An Intelligent Assessment
of the Iran Situation
About American and Israeli threats to strike IranJanuary 2007
This evening I computed something that troubled me. George Bush's plan to send a 'temporary surge' of extra troops to Iraq is a wheeze. Under the guise of sorting out Iraq before eventual withdrawal, it's equally likely that the troops are being sent there to hold Iraq down while Israel attacks Iran. The Shi'a majority in Iraq will not be pleased by seeing Iran attacked. They have a dual sentiment toward Iran: in one sense Iran is a Shi'a brother, and in another it is a Persian big brother to the Shi'a Arabs, who have deep-seated mixed feelings about this. The history of power oscillations between Mesopotamia and Persia goes back longer than the history of most nations' very existence. As we know, Iraq is a powderkeg.
I understand that Israel has around 200 nuclear devices, of which perhaps 50 might be available for use in Iran (the rest need retaining for defence, or are inappropriate for use in the Iran context). Now Israel's position is complex. Its powers-that-be, who have relied since the nation's founding on an 'iron wall' military defensive-aggression strategy, are desperate to keep the 'iron wall' show on the road - otherwise social and political change comes, and with it their downfall and the shift of an historic mindset.
Israel's integrity and predominance in the Middle East can be furthered in two ways: 'soft power', through business, which requires making friends with its neighbours, or military 'hard power', which presupposes the presence of an enemy construed to be an existential threat to Israel. 'Hard power' has been Israel's chosen path - and it has had some justification in this, but perhaps not as much as it feels.
The Palestinians are proving a difficult foe against which to mobilise the Israeli nation - partially because they are unbeaten and still there, partially because the majority of Palestinians, though frustrated, is no longer inclined to fight, and partially because international opinion is tilting Palestinians' way. So, to maintain the hard-power scenario, Israel has to find a new adversary, and it is Iran. Iran is far enough away to stop it retaliating directly, but near enough to be within Israel's own range. Thus Iran's interest in making proxies of Hezbollah and Hamas - to irritate Israel. Though it does have a measure of benign intent too.
If Iran is to be attacked, USA can use Israel as a proxy. Hence that USA is currently arming Fatah in Palestine - to create sufficient domestic trouble there so that Palestine causes no major trouble in the event of a strike on Iran. Meanwhile, humbled and frustrated Israeli generals are spoiling for another go at Hezbollah, or anyone, believing that, if only Israeli tactics had been more resolute and better devised in summer 2006, they would have prevailed first time around. This is not necessarily so, but it is what is believed, since self-esteem is involved. So Israel has a backyard problem with Hezbollah, and possibly, but not definitely, with Syria (which might also play its own cardgame and distance itself from Iran - not a natural friend and ally).
But the gung-ho attitude of Israeli generals and the embattled Olmert administration might overlook this local threat or calculate that it can withstand it. The war with Hezbollah in 2006 was pervaded with miscalculations, and there are not many signs to suggest great improvement in future. So Israel's objectives are to weaken Iran - which will theoretically weaken Hezbollah and Hamas too. But then, it might not.
The Americans, quite adept at miscalculation themselves, probably reckon the Israelis can succeed in knocking out Iran's key nuclear and strategic sites, with a little covert help, except there's one hell of a lot of flying to do if that is to happen. But there are complications here: it's probably best for USA to stay out of an offensive on Iran, and to act innocent - this frees it, hypothetically, from potential international repercussions and problems with many key allies, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and possibly Europe. Europe has backed itself into a corner of gutless, unprincipled inaction and complicity over the Middle East, preferring not to rock the boat with USA, so it might not be a serious threat. But Middle Eastern alliances with USA are wobbly, and USA needs its clients.
If Israel is to attack Iran, it must fly over someone else - unless it takes a long route down the Red Sea and into Iran from the Indian Ocean. Overflying risks alienating Jordan or putting Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. Jordan, theoretically, is dispensable and of small importance, but not so - all of its neighbours have come to rely on Jordan's relative neutrality and coolness in the face of drama, and they cannot really afford to lose this. With Lebanon unstable, only Jordan and the Gulf states remain as refuges and operations centres for the rich, the powerful and the shady.
Saudi Arabia is meanwhile shaky, on at least two major fronts: first, its ruling elite is divided and splintering (this is big news yet to come) and second, Saudi Arabia's oil industry depends greatly on the Strait of Hormuz (the narrow entrance to the Persian Gulf) remaining open, so Saudi cannot afford to drive Iran against it, because Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz. The population of the oil-rich eastern Dharhan area of Saudi Arabia is also strongly Shi'a. And American strategists have already quietly discussed the possibility of shearing off this area from Riyadh, to ease some strategic problems it gets from its associations with Saudi Arabia.
Iran doesn't really need to respond militarily to any strike upon it, because its non-military weapons are powerful. They are two or more in number. First, all it needs to do is to mine or otherwise close the Straits of Hormuz (one or two nights' work), and about 35% of the world's oil supplies are cut off - which means a market panic, a sky-rocketing oil price and an immediate economic crisis for the West (Europe included). Perhaps the Americans believe they can shoot their way in and out, but this is a potential quagmire in which Iran has the stronger position.
Second, Iran can announce a switch in its oil trading to Euros or a basket of currencies, and several other nations will likely follow suit, causing much of the world's oil trade to switch currency, with the result that the basis upon which USA manages to survive as the world's most indebted country is likely to collapse. Its wealth is propped up by the oil trade continuing to trade in petrodollars, even though this is not the world's best option.
Iran's biggest oil markets are China and India, who will be happy to trade in any currency (which is why USA is working hard at present to bind India through aid, nuclear and strategic technology assistance). Iran can also create mayhem in Iraq, Afghanistan or Central Asia, and it can increase its strategic links with Russia, which Russia will guardedly welcome.
So there is a very worrying scenario forming here, of a showdown with possible global proportions - especially if it goes nuclear or affects the oil trade. Israel's current poor geostrategic judgement, recently demonstrated in Lebanon, makes such a scenario distinctly possible.Meanwhile, in the middle stand the Arabs, who have good reason to be nervous - they stand to lose people, stability, wealth, elements of sovereignty and delicate geopolitical positions.
But they are not as impotent as they appear. The financial and oil-related instruments available to them are large - but they are nervous to play strong cards, for various reasons. First, while they have lost faith in USA and Europe, they're not ready to step fully into the power vacuum that the West is inadvertently creating in the Middle East, mainly because there are too many unresolved power issues between themselves.
The main unresolved issue is the delicate balance of regimes and interests around the Middle East, and many regimes are having to work harder and harder to stay on top - in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and to a lesser extent everywhere else. There's also the small matter of Islamic movements - not just Hamas and Hezbollah, but movements in every other country - which must not be allowed to get too heated, because they act like wild cards - and local movements can give regimes a lot of trouble.
Then there is Israel. With its minuscule territorial extent, it is easily threatened. Iran could not nuke Israel (yet), but one well-placed conventional missile striking the Israeli nuclear complex in the Negev could suddenly make Israel an undesirable place to live. Tragically, this would hit Palestinians on the West Bank (which makes one wonder whether any sane Muslim would do it).
Then, though Israel has proven itself militarily against neighbouring states in previous decades, it cannot anger too many neighbours at once - any two of Egypt, Jordan, Syria or Saudi Arabia could give Israel a lot of trouble, if pushed. Currently they're reluctant, but this can change if Israel is thoughtless and insensitive. Then there's that dear old Suez Canal, a key pressure-point upon which the West greatly relies, which acts as a bargaining chip if the heat rises.
However, Iran is not as interested in disabling or confronting Israel as Israel believes. Its nationalist president blusters at Israel, but this is more a charade than a serious proposition. It's part psychological warfare. Iran's objective is to be recognised as a regional power to match not only Israel but also Pakistan, India and Russia - and it's more interested in disabling USA than Israel.
In hard-nosed Machiavellian terms, it can afford to lose some people and resources if attacked, because it has plenty of land, oil and people - neither of which Israel has. Iran cannot really be taken over. So it blusters. It also miscalculates its position somewhat, since it is quite strong, but not quite as strong as it believes or hopes - it relies greatly on USA and Israel being politically weak and unpopular. If anything, its greatest weakness is earthquakes, not military vulnerability. But if it enters into confrontation, it will pay a high price in many directions, and Iran is wise enough to know this. I hope.
So we're down to one major calculation: the madness of the neocon powers-that-be in USA - together with the impotence of the American people and those much-vaunted constitutional checks-and-balances to restrain it - and the madness of Israel's powers-that-be, and their pressured government. By 'madness' I mean their capacity to miscalculate reality and allow narrow and ideological interests to dominate their decisions - as demonstrated in America's war in Iraq and Israel's war in Lebanon. Both governments no longer take advice from their best advisers, and are presided over by greatly isolated figures who suffer no lack of desperation - Bush and Olmert. They're cornered and dangerous.
The above is a negative scenario, and nothing is guaranteed to go the way it looks it could. For the following reasons.
First, a strike on Iran isn't guaranteed to succeed - Israel's strike on Lebanon and USA's war in Iraq and its last strike on Iran in the late 1970s give evidence of fallibility on the part of both. Massive force just means lots of destruction, but not necessarily victory.
Second, Iran's implicit threat on the world oil trade and trading currencies has a restraining effect on USA - if, that is, it is sensible in its calculations. Secondly, it has a restraining effect on Iran itself, and it must play its cards carefully. Iran's oil wealth has been squandered on supporting the regime and its sub-elite, the Pasdaran, while its people have not done too well and its oil trade has suffered chronic under-investment, so it really needs trade and the cooperation and confidence of oil companies to keep this rather top-heavy show on the road. Iran is not politically and economically secure enough to ride out a long crisis, and this restrains it. It relies on playing political high-stakes poker, while avoiding open conflict.
Third, in a way the Middle East needs a crisis, and this could be a gift in disguise. The Middle East's problem is that it is stacked with loaded situations, regimes whose positions are not assured, internal power struggles and (this is the bit no one talks about) a dramatic need for regional cooperation and solidarity. For a century it has been subject to foreign intervention and hegemony - a situation which is unhappy for everyone, each for their own reasons. And, longterm, the role of Big Oil in the Middle East is set to decline - which means a shake-out is pending longterm, as the power arrangements that the oil economy has encouraged unravel or transform.
All this together is a potential nightmare waiting to happen and, though a crisis could harm people and 'upset the apple cart', it could also potentially resolve and simplify many things. It could conceivably cause the Middle East to act more as a concerted whole. It could make some governments more legitimate (through regime shift or change). It could cause a getting-real in relations between Israel and its neighbours. It could make the region more immune to foreign intervention, and it could adjust many co-dependent imbalances that now exist. This could be a blessing, a mixed blessing or a nightmare but, either way, it's possible that the outcome is better than the current arrested situation in the Middle East. I'm just sad for all the people stuck in the middle of it.
Fourth, the wider world will be affected and is unlikely to stand idly by. Here I am looking at China, India and all other nations with a vested interest in not seeing the shit hit the fan, energy-wise and economically. Though countries outside the Middle East are unlikely to be affected militarily unless a wildfire breaks out, they could be affected economically, by radiation (remember Chernobyl) and by oil shortage and serious knock-on effects affecting world trade and economics.
Meeting this challenge involves ending the geopolitical disarray which has prevailed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, in which USA has held and used the casting vote in world decisions and the 'Washington Consensus' has prevailed - or, worse, in which big global decisions and changes have been prevented by this logjam from being made.
One of the biggest outcomes of a confrontation in Iran is a possible geopolitical shift which finally adjusts the world to facing the 21st Century and to making much-overdue, globally-significant decisions. The logjam in the Middle East is largely caused at present by USA and its influence on its proxies there - though the proxies stay in place because they prefer the devil they know from the devil they don't. But this is unlikely to last.
Fifth, I cannot see USA profiting overall from confrontation, either short-term or longterm - though some American interests obviously do profit both from victory or loss. USA is unlikely to succeed in reviving its superpower status and risks eroding its position further than it has done so far. It is in a natural, historic decline, but recent behaviour has accelerated this. Not least, if the dollar weakens as a global trading currency, USA's debts will be called in (China is the arbiter of this), and USA's prosperity and global power will wither - unless perhaps USA gets threatening, which can bring it short-term relief followed by probable long-term weakness.
This is a question of whether USA declines and withdraws with a bang or a whimper, or whether this prospect brings Washington to its senses to make this historic change more graceful. There would be immense relief worldwide if this were to happen, but this is currently not a visible likelihood - the coming presidential race isn't promising, the way things currently look.
Sixth, force majeure. Fact is, the biggest issue before us has nothing to do with any of the above - it is climatic, ecological and macro-scale, beyond national and continental relevance. I believe that, in ten or twenty years' time, we shall see 2006 as the year the balances surreptitiously and seriously tipped. From now on, we can assume that overriding crises are likely to come into play, and they already are doing so. This is the biggest wild card of all, it is potentially decisive, and any nation is susceptible and undefended. In other words, the Iran crisis is, in reality, an enormous diversion. It's relevant, but it is also blown out of proportion.
Seventh: popular movements. Ordinary Arabs and Iranians have three connected problems: the role of the West in determining their lives, the wisdom and legitimacy of their governments, and their general social and economic welfare. By legitimacy I do not mean democratic legitimacy: legitimacy means government doing roughly the right thing, whatever its constitutional arrangements - and sometimes, in the real world, kings and even generals can be as good as any other available option. But legitimacy is in short supply in the Middle East - perhaps Jordan and Turkey rate highest, though they are not problem-free.
And the Arab Street is restive, armed with its own weapons - people, with a will of their own. Twentysomething males with mobile phones, en masse - or, worse, squads of intervening middle-aged women like those at Beit Hanoun, whom you cannot mow down without losing the battle on media points. In Palestine and Iraq, street-level fighting and insurgency is currently bringing chaos and despair but, on other occasions, masses of people can also act clearly and with discipline, and parties such as Hezbollah are currently proving quite adept at working their constituent publics and channelling public energies.
But this street-level problem concerns not just Arab regimes: the big risk for Israel is that, if its fortunes go badly, critical sectors of its population could either leave the country for safer places or turn against their government and elite, forcing a change of direction - either way, out of their own despair. This would have a profound effect on Israel's future. I have already said elsewhere on this blog that Arabs cannot drive the Israelis into the sea - only Israelis can do it to themselves. I should add, this would be to the great regret not only of Jews but also of Arabs - expulsion never enriches a society. Israel needs to be a positive, friendly constituent part of the Middle East.
Troubled and complex as the future looks, there remain options. One is to calm down and reduce the heat, with a fair dose of commonsense and good calculation, in all concerned countries. This is the easiest solution, but something big needs to change for it to happen.
Another is an all-out crisis, or a regional shock, which has the potential to resolve things more quickly than they otherwise might be resolved - the speed and lack of strife accompanying the fall of the Soviet Union in 1985-94 provides an example of a multitude of problems which could have happened but largely didn't.
The worst scenario in the Middle East is a long, complex, drawn-out melée, Iraqi-style, or an attritional war or period of war, which simply devastates people, land and the future, and is likely to disadvantage everyone. Because the biggest question in the Middle East, as elsewhere, is climatic and ecological, and the habit of conflict will sooner or later be outstripped as a priority. This is where the big stakes really are.
We stand, early in 2007, at another junction point, rather like 2002 and the buildup to the Iraq invasion. This time, it's Iran. We rely precipitously on commonsense and wisdom breaking out, as a solution. The real issue to face is not conflict but global ecological issues, so conflict is a diversion - a semi-conscious resort to age-old ways of avoiding the real issues.
There was a parallel to this in the early 20th Century: arguably, World War One was a diversion from real issues too - the primary issue being the need for a quantum shift into 20th Century modernity, which ruling elites of the time resisted and were incapable of guiding. WW1 wasn't necessary, and neither is a Middle East crisis now. There are easier ways of moving into the future. With exceptions, humanity has a habit of taking the most convoluted path available. But it is now becoming a pragmatic issue of global realpolitik to bring this habit to an end.