Iran–and we all should run.

Iranian-American relations haven’t been good since the revolution of 1979 overthrew Shah Reza Pahlevi.[1]  Sometimes they are less-bad.  Right at the moment, they are more-bad.  During the Obama administration, Iran pushed on many fronts that menaced not the United States, but its allies and clients.  All of this put both Israel and Saudi Arabia on edge.  They saw—and still see—Iran as determined to make itself the dominant state in a re-ordered Middle East.  The twin pillars of this dominance would be a series of client states in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; and nuclear weapons with the ballistic missiles to deliver them.  The re-ordering might include the annihilation of Israel and the limitation of America’s role in the region.  In the wake of the disastrous Iraq war, the American people clearly didn’t want another big war in the Middle East.  Sensibly, the Obama administration’s diplomacy focused on a successful effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

That left many other issues unresolved.  In May 2018, President Trump chose to leave the nuclear agreement.  He has re-imposed economic sanctions and has sought to coerce other countries to impose an effective embargo on Iranian oil.

On the left, there is a suspicion that the president believes that regime-change in Iran offers the only reasonable solution.[2]  President Trump’s rhetoric both attacks the Iranian ruling elite as corrupt and illegitimate, and celebrates Iranians who protest against that government.  However, the Iranian regime wields powerful tools against dissent.

On the right, there is a hope that confrontation will force the Iranians to make concessions in other areas as well.  Many experts doubt that Iran’s leaders will bend.

Will Iran’s leaders do something stupid?  For its part, Iran has raised the possibility of closing the Straits of Hormuz at the outer end of the Persian Gulf in retaliation for American actions.  Some 40 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Straits in tankers.  They tried this during the long Iran-Iraq War in the Eighties.  The US Navy began convoying tankers.  On 22 July 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that President Trump was running the risk of “the mother of all wars.”[3]  Trump responded in kind.  If Iran actually did try to close the Straits of Hormuz, then the possibility of military conflict would become very real.  It seems unlikely that American air and naval forces operating from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Sea would stop at suppressing Iranian forces around the Straits.  Very heavy air attacks could follow on Iran’s nuclear facilities and key regime assets like the Revolutionary Guard.  So, Iran probably will not close the Straits.

It seems equally unlikely that American leaders will do something stupid.  Americans still don’t want a big war in the Middle East.  Iran’s nuclear program can only be constrained voluntarily.  Nuclear weapons are a matter of science, engineering, and money.  Iran has all three.  An attack would not necessarily do more than postpone the Iranian program.  An attack would sent Iran in pursuit of other, indirect ways of striking back at American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Maybe Vladimir Putin will quietly mediate a settlement.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “A War of Words With Iran Risks Spiraling Beyond Control,” NYT, 24 July 2018.

[2] It worked OK from 1954 to 1979.  We’ve had forty years of hostility in return for twenty-five years of cooperation.

[3] Saddam Hussein used the same phrase when faced with an American invasion in 2003.

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Operation Iraqi Future.

Between 2011 and 2014, unanticipated events in the Middle East created problems that are now moving toward critical phases.  In 2011 a long, complicated civil war broke out in Syria.  By and large, the Obama administration evaded involvement.  Also in 2011, the Obama administration believed that it had escaped the Iraq quagmire.  The United States and Iraq could not agree on terms for the continued American presence in that troubled country.[1]  American troops pulled-out.  Various forms of Hell marched in.  In 2014, the troops of Islamic State (ISIS) drove east out of civil war-torn Syria.  They soon over-ran the Western (largely Sunni) areas of Iraq.  Iraq’s Shi’ites toughened-up; Iran sent arms and men; and the United States supplied air-power.  In 2014, Russia seized the chance created by a political crisis in Ukraine to re-take the Crimea and to sponsor rebel groups in two districts of eastern Ukraine.  International economic sanctions on Russia followed.

In 2016, Russia forged an alliance with Iran to defend the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.  The joint intervention of the two powers now seems to have confirmed that the regime will remain in control of western Syria at least.  The 2016 Obama/Kerry agreement with Iraq[2] fended-off a war between the United States and Iran while facilitating an American-Iranian war against ISIS.  Victory over ISIS appears[3] to be at hand.

President Trump ran on a platform of opposing Iran.  Doubtless, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has done his best to rein-in the President until the CrISIS is over.  Still, the day will come when ISIS has been beaten and the Americans and Iranians can think anew about their relationship.  Iraq will find itself a pawn in that relationship.

What happens next in Iraq and Syria?  Iraqis are divided over which “friend” to support.[4]  Do they favor the United States or Iran?  Iran has real advantages: Iran is Shi’ite and the majority of Iraqis are Shi’ite; Iraq’s Iranian-armed militias have played a large role in the defeat of ISIS.  The government of Iraq is full of pro-Iranian Shi’ites.  The argument for keeping America engaged in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS springs from this same Iranian domination.  Keeping the Americans involved offers the best guarantee that Iran won’t just turn Iraq into a puppet.  Also, there will have to be some kind of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites of post-ISIS Iraq.  An American presence might limit Shi’ite oppression of their none-too-loyal Sunni countrymen.

Russia and Iran disagree on the final outcome in Syria.  Russia chose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war inside Islam, but wants to limit its involvement in the struggle.  To avoid becoming mired in the larger conflict, Russia favors a compromise in Syria that would meet the demands of some Sunnis (although not the Westernized young people beloved of Westerners).  Iran hopes to see Bashar al-Assad turn Syria (or his portion of it) into a Shi’ite bastion.[5]

Iran and Russia will stick together; America and Iran—and Russia—may fall out.  Still, room exists for pragmatic diplomacy.  People just have to seize the chance.  But what chance?

[1] Iraq’s Shi’ites wanted the Americans out so that they could go about the business of misgovernment unimpeded.  Iraq’s Sunnis wanted the Americans to stay as a check on the Shi’ites, rather than out of love for the country that had destroyed their country and their own place at the peak of that country.  The Americans were—and are—weary of war in the Middle East.  President Obama sought to meet this desire of the voters.

[2] Until the memoirs come out, when it may be renamed the Clinton-Kerry or Clinton-Obama deal with Iran.

[3] Count no man happy until he is dead.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Balancing Act Between the U.S. and Iran,” WSJ, 17 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Russia, Iran Need Each Other, Despite Differences,” WSJ, 17 February 2017.  .

[5] Over the long-run an Iranian client-state in Syria on the frontiers of Israel—a sort of super-Hezbollah—would challenge the security of Israel in a profound way.

A Fateful Moment.

Currently, the American list of terrorist organizations in the Middle East includes al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and many other groups.[1]  Now the Trump administration is considering adding both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the Muslim Brotherhood to the list.

What are the arguments for and against such steps?

A Sunni-Shi’ite civil war tears at the Middle East.  Russia has made a clear choice to back the Shi’ite side.  Iran leads the Shi’ite cause, is unique as an Islamist state, and is hostile to both the United States and Israel as well.  The Obama administration refused to choose, causing a good deal of distress among its Sunni allies and Israel.  Despite these real diplomatic problems, an attack on Iran’s nuclear program would have opened a larger conflict at a moment when Americans were fed-up with war in the Middle East and ISIS banged at the gates of Baghdad.

The Trump administration is re-thinking this policy.  The Revolutionary Guard is an independent military force that answers directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran.  Over the years it has also spread into a powerful position in the economy.  In addition, it plays a leading role in Iran’s covert operations.[2]  The Trump administration believes that Iran plays a disruptive, hostile role in the Middle East.  Targeting the Revolutionary Guard makes sense as a starting point.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928.[3]  Eventually, getting nowhere with violence, the Egyptian core of the Brotherhood abandoned that in favor of concentrating on its other social programs.  The Egyptian movement has off-shoots elsewhere.  There are affiliates in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan.  Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is another off-shoot.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations pursued a policy of engagement with any Muslim group that sought political power by peaceful and democratic means.[4]  Thus, in 2012 the Obama administration embraced the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt.  However, important American allies in the Middle East have long considered the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization.  These allies include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.[5]  Also, Israel is deeply hostile to Hamas.

Again, the Trump administration is considering reversing course by declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  However, Turkey’s Islamist government supports the Brotherhood, which it sees as a similar movement.  Since the Egyptian coup, the Brotherhood has been allowed to maintain offices in Istanbul and to operate a television station that broadcasts throughout the Middle East (including to Egypt).  Moreover, millions of Egyptians still support the Brotherhood, albeit they’re keeping their heads down at the moment.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an umbrella organization.  Many of its members in many Middle Eastern countries remain committed—for now—to peaceful means.  Would declaring the Muslim Brotherhood further alienate its members?  Would it drive some of them to using violence?

So, a fateful moment in which caution should prevail over bold action.  Bold action in 2003 led to the invasion of Iraq, “and all that implies.”

[1] Felecia Schwartz and Jay Solomon, “U.S. Weighs Terror Label for Two Groups,” WSJ, 9 February 2017.

[2] I realize that it is inflammatory to say so, but the historian in me sees organizational and political parallels between the Revolutionary Guard and the SS in Nazi Germany.  I do not mean to suggest any moral equivalence.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “The Pitfalls of Blacklisting Muslim Brotherhood,” WSJ, 27 January 2017.

[4] While this is admirable in theory, one cannot help wondering if it is merely cosmetic in a region of authoritarian governments.

[5] That said, Saudi Arabia has eased up a little in its hostility to the Brotherhood.  Conversely, Egypt experimented with toleration for the Brotherhood in 2012-2013, only to restore the military dictatorship by a coup.

Obama in the Middle East.

Was President Obama wrong to avoid intervention in the Syrian Civil War?  Was he wrong to seek escape from Iraq and to hesitate to commit American forces to the war against ISIS?  These questions matter on several levels.  For one thing, there are an awful lot of dead people, no?  Could the huge death toll of the Syrian Civil War been avoided, to say nothing of the Western hostages butchered, and the Jordanian pilot burned to death, and the Yazidis murdered, and the Iraqi soldiers massacred after surrender?

For another thing, we’re in the death throes of an American presidential election.  The aspiring successors to President Obama both criticize his eight years of restraint.  Recently, a gaggle of American diplomats used the free-speech channel at the State Department to dissent from administration policies, and current-Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged their viewpoints.  Whoever wins the election in November 2016, the United States is likely to be blowing up things on a grand scale soon afterward.

Lonely voices defend the president.[1]  To the surprise of no one who has spent time studying the history of international relations, countries define for themselves and then pursue their individual interests.[2]  Sunni and Shi’a Islam are now engaged in a great civil war in the Middle East and elsewhere.  As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn, so there is a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  It’s a tricky business.  In any event, Iran backs the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and the Alawite minority in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, and the government in Yemen, and does nothing very evident to oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Neither country will bend before American will.

Then, Americans often believe that the course of events is determined by Americans.  For the Right this often means that the United States must just “stand firm” in a Viagraesque way.  For the Left, this means that the United States, usually at the behest of big business, picks the winners in foreign social conflicts.  Neither interpretation could be further from the truth.[3]  The domestic balance of forces determines the outcomes of conflicts.  The United States merely accommodates itself to the de facto government.  In the case of the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s initial idealism soon got short-circuited by reality.  In similar fashion, his idealism, and the foolishness of Hillary Clinton, led to a disastrous intervention in Libya.  On the core issues, however—Syria, Iraq, Iran—President Obama has been reluctant to intervene in foreign civil wars.  Just as Britain and France hesitated to intervene in the American Civil War.

Most of all, the Middle East just isn’t that important to America at the dawn of a new century.  Fracking has reduced world dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  The Middle East has oil but no industry.  The Russo-American conflict is no longer about existential issues.  Even terrorism can’t destroy America or Western Europe.

Political scientist (and former Obama Administration advisor on the Middle East) Marc Lynch concludes that “America can be more or less directly involved, but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.”  The voice of reason.

[1] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (Public Affairs, 2016).

[2] “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—Thucydides.

[3] See, for example, Chiarella Esposito, America’s Feeble Weapon: Funding the Marshall Plan in France and Italy, 1948-1950 (Praeger, 1994).

 

On the Obama Doctrine.

The New York Times recently summarized some of President Obama’s thought as revealed in an important article in the Atlantic.[1]

President Obama believes that Asia and Latin America are far more important for America’s future than is the Middle East.  He believes that some of America’s allies try to draw the United States into Middle Eastern conflicts that have little relation to American national interests.  Then they don’t do anything to pull their share of the weight.  He believes that Saudi Arabia “need[s] to find an effective way share the neighborhood [its arch-enemy Iran] and institute some sort of cold peace.”  He sees parts of the Middle East as plagued by “the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”  He recognizes that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, especially the United States.  The same will be true if it comes to a military confrontation.

It’s hard to quarrel with any of that as general principles.  The interest of the United States in the Middle East stems from Cold War efforts to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into a key area from which Europe drew its oil and which provided an important link in world communications and transportation.  An ill-considered, but still understandable American commitment to Israel got layered-on after the Six Days War of 1967.  Today, Middle Eastern oil is far less important; the Soviet Union is dead; and Israel does not face any formidable coalition of enemies.  ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States as did Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  However, decades of engagement created of powerful traditions and institutions dedicated to dealing with the Middle East.  Inertia, rather than thought, carries on.

More troubling are some of the president’s specific reflections.

In the wake of the recent pair of articles in the New York Times on the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011, President Obama acknowledged that the intervention had been a “mistake.”  However, that mistake had been motivated in part by his belief that Britain and France would shoulder much of the burden.  “Free riders aggravate me.”  Well, they should.  However, it is up to the President and his senior officials to define what each country will do beforehand.  The president is a lawyer.  This should be second-nature to him.

British Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted by other issues,” in the words of the New York Times, during the Libyan operation.  What were those other issues?  In August 2011, race relations boiled over as massive rioting swept across several major British cities, including London.  In early 2012 the Scottish nationalists won approval for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.  These may have been distractions, but neither was a petty matter.

President Obama is “openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign policy establishment,” which always ends up favoring “militarized responses.”  That may be true in some cases, but in the case of Libya, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the leaders of the intelligence agencies all were—apparently—opposed to intervention.  In the case of Egypt, all these and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were cautious about tossing overboard the dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Those initiatives were on the president.  What of Syria?  Was it the “foreign policy establishment” that persuaded the president to insist that Bashar al-Assad had to go as the part of any solution?  Then, the Russian intervention has shown that there is a “military solution” to the civil war.  It just isn’t the one that President Obama wanted.  As has been so often the case for the president.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies, NYT, 10 March 2016.

CrISIS 6.

The Turks want the Assad regime gone as a first order of business, and they are attacking Kurdish forces as a second order target. The Saudis want the Assad regime gone and they are attacking Houthis in Yemen as a second order target. The Russians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they are attacking non-ISIS opponents of the regime. The Iranians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they have committed both their own military advisers and client Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to that end. The Shi’ite government if Iraq isn’t making any concessions to the Sunnis of Iraq in order to win them away from ISIS. In the past year, Germany has received about a million refugees from the Syrian civil war. The Kurds are fighting ISIS, even if the rest of the Iraqis are making a half-hearted effort, but that’s because they are trying to establish the territorial basis for an independent Kurdistan. Germans are more concerned about the behavior of Muslim hicks toward European women than they are about the undoubted dangers of terrorist wolves hiding among the refugee sheep. In short, nobody—except American politicians—seems very concerned about ISIS these days.

The common assumption on the Potomac seems to be that ISIS has gigantic ambitions and will seek to wreak havoc in Western countries through terrorism. However, ISIS has little chance of expanding its territory. It made big gains in areas where the opposing forces were rotted by demoralization or were pre-occupied with other conflicts. There is little chance that it can make similar progress against the armies of Turkey, Iran, and Israel. It may not even want to make huge gains. In the words of one observer, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “wanted to create an Islamic state in Syria—sacred land that, according to Islamic prophecy, was to be the site of the apocalypse.”[1] (See: Islamism as a Story.) That’s not quite the same as conquering the whole of the Middle East.

Heightened security in Western countries can limit the danger of ISIS terrorism, even if it cannot totally prevent it. The Israelis have lived with this danger for decades. OK, it hasn’t done their society and politics a lot of good. Still, Israel is still there. ISIS poses no existential threat to Western countries.

That isn’t the same as saying that ISIS hasn’t created problems. The European vulnerability to the flood of Syrian (and other) refugees has opened a means for other states to pressure the Europeans. Turkey started the process, but the Russians are in a position to either add to or to reduce the flood. What would the West give Russia to get it to play ball in Syria? Probably it will not be much fun to be a Ukrainian.[2] Probably it will involve a climb-down on sanctions. Probably it will involve letting the Assad regime survive or transition out on Russian and Iranian terms.

[1] Sohrab Amari, WSJ, 9 February 2016, p. A11.

[2] At the same time, Western democracies already seem to be experiencing buyer’s remorse over their support for Ukraine. Pervasive corruption and a very halting program of economic modernization are angering many people who didn’t look closely at the Ukraine or at its quarrels with Russia before the most recent revolution.

The heat is on.

Diplomatic historians will be familiar with the idea of “two table games.” That is, governments deal with both other states and with domestic constituencies. This analytical approach arose in part as a result of the domestic problems that led Wilhelmine Germany to court the danger of war in 1914. By the early Twentieth Century, the fake-parliamentary government of the Second Reich faced a serious challenge from the rapidly expanding Social Democratic Party, with the powerful labor unions at its back. Middle-class parties were also growing restive with a government dominated by big business and the reactionary “Junker” land-owners of Prussia. To rally support for the established order, Germany pursued an aggressive foreign policy. Either Germany would achieve some diplomatic triumph that would redound to the credit of conservative leadership or the country would face a diplomatic crisis that led all parties to rally ‘round the flag. In the end, however, this policy brought on the First World War.[1]

According to one well-informed analysis, something like the same thing is contributing to the current Iran-Saudi conflict.[2] On the one hand, supporting the spread of the Wahhabist message of conservative Islam has been one way for the Saudis to fend off unrest. Such conservatives have seen Iran as a revolutionary and anti-Saudi force since the Iranian Revolution began (1979). They have quietly criticized the Saudi government for inertia in the early stages of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. That criticism may have helped spark the Saudi intervention in Yemen—and Saudi non-intervention in the struggle against ISIS.

On the other hand, handing out free stuff has been another way of fending off discontent.[3] The slump in world oil prices brought about by the American “fracking” revolution forced Saudi Arabia to choose between reducing production to push earnings back up or accepting lower earnings to maintain their share of the market. Saudi Arabia opted for the latter course because they recognized that if they lost customers, they would never get them back. However, lower income meant that the Saudi public budget had to be cut. Recently, Saudi Arabia announced a 14 percent cut in its budget, leading to reduced subsidies for all sorts of things.

For their part, Iranian conservatives are unhappy with the deal over Iran’s nuclear program and the suspected openness to “liberalization” on the part of younger people. New elections loom in February 2016. What to do? Anything that revived revolutionary fervor and rallied people to the defense of the Islamic Republic would be welcome.

Adding to the grounds for complaint by Saudis about various aspects of government policy is the problem of radical Sunnis. What to do? In October 2014, a Saudi court convicted a Shi’ite cleric named Nemer al-Nemer of sedition and sentenced him to death.[4] On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed him—along with 47 Sunnis linked to al Qaeda. In Iran, crowds stormed and burned down the Saudi embassy.[5] Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Sunni-ruled Arab states followed suit.

In 1914 German leaders misjudged where their policy could lead them. People had great confidence in rationality. There isn’t much rationality in “playing chicken.”

[1] See, for example, Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977).

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Mideast Internal Politics Fuel Rift,” WSJ, 5 January 2016.

[3] It’s the mirror-image of “taxation without representation is tyranny.” No taxes = no right to representation.

[4] In both Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, Iran has long used Shi’ites as instruments of Tehran’s policy.

[5] It is difficult to believe that the government of Iran did not understand the implications of one more embassy invasion, especially since the seizure of the American embassy figures as the Iranian “Boston Tea Party.” Perhaps that’s why the police failed to prevent it.