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This is the second article of a three-part series about the Iranian Question – that is, the question of how the world is going to deal with the Islamic regime’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb, which is likely to be one of the defining processes of global geopolitics in the next five years. The first part, The Approach of the Next Persian Empire, attempted to paint a picture of the internal structure, trends and divisions within the country. This article will analyze the geopolitics of the region from the perspectives of the key players (Iran, the US, Israel and Russia) in greater depth and will try to assess the chances of dissuading Iran from going nuclear. This effort will likely fail, in which case Israel will probably decide it has no choice but to strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The consequences of this, which will draw in the US into a full-fledged aeronaval war with Iran, will be explored in the third part. Read the Conclusions at the bottom if you don’t want to slog through this rather quickly and poorly-written text.

The Iranian Regime and Its Strategic Culture

To recap from the first article, the most important things to know about the Iranian political system is the following: a) it is “a unique hybrid of Velayat-e Faqih (rule by Islamic jurists) and modern parliamentary democracy”, b) it is deep, murky and highly factionalized along the following lines: The old, corrupt clerical elites centered around Rafsanjani (chairman of the Assembly of Experts), the conservative technocrats represented by Larijani (Majlis speaker), and the Islamist hardliners represented by President Ahmadinejad, to whom answer the Armed Forces (Artesh) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) paramilitary / militia / intelligence service, c) these factions are supposed to be balanced by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but his sympathies clearly tilt towards the hardliners – which partly explains why they have been in the ascendant since Ahmadinejad’s electoral win in 2005, d) this ascendancy was reinforced by the state’s paranoia over the abortive “Green Revolution” in support of the defeated Mousavi in 2009, who is Rafsanjani’s creature and e) pro-Western liberals have next to no backing or popular support, media hype to the contrary – though Rafsanjani’s and Larijani’s cliques are more enthusiastic about reaching an accommodation with the US, all political forces strongly support the development of an indigenous nuclear infrastructure and pushing Israel into the sea (so to speak). As such, an understanding with Israel is almost certainly out of the question.

[The dense, complex labyrinth of power in Iran. Source: Stratfor]

Iran’s strategic culture – the sum of beliefs and assumptions shared and used by its political elite uses to formulate a foreign policy – can be defined by the following elements: a need for a strong centralized state with competent security forces to preempt ethnic separatism, the conception of Shia Islam as bedrock of the national identity, belief in Iran as a leader of Islamic civilization against Western encroachment (at times verging on the millenarian), a striving for regional hegemony and an acute sense of vulnerability and encirclement by the US (which has troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States) – which gives Iran an incentive to exaggerate its real military strength to dissuade an attack. This sense of vulnerability is especially acute because Iran is not a monolithic state – though its internal, Persian heartlands, walled in by mountains from all sides, are secure, it has three potential chinks in its armor.

The above map shows Iran’s nationalities and Sunni minorities. Though Persians constitute the majority at around 55-65% of the population and occupy the heartlands of Iran’s mountain fortress, there are potential flashpoints of separatist unrest in Balochistan (Balochs), Khuzestan (Arabs) and the northwest (Kurds). And although the Azeris are tightly integrated into the Iranian nation-state – the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, is himself half-Azeri, as was the failed 2009 Presidential candidate Mousavi – they still make up 20-25% of the population, occupy a geographically coherent position bordering Azerbaijan (whose pan-Turkic elements look up to Turkey), and have a moderately different political outlook (in the recent elections, the race between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad was much closer in majority-Azeri areas than it was in majority-Persian). In the case of a full democratization and rejection of its Islamist legacy, it is perhaps not unlikely to expect a “velvet divorce” between the Persians and Azeris in Iran. (It should also be noted that tellingly, all Iran’s major nuclear facilities are within the Persian heartlands, just like the USSR tended to concentrate WMD development within Russian or at least Slavic areas).

Iran’s Pursuit of the Nuclear Bomb

There are credible reports that the US has tried to stir up ethnic insurrections against Tehran since the Islamic Revolution, including by providing them with weapons and intelligence, and rumors that its intelligence services use Azerbaijan as a base to stir up Azeri dissent within Iran. In this secret war, Iran counters by maintaining powerful internal security and intelligence forces, assassinating perceived traitors abroad and maintaining a siege mentality. This starts a circle of confrontation with the US – from manipulating religious and ethnic fault lines in Iraq to force the US to the defensive (though not eschewing cooperation on shared interests like defeating the Taleban), to the ultimate bone of contention – Iran’s pursuit of an indigenous nuclear weapons production capacity and delivery systems. If it is successful in this, then it will severely undermine the US position in the strategically-critical Persian Gulf region since a) the moderate Arab states will observe the American lack of resolve and will move to guarantee their own security through self-help – perhaps ditching the US in the process or swapping it for other partners, and b) it will make Iran near strategically invulnerable to military attack because of the threat of nuclear retaliation. For this reason, it is hard to see the US – not to even mention Israel – ever allowing an Iranian bomb.

[Blue diamonds = uranium mining, read diamonds = nuclear research facilities]

Unlike Iraq’s or Syria’s nuclear weapons programs, which are / were relatively simple and limited, Iran seems to be pursuing the bomb on a larger scale, aiming to develop an indigenous capability over the entire nuclear fuel cycle and maintaining redundant, hardened nuclear facilities. It should be noted that developing nuclear weapons is rather hard, since they have to be robust, reliable, miniatured and married to delivery systems (gravity bombs, cruise missiles or ballistic missiles launched from platforms ranging from truck beds to nuclear subs). Iran has been having problems with mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, and most current estimates indicate it is still around five years from acquiring its first nuclear weapon.

Uranium nuclear fuel enrichment consists of four main steps. The first involves extracting uranium ore and processing (also known as milling) it into uranium oxide, commonly known as yellowcake. Second, most enrichment efforts — including Iran’s — then subject the yellowcake to a series of chemical reactions to create toxic uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is useful for a variety of enrichment techniques. Third, in many cases — again including Iran’s — the UF6 then is run through “cascades” of centrifuges, or long chains of individual centrifuges connected together in a vacuum in gaseous form. Through this process, the percentage of the fissile isotope uranium 235 is increased to the point where the uranium can be used for power production. (Iran reportedly has aimed for an enrichment level of 3.5%, which is considered low-enriched uranium.) Fourth and last, once the uranium has been enriched to the desired level, it is then converted into fuel rods or pellets for use in a reactor.

It is important to note that low-enriched uranium is not the same thing as highly enriched uranium (which is considered to be greater than 20%) — or uranium enriched to levels of 80-90% uranium 235 — which is considered sufficient for use in a crude nuclear device. Producing highly enriched uranium is not simply a matter of running the cascade cycle describe above over and over again. As the uranium becomes more enriched, the technology becomes increasingly delicate. Fine separation of the UF6 molecules and the minute calibration of the centrifuges necessary to carry this out, is required for this, and it is not clear that Iran’s centrifuges are of sufficient quality to attain these high levels of enrichment.

One of the advantages of uranium is that it is easier to build a working bomb with it, since it can do with a simple gun-type explosion to create a critical mass of fissile material needed to produce a nuclear blast – but as written above, acquiring Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) is difficult. That is not so much the case for plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors whose enrichment can be accomplished through a simpler chemical reaction (instead of very precise calibration of centrifuges). However, there are two problems in this direction: a) you need a near perfectly symmetrical implosion to compress plutonium core to supercritical mass, necessitating “the precise “lensing” of high-grade explosives” – unlike for HEU, which can do with a simple gun-type design, and b) even though Iran has got the reactor at Bushehr up and running, producing plutonium as a byproduct, it is supposed to be repatriated back to Russia and be subjected to international monitoring – diverting part of the flow will be tricky.

Iran continues to have problems in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, relying on the 600 tons of yellowcake it bought from S. Africa three decades ago (now 75% depleted) and Russian deliveries of low-enriched uranium (subject to disruptions and even full cessation depending on the status of Russian-American relations). Iran is hobbled by poor-quality uranium reserves – its mine at Saghand contains 3000-5000 tons of uranium oxide at a density of just 500 ppm, well below the 750 ppm usually thought to be the limits of commercial viability, and there has been a slowdown in both yellowcake conversion into UF6 at Isfahan and centrifuge installation at Natanz. There have been reports that the slowdown is partly attributable to Iran’s loss of high-quality bearings imports for its centrifuges under US pressure on the suppliers, forcing it to rely on lower-quality domestic ones.

On the other hand, there are many sources saying that Iran’s activities are at a more advanced stage than generally believed:

…Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had 6,000 centrifuges operating at its uranium enrichment facility at the underground Natanz facility, double the number operating less than a year ago, a worrisome development that shows the progress Iran has made toward developing a nuclear weapon (Washington Post, July 26, 2008). The August 2009 IAEA report said the number of centrifuges had grown to 8,300 (Haaretz, August 31, 2009). El Baradei, the director general of the IAEA, told the group’s 35-nation board that Iran had not stopped enriching uranium or answered lingering questions about its nuclear program (New York Times, September 7, 2009).

In September 2008, IAEA officials reported that enough enriched uranium to make six atom bombs (if processed to weapons grade level) disappeared from the main production facility at Isfahan. The officials suspect the material may have been moved to one of the installations spotted by American spy satellites, which intelligence officials believe are being used for covert research (Telegraph, September 12, 2008). …

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said in 2008 that Iran has solved many of the problems it had with its centrifuges and they are now “running at approximately 85% of their stated target capacity, a significant increase over previous rates.” The IAEA’s 2008 report said Iran has produced nearly 1,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium; Albright says it needs a minimum of 1,500-pounds for a simple nuclear bomb, a figure it could reach in six months to two years (AP, September 24, 2008). …

The IAEA reported on November 19, 2008, that Iran had produced 1,390 pounds of low-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear fuel. That milestone is enough to produce a single nuclear weapon, about the size of the bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki according to Thomas B. Cochrane of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He noted, however, that they still needed the technological knowhow to purify the fuel and produce a warhead (New York Times, November 19, 2008). …

On September 25, 2009, it was disclosed that it had a second fuel enrichment plant. The United States was apparently aware of the facility, but it was hidden from weapons inspectors (Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2009). Meanwhile, Iran’s exiled opposition movement reported the day before that it had learned of two previously unknown sites in and near Tehran that it says are being used to build nuclear warheads (Agence France-Presse, September 25, 2009).

Separating the truth from the spin is amazingly hard, considering that Iran has motives for both exaggerating (to dissuade Israel / the US from attacking it if they know that they will fail to destroy its nuclear program anyway) and concealing (to not invite an attack, duh!, and to give propaganda ammunition to its defenders) its true strength.

The American Strategic Dilemma

As mentioned previously, the US has no intention of allowing Iran to get the bomb. If that were to happen, the new Persian empire would soon displace the US as the regional hegemon in the Middle East – the keystone of the global oil system whose cheap, liquid energy flows underwrite the trinity of globalization, US military predominance and Pax Americana. The moderate Arab states will be spooked into either setting up their own nuclear programs (permanently dooming the anti-proliferation system) or bandwagoning with the new power. Iran will be strategically invulnerable as rarely before, protected not only by its mountain walls but by the threat of nuclear retaliation – this will allow it to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors far more aggressively than it had previously dared (by supporting Hezbollah and Shia militants around the Gulf) and suborn a vulnerable Iraq to its will.

However, bombing Iran will not solve problems either. First, its nuclear program is built around deception, redundancy and hardening. Like the recent revelation of a second enrichment built under a mountain on a military base at Qom, Iran only admits to covert efforts at nuclear weaponization when it realizes its cover has been blown. Speaking of which, the facility at Qom also illustrates another feature – the amount of redundancy in its nuclear program. Since the US knew of Natanz, having a second site would have also made sense (and perhaps a third, and fourth, etc, whose existence has not yet been revealed). That way, limited bombing sorties of the sort that crippled the nuclear programs of nations like Syria or Iraq would not work in Iran. They make sure to harden these facilities against US bunker-busters, allowing a margin of safety to account for any black US capabilities. However, in the final analysis the main issue relates to how good US intelligence is on the Iranian nuclear program – if you don’t know the precise coordinated of an underground, hardened target, then no bunker-buster is strong enough to destroy it. Though the US has excellent space-based reconnaissance capabilities, they cannot pick up everything, since “research and development associated with a limited, clandestine nuclear weaponization effort can be smaller and better concealed than industrial-scale facilities for nuclear-power generation”. That would require a sophisticated human intelligence effort in Iran itself, in which the US is rather weak and relies on Mossad. Besides, the Iranians have a plethora of experienced intelligence agencies and are proficient at anti-espionage.

Second – and much more important – are the tools of retaliation at Iran’s disposal. This includes destabilizing Iraq through the use of Shia proxies, activating Shia sleeper cells in Saudi Arabia to attack its oil exporting infrastructure, missile attacks against US military bases and Gulf oil infrastructure, coordinating renewed attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, and most importantly blockading the Strait of Hormuz by anti-ship missile batteries and having its big fleet of patrol boats lay down mines. Iran’s production of 3mn barrels per day will vanish overnight, and even a few successful attacks on the 20 oil supertankers leaving the Gulf per day could in effect cut the flow of oil out of the Gulf by dramatically raising insurance rates. Considering that 17mn barrels per day, or 40% of the world’s oil exports pass through the Strait – a figure that accounts for 20% of world oil consumption – even small disruptions will be catastrophic.

Not surprisingly, Washington would prefer to first try everything possible to reach a diplomatic solution. The initial signs were seen during the past year, when Obama tried reaching out to Iran and Muslims in general (Cairo speech), but like all idealistic projects there have been no real, positive effects. If anything, Iran’s hostility hardened after what the hardliners perceived as the Western-incited unrest following Ahmadinejad’s summer electoral victory. Having failed in getting the Iranians around him in a circle singing Kumbaya (although Obama did create an impression of benign moderation (liberals) or weakness (conservatives)), things are now going to get more serious.

This will be on display in the P5 + 1 (UN Security Council and Germany) talks with Iran in Geneva from 1 October. If the Iranians refuse to budge on the nuclear issue, the US plans to impose “crippling” gasoline sanctions, for which it has been laying the framework for the last several months. It is believed this will put pressure on the Iranian regime, which massively subsidizes gasoline (to the huge detriment of its public finances) and whose automobile ownership has exploded in the past decade. However, the argument could be made that this would just reinforce Iran’s siege mentality and make it more aggressive.

Alternatively, the sanctions can be rendered ineffective. Russia appreciated the US giving up on its ABM plans for Poland, but realized it for the symbolic concession it really is and has no desire to reciprocate by handing over its leverage over Iran by cooperating with Washington on sanctions. To ditch Iran, Russia will need more concrete moves like Washington dropping support for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership in NATO, halting its plans for Polish military modernization and informally acknowledging Russia’s sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space. As long as these conditions aren’t met, Russia can easily supply Iran’s gasoline needs by pressuring Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

Similarly, China is unimpressed with rising US protectionism (e.g. recently introduced import tariffs on tires) and also has the spare refining capacity to help bust gasoline sanctions on Iran. Even France has recently voiced reservation after a flurry of high-level meetings between the two, a surprising twist given that France has moved much closer to Washington since 2007 under Sarkozy – though given France’s hardline anti-Iranian position, this may simply be showing its displeasure over Obama’s lack of resolve.

Then there is also the question of Afghanistan and Israel. The Taleban have a deep-rooted presence in Afghanistan and are convinced the Americans will have to leave eventually, just like the Greeks, British and Soviets before them. The idea that this place could be pacified and built into a model liberal democracy is nonsensical to say the least. Meanwhile, it is a drain on US military and fiscal resources that benefits Russia and Iran before anyone else, and one that is going to increase as NATO pulls out and if the US increases its troops there. Continuing the campaign in Afghanistan is a strategic blunder and after a face-saving surge the US will likely begin to pull out.

The Centrality of Israel

First, even as Obama superficially tried to improve relations with the Muslim world by pressuring Israel on halting the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, he made some in Israel question the strength of the US commitment to Israel’s security (despite the fact that this issue has little bearing on it). Second, Israel cannot and will not accept an Iranian bomb, not even if it leads to a clash with the US – to the US, it would be a major annoyance; to Israel, an existential risk, even despite its strengths in ABM. If Iran continues to progress on its nuclear and missile development, an Israeli strike is almost certain. And who can blame them?

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world… in the future it will be the interests of colonialism that will determine existence or non-existence of Israel… Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix is extracted from the region and the Muslim world.

Not Ahmadinejad (he of the Holocaust denial) or Khamenei. Rafsanjani, 2003 (chairman of Assembly of Experts and main supporter of Mousavi).

Israel doesn’t care if Russia regains hegemony over the former Soviet. It doesn’t care if East-Central Europe becomes Finlandized. And though it faces the prospect of attacking Iran and facing retaliation from Hezbollah, spiking oil prices and renewing its status as an object of hatred in the Islamic world with trepidation, all that is nonetheless dwarfed by the prospect of Iran attaining a nuclear bomb.

Most commentators believe Iran is around three to five years behind the bomb, which allows Israel time to stay quiet and let the US indulge in diplomacy and arm-twisting. But this will not be the case indefinitely. There will come a critical point when it judges the Iranian program to be too far advanced already, based on information conveyed by Israel’s extensive human intelligence apparatus in Iran. And it will make the decision to strike, unilaterally if need be, but preferably involving the US at the earliest possible date to a) maximize the damage to Iran’s military infrastructure and hence constrict its ability to close the Strait and b) to more thoroughly damage Iran’s nuclear program. In any case the Israelis will have to fly over Iraqi airspace controlled by the US, and since it’s not exactly going to shoot them down, the world will believe the US was complicit in the strike on Iran anyway whatever it does. Hence the rational American response would be to coordinate the attack with Israel from the very start. It’s entirely possible this will be preceded by false-flag operations against American military or even civilian targets that will be blamed on Iran.

This gives the impression that the US is going to be prodded into this by Israel, but the reality is that by the early 2010′s its intentions may well have shifted in favor of an attack on Iran by themselves due to domestic unrest (economic problems, Obama’s “socialism”, etc), continuing Iranian intransigence (pursuit of a bomb, closer relations with Russia), Russia’s resurgence (probably) and Chinese expansionism (perhaps). At this point, it will become clear that the optimal strategy for the US would be to a) ease its imperial overstretch by pulling out of Afghanistan, b) deal with the Iranian challenge for Middle East hegemony once and for all, and c) use the resulting freeing of resources to focus more attention on containing its two aforementioned peer competitors, by rerouting military assets to East-Central Europe / the Black Sea region to counter Russia or reinforcing its presence in East Asia to counter China – whichever is perceived to be the more pressing threat to US interests at the time. With time, the US elites will realize the logic of this strategy, and will embrace it.

Potential Pitfalls of a Strike

However, there are two negative factors that might end up making an attack on Iran extremely damaging for US global power. By then, Russia will be getting more paranoid about US intentions, assuming it refuses to make real concessions on granting Russia a sphere of influence over the post-Soviet states and continues arming Poland and trying to draw Ukraine, Georgia, Central Asia, etc, closer into its orbit. Russia may up the ante by helping Iran modernize its generally obsolete military equipment, even at a commercial loss, e.g. by arming Iran with modern AA systems such as upgraded S-300, which could make life difficult for all but the most advanced, stealthy and expensive US aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and B-2 bomber (Iran already has 29 Tor M-1 systems, which have a relatively limited engagement envelope but are otherwise very good), or the latest anti-ship cruise missiles, which can pose a significant threat even to the American CVBG’s Aegis defense systems (let alone lumbering oil tankers). Today, as a militarily weak nation Iran makes a show of strength to dissuade hostile powers like the US from attacking it; tomorrow, its strength may become more real than illusory.

Second, the consequences of a shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz will only deteriorate even independently of improvements in Iran’s military potential. The reason is that world oil output peaked and will decline relentless after 2011. Meanwhile, the world economy will “recover”, pulled along by the monetary torrent unleashed during the economic crisis. This will again put immense upward pressure on oil prices, which can be expected to rise back up to around 150$ by 2011 or higher (also note that the US dollar will be weakening). The world economy will not long be able to withstand such prices; a war in the Gulf may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Conclusions

This is an extremely convoluted issue which revolves around the complex interactions of a number of key actors, foremost amongst them the US, Israel, Iran and Russia, whose policies are shaped by domestic trends, ingrained strategic cultures and their perceptions of the actions, words and thoughts of other actors in the Middle East arena. The idea that the more you know the less you know, and that the only true predictions is that there will be no true predictions, is especially valid in this case.

Iran is unequivocally pursuing a nuclear bomb. The military program is camouflaged by a genuine civilian endevour and is highly redundant and hardened against attack, though it faces problems and is still 3-5 years behind maturation. Iran hopes that by acquiring the bomb and mating it with reliable delivery systems (ballistic missiles), it can obviate its chronic sense of insecurity and reinforce its claim to Islamic leadership – a claim that will acquire more credence if backed by the gun.

Unlike the US, Israel sees no big difference between Iran’s factions (both viewpoints are justified – though Rafsanjani’s clique is better disposed to the US, all favor nuclear power and the end of Israel). Understandable, Israel is adamantly against the idea of an Iranian bomb, viewing it as an existential threat, and it has made it quite clear that it will strike if Iran does not cease and desist. By necessity, this will also pull in the US into a general aeronaval confrontation with Iran. Considering the threat Iran poses to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world’s exports pass, the US sees war as the last resort; however, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is no better, because it would fatally weaken its position amongst the moderate Arab states.

Hence, the US will try its best to solve this without resorting to war. Obama’s early charm offensive, grounded in idealism, was unsuccessful and gained him approval from the Kumbaya crowd and a reputation for weakness amongst realists. Unfortunately for him, the Iranians, the Russians, and indeed all serious nations, are ruled by realists. Meanwhile, its perceived support of Iranian “reformists” in the June elections – that is of Rafsanjani’s protégé, Mousavi – enraged the revolutionary-conservative hardliners centered around Ahmadinejad and the IRGC, further reinforced their political ascendancy and drove Iran closer to Russia.

Failing to resolve these issues diplomatically, the US will now push for “crippling” sanctions on Iran’s gasoline imports, with the quiet approval of an Israel that is feeling increasingly spurned by the US on other matters (but which likewise wants to avoid war unless everything else fails). What will happen next on this front will be decided within months at the latest, and their success or lack thereof will depend on the actions of states whose interests are if not opposed, then at least orthogonal, to those of the US. The chances of success of presenting a united stance on sanctions on the part of the “international community” are minimal – too many different actors with different goals for multilateral cooperation.

The Russian President, Medvedev, in the Aesopian language typical of Russia’s rulers, said on 23 September, “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable”. The irony is that Medvedev will be the one who decides, to a large extent, whether the sanctions will lead to “productive results” – however you define that. He is interested in getting the US to recognize its sphere of influence over the former USSR and back off from militarizing Poland. It is likely that Russia will agree to the sanctions in principle (to give the US the incentive to accede to Russia’s aforementioned wishes in its Near Abroad) – hence their “inevitability”, but considering that Russia believes the US is unlikely to give those concessions, it will likely end up not honoring those same sanctions it agreed to – hence his observation that sanctions “rarely lead to productive results”.

This is because, despite America’s problems and quagmires, it is unlikely in the extreme to give Russia the breathing space for recreating a Eurasian empire – a construct it spent half a century trying to contain and undermine (“though Washington is maneuvering considerably now, balancing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a resurgent Russia, an intransigent Iran and a global economic crisis, Poland remains a long-term priority”). As such, any US-sponsored sanctions regime will be torpedoed by Russia, which can use its influence over Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan to circumvent any sanctions – and the results of the sanctions will be productive neither for the US (Iran will still get its gasoline) nor for Russia (no fundamental reversal of US policy towards its resurgence).

Even if Russia refrains from helping out Iran and honors the sanctions, it could still realistically hope for help from China, which has enough spare gasoline refining capacity to supply Iran’s needs, or it could cut its subsidies. This would be uncomfortable for a regime that buys social stability with gasoline subsidies, amongst other things. This is unlikely to lead to revolution by itself, however – if anything, Iran will try to diminish unrest by increasing the national sense of siege and becoming more aggressive.

Whatever the result of the sanctions, Iran is unlikely to renege on its nuclear program. This is unacceptable to Israel, and it will become ever more unacceptable for the US too. The latter will have its hands more untied by the gradual removal of troops from Iraq (plans are to leave just four “superbases” behind after a decade of occupation) and from Afghanistan (if it’s rational), and increasing domestic troubles (economic, government intrusions, etc) may push Obama towards a more bellicose foreign policy to compensate. The US will come to the conclusion that the time has come to strike. And Russia would be perfectly happy to see the Gulf burn, considering that it would massively set back Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons (it doesn’t want that) and lead to a massive spike in oil prices (it doesn’t mind)…

The third and last blog post on the Iranian Question will be a fictionalized account of how a US-Iranian military conflict will pan out, the weapons that will be used and how they will perform, how players like Iranians, Israelis, Saudis, Americans, Russia, etc will perceive it, the decisions taken by political leaders, and its economic and geopolitical consequences.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Every once in a while, there occurs a major shift in the international arena. The First World War and its consequences were the seminal change of the last century, collapsing ancient empires and ushering in a new era of ethno-nationalist clashes, political radicalism and emerging powers challenging the established order of Versailles, forces that were fully unleashed in the aftermath of the Great Depression. From the middle of the Second World War, it became clear that the new world order would be defined by a bipolar competition between the USSR and the US. The next major shift occurred with the oil shocks of the 1970′s, when growth throughout the industrialized world, capitalist and socialist alike, declined, and they were beset with increasing social problems, while the beginning of the rise of China and the economic re-emergence of Western Europe and Japan heralded a new, globalizing multipolarity that was confirmed by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR.

The next two decades saw the triumph of “Western liberal democracy as the final form of government” and the spread of the neoliberal consensus, all underwritten by American military dominance and the new resources unlocked by the opening of formerly autarkic economies. Generally speaking, this was a rather peaceful and prosperous time. Though wars continued and there was the occasional genocide in Rwanda or Darfur, the overall incidence of violence declined sharply in all categories, the sole exception being terrorism. Similarly, the opening up of world trade sharply increased consumer power in the US and Europe as China’s reserve armies of labor set about producing cheap goods, a process lubricated by cheap oil, gargantuan freighters and developments in supply-chain management. And though its flowers still bloom and the politicians smile and exude the air that nothing’s much amiss, the winds of time are shifting, the sun is already setting on this world, and darkness is about to creep in.

Quite literally. The cheap oil that underpins industrial civilization is ending, as the world approaches peak oil production – the point when about half of recoverable reserves have been taken out of the ground. The remaining half lies in remoter places and will be much harder to extract, especially taking into account that the resources for doing so will be significantly more limited due to the collapse of the world credit system, a system that should have died a free-market death in late 2008, but which limps on, zombie-like, sustained by governments whose solvency now hangs by a thread only maintained by investors still naive enough to believe in their credibility.

This is because the defining feature of this crisis is not so much even the collapse of world industrial output and trade, which was by itself unprecedented in its magnitude this century except by the Great Depression, but the sheer burden of bad debts and fiscal obligations accumulated by governments in the developed world, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. First, they are running unprecedented peacetime budgets – both as a consequence of their disastrous pro-cyclical spending during the fat years, and to fund the stimuluses with which they hope to get their economies out of the rut. Second, they printed lots of money under the euphemism of “quantitative easing”. Third, they carried over private losses and bad debts onto the public account – socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest.

In the next few years, according to commentators like Willem Buiter, these reckless policies are going to lead to classic emerging-market currency crises in the Anglosphere, or “submerging markets” as he calls them. This is not surprising. Taking the United States as the most significant and typical example, to run the kind of deficits projected – 13% of GDP this year, over 10% again in 2010, and red into the rest of Obama’s term even under the rosiest projections – requires a very credible commitment to returning to a balanced budget within a limited timeframe.

First, this requires a rapid economic recovery. However, all the monetary and fiscal tools for accomplishing this have already been used at and beyond their limits. In the 1980′s, once the task of breaking inflation was accomplished, interest rates were eased back and the economy recovered rapidly. Today, interest rates have already been cut to minimal levels and the economy seems to have bottomed, but even so it remains extremely feeble, with the real unemployment rate (“U-6″) currently at 16.8% and rising. Recovery is likely to be slow as households begin to pay off their debts instead of increasing consumption, the linchpin of the US economy. If it is politically feasible (uncertain) and should there be high inflation brought on by the recent monetary splurge and once-again soaring oil prices (almost certain), interest rates will have to be raised, which risks short-circuiting a feeble recovery.

Second, even during the mis-named “Bush boom” growth was large jobless and inequality-enhancing, with half coming from distribution (the “Wal-Mart effect) and the other half from better productivity from financial services!, as measured by the number of transactions undertaken. These are not going to be repeated, the first because rising energy prices are increasingly making the JIT distribution model untenable, the second because the financial system, outside of a few well-connected insiders like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, now lives on government guarantees.

Third, the next years are going to see rising demands for social spending as younger Americans make themselves heard, whose worldviews are relatively more socialist and European-like. The rising number of retiring baby boomers will necessitate far more Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending, out of funds that will simply not be there because the cookie jars were looted a long time ago. Then there’s the whole chimera about greencollar jobs. In principle, as a convinced peakist with serious concerns about the consequences of anthropogenic global warming, I support subsidizing green industries like renewable energy and hybrid automobiles. But these are luxuries only a more prudent economy could afford, like China. In the US, it will result in very few jobs being created and will constitute further drains on its fiscal credibility – and hence the means of sustaining this very program. More spending on healthcare? The sector is already horrifically bloated, and should if anything be reduced and rationalized.

So in conclusion, the US faces years of relative stagnation, and no credible way of paying back its metastasizing public debt. As long as investors stick it out and rates remain low, this remains a sustainable, albeit unsatisfactory, state of affairs. The reason the US Treasury rates fell so low and the country even tipped over into deflation was that the global equity collapse had investors fleeing to the perceived haven of last resort – US Treasury bonds. Yet as I pointed out in Decoupling from the Unwinding, one of the effects of this crisis will be to decisively sever the links between the West and the Rest (emerging markets). In a few more years, investors will realize that whereas China has real long-term growth prospects, they are unlikely to ever see positive returns on their US bond investments, as the US gradually monetizes its debt. They will jump ship, resulting in rising rates on US debt and making it increasingly unaffordable to service. Unless they inflate it away, of course. Would you like to die by ice or fire?

Let’s whimsically set the date for this collapse for August 2012. The liberal international order, Pax Americana, will collapse with it. However, there will be numerous signs of its slow demise well beforehand, which will be reflected in geopolitical events.

The focal point is the Middle East, that great intersection of energy, power, instability and hatred. Iran is continuing in its efforts to build a nuclear bomb to consolidate the new Persian empire. It is currently strong, demographically, but destined to get weaker as the younger, sub-replacement level generations become adults. The regime is also increasingly ideologically insecure. The nation is currently at around where the Soviet Union was in the early-1980′s on its belief matrix – the egalitarian, totalitarian ideals of the Islamic Revolution are now a distant memory, clouded over by the drugs, lasciviousness, and Westernization now typical of its larger cities. Part of the population yearns for the West, disillusioned with their own society and skeptical of the clear evidence of clerical corruption. Yet the most influential clerical elites have retrenched around the hardline Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), who want to return to a future of austere Islamic government. Thus there is currently a revival of radicalism in the Islamic Republic, less potent than in the 1980′s, yet now married to its greater technological capabilities. This revival is almost certainly destined to be short-lived, but has the potential to go out with a bang.

This possibility must be considered especially seriously given that Israel is now ruled by Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who in 2007 opined: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”. It is likely that were it not for US restraint, the Israelis would have long since bombed Iranian nuclear and military facilities. They have received permission from Saudi Arabia, via backdoor diplomatic channels, to fly over their territory to do so. This is unsurprising, because the Gulf monarchies face a significant challenge from Iran, which foments Shi’ite unrest in Bahrain and parts of Saudi Arabia, and is suspected of funding a Shi’ite insurgency in northwest Yemen that threatens to spill over the borders. Though moderate Arab rulers pay lip service to Islamism, they certainly have no intention of allowing it to infringe on their political power. Iran’s other lever is its control of Hezbollah, an impressively disciplined organization that managed to (arguably) win a war against Israel in 2006. Though they do not pose an existential threat to Israel, they can create an serious political and strategic problem through massed rocket attacks, to counter which Israel is now assembling a multi-layered, world-class ABM system.

If Iran gets the bomb, it will unleash a Middle Eastern arms race, in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will feel compelled to build up arsenals of their own. Iran will become much more confident about sponsoring Shi’ite separatism and drawing Iraq closer into its fold. In the endgame, the US cannot allow this challenge to its hegemony in the oil-rich Middle East to go unanswered, in particular the dependence of the Gulf States and now Iraq on its military tutelage, no matter the cost of meeting the call. It will strike Iran, or give Israel the go-ahead, well before Iran comes close to testing its bomb.

The pressure will be ratcheted up gradually. If talks scheduled for 1st October 2009 fail to achieve any Iranian compromises on its nuclear program, as usual, then the US will probably activate what it calls “crippling” sanctions on Iran with the connivance of Britain and France, especially targeting the 40% of gasoline it imports. In practice, this is unlikely to achieve much, especially since Russia – having received no firm guarantees from Washington recognizing its desired sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space – will likely help Iran shrug off sanctions by allowing Iran to satisfy its shortages through imports from Russia’s Caspian ports.

This talk of Russia’s role brings us to another point. The US is currently in a profound strategic dilemma, having to choose three areas in which to exert its strength – in particular its limited manpower: a) Afghanistan / Pakistan and the “war on terror”, b) blocking the arrival of a new Persian Empire with nukes and c) containing a resurgent Russia possibly intent on rebuilding its own old empire.

The recent American successes in Iraq have generally stabilized the country, though smaller-scale violence lingers on and might well flare up again should pressure be loosened up. This necessitates that the bulk of US military manpower remains locked up in Iraq, which gives nations like Russia, which desires to reverse its post-1991 geopolitical losses, a “window of opportunity” to make its challenge. And although the US presence in Iraq is winding down, it is simultaneously becoming pressured by requirements elsewhere – as of today, counting contractors, there are more Americans fighting in Afghanistan today than the Soviets deployed at their peak. (A common counter-argument is that of the 120,000 armed US personnel stationed there, some 68,000 are contractors who mainly do things like fixing electrical lines or washing pots and pans; however, the comparison remains valid because these would be the functional equivalent of Soviet “Class C” divisions mostly concerned with logistical issues).

The Afghanistan quagmire will likely be seen by future historians as an American strategic blunder of the first magnitude. First, it developed as a simple reaction to al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base to plot out the 9/11 attacks, yet apart from that, the expansionist Taleban were a much bigger problem for Iran and Russia than for the US (even as the US oil corporation Unocal, with the backing of the CIA, was negotiating with the Taleban over the construction of a Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to the Indian subcontinent in 1998, Iran was seriously threatening war with the Taleban for the murder of Iranian diplomats). By keeping Afghanistan and the Central Asian jihadi threat suppressed, the US uses its own resources to spare Russia’s and Iran’s from the necessary work of patrolling Afghanistan’s borders, aiding the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taleban insurgents, intercepting jihadi aid to their domestic Islamic militants and maintaining the stability of the Central Asian republics. Hence Russia’s generally quiescent attitude towards allowing the US to transport non-military supplies to Afghanistan and usage of Central Asian bases.

Second, and more importantly, the US is not fighting to win. Afghanistan is not Serbia, and it is not even Iraq. It is a proud tribal society with a total fertility rate of nearly 7 children per woman. Trying to instill “liberal democracy” is a quixotic endeavor. Preaching, let alone practicing, “human rights” is (correctly) interpreted as a sign of moral weakness, and an incentive to up the pressure. The only way to actually win in Afghanistan is through burned-earth like brutality and ruthlessness, like Cromwell’s pacification of Ireland. Anything else is a waste of time and money. As it is, the US is pouring its resources like water into the sands of the “graveyard of empires”, and taking NATO along for the ride – a strain that threatens the very survival of the alliance. This would not be nearly as critical if the jihadi threat was the only storm-on-the-horizon the US-centered world order faced; yet in combination with Iranian brinkmanship, the Russian resurgence, the Chinese mercantile challenge and the increasing reflection of the limits to growth onto the world economy, the days of Pax Americana may well be numbered. Let’s return to Iran.

From this year, the countdown will be really on as Iran reaches for the bomb, Israeli hysteria (understandably) rises and the US becomes ever more desperate for a radical solution. By 2011-12, Obama will be coming under increasing conservative pressure – an again worsening economic position and a “patriotic-reactionary” movement to counter the perceived intrusion of government onto an ever expanding array of economic and social activities – which will if anything make his administration more conductive to the thought of a foreign adventure to take the population’s mind of economic stagnation, rising poverty and perhaps by that point, capital flight. The Israelis will receive the signal to strike. Since this would draw in the US anyway, it will decide that it might as well strike Iran itself, and degrade the Iranian military as much as possible so as to circumscribe the Islamic Republic’s retaliation capabilities.

The US will have no problem in gaining air superiority and destroying a vast array of fixed Iranian targets, because the Iranian integrated air defense system is relatively obsolete and can be eluded by stealth, defeated by electronic countermeasures and neutralized. However, given the dispersed nature of Iran’s military forces it will retain a significant amount of retaliatory capacity – in particular, the ability to mine the Strait of Hormuz using fast attack craft and harass shipping with coastal shore batteries, diesel submarines in the shallow waters of the Strait, and perhaps suicide attacks from civilian-appearing vessels armed with explosives. Iran’s development of an indigenous UAV capability, by enabling it to scout out the presence of oil tankers, represents a significant force multiplier, especially if Iran also has the technological capacity to network its findings with its other military assets.

This is not to say that the War Nerd is correct when he says that any US naval assets off the coast of Iran will be blown to smithereens, which referred to a rather artificial and improbable scenario. In all likelihood the Iranian threat will be contained within weeks, the country will be thoroughly bombed into submission and perhaps the regime will be overthrown. But in its death throes, it could also kill the world economy:

Most importantly, it would not have to be effective. The mere possibility of mines — the uncertainty factor — would not only slow down the movement of tankers in the Gulf, but also spike insurance rates. Tankers cost a lot of money and their cargoes these days are incredibly expensive. Risking both ship and cargo is not something tanker owners like to do. They buy insurance. If the possibility of mines in the Gulf existed, insurance rates would not only rise, but might become altogether unavailable. Insurance and re-insurance companies these days do not have enormous appetites for unpredictable risk involving large amounts of money. And without insurance, as we saw during the tanker wars in the 1980s, owners won’t take the risk themselves.

Iran’s counter could be to increase the potential risk to the point where insurers back off. At that point, governments would have the option of insuring tankers themselves. Given how quickly governments move, particularly in what would have to be an international undertaking, oil supplies could be disrupted for days or even weeks. At this point, speculators and psychology aside, prices would spike dramatically. The creaking sound would turn into a cracking sound for the world economy.

Ergo, oil prices spike well north of 200$ per barrel in a time of global economic weakness and all-round instability. The psychological effects cannot be anything but extremely negative, and such a scenario may constitute the signal for global investors to finally throw in the towel on the US.

The third key element in near-future geopolitics, in addition to the Afghanistan imbroglio and the Iranian Question, is the continuing resurgence of Russian power across Eurasia. Far from being weakened by the economic crisis, it has used it to build up its relative strength, from politically-motivated loans to Belarus, to its decision to only enter the WTO as part of an economic bloc encompassing Belarus and Kazakhstan, to continuing pressure against Ukraine. It has also consolidated its military position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the state has reinforced its control over the commanding heights of the economy, suborning the last of the independent-minded oligarchs to its will. Driven by a belated recognition of its immutable geographic and climatic disadvantages that doom it to eternal backwardness and submission within the context of Westernization, it is slowly but inexorably returning to its “steady state”, its past-and-future as a Eurasian empire defined by political sovereignty, economic autarky and spiritual sobornost. The only thing still missing is an ideology, but that can be re-invented. The collapse of liberal globalization can only accelerate these trends.

As long as Washington stands in the way of this reassertion – which it has, from its unleashing of an infowar against Russia following the Yukos Affair in 2003 to its persistent championing of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia – it will remain Russia’s “prime enemy”, at least in the minds of those who matter. As such, Russia will do absolutely nothing to help the US maintain the current world order, which is not favorable to Russia’s interests. Expect a tense, uneasy game of give-and-take and tit-for-tat involving Russian arms sales to Iran and Venezuela, covert American support for colored revolutions across the post-Soviet space, intrigues over Central Asian allegiances and the placing of natural gas pipelines, Russian revanchism in the post-Soviet space, Russian and Chinese stalling of Western-promoted sanctions in the UN, etc… Above all, bear in mind that the Western view on Russia is fundamentally wrong, since Russia’s leaders distrust the “liberal interventionists”, “end of history” ideologues of the Clintonian era at least as much as they dislike the neocon “New Cold Warriors”.

Herein lies the gulf between the West and the Russians. The West divides the world between the Cold War and the post-Cold War world. It clearly prefers the post-Cold War world, not so much because of the social condition of Russia, but because the post-Cold War world lacked the geopolitical challenge posed by the Soviet Union — everything from wars of national liberation to the threat of nuclear war was gone. From the Russian point of view, the social chaos of the post-Cold War world was unbearable. Meanwhile, the end of a Russian challenge to the West meant from the Russian point of view that Moscow was helpless in the face of Western plans for reordering the institutions and power arrangements of the region without regard to Russian interests.

… Russians saw their efforts as a deliberate attempt to destroy Russia and the degree to which Russians are committed never to return to that time. It is hard to imagine anything as infuriating for the Russians as the reset button the Clinton administration’s Russia experts — who now dominate Obama’s Russia policy — presented the Russian leadership in all seriousness. The Russians simply do not intend to return to the Post-Cold War era Western experts recall so fondly. …

While Russia’s concerns with Georgia are the noisiest, it is not the key Russian concern in its near abroad — Ukraine is. So long as the United States is serious about including Ukraine in NATO, the United States represents a direct threat to Russian national security. A glance at a map shows why the Russians think this.

Russia remains interested in Central Europe as well. It is not seeking hegemony, but a neutral buffer zone between Germany in particular and the former Soviet Union, with former satellite states like Poland of crucial importance to Moscow.

… As the United States causes discomfort for the Russians, Russia will in turn cause discomfort for the United States. The U.S. sore spot is the Middle East, and Iran in particular. Therefore, the Russians will respond to American pressure on them where it hurts Washington the most.

The Cold Warriors don’t understand the limits of Russian power. The post-Cold Warriors don’t understand the degree to which they are distrusted by Russia, and the logic behind that distrust. The post-Cold Warriors confuse this distrust with a hangover from the Cold War rather than a direct Russian response to the post-Cold War policies they nurtured.

Finally, there’s China. Over the last decade, the world economy came to be powered by a powerful global symbiosis termed “Chimerica”, a state of affairs in which Americans spent and lent China money to build up the industrial capacity to produce ever more goods for Americans to spend on. Now as long as the limits to this unsustainable, imbalanced growth kept put – limits as in affordable oil and other commodities, access to credit, etc – the party continued.

This is no longer the case. The world economy has crashed. Chinese students laughed in the Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner’s face when he tried to assure them the US would keep the US dollar strong and that the trillions of dollars of Chinese investments are safe in the US. The Chinese leadership seems to agree and has started to massively step up its acquisitions of natural resource companies, farmland and foreign elites (via politically-motivated loans at preferential rates). Though there is little overt evidence of a ditching of the dollar, this is to be expected – given that China has so much invested in the US, trying to get out visible would provoke a catastrophic scramble in which it will lose more than it gains. That said, the signals of retreat are certainly visible, especially when set against the typical opacity of China’s rulers.

Globalization allowed China to build up a massive industrial base – as of 2008, it produced 48% of the world’s steel and 50% of its cement – and it has already bought up, or stolen, the majority of key technologies needed to build an advanced industrial system. They can now afford to gradually stop subsidizing American purchases of their products and concentrate on the development of a consumer consciousness among their own, 1.3 billion strong population. This decision to reorient their political economy will complement current rhetoric about building the “harmonious society“, with its emphasis on reconciling socialism, regional and internal inequalities, democracy and environmentalism. From now on, growth will be slower as it is curbed by stagnant world demand, accumulating bad loans, diminishing returns, etc, – it will likely be around 5-7% a year in the 2010′s, rather than the 10% typical of the 1980′s to 2000′s. Nonetheless, it should continue at a fast enough rate to soak up the new landless labor, ease social tensions and enable it to launch a geopolitical breakout. The inevitable transition from a centrally-weak, disbalanced and commercialized nation to a centralized, internally-peaceful hegemonic empire will not be smooth, but China’s forward momentum is simply too large to derail its rise to superpower status.

Externally, China will use its rapidly growing relative strength to create a new geopolitical reality, especially as the retreat of American power becomes ever more evident in the early to mid-2010′s. As the only major industrial nation still enjoying rapid growth, it will now be the main setter of world demand for oil and other strategic commodities, putting a floor on most commodity prices in the years ahead – especially since the state is now taking advantage of low prices to diversify itself from US Treasuries and lock in or accumulate the reserves needed to power its industrialization in the decades ahead. (A related recent story is China’s plans to restrict rare earth metal exports, which if rapidly implemented could create a hi-tech crunch in the decade before mines elsewhere could reopen and ramp up production to meet global demand). China’s influence in South-East Asia, East Asia, East Africa and the Middle East will rise in counter-balance to the US, but the process is unlikely to lead to military clashes because both nations will be much more preoccupied with managing internal tensions.

In conclusion, the geopolitical winds are shifting. There is a gathering storm that will sweep away the current liberal globalized order, and a new reality of econo-political blocs competing for markets, land and resources will take its place. The root cause is the accelerating fiscal and economic collapse of the system’s underwriter, the United States. (The even deeper reason would be that limited oil and energy reserves would be more efficiently used in China to make things than spent on American gas-guzzlers).

However, these changes will appear to observers as an incomprehensible cascade of failings of the international system and spreading chaos: jihadi successes (mounting losses in Afghanistan, continuing terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda’s “franchises”, the possible collapse – or radicalization (Turkey?) – of moderate Muslim governments); state collapses (peak in world food prices, out-of-control insurgencies, falling revenues from energy exports and climatic catastrophes like drought – watch Pakistan, Mexico); the confrontation with Iran (whether or not it ends with a Middle Eastern war, this saga is only beginning to get played out); the Russian resurgence (may be manifested in renewed expansionism in the post-Soviet space – Georgia, Crimea and the Baltics are potential flashpoints – and the race of countries like Germany, Finland, Turkey and / or Japan to reach some kind of accommodation with Russia, contrary to US interests) and the continuing secular ascent of China (due to its gradual nature, this is unlikely to result in any “big events” (although a flareup over Taiwan or the South China Sea is always a possibility) – that said, in the longer run this is going to be one of the most significant geopolitical trends).

By 2019, we will look out upon a new world as different from 1989, as 1944 was from 1914, or 1991 was from 1961. A partially revived American superpower will face a real “peer competitor” in China, though their competition will be restrained by domestic troubles and a shared concern for global stability and the future of industrial civilization. Many of the world’s least developed regions will have begun to fall apart, forsaking the torturing lights of civilization for the comforting darkness of simplistic barbarism. The European Union will have fallen apart under the stresses of its contradictions and its constituent nations will have reverted to their traditional balance-of-power rivalries, while Japan decides it would be better off band wagoning with China. A more insular, nationalist and powerful Russia is a wildcard, either in the throes of demographic and economic stagnation – or enjoying new, unprecedented power accruing from its energy wealth and warming landmass. By then, the clouds will be gathering for an even greater storm – the point sometime in 2030-2050 when the limits to growth make themselves really felt, and industrial civilization falls into its moment of greatest peril. The shifting winds will have become a gale.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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With the recent election of the controversial (to put it mildly) Ahmadinejad to the Iranian Presidency, it is time to look at what this portends for the future of Iran and the Middle East region in general.

The first question we need to ask is whether Ahmadinejad’s victory was free and fair. Stratfor believes it may well have been, describing it as a “triumph of both democracy and repression“. According to this narrative, Western liberals misread sentiment in Iran, seeing it in Manichean terms of a struggle between iPod youth (anyone who blogs, tweets, etc) and corrupt Islamist crustaceans. Yet in reality, except for a few urbane Anglophone professionals, there is no Iranian audience for Western iCivilization. Ahmadinehad appeals to a solid bloc based on his platform stressing Islamic piety (a return to the glory days of the early Revolution), combating corruption (in which many of the “liberal” clerics, as typified by Rafsanjani – an ally of Mousavi, are believed to be implicated in), promoting rural development and curbing inequality, and a strident foreign policy aimed at establishing Iran as a regional and nuclear Great Power. US Iran expert Flynt Leverett in Spiegel argues that allegations of fraud are based on nothing more than an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking by the US.

That said, there’s some pretty damning evidence to the contrary. Juan Cole compiled six reasons in Stealing the Iranian Election, where there is now a heated ongoing discussion. For instance, his support in the Azeri provinces was inexplicably high, considering that Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, was popular there; he also won over the cities, where he isn’t as popular (on the other hand, the regional election results do show that the race was much closer in the Azeri areas and Tehran; in the Persian provinces, Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory was as high as 3:1). Other irregularities from established form, such as a suspicious uniformity paving over traditional regional and ethnic fluctuations. (Muhammad Sahimi notes that the election data shows “a perfect linear relation between the votes received by the President and Mir Hossein Mousavi” over time, with the incumbent always leading by a 2:1 ratio, which he argues is highly unlikely due to the fragmented character of Iran’s ethnic composition; however, it should be noted that this approach is flawed since much the same argument could be made for Obama’s win). Khamenei immediately approved the alleged results, foregoing the customary 3-day waiting period. The counting happened very quickly and Ahmadinejad declared a 64% victory immediately after the polling closer, not far from his official 62.6%. Etc, etc… you get the idea.

But then again… researchers Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty from the Terror Free Tomorrow outfit conducted a poll three weeks before the elections. It showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2:1 ratio, even amongst Azeris. As such, Ahmadinejad actually did worse in the polls than the survey may have indicated. Furthermore, support was highest for Ahmadinejad amongst that most networked (and supposedly pro-West, but not) age group, the 18-24 year olds. The leading candidates were Ahmadinehad (34%) and Mousavi (14%), with Karroubi and Rezai polling insignificant support. 27% were in the “I Don’t Know” category, 15% didn’t answer and 8% said none, folks whom the pollsters expected to lean heavily towards Mousavi. As covered by Langer,

Rather it leaped in another direction, noting that “the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate,” because more than six in 10 respondents who expressed no opinion “reflect individuals who favor political reform and change in the current system.” It went on to predict “that none of the candidates will likely pass the 50 percent threshold.”

And though this question on whether the elections is fascinating in its own right, I suspect pursuing it further will just lead to ever more circles of claim, refutation and counter-claim, frequently colored by ideology (whether it be neocon, revolutionary-Islamist, conservative-”liberal”-Islamist, or Westernism). For the record, I believe the weight of the evidence indicates that Ahmadinejad would have probably won anyway, with around 50% of the vote and a small risk of a runoff against Mousavi. Electoral engineering and use of administrative resources ramped it up by 10-15% to provide Ahmadinehad with a safe win.

Now, I’ll turn to a second, and more interesting, question – what does it mean for Iran’s political development, and the geopolitics of the region?

But first, a quick guide. Unlike Russia or Venezuela, there is little doubt that Iran is an authoritarian state. Though there is an active electoral process for the Majlis and the Presidency, it is heavily circumscribed by the unelected Guardian Council of clerics, now headed by Khamenei (the system is a unique hybrid of Velayat-e Faqih (rule by Islamic jurists) and modern parliamentary democracy). He has the supreme executive power over matters of state. Khamenei is seen as the real power in the land and is an ally of Ahmadinejad. These hardliners draw support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), a paramilitary organization that controls lucrative shares in the national economy and encompasses the Basij reserves forces. According to the Guardian,

Superimposed on this picture has been the widely-held belief – now surely established as accurate – that Khamenei has had the backing of a hard core of radical mullahs, revolutionary guards and intelligence officers who may not have been in the vanguard of the Islamic revolution but cut their teeth in Iran’s bloody 1980-88 war with Iraq.

The group, which has coalesced around Ahmadinejad, harbours dreams of transforming Iran from an Islamic republic to an Islamic government, a distinction which would do away with elections and the need to observe the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s invocation to respect the “people’s will”. By this vision, Iran would forever take its guidance only from the divine, in the form of an all-powerful spiritual leader.

Opposed is a conservative-Islamist (not to be confused with “moderate”, never mind “liberal) faction centered around Rafsanjani, the second most powerful man in the Islamic Republic, who is allied with Mousavi and former President Khatami. They favor business interests and reconciliation with the West. They have a reputation for corruption and their power is declining relative to Khamenei and the IRGC.

Stratfor believes the Iranian political system is approaching an impasse. According to their analysis, the “the cohesiveness of the Iranian state has been deteriorating, with a rift between the president’s ultra-conservative camp and the pragmatic conservative camp led by Rafsanjani”. This struggle, already inflamed by Ahmadinejad’s radical Presidency, has been brought to the fore by Obama’s offer of rapprochement – opposed by the hardliners, welcomed by the pragmatic conservatives. Furthermore, the clerics as a class are under pressure from all sides, hardliners, reformers and (small and weak) outright pro-Western liberals alike:

Because he is the first Iranian president who is not also a cleric, Ahmadinejad sought to strengthen his position by claiming that his policies were guided by the highly revered and hidden 12th imam of the Shia, the Mahdi. This claim has unnerved the clerics: It undermines their privileged position, not only in the Iranian political system but also in religious terms. The implication of this is that if laypeople have access to the messiah, there is no need for them to rely on clerics — who historically have had tremendous influence among the masses.

Meanwhile, the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is emerging as a powerful player in Iran, currently second only to the clerics. But as the clerical community becomes marred by internal disagreements and the aging ayatollahs who founded the republic anticipate the day when they will be succeeded by a second generation, the IRGC is very likely to emerge as the most powerful force within the state. The ayatollahs have used their religious position to control the ideological force; if they should become weaker, the non-clerical politicians and technocrats will have a tough time dealing with the IRGC.

It should also be pointed out that Ahmadinejad, far from being a driving force, is but a reflection of deeper dynamics at work. Ranj Alaaldin does not imagine President Mousavi would institute any real changes:

Even with Mousavi in power, Iran’s foreign policy would likely be no different than it has been under Ahmadinejad. A 20-year absence from the public eye, coupled with dazzling words of change that skillfully capitalize on the “Obama effect” gripping the world, does wonders to beguile a young generation of supporters who never knew or have forgotten the radicalism and bloodshed that marked Mousavi’s tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 1989 (the Iranian Revolution’s most significant years).

Indeed, anyone believing Mousavi would be the one to unclench the Iranian fist for a hand-in-hand partnership of peace with the United States is guilty of wishful thinking. It was Mousavi, after all, who was at the center of the Iran hostage crisis and remains complicit in an operation he commended as “the beginning of the second stage of our revolution.” And it was Mousavi who was the protégé of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (chief architect of the Iranian Revolution and founder of theocratic Iran), a former member of Hezbollah’s leadership council, sworn enemy of Israel, and a prime minister under whose watch thousands of political prisoners were massacred in 1988. And finally, it was Mousavi who initiated Iran’s nuclear program in the 1980s and likely would be intent on carrying through Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the foremost issue central to any improvement in relations with the West.

All of this discussion assumes that it is even worth debating whether Mousavi would bring change to Iranian foreign policy when he would have no authority to do so in the first place. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on matters of foreign policy, not the president. Given Khamenei’s clear approval of what he called a “glittering” Ahmadinejad victory, and because it is the theocracy that verifies the count in the absence of any outside monitors — meaning that any election rigging was done with the supreme leader’s backing — it is he who will need convincing if Iran is to divert from a path of nuclear capability, hostility toward the United States, and support for terrorism.

(It should be noted that Rafsanjani does not refrain from using extreme language either.)

However, he pins hope on the “tenacious middle-class, educated, and youthful Mousavi supporters who have cried foul and rallied and bled in the streets” to force the theocrats to bring about real change. Though overall he’s pessimistic…

More likely, however, the unelected mullahs who rule Iran behind the scenes will be concerned about a galvanized army of reformists who have undermined its authority in recent weeks by, for example, entering the squares and openly mixing and dancing in groups of males and females in direct contravention of clerical law. The leadership might therefore double down on its hard-line foreign and domestic policies, starting with a ruthless endeavor to keep Ahmadinejad in power through any means necessary, so long as the end remains a theocratic Iran.

Returning to the aforementioned poll from Terror Free Tomorrow, 77% of Iranians want all leaders, including the Supreme Leader, to be elected, and similar percentages welcome Western investment and humanitarian aid to Iran (who wouldn’t?). Some 83% strongly favor nuclear energy – that’s OK, nuclear power is a great idea, especially for Iran since it could then export more of its hydrocarbons. Besides, big majorities would acquiesce to inspections of nuclear facilities if accompanied by trade liberalization. Support for cooperation with the US, like stopping funding insurgents in Iraq and to Hizbullah and Hamas, is also very considerable.

These positive attitudes aren’t extended to Israel, however. Though 27% support recognizing Israel if a Palestinian state is established, another 62% would oppose any peace treaty with Israel and favor all Muslims fighting on until there is no State of Israel in the Middle East. And although Christians are almost as popular as Sunni Muslims, opinions on Jews are split in half, with 40% having a positive attitude and a stunning 32% having a negative one.

So now we move onto our last analysis – what’s going to happen in the region?

Iran is split into three social groups. The main one, which is further growing in power, is the hardline element that embraces pursuit of regional hegemony, nuclear weapons and confrontation with the West. It’s main protagonists are Ahmadinejad, the IRGC, and the hardline clerics. Khamenei is increasingly tilting in this direction, the latest evidence for which is his condemnation of Obama’s palm leaf extending Cairo speech.

The second one is that of the old-school clerics, fiery revolutionaries when younger, now willing to reach an accommodation with the US while enjoying the finer things in life. Though some parts of this grouping have become discredited, there is wide grassroots support for reformers who want to make the system more democratic.

The third group are the pro-Western liberals, who are and will almost certainly remain marginal – though they are sure to continue getting the best exposure in the Western media.

This election shows that Iran has purposefully chosen the path of confrontation. There will be a purge of the pragmatic conservative and reformist clerics and, buoyed by increasing oil prices, Iran will accelerate nuclear development, intensify its rhetoric and perhaps increase its funding of terrorist and insurgent groups. Cognizant of its current strength (a still unstable Iraq next door; an excellent demographic profile for war that will fade away as its current fertility rate of 1.7 makes itself felt on the size of future generations; a US Navy for now vulnerable to its asymmetrical developments in drones, torpedoes and anti-ship missiles), the hardliners are going to use the next few years to try to establish Iran as a regional hegemon.

This will not ultimately be acceptable to the US – though it can abandon Israel, it cannot abandon the Middle Eastern oilfields. Yet paradoxically, the election of Ahmadinejad has been a boon for Israel – a symbolic victory that underlines the rising existential threat it faces from Iran, which exists whether or not Ahmadinejad is actually in charge or not.

…Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that there is not much to be expected from Mousavi. Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset that if Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem trying to make a case to the world about the threat from Iran, because the international community views Mousavi as a moderate.

It is estimated it will take Iran perhaps another four to five years to develop nuclear weapons. During this time, the chances of an Israeli strike will grow; in particular, the US is likely to come around to its way of thinking, particularly if the economic crisis further intensifies and Obama has to give freer rein to hawkish elements with his administration in order to retain his grip on domestic matters. Iran will grow increasingly emboldened and aggressive on once-again soaring oil prices.

Eventually, this might well end in a major aero-naval assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities (a few strikes won’t do given that the facilities are dispersed and hardened, unlike Osirak in Iraq in 1981) carried out by Israeli with passive or even active US support. The moderate Arab states will condemn this, but will secretly be very happy. Iran retaliates by again destabilizing the fragile foundations underlying the recent peace in Iraq, intensifies support to Hamas and Hizbullah and perhaps attacking US military bases and oil export terminals in the region; with the international situation spiraling out of control, Syria may even make another attempt for the Golan Heights, using the new asymmetrical war concepts displayed by Hizbullah in 2006 into action.

Or Iran’s new Islamist wave may pass by without major consequences. In any case in the long-term a US-Iranian rapprochement is likely. Conflict between Iran and the West prevents the effective exploitation of Iran’s natural gas reserves, which are the world’s joint-second largest (with Qatar) after Russia’s. Given current trends towards the concurrent resurgence of the Russian Empire, it is in the interests of Europe and in extension to US to reach an accomodation with at least one of them. Considering that the Persian Empire is much farther away, less powerful and hence less threatening, Iran is counter-intuitively likely to become the West’s friend within the decade, for the current radicalization now stirring up cannot be sustained in the long-term. Another sea change is that a weakening Israel may seek closer connections to Russia – there is already a visa-free regime between the two countries, and Israel has stopped supplying Georgia with weaponry in acquiescence to Russian wishes.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.