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.

Ending the Syrian Civil War.

Preliminary peace talks for the Syrian civil war got underway in November 2015. Neither the Assad government nor its opponents have been represented so far, just the other powers for whom they serve as proxies. The peace process seems likely to occupy a good deal of news attention in 2016. What do the major participants want?[1]

Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a fellow Shi’ite and his opponents are Sunnis in the midst of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Syria borders on Lebanon, where Iran supports the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement. Iranian troops have been fighting in Syria, as have large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. So Iran will want at least an Alawite post-Syrian successor state in the western parts of the country. The Shi’ite government of Iraq seems to have demonstrated a greater willingness to cooperate with Iran than with the United States.

Russia supports Assad, a long-time ally. Russia and Iran (and the Shi’ite government in Iraq) have been co-operating to air-lift troops, aircraft, and materiel from Russia to Syria. Russian aircraft and artillery are now fighting in support of the Assad regime. The Russians are not necessarily committed to Assad remaining in power over the long term, but they will want a diplomatic victory and they will want a friendly state in control of the coast.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies. Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’ite) government. It has been supporting hardline Sunni groups (read radical Islamists) fighting against Assad. They want him gone and a Sunni-majority government in place. That is, they want a Sunni victory in this phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

Turkey wants Assad gone and a majority Sunni government in place. Turkey’s policy in pursuit of this goal has been emphatic. However, Turkey also wants to suppress Kurdish nationalism, which has profited from the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as viable states. Turkey has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) for—among other things—greater engagement against Assad.

The position of the United States is very awkward. It has already declined to play any active role in the Syrian civil war. Its real concern is to roll-back ISIS as a factor in Iraq, so that it can withdraw once more. The Saudis, the Turks, and the Russians haven’t shown much interest in this problem. With regard to Syria, the US has backed down in its demands. From demanding that Assad be removed as part of the solution, the US retreated to saying that Assad can have no long-term role in governing Syria to desiring to limit whether Assad can run for re-election. Also, the US has agreed to allow Iran to participate in the talks. This has infuriated the Saudis.

What is going to be negotiated? First, what form will a transitional government take? Second, who gets to participate in that government? The Russians want to pick and choose between “terrorists” and “moderates,” with only the latter allowed to participate in a transitional government. The Saudis want the reindeer games to include their clients/proxies (many of whom are Islamists). Having angered the Saudis by allowing Iran into the talks, the US probably will have to back the Saudis in their demand that Islamists be defined as “moderates.” Even if some of them are linked to Al Qaeda.

What will happen to Lebanon in the aftermath of a partition of Syria? The place is awash in Syrian refugees and Iran’s client Hezbollah is very powerful. Will it get absorbed into the Assad-ruled rump-state? That’s likely to scare the living daylights out of Israel. It’s always something.

[1] “Syria Talks: What Countries Want,” NYT, 14 November 2015.

Ayatollah Cola.

It is a subject of some controversy exactly what President Obama hoped to get from the July 2015 agreement with Iran. Did he merely hope to avoid or postpone launching another great war in the Middle East? If so, he appears to have succeeded (for now) and a war-weary country owes him a debt of gratitude.[1] Did he hope that an agreement and an end to economic sanctions would open Iran to outside influences, prompting younger Iranians to press for political liberalization?[2] If so, he appears to be in for disappointment, at least over the short-term.

One of the big dogs in this fight is the Revolutionary Guards. Without wishing to engage in inflammatory rhetoric, the Revolutionary Guards (RG) might be analogized to the SS. They are an elite fighting force; they are the guardians of the ideological purity of the country; and they have made a good thing out of their revolutionary purity. The RG have built up a business empire that includes telecommunications, banking, construction, and the luxury goods imports that are not available to ordinary Iranians. Trade and political liberalization would be death to the RG.[3]

In a nutshell, Iran bowed before the pressure exerted on it by an American-led coalition over many years.[4] Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reluctantly approved the deal. The agreement doesn’t feel like much of a victory to Americans, but it feels like a defeat to some Iranians. The opponents of the deal included the Revolutionary Guards.

Having suffered one defeat, these conservative forces have sought to reassert their fundamental anti-Western positions in other areas. They understand the game that President Obama has been playing. They take it far more seriously than do the president’s Republican and Israeli (but I repeat myself) critics. Partly, the government has used allegations of Western espionage to imprison the Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian and to arrest five Iranian journalists.[5] Partly, the Supreme Leader has banned negotiations with the Americans on any other issues. Partly, in partnership with the Russians, Iran has increased its support for the embattled Assad regime in Syria.

For the moment, having won something big, the moderates are in no position to mount an effective resistance. President Hassan Rouhani, who is presented to the West as a pragmatic moderate, has been keeping his head down.

The deal isn’t a “done” deal. It could still slide off the road. The International Atomic Authority Agency (IAEA) was supposed to report on previous efforts to build a nuclear weapon in December 2015. The Iranians have refused to co-operate and the inquiry is stalled. Iran is scheduled to cut its stockpile of uranium from 8,300 kilograms to 300 kilograms, and to disconnect most of its enrichment centrifuges by January 2016. If the Iranians refuse to ship their uranium stockpile abroad for safe (for everyone else) keeping, the whole deal could unravel. Meanwhile, elections for the Iranian parliament are scheduled for February 2016 and elections for the American House of Representatives, Senate, and Presidency are scheduled for November 2016. In short, things aren’t over yet. This is likely to be a long struggle.

[1] Doesn’t mean the bastards will pay, just that they owe. Maybe he could hire a collection agency? Call everybody up at the dinner hour, lay a guilt trip on them or threaten to repossess their cars in the middle of the night.

[2] There’s a certain comic element here. If you have the misfortune to run across those postings on Facebook by some immoderate conservatives, you’ll often see President Obama denounced as an America-hating (not to mention crypto-Muslim) traitor. Meanwhile, the president has tried to establish increased cultural and economic contact between the United States and Iran and Cuba. His guiding idea appears to be that people in messed-up societies who encounter America will go “Yeah! I want some of that!” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8N2k-gv6xNE or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZy3qzzc9ag

[3] See: Michael Thad Allen, The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[4] “The struggle inside Iran,” The Week, 11 December 2015, p. 11.

[5] If this was happening in the United States, people would call it “McCarthyism.” Quite rightly.

Dilemmas, dilemmas.

America’s involvement in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq has forced Americans to confront all sorts of painful issues. It appears that they have had a hard time reaching a steady conclusion.

America may be the “most powerful nation in the world,” but most Americans don’t want to be part of projecting that power. Ten years ago, two years after the invasion of Iraq, 70 percent of Americans opposed reviving the military draft; 66 percent would attempt to dissuade a daughter from enlisting; 55 percent would attempt to persuade a son not to enlist. On the other hand, 27 percent favored reviving the draft; and 32 percent would encourage a son to enlist.[1]

The means used to wage the war on terror have disturbed Americans. In January 2010, 63 percent of American voters believed that government efforts to combat terrorism were too concerned with protecting the civil rights at the expense of national security.[2] (But the NSA already knew that.)   In early July 2013, 42 percent of Americans had a positive view of Edward Snowden. By mid-July, however, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, while 43 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.[3]

At the end of 2014, 56 percent of Americans believed that torture used by the CIA on captured Al Qaeda members and other suspected terrorists had provided valuable information that helped prevent terrorist attacks. Curiously, only 51 percent of Americans believed that the methods used had been justified. That is, about 5 percent of Americans believed that torture had produced valuable intelligence and still thought it unjustified. Partisan division on this issue matched that on many other issues: 76 percent of Republicans believed the methods were justified compared to 37 percent of Democrats.[4]

In July 2014, just after the dramatic advances made by ISIS in Iraq, 51 percent of Americans laid the crisis at the feet of former President George W. Bush, while 55 percent said that President Barack Obama was doing a poor job of handling the crisis.[5] Even so, a clear majority then opposed intervention, while 39 percent supported it.

In Spring 2015, ISIS outlawed the wearing of “Nike” brand clothing or footwear by its soldiers.[6] In retaliation, the United States began bombing. (The rich man’s IED.) By August 2015, 5,500 American air-strikes against ISIS had killed an estimated 15,000 jihadists. (That’s fewer than three jihadists/air strike. Not exactly cost-efficient, since most of the strikes are launched off carriers in the Arabian Sea.) Moreover, new recruits have filled up the places of many of the dead. Intelligence estimates suggested that ISIS still fielding a force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops.[7] American air-strikes also sought to disrupt, even destroy, the ability of ISIS to pump, transport, and sell oil from wells in Iraq and Syria. Again, the results disappoint. ISIS still earns $50 million a month from covert oil sales.[8]

By mid-August 2015, Americans were having a hard time sorting out the proposed agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. They divided into roughly equal groups between supporters (35 percent), opponents (33 percent), and “don’t know” (32 percent). The divisions within the parties are interesting. While a big block of Democrats (58 percent) support the agreement and a big block of Republicans (60 percent) oppose it, a small share of Democrats (8 percent) oppose it and a small share of Republicans (15 percent) support it. That leaves 34 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans “not sure.”[9]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 19. My best friend from high-school has a son who is an Army Ranger. He has deployed seven times. “Some gave all, most gave none.”

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 January 2010, p. 21.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 July 2013, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 18 July 2014, p. 15. About half as many (27 percent) blamed President Obama for the crisis.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 16.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 17.

The Iran deal after the shouting.

Once upon a time, Iran signed up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[1] Under the treaty the development of nuclear power was acceptable, but the pursuit of nuclear weapons was not acceptable.[2] After n1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran pursued a secret program to develop nuclear weapons—not just nuclear power—until 2003. Then the hunt eased up, without entirely stopping. By 2006, Western nations had grown suspicious of Iranian actions, so they slapped on a series of increasingly painful economic sanctions. The vise kept tightening until the Iranians agreed to negotiate with a coalition of powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, the European Community, Russia, and China.

The Iran deal that was recently technically-not-disapproved by Congress does certain things. It does not seek a permanent end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It does try to extend Iran’s “break out” time to a nuclear weapon from the current estimated three months to one year.

What’s the up-side? The agreement imposes controls on Iran for ten to fifteen years. Some of this involves Iran backing away from its current level of development by surrendering 97 percent of the enriched uranium it already possesses, dismantling two-thirds of its existing enrichment centrifuges, and reconstructing its existing heavy water reactor. Some of this involves “intrusive”[3] inspections of Iranian sites all along the supply-chain from mines and centrifuge factories to enrichment facilities.

What’s the down-side? Iran fended-off really intrusive inspections that would have allowed inspectors to look wherever they want. Only certain sites are open to free inspection. Other sites where Iran might seek to reconstitute its program out from under Western eyes can be visited only with Iranian permission. Refusal sets in train an appeals process; rejection of the Iranian position—in theory—triggers a “snap back” of the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Then, the agreement suspends the sanctions regime. Iran stands to earn up to $150 billion a year.

So, this deal will delay the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years. What happens then? Both the Americans and the Iranians are wagering that people in the future will see their best interests clearly. The Obama administration appears to hope that Iranians in the future will see things differently than do members of the revolutionary generation that overthrew the Shah. Iranians appear to be thinking that the survival of the current regime depends on ending sanctions and that the future will take care of itself.

Will Iran try to cheat? Probably, but they are going to have spies all over them thicker than ticks on a hound.

What happens in 2025-2030? The Iranians may rush to “break out.” Or they may not care about nukes anymore. It’s hard to say.

How much confidence should people have in this agreement? Some. However, the opinion polls appear to show that Americans don’t want a big war right now. Give it ten years, and….   Then, neither Russia nor China has an interest in denying nukes to Iran.

So, take the deal, put the clutch down on war for ten to fifteen years, but don’t get confused about the possibility of hitting Iran if things don’t work out.

[1] “The Iran deal,” The Week, 9 October 2015, p. 11.

[2] Yes, there is gross hypocrisy in countries with nukes telling countries without nukes that they can’ t have nukes. Welcome to life.

[3] UN inspectors, video-cameras, and sensors.

The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

An eye for an eye.

Here’s the narrative of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East as seen through Saudi Arabian eyes.[1] Back in the day, as my students often refer to any historical event that occurred before the latest installment of “The Dark Knight,” the dispute over who should lead the Faithful divided Islam into Shi’ites and Sunnis. Over many years, the two different schools of thought pretty much learned to live with one another. Later still, most people stopped caring about the argument in any concrete way. For fifty years in the middle of the 20th Century conflict turned on rivalries between conservative monarchical (and pro-Western) regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and revolutionary, “democratic” (and pro-Soviet) regimes like Syria and Egypt. Still, that did not mean that particular religious identity had ceased to matter to people, just that they wouldn’t fight over it. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not only did the Iranian ayatollahs overthrow the Shah, they also claimed the right to lead all of the “ummah,” and they attacked the conservative monarchies that had once been Iran’s partners. The Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, weren’t taking this pretentious claim lying down: they counter-attacked by questioning the ayatollahs. Political conflicts began to activate the long-dormant conflict between sects.

Then, in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq. The American invasion overthrew the established order (a Sunni minority ruling a Shi’ite majority), then, first, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, then ISIS arose out of the conflict. From 2011 on, the civil war in Syria turned up the flame under the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.   The Iranians backed the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite state in Iraq. Now, the Iranians have supported (fomented) trouble in Yemen by the Houthis. This has finally alarmed the ever-patient Saudis: “Until this war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, [and] that this Shi’ite revival is occurring at the expense of Sunnis.” With the outbreak of fighting in Yemen, however, “It was no longer a Shi’ite crescent, but a Shi’ite circle.” The Middle East has been engulfed in violence as a result of the immoderation of Iran.

What gets left out of this narrative? The most obvious thing is that Iraq attacked Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the long (1980-1988) war that followed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed much of the Iraqi war effort. Iran had done little beyond rhetoric at this point to threaten either “revolutionary” Iraq or the conservative monarchies. It looks more like trying to profiteer off a weakened Iran on the part of Iraq and then an attempt to fend off the consequences of an ill-considered adventure by Iraq on the part of the Saudis.

A second thing to consider is that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of Wahhabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, did not arise as a response to a challenge from Shi’ite Iran. Rather, the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism have been long-term allies. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 vastly enriched Saudi Arabia.[2] The wealth sucked out of Western countries allowed the Saudis to embark on a vast Wahhabist propaganda/proselytization campaign in many areas of the Muslim world.[3] That propaganda described non-Wahhabi Muslims as “apostates.”

All narrative demands simplification as a means to clarity. Some narrative simplification can be carried too far in the service of political advocacy. Doubtless this page is a case in point.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict Is More Political Than Religious,” WSJ, 15 May 2015.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahhabism#Afghanistan_jihad

[3] Including northern Nigeria, where Wahhabists opposed the local brand of Sufi Islam. Out of this struggle and from the many failings of the Nigerian state, emerged Boko Haram.