• (No) World War III with Iran

    January 15, 2020 // 36 Comments »

    History will judge the long-term impact of the death of Qassem Soleimani. In the short-to-medium term, let’s step back from the fear-mongering to remain purposefully agnostic towards the meaning of Soleimani strike itself to instead focus on the geopolitical factors which make the large-scale war many fear unlikely.

    For Iran to provoke a large-scale war is suicide. They have no incentive to escalate to that level, though they may conduct attacks consistent with the last decades. Those attacks, and the U.S. responses, will in the current political and media climate (#WWIII was trending on Twitter and frightened youngsters crashed the Selective Service website worried a draft is forthcoming) consume our attention far beyond their actual impact, but they will in reality cycle inside the rough rules of what diplomats call escalation dominance, the tit-for-tat trading of controlling the moment, trying to stay under the victims’ threshold of response. Emotion is for amateurs.

    The most recent series of events bear this out. Iran and/or its proxies have fired on U.S. bases in Iraq multiple times, initiating the current escalation that included Soleimani’s death and this week’s missiles launched from inside Iran at American bases at Al Asad and in Erbil. Yet according to one long-time regional observer, “This doesn’t yet feel like a major escalation. Iran can claim it took revenge. Feels more like an escalation to deescalate.” Among other signals, the missiles’ long flight time, over some 200 miles, gave obvious warning to areas already on alert.

    Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted Iran was finished fighting and was not actively pursuing further escalation. Trump undertook no immediate counter-attack, and in a speech spoke only of further economic sanctions alongside some vague thoughts on future agreements. The two countries’ actions add up to a collective “We’re done if you’re done” for this round.

    This was all to be expected. Iranian leaders know theirs is a developed, industrialized nation, unlike places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq (and Vietnam before those.) It does not need to be invaded or occupied, it can be destroyed from the air. As only a regional power, it suffers from a massive technological disadvantage in any conflict the U.S., a nation, perhaps sadly, now long past the calculations of “kill a few Americans and watch them run” that drove it from Somalia in 1993 after “Black Hawk Down,” or out of Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks by Iranian-proxy Hezbollah. Unlike years past, America is willing to take a punch to throw back two. Iran’s political leaders are aware of the limits of asymmetric warfare in this world, especially because America’s lack of dependence on Persian Gulf oil means 2020 is not 1991.

    Iran, under sanctions, is near totally dependent on what oil it can export. Oil requires massive infrastructure, all of which can be bombed. Iran’s military operates in large part out of fixed sites. Its navy is small and its bases can be destroyed from the air, its harbors mined from above and below the water. The Iranian military is ranked globally below Brazil and Italy.

    I’ve been to Iran. I saw the martyrs memorial outside the main marketplace in the holy city of Mashhad, with the names of Iranians who died fighting the U.S. in Iraq from 2003 forward; Soleimani is respected by many Iranians, but he is neither the first nor the last soldier to die in this ongoing long war.

    Iran’s government meanwhile is a tense coalition of elected civilians, unelected military, and theocrats. None would stay in power following a major war. They face an almost schizophrenic population, happy to chant Death to America but equally open to the idea, albeit on more liberal terms than five American presidents, Republican and Democrat, have been willing to offer, of finding a way out from under sanctions that would release their potential and open them to the world.

    Iran understands its limits. Think about the provocations Iran has been forced to endure without escalation: U.S. troops landing in-country in a failed hostage rescue in 1980, U.S. support for Iraq in using weapons of mass destruction and the provision of intelligence which allowed the Iraqis to rain missiles on Iranian cities in 1980s, the U.S. shooting down an Iranian civilian aircraft, killing some 300 innocents in 1988, U.S. invading and occupying Iran’s eastern border (Iraq 2003) and western approaches (Afghanistan 2001) and maintaining bases there. In 2003, when Iran reached out following initial American military successes, George W. Bush flippantly declared them part of an Axis of Evil. U.S. forces then raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Iraq and arrested several staffers in 2007. The U.S. has kept crippling economic sanctions in place for decades, conducted the Stuxnet cyberattack in 2010 destroying Iranian nuclear centrifuges, and another 2019 cyberattack, never mind what the Isarelis have done covertly. Nothing led to a wider war. Soleimani died in context.

    Iraq, politically and geographically in the middle, has every reason to help calm things down. Despite the rhetoric, the Iraqi government needs the U.S. in situ as a balance against Iranian hegemony and as a hedge against the rebirth of ISIS. The recently passed, non-binding resolution for U.S. troops to leave Iraq carries no weight. It was passed by a divided government in caretaker status, applies only to the withdrawal of the anti-ISIS joint task force, and lacks both a timetable to happen and a mechanism to enforce it. Even that symbolic vote was boycotted by Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish (so much for losing the Kurds as allies) legislators, illustrating the difficulties a coalition Iraqi government faces in getting anything done.

    Should Iraq somehow find a way to move against the U.S. troop presence, promised American sanctions on Iraqi oil would devastate the economy and likely topple a government already besieged by its citizens of all backgrounds for failing to provide necessary basic services. The $200 million in direct aid the U.S. paid Iraq last year is a tiny portion of billions flowing in from Washington via loans, military assistance, training funds, etc. That all would be missed. Iraq needs a relative state of peace and stability to hold on. It will make ceremonial anti-American actions to appease its Shia majority and make it appear it is not being ordered around by the Americans it loves to hate, but the U.S. is not be driven out of Iraq.

    America itself has no reason to escalate any of this into a real war. Iran is strategically more or less where it has been for some time and there is no U.S.-side driver to change that now. Chaos in Tehran serves no purpose, and war would spiral the nation into a series of internal struggles spiced with fissionable material that has no place in a foreign policy calculus in an election year at home. Trump gets the political credit (84 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approve of the strike) from his base for a tough-guy move with none of the sticky problems a wider conflict would create. His post-missile attack remarks position him as open to new talks of some kind.

    To accept the U.S. will start a major war assumes a fully irrational actor unfettered. Many people want to believe that for political purposes, but the hard facts of the last three years say when it gets to this strategic level Trump has not acted irrationally. Same this time; he did not act irrationally, or even provocatively, in the aftermath of the Iranian missile launches.

    It’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway. Forget the tweets; they have never added up to much more than fodder for pop psychologists, impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts. Absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions have come to pass. See North Korea, where Trump was supposed to start WWIII two years ago, or the trade wars that were to destroy the global economy, or any of the other pseudo-crises. In sum, no new wars. Economy chugging along. Trump manipulating Democrats into practically putting Che-style Soleimani T-shirts up on Etsy. The current commander-in-chief is likely to start a war? He’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

    If any of arguments above seem familiar, it’s because some are recycled bits and pieces from when Trump was in a Twitter fight with North Korea two years ago, and Democrats and the media insisted we were on the threshold of war.

    So forget the irrational actor argument. What is different going forward (Iran and the U.S. will clash again) is the risk that does exist with the post-1979 generation in the military and Deep State, those who remember the biggest red line of all, when the Iranians took 52 American government personnel hostage out of the American Embassy in Tehran. A lot of bad things happen out there in the world, good guys get chalked up, intelligence officers rolled, bombs go off in crowded nightclubs, drones shot down, but stone-cold taking hostages in diplomatic status right out of their embassy offices just isn’t done.

    The Nazis didn’t do it, the Communists didn’t do it, neither did dictators from the Kims to Pol Pot. Iran did, and the blood runs bad inside U.S. government old timers even today. Though they obviously failed this round, those people will try to get to Trump again after the next provocation with Iran. Revenge some say isn’t a policy. Maybe true; but revenge can be a goal and some will see their chance to use Trump’s willingness to act unilaterally and any miscalculation of over-reach by Iran as the excuse. There lies any real danger.

     

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    The U.S. is Playing with Fire if It Walks Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12

    May 5, 2018 // 27 Comments »



    A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump’s likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.

    The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran’s nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter’s economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump’s non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.

    The changes Trump is insisting on — reduce Iran’s ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal’s end date, and allow unrestricted inspections — are designed to force failure.

    Iran’s ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.) Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran’s defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.

    The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; Iran will nefariously lie in wait, springing whole into nuclear status 12 years from now. Leaving aside the original agreement was negotiated with such a deadline, and American policy has generally been for presidents to honor agreements in place as they take office, the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure drama.

    Twelve years is a lifetime in the Middle East. Some 12 years ago Syria was at peace with its neighbors, and the United States happy to outsource torture to Assad as part of the War on Terror. Turkey was a democracy, Russia mostly a non-player in the region, and Iran was timidly facing the American military on two of its borders, open to broad negotiations with Washington. There is more than enough to focus on in the Middle East of 2018 than what the area might look like strategically in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to pop out of the cake in 12 years with a nuclear surprise. Washington’s demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s nuclear activities is political theatre.

    As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two past minor instances where the Agency noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount. Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of any nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War, no nation with the power to say no would. Following the inspections ahead of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where intelligence officers were embedded in the process and the results politicized, American credibility for this ask is low.

    So these aren’t really negotiating points, they’re excuses for the United States itself to step out of compliance with an agreement. “President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I’ll kill it alone,’ said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.

    None of this is a surprise. Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the “worst deal ever.” His new foreign policy team — Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario that says the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will survive May 12. What happens next?

    The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick start its nuclear program. Tehran’s hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria would remain untouched if not intensify in retaliation. Iran’s current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh. The odds of the North Koreans agreeing to a nuclear deal decrease; imagine being the new State Department envoy sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat trying to answer his question “What is to say you won’t do this to us in three years?”

    European allies will be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following another election. Relations could easily sink to the level of 2003, when America’s bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance. Russia and China, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will have a chance at being the “good guys,” seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.

    Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest. It is even less clear Russia and China will follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to reimpose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran’s ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there’d have been no need for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the first place.

    Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to “jaw jaw,” leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and America only the option of destroying them. It’s perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities for years, wants. The Israeli air strikes which decimated Saddam’s nuclear program and Syria’s were small scale, directed against nearby, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are far away, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation. And that’s all before the newly-emboldened Russians weigh in.

    The chance of terminating Iran’s nuclear program is held against the risk of full-on war in the region. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.




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