the 2006 war with Israel, Iran is arming Hezbollah with much stronger rockets that can reach vitrutally all of Israel, thus insuring that the next war with Hezbollah will also be far more bloody for all of Lebanon.

- Iran has occupied several islands belonging to the UAE. Iran has supported attempted coups in Bahrain and, recently, Azerbaijan. Iran occupied a significant part of Iraqi territory immediately after Saddam's fall – some 1800 square-kilometers of the Zaynalkosh salient - and is making an effort to extend its dominance over the waterway on which sits Iraq's only major port.

- Iran is arming and training the Sudan's military.

- Iran is now the single greatest threat to stability in Iraq. Iran is attempting to "Lebanize" Iraq, using "special groups" culled from Sadr’s Mahdi Army to create a Hezbollah type of militia that will keep Iraq’s central government weak and extend Iranian influence over Iraq’s Shia majority. Indeed, Iran’s campaign to create a satellite state of Iraq was clear from the very start of the U.S. invasion in March, 2003. Their "special groups" are responsible for the deaths of nearly 200 American soldiers and the wounding and maiming of hundreds of others.

- Iran’s drive towards a nuclear weapon is significantly destabilizing the Middle East and has already initiated what promises to be a nightmare of nuclear proliferation. "Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the UAE, Yemen, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt have indicated an interest in developing nuclear programs, with Israeli officials saying that if these countries did not want the programs now for nuclear capabilities, they wanted the technology in place to keep "other options open" if Iran developed a bomb." According to a recent study initiated by Senator Lugar, "the future Middle East landscape may include a number of nuclear-armed or nuclear weapons-capable states vying for influence in a notoriously unstable region."

- And then of course is the threat that a nuclear armed Iran intrinsically poses. According to Bernard Lewis, the West’s premier Orientalist, Iran's theocracy operates outside the constraints of Western logic. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MADD) that worked against the Soviet Union and with other nuclear armed nations is not assured of working with a theocracy whose messianic rulers welcome the carnage that will presage the coming of the hidden Imam. And to add to that is the threat that Iran could well provide nuclear materials to terrorist groups in order to conduct attacks, such as dirty bombs, that could not necessarily be traced back to Iran. Such a scenario would be completely in keeping with the historical activities of Iran's theocracy.

Something must be done to convince the theocracy to end its nuclear ambitions and to stop its acts of war against our soldiers in Iraq. We appeared on a course to do that until, in December, our State Department conducted what amounted to a coup with the publication of an unclassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. The authors claimed that Iran did not have an ongoing nuclear weapons program and they deliberately crafted the document to deligitimize the use or threat of use of force against Iran. As I wrote at the time:

Our intelligence agencies have done our nation a tremendous disservice. It will, in the long run, likely cost us bitterly since it puts off any reckoning with the single most destabilizing force in this world. Every day that reckoning is put off will increase the cost we will pay and gold and blood. And if Iran achieves a nuclear arsenal, that cost we will pay will rise exponentially.

On Friday, in light of the NIE and all that has transpired, Charles Krauthammer wrote that an Iranian nuclear arsenal was inevitable and called for the U.S. to place Israel under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella – a move we should do in any case. But I think that the decision not to confront Iran with force or the threat of the same over its nuclear program - and its acts of war through proxy forces in Iraq - is far from settled.

Among the many considerations regarding use of force against Iran, one has been how such an act would reverberate in Iraq. Having made the decision to invade Iraq rather than Iran in 2003, we were victims to an extent of our own strategy. Any attack against Iran could have had significant repercussions for our mission in Iraq, further destabilizing the country. We could never be sure whether an attack on Iran would bring significant numbers of Iraqi Shia out against us. And in this regard, Sadr had explicitly promised to attack U.S. forces if we attacked Iran. That problem may now be resolved.

Iran had been, until recently, steadily increasing its malign influence in Iraq. Only a few months ago, some 300,000 Shias in the south of Iraq petitioned their government to do something about the murderous and ever growing Iranian influence. As al Qaeda attacks waned, Iranian proxies increased their violence, including attacks against the Green Zone, where Iraq’s Parliament meets. And in late February, there was a significant increase in the infiltration of Iranian Qods force personnel into Basra and Baghdad that, in light of subsequent events, may well have been related to the Basra offensive and Sadrist uprising in Baghdad and numerous other southern Iraqi cities in addition to Basra.

The Basra offensive and the defeat of Iranian backed, if not Iranian led, Mahdi militia elements in every major city where they staged an uprising has been an incredibly strong blow against Iran. (Update: For any who still might think Basra anything other than an utter defeat for Sadr and his Iranian backers, do see the articles discussing current events in Basra and Sadr City here.) And now, with PM Maliki and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani calling for the disarmament of all militias, including Sadr’s, it appears that the majority of Iraqis and their government are actively taking a stand against Iranian influence in Iraq.

This dovetails with recent analysis by Michael Ledeen:

The issue for Iraqis, at all levels of the society, is not whether the mullahs are killing them. They know that, and they have known it all along. . . .

Iraqi ministers have been talking about Iranian terrorism for years. When I was at a closed meeting of leading Iraqis in Copenhagen two months ago, I heard many stories, complaints and warnings about Iran’s murderous activities. . . .

The issue is not "sensitizing" the Iraqi leaders to Iranian crimes. The issue is—was, rather—getting to the point where the Iraqis feel confident enough to go after the Iranians and their proxies.

That is the big change: Iraq is defeating Iran. Iran’s proxies have been defeated in most of Iraq. The remaining areas—primarily the zones in and around Mosul, and in and around Basra—are under siege from Iraqi and Coalition forces, including, at long last, the Brits (who were supposed to have pacified Basra long since). And the Iranians are losing, bigtime. A couple of weeks ago I wrote here that the Iranians were increasingly desperate, and that it looked like Khamenei was going to try a desperate throw of the dice. He did. And lost, losing to mostly Iraqi forces.

Read the entire article.

Iran’s gambit may have failed for now, but simply defeating the immediate threat is not going to stop Iran’s deadly meddling throughout the Middle East, nor for that matter in Iraq over the long term. Iran is deeply troubled by the spectre of a stable, quietist Shia democracy on its borders. That would be too great of a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s theocracy. Thus, unless the price becomes too great to pay, Iran will continue training and arming special groups that target U.S. forces and attempting to destabilize the Iraqi government. But with Iraq's government committed now to counter Iran’s deadly meddling, we will have far more flexibility in how we respond to Iran, both as to their acts of war in Iraq and their nuclear program.

As to Iran’s nuclear program, it has picked up steam and is now clearly aimed at producing a nuclear arsenal. You will find no one today, outside of the State Dept. at least, that might support the NIE’s assertion to the contrary. It appears now that Iran is in the process of designing a ballistic missle delivery system. It is tripling its capacity to enrich uranium – for which it has no use other than to create nuclear weapons. Our intelligence chiefs have spent the past two months backtracking on the NIE. Recently, CIA Chief, Michael Hayden, said that he believes Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons while his boss, Mike McConnell, projected that Iran may have a nuclear weapon by 2010. Then there was VP Cheney’s recent tour of the Middle East. Iran was at "the top of the agenda" during his tour, and in Turkey, VP Cheney publicly stated that Iran is seeking to make weapons grade uranium.

With that in mind, it looks as if we may in fact be preparing to make a viable threat to use force to stop this program. Our air and naval assets in the Gulf are quietly being beefed up to the same level as existed in March, 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq. Additionally, we now have two warships off the coast of Lebanon, likely to target Hezbollah should the need arise. According to a recent report leaked from Russian intelligence, plans and forces are in place to execute a large scale attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as we speak. Clearly, the threat of force is back on the table. However, the threat of force is only viable if the entity threatened believes that it may in fact be used. Iran does not seem to believe any such threat is viable.

Keeping that in mind, there are yet other nuances to consider in the calculus of what to do next. The problem with a large scale attack on Iran’s highly decentralized nuclear sites is that there is a strong possiblity it would leave the current regime in place while giving the appearance, at least, of a widespread assault on the larger population of Iran, resulting in an explosion of nationalist sentiment in support of a regime that is largely reviled within its borders today. Remember that it was less than a decade ago that Iran sat on the edge of a counter revolution – the so called Tehran Spring. But Iraq’s reformist president at the time, Imam Khatami, blinked and refused to support the movement. It was brutally repressed.

What has transpired since is near complete domination by hard liners opposed to any reform and who have rigged the elections to ensure their hold on power. The clerics are shifting ever more power to the 125,000 member Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the clerics’ primary vehicle for maintaining control of their country. The IRGC now control much of the day to day power in the country and are becoming wealthy beyond measure through their economic schemes. While the IRGC and clerics get rich, the economic situation for the 60 million other Iranians, made all the worse by Ahmedinejad, is critical. Inflation is running above 25% and unemployment among a population, the majority of which is under 30, is hitting new double digit highs each month. Food prices are soaring and gas is now being rationed.

Iran is, in short, a tinder box. It is a highly dysfunctional nation that should be low hanging fruit for our intelligence agencies, particularly now that we have access to a huge pool of Iraqis who can freely move across the Iranian border and vica versa. The school solution to all the problems of Iran’s theocracy is to fan the flames of discontent and amplify the promises of true democracy, free of the heavy and repressive hand of the Khomeinists. We can and should fan a counter revolution within Iran. To that end, we should be overtly and covertly giving massive support to Iran's dissidents, including support to the MEK. That has not happened to date, as Michael Ledeen explains here. It is utterly inexplicable and unconscionable that it has not. Unfortunately, even if we start in earnest now, such a course of action takes time to bear fruit - and time is a commodity of which we have precious little in regards to Iran's nuclear program.

While internal regime change may be the school solution and while large scale use of force may hold the potential for unintended consequences, that does not mean that we should not use any force, or that we should not create a scenario where the theocrat's have to worry that we will use such large scale force. To the contrary, we need to be doing precisely that. The history of Iran's theocracy is that it responds to the use of force. In 1980, Iran released its American hostages after more than a year. The did so on the day a belicose Ronald Regan took office. Iran ceased mining the Persian Gulf only after the U.S. destroyed half their navy on a single afternoon in 1988. If our intelligence is correct, Iran stopped its overt nuclear weapons program in 2003 at the same time we invaded Iraq. And just recently, in Basra, we saw Iran quickly back down the Mahdi Army forces when it became clear they were taking significant casualties.

With all of the above in mind, we can and should use force against those elements on Iranian soil that have been involved in training, arming and funding the "special groups." We should target in Iran the Qods force, their training bases, and the assembly plants for rockets and IED's that are ending up in Iraq. One, it would directly challenge the regime without the sort of large scale collateral damage that would likely rally the populace. Two, such action is fully justified under international law and, indeed, long overdue for several hundred of our dead and wounded soldiers, as a measure of self defense. Three, it would give the regime a bloody nose and perhaps destabilize it further in the eyes of the Iranian populace. Lastly, it would set the stage for a very serious threat of significant force on the nuclear issue.

And I believe that is in fact what we will soon be seeing. The recent warnings to Iran by President Bush as to their choices in Iraq as well as General Petraeus’s testimony, that he has a full press briefing on Iranian acts of war in Iraq prepared and is merely awaiting word from his chain of command to execute, indicates that such attacks are very much in the planning stages. The time is ripe for such action, both as a means to stop Iran's destabilization of Iraq and, equally importantly, to send a clear warning of a willingness to use force on the nuclear issue without yet having to pull the big trigger.

Iran does not have the goodwill among the Iraqis now to significantly hurt us there. And to launch a major attack against our naval or air forces in the region would be as suicidal today as it was in 1988. Its our move. After that, Iran may have precious few moves left in this game of existential chess.

1 comment:

Ymarsakar said...

The Sunni-Shia divide and the Al Anbar-Basra divide seems very close to the Left Flank vs Right Flank divide.

meaning, if you win on one of the flanks but allow your other flank to fold because of inattention or just incompetence, what you get is a defeat, not a victory parade.

It's not enough to win on one flank, you have to win on both, or at least prevent yourself from losing.

That's why I don't give much credit to people who thought Basra could be ignored because Sadr would make more trouble for us if we interfered. Those people were thinking short term material gains, not long term checkmate solutions.

Nor did I have much respect for those that said arming the Sunnis were just us helping the Iraqis fight a civil war against the Shia. Those people were just the opponent chessplayer talking smack to me.