Dealing With Iran. Pt. 1. Contradictory Strategies

Politicians, particularly those unskilled in foreign affairs, frequently believe that threats are more effective than flexibly applying the full range of options, admittedly an approach requiring some skill and patience. What are the impacts of relying on the zero-sum policy of threats rather than seeking a positive-sum outcome? This post is the first in a series to examine the complexities of assessing in advance how Tehran may respond to the new U.S. policy based on threats.

For four decades, U.S. policy toward Iran has wavered back and forth, moving for a moment toward conciliation, then back to a strong emphasis on threat. “Carrot or stick?” is the perennial question in foreign policy. One hopes no leader would ever phrase the endless variety of choices in such a dangerously simplistic manner; this is no binary choice, though the behavior of politicians sometimes suggests that in their hearts, they truly believe it is. Simple as the question may be, no political science theory provides a surefire guide to policymakers; no analytical method a surefire process for calculating how an adversary will respond. As a result, both conciliation and threat repeatedly backfire.

With the understanding that policy is a flow of action like a pipe containing a mixed stream of warm and cold water, global dealings with Iran can be summarized as a world policy with a flow toward Iran connected in a circle to an Iranian policy flowing back to the world. In the “Dealing With Iran: Obama Strategy” diagram, the joint strategy toward Iran of the Six Powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) at the end of Obama’s second term is connected in such a circle with Iran’s response. Although Obama’s actual policy always included both threats and inducements, the diagram simplifies this, showing only inducements, i.e., a “flow of warm water.” The diagram pictures a “reinforcing” loop (actions of A reinforce actions of B), over time yielding exponential growth (a “virtuous circle” if you like the results; a “vicious circle” if you don’t).

Dealing With Iran - Obama StrategyDefined narrowly (in terms of the nuclear agreement, without linkage to other issues), the diagram illustrates accurately the positive-sum outcome that Iran limited its nuclear development and in return received economic benefits, benefiting both sides. This statement says nothing about the overall state of or trends in relations; it says nothing about the “limits to growth” of this particular cycle, of other dynamics that might be growing faster and perhaps pushing relations toward a turning point. All such considerations would require a more detailed assessment than is presented in this initial view. This is the simplest of models that nonetheless contains an essential, if temporary and limited, truth–a bit more than a snapshot, for it endured long enough to demonstrate its utility, but a good deal less than an accurate long-term forecast, given reality’s sensitivity to rapidly evolving political conditions. The diagram is a model of one dynamic, a dynamic that was for a time dominant; it is far from a model of reality.

In May, Trump unilaterally broke the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, demanding new concessions from Iran as the price for continuing to honor any agreement constraining Iranian nuclear R&D.  [See “Dealing with Iran: Trump Strategy.] The choice for Iran was to pay a higher price for maintaining their side of the bargain or going free and being faced with the threat of additional U.S. hostility. Indeed, before it had even had time to react, Tehran was in fact subjected to further threats. Washington, in sum, was punishing Tehran for keeping its side of a narrow (nuclear) bargain based on the claim that the original agreement made by Obama should have restricted other, non-nuclear Iranian activities. In stark contrast to thee unified P6 strategy during the Obama Administration, the isolated US strategy as of May 2018 under the Trump Administration tossed out the former global coalition policy of emphasizing inducements while keeping threats on the table, leaving only the threats/punishments and arguably strengthening those threats/punishments. 

Dealing With Iran - Trump Strategy

Does the reinforcing loop of bilateral cooperation (world offers trade; Iran gives up nukes) mean that reinforcing loops always work? No, the truth is that reinforcing loops almost always fail, perhaps because they require careful management or people with good will on both sides simultaneously. A reinforcing loop is simply a situation that is getting more and more…, i.e., exponential growth. Pretty soon something has to change, but if you happen to like the results, you won’t want to stop the momentum until it is too late…a good reason to think ahead. The Obama Administration might have benefited from following up the initial victory with a determined effort to adhere strictly to its side of the bargain and a sincere search for ways to strengthen the accord or the broader relationship. The joint campaign against ISIS gave Obama the opportunity; Obama’s arming of Riyadh for its bombing campaign in Yemen poisoned the broader context. By the time Obama left Washington, the agreement was ripe for failure for external reasons. 

U.S.-Iran relations have for four decades been characterized by people of good will on both sides but almost never simultaneously. Timing is crucial. Careful management is also required: each side, looking anxiously for its promised payoff, will be quick to accuse the other of cheating if any unforeseen delays occur, such as Western failure rapidly to deliver on its economic promises. Domestic politics also interferes with positive-sum reinforcing feedback loops: anti-Iranian conservatives in the U.S. have from the start rejected the beneficial nuclear agreement for not including more benefits (preferring no loaf to half a loaf). More general obstacles to the continuation of desired reinforcing loops include running out of resources, since once the loop gets moving, its exponential nature will consume resources at a rapidly accelerating rate. Sadly, especially in international relations, many people fail to give credit to controversial positive-sum agreements for side benefits. The agreements are likely to be controversial in the first place only because of some prejudice against the other side. Even when the other side plays nice, the prejudice remains. Just as the nuclear agreement went into effect, Washington and Tehran both discovered to their mutual embarrassment that they needed each other’s help to fight ISIS in Iraq, but how many opponents of the nuclear agreement admitted that their opposition might have prevented needed military cooperation? The most basic contribution of the circular diagram is simply that it tells the user that the reality is a flow of current whose speed must be managed by the policy-maker, not an event to be chalked up as a permanent victory.

All of these considerations were obvious at the time, but something is only “obvious” when you focus on it, and policy-makers have many things to focus on. Putting a risk in a diagram helps keep it in focus. Computer models that show how dynamics (e.g., the flow of trade, the level of rhetoric, the size of troop deployments) evolve or might evolve helps keep subtle background changes in focus.



Emergence of a Joint Russian-Chinese Strategic Vision

Washington clearly lacks the wisdom to manage a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” or a “war for democracy” in a Muslim society. A more counter-productive effort in world affairs would be hard to find. But if Washington exits Afghanistan without leaving a process of effectively addressing the drug problem in place, then some very nasty scenarios that are hardly imagined today may become highly possible.

What one day is an entirely defensive effort to combat the international trade in illegal narcotics can another day seamlessly morph into an aggressive military alliance. Some today in the West may find it easy to sneer at the strategic military potential of the so-far timid and disunited Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but illegal narcotics are providing a strong rationale for SCO’s members to cooperate militarily, and there’s plenty of talk in Russian media about the drug threat, which is killing 100,000 Russians a year.
Consider the context:
  1. Afghanistan is NATO-occupied, so responsibility for the flood of illegal narcotics poisoning the societies of Russia and the rest of the SCO member states lies at NATO’s door;
  2. the Western campaign in Afghanistan is failing;
  3. U.S.-Pakistani relations are in trouble;
  4. Narcotics and terror not only are linked but are so portrayed in Russian media.
In this context, the long-term trend in Russian-Pakistani ties merits watching. Russian “drug tsar” Victor Ivanov recently lauded rising Russian-Pakistani anti-drug cooperation:

Антинаркотическое сотрудничество России и Пакистана активно развивается. Взаимодействие двух стран “перешло в доверительную фазу”. [Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia) 3/29/12.]

His claim that “mutual trust” has been established should focus Washington minds. Moscow has been encouraging Islamabad’s interest in joining the SCO for some time. Are Washington’s abuses of its special relationship with Islamabad making Russia’s more delicate approach seem attractive? It certainly will if rumors of Russian financial supportfor the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that Washington so bitterly opposes come true.
Like Pakistan, Iran has observer status in the SCO, but Iran seems too hot to handle, given its current self-defeating policy of nuclear ambiguity. Given Washington’s own endlessly hardline stance, however, a slightly more sophisticated Iranian nuclear policy might open SCO’s door. What if SCO officially offered Iran one of the obvious potential nuclear deals that Washington so carefully evades, e.g., end to sanctions, financing of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, defensive ground-to-air missiles, full membership in SCO, and the explicit right to refine medical-grade uranium in return for the “permanent human monitoring” of Iran’s nuclear project that Larijani has already offered? The next Nobel Peace Prize might go to Putin, and the SCO might discover its strategic mission.
But there’s more. Even NATO member Turkey is glancing toward SCO. To the degree that SCO constitutes no more than a local effort to support global stability, everyone could join, but in the context of a need to replace a failing U.S. power center in Central Asia and in the context of a backward-looking Washington rejecting Ankara’s self-portrayal as leader of Mideast moderates, a SCO deal with Iran that takes the nuclear issue off center-stage might confer significant momentum to Ankara’s delicate winks in SCO’s direction.

В рамках ШОС, Турция будет стремиться к поддержке своей роли лидера региона Ближнего и Среднего Востока, опираясь на дружественные и родственные отношения с тюркскими и исламскими государствами. Россия поддержала заявку Турции на получение статуса партнера по диалогу в ШОС. []

If Washington continues tripping over its own feet, as it has now for 15 years, while Moscow and Beijing creep forward through the diplomatic bushes, it becomes easier and easier to imagine the SCO picking up some of the slack. Beijing and Moscow will have to find common strategic ground, but Washington’s continuing obsession with pleasing Israel’s extreme right will make that easy, especially if Iran can smooth the rough edges off its foreign policy. A SCO with a strategic vision plus the membership of both Pakistan and Iran would be an entirely different animal than it is today, a sleek bear sporting dragon wings. If the reversal of trends as the U.S. presence in Central Asia is replaced by a joint Russian and Chinese presence occurs in the context of a bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that leaves behind a virulent drug mafia, then SCO would have a legitimate strategic purpose: the flying bear might start breathing fire. Given that, how hard would it be for Russian and Chinese strategic thinkers to justify…well, a “war on terror,” and how easily might such a war come to generate the same horrors that the Bush-Cheney war did?
Further Reading:

Grand Strategy

U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the 21st century has been a strategy of military empire, with results that arrogant Washington politicians might not have been able to foresee but that Marcus Aurelius certainly would have had something to say about. Offering the obvious alternative–peace, compromise, searching for positive-sum outcomes–is easy to do, but what, exactly, might such a grand strategy be built of?

Grand strategy is composed of a coordinated set of policies. Faced with Hitler or Attila, one naturally turns to violence because destruction appears the only alternative. Fortunately, no such threat is even remotely visible on the political horizon, so the U.S. has choices. Counterintuitively, however, the U.S. has restricted itself since 9/11 (with the exception of some fine words, e.g., in Cairo) to a grand strategy of military empire, arbitrarily denying to itself a range of powerful foreign policy tools that, in the hands of a skillful superpower, can have impressive effectiveness.

The ineffectiveness of brute military force for creating a new world of long-term benefit to American society has in barely a decade been made glaringly clear. Iraq and Lebanon are in Iran’s orbit, Somalia a basket case, Afghanistan a looming U.S. defeat, and Pakistan a crisis very visible on the horizon. Turkey is alienated, and Israeli democracy under domestic attack. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to come up with a more effective grand strategy than the combination of invasion, drone bombings, and blatant military threats backing up economic sanctions to force adversaries to surrender in return for the right to kneel at the “negotiating” table.

Devising an alternative grand strategy is not simple, however, for it consists of an infinite array of distinct policies that must be coordinated so that they work toward the same goal. Otherwise, instead of strategy, one has nothing but a mess, and a mess is what the U.S. already has. Implementing such a grand strategy will be even more difficult than designing it, especially now that U.S. corporations are “people” and U.S. elections up for sale. But a good first step is to identify the specific policies that such a new grand strategy would need to include, and there are more than a few that come readily to mind.

Potential for U.S.-Iranian Cooperation on Afghanistan

It must surely be obvious that walking away from Afghanistan would simply be to repeat past errors and lay the groundwork for the roosting of more chickens. Yet endless self-defeating and self-degrading violence, from drone attacks on civilians to torture of prisoners to outright American terrorism, is not the only choice. Muslim countries from Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia stand ready to make a contribution to Afghanistan, and the U.S. should encourage global Muslim activism in support of Afghan reform, stability, and development, an umbrella that could provide cover for an honorable U.S. military withdrawal.

A Pakistani policy shift could follow a similar line, but focusing on encouraging and empowering Pakistani civil society to lead the defense of its democracy with global Muslims in second place and the U.S. a distant but supportive third. Once again, every effort should be made to terminate the U.S. military involvement in Pakistani domestic affairs as fast as possible.

Positive Sum: Cooperation for Transparency

Iran policy follows naturally from this, for a key to developing a positive-sum relationship with Pakistan is supporting its desperate need for energy imports, which must include supporting its long-planned pipeline to import Iranian gas. Why would the U.S. want to do this? Simply put, encouraging countries to share resources via an expensive physical infrastructure automatically entices them to pursue moderate foreign policies: war is hard on infrastructure. The implication of U.S. support would obviously be that the U.S. was finally willing to share the world with an Iran that wants its own independent place on the world stage. The world has been shown to be too small to support a rampaging, militant U.S. but is surely big enough to include a moderate U.S. and an independent but cautious Iran. Iran talks tough (sort of like a Santorum) but acts cautiously. A profitable pipeline would help it to see the utility of less tough talk and more caution. In the context of a lucrative pipeline and a sincere U.S. invitation to put “all options” on the negotiating table, Iranian national security thinkers like Ali Larijani would be able to make more persuasive arguments for a policy of nuclear transparency, and that fake issue–promoted in Tel Aviv to cover up Israel’s West Bank land grab and in Washington as proxy for opposing Iran’s right to challenge the U.S.-centric global political system–would soon evaporate.

Of the many essential components in a positive-sum grand strategy, one of the most important would be U.S. policy toward Turkey, for Turkey represents the best hope the U.S. has for seeing the emergence of a moderate Muslim Mideast. It will require some hard swallowing of pride on the Potomac, however, just as a  positive-sum Iran policy must encompass, indeed be based on, the recognition that Iran has a right to speak out in opposition to a U.S.-centric global political system, a rational Turkey policy must be based on the recognition that Turkey’s advocacy of a moderate Islamic activism independent of the U.S. is good for the U.S.

Analogous policy reforms based on the same principles would guide policy toward the rest of the world. The U.S. would have to consider European views before asserting its right to make unilateral decisions concerning such theoretically international institutions as the World Bank, for example. And the analogy between policy shifts toward the Muslim world and Latin America are so tight that one could replace words like “Turkey” and “Iran” with “Brazil” and “Venezuela” in the above paragraphs and change almost literally nothing else at all and end up with vastly improved policies.

The real obstacle to such a transformation of the U.S. role in the world is not “the world,” messy as the place is. The real obstacle lies at home. The implementation of a positive-sum grand strategy simple is not going to happen without a fundamental strengthening of American democracy; abolition of the pernicious nonsense of a corporation being a person; and the elimination of “too big to fail, too big to manage, too big to control” investment gambling houses. In short, politicians do not just have to wash the venom of hubris out of their veins but make a fundamental choice to protect our weakening democracy against the rising corporatist state.

I would not bet my mortgage on this happening any time soon, but perhaps laying out these policies will make it obvious how logical and beneficial a positive-sum grand strategy could be.

Paranoid Superpower

In an era when U.S.national security has been visibly and painfully challenged by networked, non-state terrorist gangs and its own corrupt uber-rich, the revelation that every American is looking wild-eyed over his shoulder for the  “next enemy” should come as no surprise. Keeping one’s eyes open is good, but the panic seen in American eyes today is embarrassingly close to paranoia.
America is so frightened of tiny terror gangs that it is destroying whole societies, one after the other, and in the process generating vastly more hatred and contempt for the U.S. than has ever before existed in the history of this country. The mindless overuse of American military force is generating hatred be cause of its viciousness (torture in Abu Ghraib, attacks on hospitals in Fallujah, and the endless drone campaign with its endless stream of innocent victims that seems to have no limits at all). And ironically, that same overuse of American military force is generating contempt because, in the short ten year span of this new era of war against people who are not even attacking us, the unstoppable American military machine has shown itself incapable of winning…anything. It can destroy everything; that much is clear. Yet, it could not, either directly or via its various proxies, win in Gaza, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Still, after each failure to achieve sustainable, beneficial victory, the machine charges on, targeting an even bigger adversary.
More to the point from the perspective of U.S.national security, the American panic is dangerously self-defeating. In our desperate search for a Hitlerian- or Soviet-scale enemy (surely there must be one, now that we have put all our eggs in the military basket and have a monstrous war budget equal to the total of the whole rest of the planet), we are completely overlooking the real danger: ourselves.
Woe be to any adversary stupid enough to launch a blitzkrieg against America: such an enemy would be vaporized. But such an enemy does not exist. No one has the remotest ability to attack the U.S. Maginot Line, nor any intention of doing so.
Lacking any real and present danger from enemies with serious capabilities and urgent aggressive intent, Uncle Sam is rushing in all directions simultaneously…and tripping over his own feet. Washington’s clumsy response to the Arab Spring, which left the superpower fearfully peering into shadows in search of terrorists or consoling outdated dictator clients, made U.S.elites look clueless.  Blatant contradictions between Washington’s rewarding of vicious repression in Bahrain (by giving more aid) and Yemen (by giving Saleh a visa) while condemning similar repression by Assad remain unresolved, thereby diminishing America’s stature and global appeal. Washington’s approach to Pakistanis even worse – endless slaughter of innocents by drones alienating precisely the population whose goodwill it needs. Most tragic is the visible trembling of official Washingtonbefore the mighty Netanyahu, such a warmonger that his own military/intelligence team is revolting in the name of Israeli security. Washingtoncannot even guide its closest regional client down the path of long-term security, instead plying it with the matches that seem likely to burn the house down.
What is it that Washingtonwants? Does it want Arab democracy or Arab submission? Does it want Israeli security or a tiny Israeli garrison state surrounded by an increasingly radical and angry Muslim world? Does it want Irandetermined to make trouble for the Iraq and Afghanistanor a regional understanding that would facilitate a peaceful American military withdrawal in return for Iranian cooperation to create a mutually beneficial zone of Central Asian stability? So far, no one knows…least of all the officials in Washington.

U.S. Policy on Iran Is Designed to Fail

Intentionally or not, Washington’s policy toward Tehran is flawed politically, historically, and psychologically. It is a policy designed to fail.

Never, ever say please if you can get away with spitting in someones face. That, in this highly civilized new century, has become the essence of American policy toward Iran. Many in Washington will surely defend this approach as the only language they understand. Maybe so. One thing is for sure: it is the only language in which they have heard us speak.
In defense of Washington policy makers, they of course do not know how Tehran might respond to a sincere and consistent policy of inviting Tehran policy makers to sit down and reason together. And they can be excused for seeing little likelihood of being able to convince Tehran of sudden American sincerity between now and the Presidential election.
A Policy Designed to Succeed
A policy designed to persuade Tehran to forgo militarization of nuclear technology would contain at least three shifts in U.S. policy toward Iran and one fundamental shift in the regional context. The policy shifts toward Iran are obvious: respect, inclusion, and security. The regional shift is sufficient movement toward justice for Palestinians to make radical Iranian involvement in the Levant irrelevant. Amazingly, all these U.S. moves, which Washington seems to find so distasteful, are fully consistent with U.S. national security.
Nevertheless, it is worth considering how Americans would feel if China or Russia  invaded Mexico, set up a string of huge military bases there, and sailed an offensive Armada into the Gulf of Mexico, while loudly discussing the option of attacking the U.S. (of course, with pinpoint accuracy to avoid civilian casualtiesexcept for scientists working at the Pentagon), and demanded that the U.S. relinquish not just its most powerful weapons but its right even to conduct research toward some future emergency development of such weapons. How many American politicians would bend their knee and disarm in return for nothing more than the privilege of being invited to negotiations? How many who did bow down would win reelection?
Even the most reasoned high-level U.S. pronouncements about Iran come out wrong. Consider Defense Secretary Leon Panettas recent statement that Iran is only laying the groundwork for a possible future bomb. That would seem to settle the issue in a rational world. Countries have the right to lay the groundwork for future defense. But nohe then continued to point out that even though he admits Iran is not building nuclear arms, the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing. Leon, you really understand human nature. As long as you can spit in their face, dont ever say please.

But the mistake is more serious than just egregious American bullying that accomplishes nothing more than to irritate Tehran and make a serious global issue dangerously emotional. Even in rational terms, Panetta is singing off-key. Perhaps in Washington, it seems rational for all countries, even those threatened with aggression, to trust Washington. Elsewhere, “rational” would not be the word for such a naive attitude. On the contrary, given Washington’s aggression against Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, its threats against Iran can only be interpreted as making only one policy “rational” for Iranians: maximizing self-defense capabilities. That is not the lesson Washington should be teaching.

In this context of endless bullying without any inducement to compromise, an incident that will inflame passions is almost inevitable.
Whatever you may think of U.S. or Iranian foreign policy, the fact is that every time Tehran underscores its independence and right to self-defense, Washington becomes more aggressive. If this is war, it is a one-sided war. Yes, Iran is insulting, warning, lecturing, posing, and desperately trying both to strengthen itself and to give the appearance of strength: only an unemployed Republican presidential candidate could define that as aggressive. Washington, in contrast, is intensifying a crippling campaign of economic warfare within a context of a simultaneously tightening military encirclement.
If Washington is bluffing, it is a convincing bluff, plenty convincing enough to make someone in Tehrans highly factionalized regime panic. Let us assume, for the purposes of conversation, that Washingtons Masters of the Universe have everything perfectly calibrated to force Tehran to beg for mercy without any risk of a disaster. Let us assume that the disasters of the Iraq invasion, the on-going mess in Afghanistan, and the endless elite-created recession are lessons learned, mistakes never to be repeated. Wiser now, the Masters of the Universe really do know how to run the world, we shall assume.
Still, from Tehrans perspective, things are starting to look a little scary. What if someone or some faction panics? What if a third party (say, an ambitious Israeli politician or an al Quaida type) sets a trap? What if Iranian decision-makers simply decide that Washington needs a slap on the face to wake it up?
What if Tehran calculates that things are getting out of control, that Washington leaders are not Masters of the Universe but just provincial politicians wrapped up in their election campaign? What might Tehran do? And how would American politicians, not exactly known for their ability to appreciate how the world looks to Muslims, be likely to react? In the current emotional situation, anything is possible, and almost every conceivable scenario will be bad news for Americans.
People do not respond very well to rude and highly public ultimatums, even when they are persuasive. Any Iranian politician who did so would almost certainly face discharge, arrest, and probably a firing squad for betraying his country. Moreover, how could an Iranian policy maker even defend a proposal to kowtow to the U.S. before his peers? The U.S. over the last decade has fought wars, either itself or via proxies, in Iraq, Somalia, Gaza, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. How many victories did it win?
Psychology suggests Tehran will not accept an ultimatum. History suggests the U.S. will only make matters worse if it starts another war. Both the U.S. secretary of defense and the recently retired Israeli head of Mossad see an attack on Irans nuclear establishment as at best a very short-term palliative. The U.S. campaign of economic warfare against Iran is empowering Iranian hardliners, putting the initiative in the hands of Moscow and Beijing, and alienating U.S. allies from Turkey to Japan (both of which are demanding the right to continue buying Iranian oil).
Washingtons policy toward Iran is a policy designed to fail. Why?

Challenge to the War Party

American media are being flooded with calls for aggression against Iran, all replete with glib assumptions and careful avoidance of any deep analysis of what might go wrong. Here is what I want:

an argument for launching a war against Iran that is intellectually honest and profoundly self-critical, an argument that enumerates assumptions and questions them, an argument that searches for what could go wrong and lays out a precise plan for avoiding pitfalls, an argument that shows how war will lead us to a world we can honestly expect to be better than it would have been without war.

I predict that no one can make such an argument. I challenge the smooth-talking, “they will welcome us with flowers” set–those of you who think wars can be managed and long-term dangers avoided–to prove me wrong.

Iraqi Lessons

The Washington elite decision to invade Iraq occurred for reasons that thinking Americans will bitterly debate for much of the rest of this century. Like it or not, the influence of that decision will be heavy on the shoulders of every person alive on earth for the rest of that persons life. The question now centers on the lessons we all learn.
Lesson #1: War does not create democracy. If Washington invaded Iraq to defend freedom, the invasion was a disaster. The behavior of the U.S. toward occupied Iraq, the behavior of U.S.forces in Iraq, and the behavior of Iraqi politicians during the occupation have all tarnished the reputation of that ever out-of-reach ideal known as democracy.
Lessson #2: The American way of war destroys societies rather than saving them. If Washington invaded Iraq to save the Arab people, its destruction of the most advanced middle class society in the Arab world makes the failure of that goal crystal clear.
Lesson #3: A flashy war somewhere else will trick the American people every time. If Washington invaded Iraq to keep Bush-Cheney in office, the plan worked brilliantly, rescuing an apparently doomed administration. Perhaps the worst president in American history was able to preside over what was, in moral terms, perhaps the most immoral decade in American history, step nimbly over the thousands of dead civilians, ignore the tattered remnants of U.S. Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and announce with a grin that being president had been fun.
Lesson #4. Empires feast on war. If Washington invaded Iraq to build empire, the lesson to be derived from the perspective of the American people is quite different from the lesson that an empire-builder would derive. Despite being fought to a draw by rag-tag extremists”—many of whom were in fact genuine nationalists and having its uniformed forces essentially kicked out, the empire-builders have much to savor: Iraq remains, sort of, in the U.S. orbit, with huge and dangerous U.S. mercenary forces evidently planning to remain. Then theres that monster fortress embassy in the Green Zone. As for the ring of real fortresses, the U.S. military bases, just exactly what is happening to them? More significantly for empire-builders, the war facilitated the establishment of a larger ring of U.S. bases throughout the region, not just surrounding Iran but making clear that, for the moment, the U.S. is the winner of the Central Asian Great Game that Russia and Great Britain used to fight. Of course, the small matter of how to avoid a second embarrassing victory”—in Afghanistanremains to be worked out; some of our brilliant strategists are now suggesting the (to empire-builders) obvious solution: expand the failed Afghan adventure to Pakistan.
Lesson #5. Even winning a war can harm your security. OK, maybe the U.S. did not exactly win the Iraq war, but it certainly conquered the place and invented its current government. Yet who in the U.S. feels more secure? The war empowered bin Laden for years, multiplied anti-U.S. feeling worldwide, contributed greatly to a continuing U.S. economic mess, left the country profoundly divided, and left the U.S. embarrassingly irrelevant in the Arab world, as became obvious when the White House sat on the sidelines during the heady days of Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, Iran, which empire-builders and Likudniks so love to criticize, is manifestly more significant on the world stage than it was a decade ago. Much more seriously for real strategic thinkers, Russia and China are steadily moving forward with low-cost economic development projects to expand their global influence while being pushed more and more warmly into a strategic embrace by the squeeze the U.S. is putting on them.
Lesson #6. Aggression is complicated. If Washington invaded Iraq to get Iran, well, Washington transformed Iraq from Irans main enemy into, shall we say, a very friendly and submissive neighbor: dare we say Iraq is Persian for Canada? And now Washington is almost throwing Pakistan as well into Irans orbit. In the process, Washington also taught Iranians at least two lessons that will come back to haunt Americans. First, Iranian efforts to work with the Bush Administration were accepted briefly when desperately needed to construct a new Afghan regime, after which Bush immediately insulted Iran (remember Axis of Evil???). Second, tensions with Iran have greatly empowered Irans own militaristic, super-nationalistic neo-cons. Iranians have learned that hostility toward the U.S. pays a lot more than cooperation.
Lesson #7. War enriches the rich. This one is harder to contemplate; it’s a real conspiracy theory and surely must impute more deviousness to certain factions than they deserve, but if some of those who supported the invasion of Iraq did so to blind the 99.9% to the accelerating shift of power and wealth into the hands of the 0.1%, they certainly achieved what they wanted. One one level, the shift of wealth to the uber-rich occurred directly through the enormous benefits handed to CEOs profitting from the war. On a second level, war tensions distracted Americans. Linking the levels together was an insidious dynamic of rising impoverishment of the 99%, facilitating the task of persuading some of them to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of empire. That this in fact worked and did so on at least two crucial levels is pretty much beyond dispute; that it was planned from Day 1 is less clear. Nonetheless, now they own it all.
The American people (not the Occupiers; that courageous minority understands the need to defend democracy) are right: a self-satisfied if embarrassed grin followed by firm denial and a trip to the mall is the only way to deal with this mess. Face up to reality and we will all need psychiatrists.

Pakistani Academic Warns of U.S. Threat

Opinion and policy emerge not just from the politicians but also from informed society. If a recent Pakistani academic’s assessment of the U.S. as a threat that Pakistan must counter by cooperation with Iran and Russia becomes representative of Pakistani public opinion, the U.S. is likely to face a significant diplomatic and strategic defeat.

At a recent meeting with an Iranian delegation, Punjab University Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Mujahid Kamran articulated an outspoken perspective on Pakistan’s role in the U.S.-centric global political system that Washington decision-makers would do well to contemplate [University of the Punjab Press Release 12/19/11]:

Dr Kamran said that Iran was a great source of inspiration and had set a standard for all the Muslim countries to take stand against the powers who want to control the world. He said that American people were not our enemy but a cabal of international bankers had manipulated wars and brought governments under debt. He said that US Congress and other institutions were their agent and don’t represent the aspirations of American people. He said that through National Defense Authorization, police state conditions would formulize [sic] in the US. He said that elite wanted to take control of Iran but Iranians had a government which represented people and it would not be easy for them to run over Iran. Iran stood like a rock, he said.  “A grim bulletin of Russian Ministry of Defense issued to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev states that the Chinese President Hu Jintao has agreed in principle that the only way to stop the West’s aggression led by the United States is through direct and immediate military action. Russian General Nikolai Makarov said he did not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war including nuclear weapons,” the Vice-Chancellor added. He said according to Chinese Rear Admiral Zang Zhong [sic], China would not hesitate to protect Iran even with a Third World War. He said that Pakistan should join Iran, China and Russia to expel US from the region.

A Chinese admiral allegedly recently issued an extraordinary warning to the U.S. about attacking Iran:

On Dec. 4, according to a report in Press TV, a news network owned by the Iranian government, Chinese rear admiral and prominent military commentator Zhang Zhaozhong said, “China will not hesitate to protect Iran even with a third world war.”
It is not clear when the statement was made or in what context. Once reported, the statement went viral in China and elsewhere.

Whether this remark was accurately translated or not, the point is clear: an attack on Iran could easily spark a broader war.

Reports of a Russian Ministry of Defense bulletin underscored the point:

A grim Ministry of Defense bulletin issued to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev today states that President Hu has “agreed in principal” that the only way to stop the West’s aggression led by the United States is through “direct and immediate military action” and that the Chinese leader has ordered his Naval Forces to “prepare for warfare.” [EU Times 12/7/11.]

American pressure appears to be generating broad global movement toward anti-American cooperation. Empires provoke the rise of opposing coalitions.

Provoking a Pakistani-Iranian Alliance

For those who need more nightmares to keep them awake at night, consider:
The U.S. is rapidly alienating nuclear Muslim Pakistan; Israel is threatening to attack non-nuclear Iran. Are Washington decision-makers thinking about the long-term implications of their extremist tactics toward these two large Muslim neighbors?
It should be obvious to all decision-makers that simultaneously alienating and threatening (not to mention actually attacking) Pakistan and Iran without offering either a remotely acceptable alternative constitutes a potent brew. Iran alone poses only a small challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system, but Iran and Pakistan together are already too big to isolate. Backed by Russia and China, Pakistan and Iran could transform the global strategic situation…and it is Washington that is provoking this transformation.
It is true that lots of evidence points the other way. Much of Pakistani society has traditionally had  pro-Western sympathies. Pakistan is also a Saudi ally, and Riyadh would presumably be greatly irritated by Pakistani nuclear aid to Iran, and yet, it seems to have put up quite nicely with the alleged previous Pakistani nuclear aid to Iran, an old story recently back in the news. Would a quid pro quo to Riyadh suffice to persuade them to look the other way? It is also true that Sunni Pakistan and Shii Iran face religious obstacles to smooth relations. Finally, political and economic dissatisfaction on the part of the Baluchi minority on both sides of the Pakistani-Iranian border provoke bilateral tensions.
Reasons to Cooperate:
Nevertheless, the two countries have plenty of reasons to cooperate:
  • Hostility along their common border raises the probability of instability among local minorities, the importance of which will only rise when the planned gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistani Baluchistan opens so Baluchi unrest is not just a problem but a reason for cooperation;
  • Both would like to see U.S. influence in Afghanistan decline;
  • Pakistan needs Iranian hydrocarbons and Iran needs trade partners;

  • Pakistan and Iran have a common interest in evading Western sanctions on Iranian oil exports, with a Pakistani refinery recently having closed as a result of the sanctions;
  • Even religion is a two-sided coin, for Shia and Sunnis are both Muslim and the greater the degree of perceived threat from the West, the greater the tendency of each to perceive common interests as Muslims.
Under Attack
But perhaps the most compelling reason for Pakistan and Iran to cooperate is that they both may feel that they are under U.S. attack. The argument that Iran is already under attack by Israel and perhaps the U.S. has been made repeatedly [e.g., LATimes 12/4/11]. Whether the U.S. is leading any such attack or not and whether or not it is even aware of such an attack, Iran must surely hold it to blame given the blind support by certain U.S. politicians and talking heads, some of whom hold Israeli passports, for right-wing Israeli militant goals. As for Pakistan, there is no argument about whether or not the U.S. is attacking, but only about whether or not U.S. attacks have been secretly permitted by the Pakistani regime. Whether or not that is the case, many Pakistanis surely resent the resultant carnage (over 2,000 killed by U.S. drone attacks since 2004 in Pakistan according to one calculation). 
These events are likely to have three results:
  1. To enhance the power of the defiant Iranian ruling elite and the influence within it of extremists (i.e., those willing to match the extreme measures being used against them);
  2. To undermine the power of the current Pakistani regime and empower anti-American factions;
  3. To push Iran and Pakistan closer together out of perceived necessity.
Pakistan As Irans Model
Each country has a military with enormous political power. Pakistans ability to defy the world and acquire nuclear arms without being punished (indeed, with the result that it was rewarded) may well be making it the model for Irans increasingly influential military politicians. AEIs Ali Alfoneh has made this argument, which should be considered on its merits independent of the less carefully argued conclusions of Alfonehs piece. The logical conclusion of the argument that Irans military is following the Pakistani model is that Irans military believes that only nuclear arms can give Iran both the national security and international standing that any major nation would aspire to have.
Pakistan As the Second Iran
Simon Tisdall has warned in the Sidney Morning Herald that submissive Pakistan could be transformed into a second independent-minded Iran:
The belief that impoverished, divided Pakistan has no alternative but to slavishly obey could turn out to be one of the seminal strategic miscalculations of the 21st century. Alternative alliances with China or Russia aside, Muslim Pakistan, if bullied and scorned enough, could yet morph through external trauma and internal collapse into quite a different animal. The future paradigm is not another well-trained Indonesia or Malaysia. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The implications of Tisdalls warning, which he does not explain, are serious. A Pakistani transformation into a new global political system challenger in cooperation with its neighbor Iran and under the protection of both China and Russia would give rise to a vastly larger challenge to American superpower aspirations and Israeli security concerns. Pakistan is thought to have as many nuclear bombs as Israel, not to mention being much more difficult for Israel to attack. Many may view the Islamic Republic as sui generis; alliance with Pakistan would transform not just its strategic situation but also its call for restructuring of the global political system into something that could not easily be dismissed.
The challenge of a coordinated Iranian-Pakistani campaign against American direction of the global political system would go far beyond the mere logistics of Israeli efforts to maintain regional military dominance. First, it would make clear to all but the most provincial Americans that Iran is not isolated. Second, it would unite Shia and Sunni. Third, by virtue of Russian and Chinese support, it would transcend religion, making Iran and Pakistan global champions of an anti-superpower alliance that would find sympathetic observers in every corner of the globe. Fourth, that global role would fit smoothly into the Moscow and Beijing playbooks, encouraging them to adopt a tougher line toward the U.S., which would in turn encourage Iran and Pakistan. In the current context of a U.S. already appearing steadily less in tune with the world, less able to exert its influence without the resort to violence, and less able to profit from the use of that violence in a world desperate for more fundamental and judicious problem-resolution strategies, flipping Pakistan into an Iranian ally and system-challenger, with both under the formal protection of Russia and China could transform the global political system into a nightmare for American decision-makers.
Common International Situation
As Pakistani-U.S. relations deteriorate, the international situation facing Iran and Pakistan is starting to look increasingly similar. Russia and China are cooperating to build an economic and security bloc capable of resisting U.S. influence and are each major trade partners with Iran, while China has long supported Pakistan. That background makes all the more significant the November news that both Pakistan and Iran are moving toward full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). One of Pakistans goals in joining is to gain support for its plan to import Iranian gas. Pakistans drift away from the West toward now cooperative Russia and China thus has both strategic and economic rationales.
The Evidence So Far
While much of the above is a warning about the future, the situation on the ground has already evolved significantly to U.S. disadvantage:
Iran and Pakistan are allegedly supporting the Taliban;
Iran and Pakistan have just agreed to fight the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan;
Pakistan has sought help from Iran in improving its medical infrastructure in remote areas;
The two sides have recently agreed to reform regulations and establish a joint investment bank to enhance bilateral trade;
Pakistan has allegedly just rejected U.S. pressure to give up its plans to import Iranian gas.
Washingtons Choice
The future course of Iranian-Pakistani ties remains very much up in the air. No fatal tipping point is yet clearly visible. Nevertheless, subordinate dynamics are gaining strength while dominant dynamics are weakening. The rate at which those changes are occurring is neither obvious, constant, nor linear. An exponential rise in, say, Pakistani popular anger, Pakistani military humiliation, or Iranian risk perception could rapidly take initiative out of American hands. The lack of U.S. sympathy for the plight of the Pakistani people and steadfast refusal of Washington to countenance a strategic compromise with Iran that would offer it the option of an independent foreign policy combined with respectful treatment by the West should be seen in Washington strategic thinking circles as ominous signs.
Washington has at least two addictions that undermine American interests:
  • The addiction to force as the answer to global Muslim political grievances;
  • The inability to discern the fundamental distinctions between U.S. national security and the factional goals of the extreme right wing in Israel represented by Netanyahu, Lieberman, and AIPAC.
Until Washington recognizes these weaknesses in its strategic calculus, the prognosis for American influence in Central Asia will get steadily bleaker.

As for Pakistani-Iranian relations, the mid-term bilateral trend is toward closer cooperation, while the mid-term global trend is toward leaning to the Soviet-Chinese side. The momentum of the double shift, with bilateral and global trends forming a positive feedback cycle, is intensifying in response to U.S. intransigence to the point that a fundamental rethinking of its strategic calculus toward Central Asia by Washington will probably be required to prevent the transformation of Pakistan into a significant ally of Iran over the next few years.

Washington Is Empowering Iran

Washington pundits may not understand Iran, but they are right about one issue: Tehran does pose a real challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system. Unfortunately for the U.S., Washington does not understand the nature of the challenge, and its response is just empowering Tehran. (Clues: it’s not about nuclear arms or religion.)

Washington tough guys stand facing Iran with that “deer in the headlights” look. Terrified of losing World War II all over again, they frankly have no clue about what Tehran is up to. The analogy to WWII is critical: pity any state stupid enough to launch a blitzkrieg against the U.S. They would be wiped out. The U.S. today can fight and win a WWII-style war against any conceivable enemy without even getting a Congressional appropriation.

But the idea of Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler is just a Netanyahu sound bite, slyly selected because he knows Americans well enough to realize that Americans are still, after all these years, obsessed with Hitler and utterly confused about the world that actually exists today, almost a century later. Raving about blitzkriegs may be a brilliant strategy for conning Congress, but it has nothing to do with Iran’s challenge, which is far more sophisticated, subtle, and enduring.  More seriously, Iran’s challenge will be played out on a battlefield most Washington cold warriors (or “empire-builders,” if you prefer a more current epithet) hardly know exists, where victory will require the careful and sustained use of “weapons” the tough guys either ignore or sneer at. Their ignorance is America’s peril.

In a revealing critique of U.S. misunderstanding of Iran, The Race for Iran website quoted School of Oriental and African Studies academic Arshin Adib-Moghaddam as follows:

there is no over-dependency on the west that would yield a legitimacy crisis (as in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali’s Tunisia and under the shah) and there is no subservience to Israeli demands. The Iranian government’s strident emphasis on “national independence” continues to garner support within Iranian society. [Arshin Adib-Moghaddam in The Guardian 11/22/11 as quoted in Flynt and Hillary Leverett’s The Race for Iran 11/28/11.]

While Adib-Moghaddam’s point concerned the value of independence for Iranian stability, Iran’s avoidance of “over-dependence” on the West also goes to the heart of Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system. Washington, provoked endlessly by Netanyahu and his crowd, sees the Iranian challenge as a military threat to be smashed down. Washington is correct that Iran poses a threat, but it is not military: it is ideological.

Were the Iranian ideological challenge along the lines of a “Shi’i crescent,” one might be somewhat concerned or just laugh. But to the degree that the Iranian ideological challenge amounts to an invitation to every other country on earth to stand up for national independence from U.S.-centric globalization, the Iranian challenge is important because of its internal logic (why should other countries accept discriminatory rules thought up in Washington?), its attractiveness to…every other country, and the increasing ability of other countries to take assert their desire for independence.

Washington’s demands for obedience fall flat in a post-Cold War world where no traditional enemy exists, where threats require reasoning together rather than the use of force, and where Washington’s uncooperative attitude (undercutting efforts to protect the environment, punishing countries for wanting freedom to find their own paths, touting democracy when convenient) frequently makes it the obstacle to problem resolution rather than the leader. Iran, meanwhile, wins simply by pointing out the obvious: the U.S.-centric world is really not being managed very well. Washington unfortunately does not have the diplomatic skill to put Tehran to the test by calling its bluff and demanding that it offer constructive solutions. The more Washington discriminates against Tehran while pushing around those countries that do offer constructive solutions to problems Washington cannot solve, the better Tehran looks. The rest of the world is not faced with choosing between the U.S. and Iran but between unnecessary subservience to a U.S. leader that is faltering and the idea of independence.

Washington’s treatment of this challenge as a threat rather than an opportunity to reform its outdated “Cold-War superpower” behavior is what makes Iran a significant player. Washington is only undermining U.S. national security by allowing Tehran to portray it as the global opponent of national aspirations for what might be called “state democracy.” It is ironic and self-defeating for Washington to pose as the champion of democracy for individuals while acting as the self-imposed leader–by force as needed–of an increasingly centralized global political order based on rules written not by democratic consensus but in Washington: Washington touts democracy for individuals but harshly punishes states that aspire to inter-state equality. The blatant discrimination of Washington’s nuclear rules for Israel and Tehran or its denial of democratic rights for Palestinians only play into Tehran’s hands. The more rigid Washington’s self-centered behavior, the more Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and everyone else will start thinking that system challenger Iran has a point.