Iran Amuck 2 30 June 2019.

In the judgement of one expert,” the “Iranian economy has long been riddled by endemic mismanagement, corruption, cronyism, and brain drain.  Sanctions make all these problems worse.”[1]  However, the flaws are innate to the regime, rather than springing from the sanctions.[2]

American economic sanctions against Iran have a long history.  They began with President Jimmy Carter; were tightened by President Ronald Reagan; were greatly strengthened by President Bill Clinton, then were slightly eased by Clinton after the election of an Iranian president seen as “moderate” in the West; then were renewed under President George W. Bush.

In 2005, Iran announced that it would begin enriching uranium for its nuclear program.  At the behest of the Bush administration, the United Nations began imposing international economic sanctions.  In 2010, the Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a law greatly strengthening sanctions.  Eventually, the pressure from the sanctions forced Iran to negotiate with an American-led coalition.  In 2015, the negotiations produced an agreement on delaying Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons in return for relief from some of the sanctions.

The agreement aroused controversy.  On the one hand, Iran remained under sanction for other actions.  Incomplete relief from sanctions continued to hamper improvements in the living conditions of ordinary Iranians.  Iranian hard-liners could argue that the sanctions relief hasn’t been worth giving up the chance at nuclear weapons.  On the other hand, Iran remained an active opponent of the United States and its regional allies.  Conservative critics of the Obama Administration could argue that only limiting Iran’s nuclear program, without addressing its other behaviors, hasn’t been worth sanctions relief.[3]

The Trump Administration falls heavily into the latter camp.  It has sought to re-open the negotiations with Iran with the intention of getting a better deal.  On 8 May 2018, Trump .withdrew the United States from the agreement.  Trump also announced that the United States would re-impose the previous sanctions and sanction any European companies that traded with Iran.  Within a year, Iran’s oil exports had declined by more than 50 percent.

On 8 April 2019, Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.[4]  The designation carried with it further economic sanctions.

On 5 May 2019, after Iran had designated the U.S. Central command as a terrorist organization and after the U.S. had discerned Iranian preparations for action against American forces, a carrier battle-group and bombers were ordered to the region.

On 8 May 2019, the US increased sanctions on Iran’s exports and ended “waivers” granted to some countries to continue buying Iranian oil.

On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf.  The Trump Administration claimed that Iran had attacked the tankers.  Iran soon .announced that it would return to enriching uranium.

On 13 June 2019, external explosions badly damaged two tankers in the Gulf.

The 2003 Iran War suggests a need for caution in all long-term projections.

[1] Helene Cooper, “How the U.S. Ratcheted Up Pressure on Iran and How Iran Responded,” NYT, 16 June 2019.

[2] The parallel to Venezuela is striking.

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2018/07/24/iran-and-we-all-should-run/

[4] The IRGC handles terrorism abroad.

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Iran Amuck 26 June 2019.

Like his predecessors and a great many other people, President Donald Trump opposes the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.[1]  A host of countries had imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran to coerce the country into an agreement.  President Barack Obama negotiated a multi-national[2] agreement that would delay Iran’s progress toward a weapon in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.  The goal was to stop Iran’s nuclear program at a line one year away from constructing a nuclear weapon.  The alternative course would be war with Iran.  American public opinion at the time opposed a new war, so a deal made sense.

The nuts-and-bolts of the issue are that: a) it takes a lot of effort to get uranium from 3.67 percent purity to 20 percent purity; it takes much less time and effort to get uranium from 20 percent purity to 90 percent, the level required for a nuclear weapon.

The agreement required Iran to hold a maximum of about 600 pounds of “low-enriched” (3.67 percent purity) uranium until 2030 and no high-enriched uranium.  Iran already had more than 600 pounds of low-enriched uranium, so Iran exported the surplus.  The agreement also required Iran to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As a presidential candidate and as an elected president, Trump disparaged the Iran agreement as “the worst deal in the world.”  In the view of President Trump and other critics of the agreement, one problem is that the agreement isn’t a permanent solution.  It ends in 2030.  After that, Iran will be free to pursue its nuclear ambitions once more.[3]  Furthermore, the agreement did not constrain Iran’s actions in other areas like Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, or in the development of ballistic missiles.  For American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, the agreement stank to high heaven.[4]  Another .problem is ballistic missiles.  Iran possesses missiles that can hit most Middle Eastern countries (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan).

In May 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the multi-lateral agreement with Iran.  Since then, the United States has imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions.  Both Iran and the other parties to the agreement continued to abide by the terms.

In June 2019, Iran announced that it, too, would withdraw from the agreement.  Iran would begin stockpiling nuclear fuel above the threshold set by the agreement.  It might also begin enriching that fuel above the level needed for nuclear power plants and toward the level needed for a nuclear weapon.  Among the current unknowns are whether Iran has the technical capacity to make a bomb, and whether Iran had the technical capacity to miniaturize a bomb to fit on a ballistic missile.  The answers are not readily apparent.

IF Iran sprints toward completion of one nuclear weapon, THEN how will the United States respond?  IF Iran is just bluffing, THEN the ayatollahs may hope that other countries will push the United States into accommodation.  IF not, THEN can Iran survive a hi-tech war?

Both Iran and the Obama policy are about to be tested.

[1] Michael Crowley, “How the Nuclear Deal Splintered into a Crisis,” NYT, 18 June 2019.

[2] Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

[3] President Obama seems to have believed that the Iranians would get fed-up with the clowns running the country before 2030.  Then a new Iranian government would pack in guns for butter.  I hope so.  However, President Obama also bet on the “Arab Spring.”  Some places actually play politics more hard ball even than in Chicago.  So,…

[4] Could they persuade someone in a position of authority to see it their way?  If so, how?

My Weekly Reader 16 May 2019.

If you want to think about “God” in simple evolution-of-ideas terms, then the stages would run something like the following.  At first, humans believed all Nature was alive and that all living creatures possessed an “anima” (spirit, soul).[1] Later, seeking to appease these powerful natural forces, people “personified” them as “gods.”  There were many things that could go wrong or right in life, so there were many gods.  Build temples, offer sacrifices, and hope for the best.[2]  Then they refined this polytheism into each city having one particular patron god or goddess, along with the others.  That deity lived in a temple in the particular city that s/he protected.  Participation in religious rites figured as an important duty, rather than as a choice.  The deity didn’t move around.  Greek and Roman religion were merely stems from this stock, but elaborated non-religious ethical systems of great power.[3]  Animism yielded to Polytheism.

After a while, what became Western civilization diverged from this broad cultural pattern.   The Hebrews developed “ethical monotheism.”  That is they believed that only one real God existed; all the others were false gods.  That God existed everywhere in the world, rather than being bound to the confines of some runty city-state.  That God had made a “covenant” with His “chosen people.”  He would protect them if they worshipped only Him.  He didn’t settle for mere rites and offerings.  He also required adherence to a moral code of action in this world.  Then Christianity emerged from Judaism by opening the “covenant” to anyone who would profess the faith and by extending the “covenant” to include a promise of life after death.

If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you might argue that Christianity amounted a generational revolt by young men against the old men who ran Judaism.  Alternatively, you could argue that God now wanted all of His Creation to share in the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Jews.  Polytheism yielded to Monotheism.

Then, in the 7th Century AD, another monotheistic faith arose: Islam.  This, too, is an example of ethical monotheism.  If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you could argue that the Prophet Muhammad borrowed much from Judaism and Christianity, and then preached his new faith to the polytheist Arabs at a critical moment in their history.  Alternatively, you could argue that God had gotten fed-up with the inability of Jews and Christians to follow His instructions.  He had sent Muhammad to call back the whole world to the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Hebrews.

Since then, Judaism and Christianity have divided between growing secular majorities and shrinking “fundamentalist” minorities.  Islam, however, has not followed the same path.  The Koran remains the unalterable Word of Allah.

“Every schoolboy knows” the term “a willing suspension of disbelief” when approaching a work of fiction.  What might make understanding between faiths easier would be a “willing suspension of his belief” on the part of the individual.[4]

[1] For a serious, accessible, and sympathetic portrayal of this belief system, see Brian Moore, Black Robe (1985).

[2] I suppose one could think of this as either bribery by the people or extortion by the gods.  Living now in a more secular age, it appears that politicians have become the new source of manna.  Reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in parallel each day, I conjecture that Democrats believe in the bribery interpretation and Republican believe in the extortion interpretation.  But what do I know?

[3] If not of universal compliance.  That’s one of the things that makes Ancient History so much fun.

[4] I stole this from Eric Ormsby, “Allah: A Biography,” WSJ, 17 January 2019.

I’m Running for President in 2020–3.

The Global War on Terror is approaching a new stage.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has been driven out of Iraq and almost destroyed in Syria.  Recently, President Trump ordered a sudden withdrawal of American forces from Syria and announced a desire to do the same from Afghanistan.  Much expert and political opposition arise to slow him down.  Some people argued that the Islamic State had not yet been totally defeated or destroyed.  Parallels were drawn to President Obama’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq.  This had been followed by the rise of the Islamic State and its invasion of Iraq.

Peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban have been proceeding and may be approaching a settlement.   With regard to Afghanistan, two lines of criticism or concern arise.  First, a peace deal with the Taliban will be based up on some kind of compromise or power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and their indigenous Afghan opponents.  What assurance can be offered that the Taliban will honor their commitments?  The Taliban came to power in the first place through victory in a civil war.  Are they likely to pursue the same path again.  Second,  the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  Who is to say that they will not again become patrons of anti-Western jihad?

In both cases, critics of President Trump argue for a continued American role in what Dexter Filkins called “The Forever War.”  While these critics are experts–and I am not–and they make important points, it seems to me that they fail to address a key question.  “How does this thing end?”  We are at war with an idea–Islamic radicalism–and with global social conditions–the failed states and the failed societies in much of the developing world.  It seems likely that the “defeat” of ISIS will soon be followed by a wild fire of Islamic radical rebellions running from Bangladesh through Indonesia to the southern Philippines.   Islamist movements are on their heels in much of Africa, but the conditions that gave rise to them have not been addressed.

I ask my fellow candidates the following questions.  Are we going to keep military forces in every place an Islamist wild fire has broken, been contained, and burned out in case the embers catch light once again?  Are we going to send military forces to every new place an Islamist wild fire breaks out?  Of course, it will be argued that American military technology and special forces are effective force multipliers.  America can “lead from behind” and on the cheap by assembling” coalitions of the willing” to do much of the fighting.

It might be answered that even these forces are not infinite.  America is not on a real war-footing and has not been since 2001.  A small share of Americans bear the cost of battle.  We develop plans for Operations in each Theater of Operations as it arises, but I see no Strategy for winning the global and forever War.

Civil War in Yemen.

The Prophet Muhammad preached a Muslim world undivided by politics.  This meant that there would be a single “caliphate that governed all Believers, and that politics and religion would be inseparable.  Despite the compelling power of his beliefs, he did not get what he wanted.  After Muhammad’s death (632 AD), Sunni contested with Shi’ites, and the “umma” fractured into rival states.  This unhappy condition continued from the 8th Century to the 21st.

After the Second World War, Muslim states gained true independence, but as separate nations.  The rivalries between them continued.  In particular, dictatorial republics contended with authoritarian monarchies.  From 1952 to 1970, Egypt’s populist dictator Gamal Nasser tilted with Saudi Arabia.  Nasser inspired unrest where he could; conservative monarchies fought back as best they could.  The larger struggle came to be called “The Arab Cold War.”[1]

Yemen provided one spot where this “Cold War” turned hot.[2]  In 1962, followers—or agents—of Nasser overthrew the hallowed-by-time imamate in North Yemen.  Supporters of the traditional monarchy fought back.  The ensuing civil war ran until 1970.  Roughly, tribesmen in the north supported the monarchy, while people in the slightly-more-urban south supported the Nasserites/republican rebels.  Nasser’s Egypt sent forces—especially bombers—to support the rebels forces, although 70,000 Egyptians ended up serving in Yemen at the height of the Egyptian intervention.   The Egyptian forces proved no more effective at counter-insurgency warfare would Western troops in Afghanistan or Vietnam.[3]  Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran joined in the war—albeit clandestinely—against the Nasserites.  All had their motives.  Britain. For example, was obsessed with Nasser’s defiance of Britain in the 1956 Suez Crisis, and hoped to reduce Egyptian influence in the Middle East.  Israel, for its part, saw getting Egypt bogged down in southern Arabia as a good means of reducing Egypt’s support for cross-border raids in the Sinai and elsewhere.  At the same time, the Israelis were alarmed by Egypt’s development of a “weapon of mass destruction”—poison gas—and this may have contributed to the decision to attack the surrounding Arab vulture states in 1967.

As a result, the war dragged on—inhumanely, but little noticed in the West–for eight years.  In the meantime, international humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the International committee of the Red Cross and the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States involved themselves in humanitarian aid.  The need was great.  Wars fought in less developed countries tend to wreck the feeble infrastructure and medical support.

In the end, backed by Egypt, the republican Yemenis won the civil war.  They constructed the façade of a “modern” nation.  However, many of the tribesmen in northern Yemen remained unreconciled to that new state.  They bided their time in preparation for a new round of conflict.  This week-end, the New York Times ran a story on famine in Yemen, where a new civil war has provided a proxy for the on-going Saudi Arabian-Iranian struggle for power.[4]

[1] See: Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 (1971).  It is a brief, but well-informed journalistic account.  It was new when I was in grad school.

[2] Asher Orkaby, Beyond the Arab Cold War: the International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-1968 (2017).

[3] It was asserted that Egyptian troops used poison gas against their foes.

[4] The story itself was excellent, but the headline elided the reality that “it takes two to tango.” As in Syria, the wars and suffering would end if the “good guys” (in Western eyes) stopped fighting wars they cannot win.

My Weekly Reader 13 October 2018.

Geography—like many other things—is Destiny.  The Middle East has been shaped by its location between the upper mill-stone and the lower millstone.  Greeks fought Persians; Romans fought Hellenistic Greeks, then fought Sassanids; Christians (Byzantine and Latin) fought Muslims (Arab and Turk); and Anglo-Americans fought Russians.

The last of these struggles centered on the region’s place in an increasingly globalized world economy.   Sea routes, then air, routes through the Middle East made it a vital link between Europe and Asia.  The rise of oil as the world’s industrial fuel made the Middle East a vital component of economic growth.  (As always before, the people of the region were disdained, not least because they habitually accommodated themselves to whoever held the whip-hand.  Their leaders “Medized,” “Hellenized,” “Romanized,” “Arabized,” “Ottomanized,” and “Westernized.”[1])

Through the Nineteenth Century, Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire.  The Phil-Hellene British elite held the Ottomans in low regard, but they were determined never to allow Tsarist Russia to advance southward to dominate Britain’s line of communications with India and the China trade.  The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) intensified this determination.[2]  The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East appeared to finally relieve the danger.  Russia collapsed into revolution and emerged as a pariah state pre-occupied with its internal problems.  Britain and France parted-out the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.[3]  Liberated from the Russian danger, the British and French fell to bickering among themselves.[4]

Then came the Second World War.  The war wrecked both Britain and France, while elevating the United States and the Soviet Union into global super-powers.  The unwilling Anglo-French retreat from the Middle East coupled with the renewed Russian threat to draw in the Americans.

The British were reluctant to release their grip.[5]  They had, after all, alone fought from the first day of the war to its last without suffering military conquest.  In the last stages of the war, British leaders began to plan new arrangements that would allow them to exert a guiding hand on Middle Eastern developments.  Britain’s lack of money and power quickly undermined these schemes.   Israel’s self-proclamation (1948), the rise of the charismatic Egyptian military dictator Gamal Nasser (1952) in place of the feeble King Farouk (1952), the American supplanting of Britain as the predominant power in Iran after the 1953 coup, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal and America’s brutal intervention to halt the botched Anglo-French-Israeli Suez Campaign (1956) against Nasser, and the beginning of the Iraqi Revolution with the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy (1958) marked some of the Stations of the Cross on Britain’s painful imperial Via Dolorosa.

[1] It might be wondered if a recognition of this endless submissive adaptability on the part of unprincipled leaders is part of what fuels the rage of contemporary radical Islam.

[2] M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (1966).

[3] Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.  It also sought a tighter grip on Egypt.

[4] See, most recently, James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2011).

[5] James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (2018).

Afghanistan 30 July 2018.

After toppling the Taliban in 2001-2002, the Americans determined to hold Afghanistan against any return by the Taliban.[1]  To this end, they established a host of outposts in the countryside and began training-up a new Afghan national army.  This policy began under President George W. Bush and continued during the first term of President Barack Obama.

Thus, in 2006, the American created a network of posts in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.  Offensive operations against the Taliban would launch from these bases.  By 2009 the Americans were re-thinking this plan.[2]  In 2010, their effort shifted toward protecting the major population centers.  Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south became major battlegrounds.

In 2014, the coalition of American, Afghan, and NATO troops fighting the Taliban declared an end to major combat operations.  The Western troops withdrew to a few major urban areas.  Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif have become heavily defended centers.  Everywhere else, on-going defense responsibilities fell to the Afghan army.  In 2015, the American began urging the Afghans to give up trying to garrison or control areas far from the major cities.

For its part, the Taliban has concentrated its efforts at capturing the little outposts in rural areas.  Frequent attacks on isolated posts have inflicted hundreds of casualties on Afghan soldiers every week in recent months.  Afghan government forces have been reduced by about 5 percent since Summer 2017.  Along the way, the Taliban picked up not only momentum, but also a good deal of arms and equipment.

Afghanistan is divided into 407 administrative districts.  By the most recent estimate, the government controls 229 of them, while the Taliban controls only 59.  That leaves 119 districts that are considered “contested.”  The thing is that almost three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas.  Little more than a quarter live in heavily fortified big cities.  Falling back on the cities abandons most Afghans to the Taliban.

Initially, President Trump followed the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis Recently, the United States has pressed the Afghan government to follow the Western lead.  Afghan army troops are falling back on the cities, leaving the country-side districts to the Taliban.  That suggests that the Taliban could soon control almost 180 districts.  This would give them near-parity with the government.

People offer the conventional excuses: we’re just regrouping in the cities in order to counter-attack into the rural districts at some point in the future.  More honestly stated, falling back on the cities “is a rational approach to secure the cities, and provide the Afghanistan government the political opportunity to work with the Taliban.”  That seems to mean that the government has to hold the cities in order to have some valuable chips in negotiations for a “compromise peace.”  The Trump administration is trying to begin talks with the Taliban.  What can the Afghan government get in such negotiations?  What will they have to give?  Will the Taliban be content to negotiate on the emerging balance of forces or will they try to erode the security of the cities by attacks?  Who will be aboard the last helicopter out of Kabul?

[1] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper, “New U.S. Tactic in Afghanistan Urges Retreat,” NYT, 29 July 2018.

[2] For some sense of why this happened, see Sebastian Junger’s film “Restrepo” (2010) and book War (2010).