Monday, June 29, 2009

The "real" struggle in Iran?

The above is an article by George Friedman entitled, “The Real Struggle in Iran and Implications for U.S. Dialogue.”

Friedman is the head of Stratfor which provides intelligence information to business investors and other parties interested in foreign affairs. His analysis of the “struggle in Iran” isn’t quite what we have been getting from the media. He sees the real struggle as being between the old-guard clerics represented by Rafsanjani and the populists represented by Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani is rich. Ahmadinejad is something of an ascetic.

In trying to determine which side we ought to root for, Friedman tells us it doesn’t make any difference: The question for the rest of the world is simple: Does it matter who wins this fight? We would argue that the policy differences between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani are minimal and probably would not affect Iran’s foreign relations. This fight simply isn’t about foreign policy.”

In regard to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Friedman tells us not to worry: “We do not believe that Iran is close to obtaining a nuclear weapon, a point we have made frequently. Iran understands that the actual acquisition of a nuclear weapon would lead to immediate U.S. or Israeli attacks. Accordingly, Iran’s ideal position is to be seen as developing nuclear weapons, but not close to having them. This gives Tehran a platform for bargaining without triggering Iran’s destruction, a task at which it has proved sure-footed.”

Friedman sees as the more serious threat, and a defensive rather than offensive one, not the doomsday blocking of the straits of Hormuz or the bombing of Israel but Iran’s “capabilities in Iraq and Lebanon. Should the United States or Israel attack, Iran would thus be able to counter by doing everything possible to destabilize Iraq — bogging down U.S. forces there — while simultaneously using Hezbollah’s global reach to carry out terror attacks. After all, Hezbollah is today’s al Qaeda on steroids. The radical Shiite group’s ability, coupled with that of Iranian intelligence, is substantial.

“We see no likelihood that any Iranian government would abandon this two-pronged strategy without substantial guarantees and concessions from the West. Those would have to include guarantees of noninterference in Iranian affairs. Obama, of course, has been aware of this bedrock condition, which is why he went out of his way before the election to assure Khamenei in a letter that the United States had no intention of interfering.

“Though Iran did not hesitate to lash out at CNN’s coverage of the protests, the Iranians know that the U.S. government doesn’t control CNN’s coverage. But Tehran takes a slightly different view of the BBC. The Iranians saw the depiction of the demonstrations as a democratic uprising against a repressive regime as a deliberate attempt by British state-run media to inflame the situation. This allowed the Iranians to vigorously blame some foreigner for the unrest without making the United States the primary villain.”

Friedman tells us that “The fantasy of a democratic revolution overthrowing the Islamic Republic — and thus solving everyone’s foreign policy problems a la the 1991 Soviet collapse — has passed.

“That means that Obama, as the primary player in Iranian foreign affairs, must now define an Iran policy — particularly given Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s meeting in Washington with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell this Monday. Obama has said that nothing that has happened in Iran makes dialogue impossible, but opening dialogue is easier said than done. The Republicans consistently have opposed an opening to Iran; now they are joined by Democrats, who oppose dialogue with nations they regard as human rights violators. Obama still has room for maneuver, but it is not clear where he thinks he is maneuvering. The Iranians have consistently rejected dialogue if it involves any preconditions. But given the events of the past weeks, and the perceptions about them that have now been locked into the public mind, Obama isn’t going to be able to make many concessions.”

The above makes it sound as though Obama might actually have a diplomatic strategy at work, but Friedman’s final paragraph is to the contrary: “It would appear to us that in this, as in many other things, Obama will be following the Bush strategy — namely, criticizing Iran without actually doing anything about it. And so he goes to Moscow more aware than ever that Russia could cause the United States a great deal of pain if it proceeded with weapons transfers to Iran, a country locked in a political crisis and unlikely to emerge from it in a pleasant state of mind”


I don’t actually subscribe to Strator, but I do get a weekly “teaser article" like the above. As I began reading I thought, “oh no. Friedman has come up with something I haven’t thought of. Perhaps I should subscribe to Strafor after all.” My brain started rationalizing my limitations: I am one man reading foreign affairs publications. How can I be expected to keep up with Stratfor who has agents out in the field.

But then I read Friedman’s bottom line and I would invite any reader to compare it to what I wrote on 6-27-09: . In that article I describe Obama as seeming to follow in Bush’s footsteps rather than engaging in the pursuit of some diplomatic strategy. So I don’t have to give up as many points to Friedman on that issue as I thought I might.

But there is one area where Friedman has come up with something I hadn’t thought of, namely that Iran is not serious about developing nuclear weapons. They are engaging in something very like a bluff: “. . . Iran’s ideal position is to be seen as developing nuclear weapons, but not close to having them. This gives Tehran a platform for bargaining without triggering Iran’s destruction, a task at which it has proved sure-footed.”

If Friedman is right then I am wrong about the need for the US or Israel to prepare to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, much as Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak facility back in 1980. Or rather, it would be right for the US and Israel to “wargame” that attack and be prepared to execute it, but it isn’t correct to assume that Iran will actually try to build nuclear weapons. If Friedman actually knows that as a result of having Stratfor operatives out there in the field, then I would be impressed. We shall see . . . or perhaps we won’t.

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