Part of the art of scenario analysis lies in thinking not just “alternative scenarios” but “compatible and interacting scenarios.” An imminent possibility is the emergence of Iran as a major power as a result of the combination of the Ukrainian crisis provoking a possible Western-Russian gas war and the West’s dependence upon Iran for help against ISIS.
Scenario I. Playing for Keeps (Apr 2014)
Washington provokes a new cold war with Moscow over the Ukraine, a war fought with hydrocarbons that harms both sides and hands bargaining room to Tehran as West Europe’s emergency source of natural gas.
Scenario II. An Embarrassing Embrace
By the spring of 2014, the lid had been gingerly placed on the Washington-Tehran nuclear crisis: no solution acceptable to both sides was yet visible to the stubborn adversaries, but Netanyahu seemed to have overplayed his hand. His obviously self-serving militancy—so dangerous that even top Israeli military/intelligence officials questioned Netanyahu’s reliability—was losing effectiveness. The argument was moving away from its reckless, zero-sum emotionalism toward a spirit of thoughtful professionalism that opened the door to rational behavior. Then, right on time, ISIS exploded onto the scene, displaying to the world the nakedness of both the U.S. Emperor-of-a-Conquered-Iraq and the Iranian Emperor-of-a-Shi’i-Iraq. After a three-trillion-dollar war, Washington had lost control of post-Saddam Iraq, while Tehran–after sitting so brilliantly on the fence during the U.S. occupation and winning the peace—was watching its new Shi’i client regime disintegrate. After three decades of slapping each other in the face, established power Washington and rising power Tehran suddenly found themselves in an embarrassingly public embrace: they needed each other. A generation after becoming empowered by superpower conflict in Afghanistan, Salafi jihadis were once again in the driver’s seat…and this time pressing the pedal so hard to the metal that even their Saudi sponsors were beginning to wonder exactly what bargain they had made with the devil.
Far more cunning than bin Laden or Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi moved rapidly during the fall of 2014 both to pose as the defender of the faith against U.S. “air crusaders” and to set in place an effective state structure to win the support of regional Sunnis. Obama’s coalition of the unwilling, featuring a still (globally) marginalized Rouhani and a smooth-talking Erdogan playing both sides against the middle, looked great on T.V. but proved unimpressive against tens of thousands of militants scattered across the Mideast, each with a brother or cousin or rich uncle.
Redirecting energies to avoid the U.S. air force, by November 2014, ISIS cells were destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan, its recruiters operating freely out of mosques in Turkey, and its financial agents making deals in Saudi Arabia–all immune to American bombs, while every photograph of a U.S. warplane over the Mideast further inflamed the passions of both wealthy shiekhs and young madrassa grads.
The shot-gun Washington-Tehran marriage of August 2014, with Daddy ISIS holding the gun, failed to satisfy either bride or groom, both unwilling to treat the other with true respect. Divorce being out of the question, they crawled in mutual humiliation into separate bedrooms. But Iran, with many friends in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, quickly got her life back.
Compatible Scenarios: Iran Rises on Two Legs
As of September 2014, Playing for Keeps is slowly becoming reality, even as the ISIS threat forces Washington and Tehran into each other’s arms. An obvious and intriguing example of “compatible scenarios,” a West Europe desperate for natural gas to stay warm during the winter of 2015 and having no way to replace Russian gas other than Iran combined with the simultaneous Western need for Iranian help on the ground against ISIS created a reinforcing feedback loop accelerating Iran’s re-emergence as a major regional power. By early 2015, Iran is standing tall on the two legs of natural gas exports to a cold Western Europe and Washington’s need for Iranian stabilization of the Mideast.
Every time U.S. wanna-be crusaders demanded an end to the Washington-Tehran romance, West Europeans screamed for Iranian gas, and Khamenei called vaguely for “serious global cooperation against jihadis” as soon as the U.S. economic war against Iran was terminated. With the U.S. economy still hostage to corporate elites bleeding the middle class and Washington’s foreign policy elite baffled by the ever-changing complexities of Mideast politics, Washington remained dependent upon Tehran—with its vastly more informed network of Iraqi contacts—for effective action on the ground against Sunni extremists.
Nevertheless, the domestic U.S. political situation prevented Washington from making the necessary changes to U.S. policy toward Iran in economic and political spheres to permit a real U.S.-Iranian honeymoon. Domestic frustrations over the global mess handed the House to American primitives in November, so hobbling Obama that he could achieve no breakthrough with Tehran. The limitations that ensued handed the initiative to Tehran, precisely the opportunity that Iranian decision-makers had been looking for since 1979.
Rejected by Washington, Tehran adjusted to its continued marginalization by playing the ISIS game of redesigning Mideast borders to its own advantage, ignoring the artificial borders imposed by colonialists after WWI. Many Mideast residents, regardless of sectarian allegiance, found that new “Mideast realignment” quite acceptable. Mideast religious civil war became a comfortable status quo as ISIS steadily consolidated its gains without overly threatening the major regional powers. Building social support quietly in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it carefully avoided both violence and open political challenges in each country. A “comfortable impasse” with Tehran included understandings that in return for not attacking Iranian interests in the rump Syria statelet of Damascus, Iranian forces would look the other way when ISIS organizers crossed into Lebanon and Jordan.
By the end of 2014, Ankara—insistent upon seizing short-sighted sectarian advantage at the expense of long-term Turkish national interests–had set up a sphere of influence outside its borders at the expense of the Kurds, Iran—making the best of a poor bargain with the U.S.–had consolidated control of its whole border with Iraq as well as over a strip from Baghdad to Damascus, and al-Baghdadi—opting for a small victory now–had a functioning state covering northern Syria and Iraq plus raging brushfires in Lebanon and Jordan facilitated by various understandings with both Ankara and Tehran, while American aircraft carriers paraded uselessly around the Mideast littoral.
The old colonial powers, focused intently in January 2015 on finding natural gas imports, suddenly discovered that they really did not care how Mideast borders were drawn. Moscow and Beijing found the whole spectacle of Arab and Iranian strategists remaking the post-colonial Mideast under the utterly confused gaze of the soaring eagle nothing if not amusing. Putin moved when opportunity presented itself to score points but focused mainly on redrawing borders in East Europe. Beijing quietly signed arms-for-oil contracts and delicately began putting very tough-looking “technicians” in civilian clothes on the ground in Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus.
Things could well have turned out differently. Washington could have negotiated an accommodation with Tehran trading diplomatic status and Western technology for a winning strategy against jihadis. That could have generated a post-Assad compromise Syrian peace. Erdogan could have carried his old campaign to grant Turkish Kurds justice and cultural legitimacy to its logical conclusion and made that the foundation for the emergence of genuine Turkish democracy. Iraqis could have found the political maturity to set up a non-sectarian government of national unity. Jihadis could have been defeated tactically, while Saudi Arabia could have taken the strategic decision to design a modern, moderate, secular educational system. But that is not how it turned out.
Instead, Salafis had their little caliphate; Iran had its imperial strip right across the center of the Mideast from the homeland all the way to the Mediterranean; Turkey had the Kurds cowering in their mountains; Moscow digested Ukraine; China got oil. And the world’s last remaining superpower? Well, in this happy ending for everyone, Americans got what they had really wanted all along—a knock-down, drag-out domestic culture war. No foreigners invited.
Would Turkish rejection of Kurdish rights doom Turkish democracy?
Would the region civilize the caliphate or the caliphate radicalize the region?
Would Beijing dominate the Mideast?
With the U.S. self-absorbed, could Iran as seller, Turkey as broker, and Western Europe as buyer form a hydrocarbon alliance capable of ending the U.S.-centric international political system?