Circumstances Cause Behavior

To figure out what makes a foreign regime tick, take a look at the circumstances in which it exists.

Imagine a fat and happy fundamentalist religious plutocracy, i.e., a regime divided between rich guys and religious extremists dreaming about the 8th century, sitting next to an ostracized and angry regime with its own (different) fundamentalist faction allied with a military that sees itself quite correctly as on the rise, intensely resentful about the discrimination it faces from the world’s powers. Now imagine that the fat and happy plutocracy can see that it is losing its grip, perched precariously at the top of a restive population in an unstable region, fighting a Talleyrand rear-guard campaign against the course of history. Further imagine that the angry emerging power has just won two wars in a row – the first through eight years of bloody trench warfare and the second simply by sitting back and letting its main enemy do the fighting on its behalf!
What kind of behavior might one expect from the two sides? First, the plutocrats will warn endlessly about the “threat” posed by the emerging power, so their words should be taken with a large grain of salt. Second, the plutocrats will become increasingly erratic in their desperation to build a political dike against the flow of history, so they will make increasingly dangerous allies. Third, the marginalized militants will be troublemakers to the degree that they continue to suffer from discrimination, because they have no choice (except return to subservience), because they have been getting away with it, and because when you are the only neighbor not invited to the party you naturally resent the noise.
So arguments about who is a “good guy” and who is a “bad guy” miss the point entirely. The behavior of the two sides is entirely predictable on the basis of their respective situations. If you want them to change their behavior, you need only alter their circumstances. Telling a marginalized troublemaker that he will be punished until he proves he will play by the very rules that are being used to punish him is not a logical approach to making him a model citizen.

Pakistan to Support Iran if Israel Attacks

Islamabad has sent Washington a crystal clear warning that continuing to move in lockstep with Likudniks toward war on Iran could lead to an Iranian-Pakistan defensive alliance.

Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Britain Wajid Shamsul Hasan gave an interview to The Sun, a British newspaper, on 2/7/12 in which he both announced that Pakistan would support Iran if it were attacked by the West and warned against continuing Western drone attacks on Pakistan. Ignore this implicit linkage at your peril.
A Pakistani-Iranian military alliance against U.S. influence in Central Asia would constitute a major strategic defeat for the American Superpower, consolidating a geographic continuous region of 250 million people with nuclear arms, perceived common grievances against the U.S., and compatible economic interests (Pakistan needs Iranian gas). Both Iraq and Afghanistan would most likely “lean to the Pakistani-Iranian side,” resulting in a population equal to that of the U.S. In the aftermath of an attack on Iran, an angry Turkey might not be far behind, and the impact on Pakistan’s Saudi ally would be hard to predict. Intentionally provoking such a scenario would, for U.S. decision-makers, rival the late Roman Empire’s decision to attempt the conquest of Germany. This defeat would be far more serious than the collapsed occupation of Iraq, the rise of Hezbollah to power in Lebanon, the alienation of Egypt, and the looming defeat in Afghanistan combined. Beijing and Moscow would have trouble hiding their derisive laughter. Now this possibility is no longer just the vision of Pakistani academics; now it is official: Islamabad has warned us. And Washington is risking this huge strategic defeat to mollify an extremist faction in Israel that cannot  obtain the support or even the public silence of its own national security officials.

High Commissioner Hasan warned that “patience is definitely reaching exhaustion levels,” called drone attacks “war crimes,” and noted that Pakistan has the ability to “take punitive actions” to stop the drone attacks, which Pakistan estimates has killed over 500 civilians, including 60 children.
The Commissioner also warned that:

Pakistan would be left with no option but to support Iran if Israel attacks it. We would not like Israel to attack any country, irrespective of whether it’s Iran or any nuclear country. We wouldn’t like to be seen as part of Israel‘s campaign against any country. If Israel attacks Iran, it will have an impact on Pakistan as well. We will have to safeguard our own interests. We also have a Shia population in Pakistan who will not take it lying down.

Given the extreme vulnerability of Pakistan to U.S. pressure, Washington should take the blunt warning of a Pakistani shift from an alliance with the U.S. to Pakistani support for Iran if attacked by Israel or the U.S. very seriously.
More to the point even than the individual points made by the Pakistani envoy to Great Britain were the combination of these points in a single interview because they show how Pakistan sees itself in the same light as Iran: under Western attack. For a Pakistani official to make such a connection officially in English to a Western media outlet puts Washington clearly on notice that if Washington is “in lockstep,” to use Obama’s astoundingly irresponsible and unpatriotic word for the degree to which he intends to kowtow, with the Israeli war party, then the price will be to put nuclear Pakistan on the side of Iran. The more hostile Washington’s attitude toward either Iran or Pakistan, the more likely will be a defensive Iranian-Pakistani alliance. Now the real threat to U.S. national security being posed by Washington’s blind coddling of the Israeli war party begins to show itself.

The Day After an Attack on Iran: An Oil Disaster Scenario

If the U.S. attacks Iran, it won’t just be about Iran anymore. Here is just one very possible scenario for ‘the day after.’ Has Washington thought this through?

I have argued frequently that attacking Iran is a bad deal for U.S. national security, being advocated by U.S. politicians who either are not thinking very deeply or who are working in support of certain obvious foreign factions. But saying that a war on Iran is dangerous does not suffice to make the national security case, and that case in fact is impossible to make conclusively. The argument, from a purely strategic perspective (e.g., ignoring morality, international law), rests on an evaluation of possible unforeseen outcomes. Just for one deadly serious “for instance,” consider the following:

  • Step 1. Make the following logical assumption: a U.S. or Israeli (there is no longer any perceived distinction between the two in the Muslim world) attack on Iran will anger Muslims worldwide and all politically active Muslim groups will feel pressure to act accordingly. Therefore, anti-U.S. Muslim steps will be taken independently throughout the world.
  • Step 2. Iranians will quite likely unite to defend their country. Subtract one critical source of oil.
  • Step 3. Iraqis will sympathize. Consider the possibility of Iraqi oil disruptions. 
  • Step 4. Venezuela will sympathize. Consider the possibility of Venezuelan oil disruptions.
  • Step 5. Sure, Steps 3 and 4 may well last only a short time, but here’s a longer-term disruption: Nigeria is in the midst of an anti-government radical Muslim revolt already. Consider the possibility of that revolt gaining massive public support overnight, to the point of ending Nigerian oil exports.

Note that these individual potential oil disruptions are not independent: all instantly become much more likely the instant the U.S. commits open aggression against Iran. At this moment, the U.S.-Iranian dispute may be about Iran, but what Washington politicians do not seem to understand is that the instant the attack occurs, a U.S.-Iran problem will be transformed into a U.S.-global Islam problem, with all the little individual issues becoming entangled, generating a reinforcing feedback loop of anti-American activity.

Differentiating Friends From Foes

Determining who wins and who loses may be more a matter of how a policy is implemented than what the policy is or, certainly, who is advocating that policy. The international contest over Palestine is a case in point, made only more complicated by the context of Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-centric global political order. The failure of policymakers to understand these subtleties costs much wasted blood and treasure.

In Foreign Policy Winners and Losers, I described a simple way to evaluate any specific foreign policy action by discriminating between who wins and who loses as a result of that action. In moral terms, the best policy is one in which we all win; the worst in which just one state (or, worse, one group or individual) wins. This would seem to be a straightforward way to clarify the highly distorted and confused debate that currently undermines national security by virtually precluding the development of a consistent and beneficial foreign policy. It would seem to facilitate distinguishing, for example, between policies that help the elite rather than the society and would seem to expose such fallacies as claiming violence by a friend is OK while violence by an enemy is bad.

But all is of course not so simple. Here’s a challenge for this method that cuts to the core of contemporary foreign policy debate:

How are we to rank on the Continuum of International Behavior the behavior of a system challenger?

Tehran presents itself today as the champion challenger to the U.S.-centric global political system, and Washington seems to concur. The degree to which either side may be pretending is hard to determine, since Washington refuses to offer Tehran the option of being accepted as an equal and respected but independent player, while Tehran’s “challenge” is so encompassed in rhetorical smoke that it can be difficult to discern much policy fire. Does Tehran want nuclear arms or does it just want the U.S. to offer it a respectful hearing and a guarantee of security and, of course, recognition that it has the same  right to nuclear arms that is exercised by Israel? Does Washington provoke Iran out of incompetence, slavish obedience to the Israeli right, or because Washington sees the uses of having an enemy and just can’t find a more imposing one, at the moment, than the military and ideological midget Iran?

Whatever the degree of sincerity on either side, both feed the image of Iran as the giant-killer, regardless of how unrealistic that image may be. Beyond that, however, disagreement is rife: whatever one side terms “required,” the other terms “unacceptable.” The endless talking of each side past the other merely serves to raise tensions and blind both observers and participants. If the policies of each side could be evaluated fairly, a needless war even more mutually disastrous than that imposed on Iraq by the U.S. might be avoided. The Continuum of International Behavior would seem to constitute a reasonable candidate tool for this purpose, except that evaluating winners and losers resulting from a policy with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the international political system is a bit harder than with a typical policy aiming at some narrow, short-term goal.

So, limiting the discussion for the moment to Iran’s policies, two problems immediately present themselves:

  1. Determining winners and losers of the specific policy;
  2. Deciding whether or not the real goal of the policy is to further Iran’s presumed goal of founding a new global political order.

Consider Tehran’s campaign in support of justice for Palestine. If Iran achieved its stated goal of justice for Palestinians, regional anti-Israeli sentiment would decline, benefiting Israeli society, but the decline in tension would cause the Israeli right to lose votes and perhaps result in a fundamental shift back toward a polity ruled by those favoring democracy, a good-neighbor policy, racial and religious equality. The losers would be the ruling rightwingers and in particular Jewish fundamentalists and Israeli expansionists. Israelis favoring democracy would win; those favoring a garrison state would lose.

And what about Iran? If Tehran received the credit for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Tehran would surely gain regional status, so over the short term, Tehran would win and more specifically Ahmadinejad would win. But if a U.S., European, or Turkish-led movement (much less concessions voluntarily offered by Israel itself) were credited with providing justice to Palestinians, Iran not gain, while those credited with bringing justice would. Moreover, as regional tensions declined, Tehran would lose its bully pulpit, and Iran’s influence in the Levant would decline. For Iranian society, as opposed to the current Tehran regime, the issue is different; resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a way that minimized Iranian influence and activity in the Levant would go far toward ending the U.S./Israeli security threat to Iran.

In sum, the current Tehran regime benefits from espousing Palestinian independence but would be a big loser if Palestinians actually gained independence, as long as Iran did not receive the credit in regional eyes. Rather than opposing everything Tehran wants, Washington would serve its interests better by judging issues on their merits and supporting issues of common interest to all in the hopes of getting some of the credit.

At least two lessons follow. First, crudely, it is not about who advocates a policy but who gets credit for implementing it. Opposing a good policy because your antagonist thought of it first only ends up making you look churlish and giving your opponent a free ride.

Second, our allies are no more unitary actors than our enemies. Even in Washington, most policy-makers seem now to understand that enemy states may be ruling populations of perfectly normal and harmless people with whom the U.S. could potentially cooperate, but these same policy-makers remain almost totally incapable of seeing that the same principle applies to allies. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as having racist or fascist tendencies does not automatically become America’s friend just by winning office. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as pursuing expansionist policies that endanger Israeli national security will also endanger U.S. national security. Such Israeli politicians will be winners with policies that leave the U.S. the loser. Just as everyone in an adversarial state is not an enemy, everyone in an allied state is not a friend.

All the involved societies benefit from providing justice to Palestinians: a cancer infecting every society is removed. In each involved country special interests exploiting the tensions flowing from the dispute will be the losers if Palestinian justice is achieved. But it is not that simple. This discussion began with the premise that Tehran wants to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political order. Without judging who might be the winners and losers, if Washington wants to avoid that outcome, it should seek lower tensions in the Levant by addressing Palestinian concerns. Rather than allowing Tehran to parade as the champion of Arab justice, Washington should lead the way, leave Tehran to choose whether to follow or not, and gain the credit for accomplishing something in the interest of all who desire a secure and cooperative international environment. Achieving justice for Palestinians per se does not tell you who the winners and losers are; the determination of who wins and who loses depends on how justice for Palestinians is achieved.

Building a Mideast Strategic Triangle

Erdogan’s hopes for a new Mideast have been given a boost by…Israel! But as the dispute deepens, its long-term impact becomes more difficult to calculate.
Insisting on its right to murder opponents in international waters, Israel dismissed Turkish demands for a clear apology. What did Israel care? It was supreme in the region. Then, the Arab spring cracked the foundation of Israels strategic plans. Ignoring the shift, Israel killed several Egyptian policemen. What was Israel thinking that they were just Lebanese? So now Israel finds itself having wrecked ties to Turkey precisely at the moment it has infuriated Egyptians, nicely setting the stage for the Turkish-Egyptian summit, where Erdogan wants to discuss a possible Turkish-Egyptian alliance that could reshape the Mideast.
Cairo surely wants to avoid angering Washington, its U.S. military aid being treasured far more than justice for eight dead Turks. But the protesters are in the streets tearing down the wall Israel put around its Cairo embassy, not attacking the military rulers of Egypt, and the rulers of Egypt would just as surely like to keep it that way. Israel has made Erdogans task much easier than it might have been.
And Israels response? Just to ensure that Erdogan does not lose momentum in his campaign to unite his country behind him, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman is planning a revenge campaign of supporting anti-Turkish terrorism! Responding to diplomatic moves by launching a terrorist campaign may be a bit much even for Netanyahu, but Liebermans brilliant reposte is now openly known so the point made by Israels piracy against the Mavi Marmara has been underlined: cross Israel and you will be attacked.
While Israels tactics may at first glance appear curious, they do have at least one logical explanation: provoking international tensions can be relied upon, as always, to freak out Israelis and win votes for the extremist ruling clique, not to mention even more military aid from the obedient U.S. Congress. The hidden agendas, both at the party and individual levels, contributing to the rising state-to-state tensions will make controlling Egyptian-Israeli-Turkish relations increasingly difficult.

Wouldnt it be interesting to be a fly on the wall when Erdogan sits down with the Egyptian generals!

How a Superpower Earns Respect

Once again Israeli rightwingers manipulated Washington into doing something that harms U.S. national security. Eventually, this bill will come due.
How does a superpower earn friends and influence people? Its just like at home Mom and Dad really do not get much respect or love from the kids by owning the biggest house. They get it by earning it, through the little things, like attention and consideration and fairness. (If this sounds like preaching, all you dear readers on Main Street, well, it is, but dont be offended: Im not talking to you; Im talking to Washington, where the above homilies are unappreciated.)
Washington earned little respect with its fearsome display of arms over the last decade. It did get a little bit of momentary, grudging obedience, but mostly from folks who really did not wish to pick a fight in the first place, and even that is all short-term. We do not yet have any idea how many people around the world are just waiting to pay the U.S. back for its string of recent invasions and occupations and embargoes. When we find out, everyone in Washington will be astonished, outraged, and innocent.

Respect is something altogether different: harder to earn than obedience but much more lasting because it generates voluntary cooperation and, more, persuades people to think of one as a model to be followed.

Alright! Enough with the endless carping! Complaining is easy, so for superpower leaders who want to earn the worlds respect, who want to be a model the world will willingly follow (if you were good parents, youd know), it is all about the little things.
On August 27, a little thing was reported: Washington threatened to cut Palestinian aid if the Palestinians asked the U.N. for statehood. Note that Washington did not threaten to cut aid to the colonized, abused, and ethnically cleansed Palestinians for terrorism or fighting for national liberation or joining the Communist Bloc, or supporting al Quaida. No, the sole global superpower is threatening economic coercion of Palestinians, whose right to a homeland has been ignored by the world for 60 years, for adhering to international standards and going to the U.N. for help to resolve a conflict that the impoverished and semi-starved population of the Israeli colony cannot possibly obtain on their own (in the face of relentless U.S. hostility). The superpower is punishing a population that has been isolated and prevented from participating in the closest institution we have to world government for wanting to talk.
The lessons here are pretty clear (though perhaps not on the banks of the Potomac):
  • Do not follow international law;
  • Do not demand the right to talk;
  • Do not assume that the democratic process is a public right (it is, rather, by invitation only).
In short, if Palestinians want to be treated with respect, they are going to have to behave disrespectfully. They are going to have to throw stones.
Now, where do you think this leaves all the rest of the worlds one billion Muslims (not to mention, say, one billion Chinese)? Do they respect the U.S. more today as a result of this lesson in democracy?


Situations Where the Superpower Could Use a Little Respect for Democracy

Nigeria – rising Muslim terrorist campaign 

if you thought Iraq was bad, imagine the U.S. intervening in Nigeria – on the equator, oil exporter, 155,000,000 people with a median age of 19; 389 ethnic groups; twice the size of Iraq

Syria’s ‘Mideast Transformation Scenario’

Could the international community act with vision and pull off a Mideast Transformation Scenario that would end the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute, redirect Iran toward economic cooperation, and redirect Israel away from expansion and militarism?
With Syria convulsed, Iran is off-balance, watching its only state ally (Iraq, still occupied, is not quite a state and is in any case not quite an Iranian ally, either) destroy itself. For an Israel led by sincere peacemakers rather than Greater Israel expansionists, the Syrian implosion would constitute a rare opportunity to cut a legitimate deal with the Palestinians while Iranian influence is minimized. A Palestinian-Israeli settlement would pull the Levantine rug out from under Tehran, removing its free lunch in the struggle for regional influence. Note that the term settlement means just that: not a Palestinian Bantustan but a united, defensible, independent state with a sufficiently inclusive political system to tempt Hamas to work within the system. Israel would have no more right to attack this state than China has to attack the U.S.
Future Scenarios For Syria
  1. The Turkish Tolerance & Greater Israel Scenarios in Can Erdogan Save Syria?
  2. The Spanish Civil War Scenario in  How Dangerous Is Syria?
If Tel Aviv had such far-sightedness, it could perhaps pull off a coup that would leave Israel in better shape both locally and vis-à-vis Iran. Iran would find itself without talking points on the Arab street, and a careful calculus of its national interest would be likely to rate economic development relatively higher on the scale of national goals than fomenting anti-Israeli sentiment. That would in turn constitute an Iran that Washington, as reality punctures hubris, might well be able to live with.
The Mideast Transformation Scenario
Imagine a scenario in which regional actors work for stability. First, Tel Aviv accepts the principle of return to the 1967 borders, opening the door to serious Israeli-Palestinian talks. Given Israeli acceptance of the principles that Israeli and Palestinians each deserve states, that Israel should return to 1967 borders, that Palestinians have a theoretical right to return to their homeland in return for Palestinian acceptance of Israels right to exist, then talks can begin on borders and compensation for Palestinians agreed not to return or for Israelis being allowed to remain in the West Bank. Then, Turkish forces establish a potent humanitarian presence inside the Syrian border, providing not just food and local protection but sufficient weapons to enable dissidents to resist regime brutality but holds back on offensive military action (Libya-light) and keeps the door open to talks with all players. As in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, everyone recalculates their self-interest, and some regime supporters join the dissidents. Iran tries to figure out how to resist Turkeys initiative, but Iran has good relations with Turkey, while Turkey has power on the ground Iran probably has no hopes of matching, and the Levant is in any case looking less and less attractive for national liberation movements since Palestine is suddenly moving toward liberation even without Iranian participation. As Tehran ponders its limited options, a neutral Syrian regime offers Turkish-style friendship to everyone. Israel congratulates the new regime, returns the Golan, and decides that a neutral but independent Syria is a big step forward. Meanwhile, seeing itself with reduced access to military support even as it is consolidating control of the Beirut regime, Hezbollah suddenly receives an Israeli offer of a return of the Sheeba Farms. Resistance is simultaneously more costly, less attractive, and rather an irritant to its new domestic strategy. One more Iranian corridor to the Levant bites the dust. Now comes the time for Washingtons move, touting a new regional nuclear security regime based on the principle of nuclear transparency for all and supporting Iranian economic integration with the region and beyond. Iran simultaneous sees its traditional anti-American and anti-Israeli stance as more difficult, less justifiable, and rather an irritant to its new international economic and security options. Tehran might well see the attractiveness of restructuring its foreign policy to replace risky nuclear braggadocio and leadership of the anti-Israeli front with the two secure pillars of building a political alliance with Shii Iraq and building a hydrocarbon alliance with moderate Muslim Turkey.
Probably no one would consider this scenario likely, but the best way to ensure it will never happen is to fail to imagine it. Anyone can point out endless potential obstacles to the moderate, good-neighbor outcome of the Mideast Transformation Scenario. Al Quaida would do its best to upset the apple cart, Alawite-Sunni discord could provoke sectarian warfare reminiscent of post-invasion Iraq, the IRGC might well go off the reservation and try to provoke a collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks to shore up its domestic political influence, and a real threat of Israeli terrorism from radical settlers unwilling to return West Bank land stolen from Palestians would exist. Nevertheless, an Israeli decision to negotiate sincerely with Palestine, a rapid Turkish initiative vis-à-vis Syria, and the willingness of Washington to offer Iran a good deal might just transform the Mideast and turn Israel back into a society that shares American values.

Subsequent Events –

June 22 – Syrian troops mass on border with Turkey
After provoking a refugee flow into Turkey and evidently doing nothing to make amends to its erstwhile ally, Syria has now thrown sand in Erdogan’s eye by threatening refugees, provoking more, and implicitly warning Turkey that Syria is ready to fight a war. Since Syria was Turkey’s main practical example of its new moderate foreign policy, that policy now seems to be in tatters. Ankara will not be pleased.

Posing Existential Threats

The evidence only weakly supports the contention that Iran has aggressive intent, while strongly supporting the contention that Iran wants to be, and be treated as, a regional power. Posing an existential threat to Iran could make it learn some very unfortunate and unnecesary lessons about the type of foreign policy behavior that will pay off.
In certain circles, it has become fashionable to toss around the accusation that an adversary is posing an existential threat. Primitive, distant, non-nuclear Iran is treated by some American politicians as though it poses an existential threat to the U.S., and Israels official policy under Netanyahu, who may (perhaps like Ahmadinejad) believe that sounding like a lunatic is the most risk-averse approach possible, seems to be that Iran is an existential threat to it. Protestations that Iran has done nothing to suggest that it would sacrifice itself to thermonuclear obliteration by an Israel that appears all too eager to oblige in order to drop one primitive nuke (whenever it may figure out how to make one, if it is even trying) are pushed aside as though they were details too trivial to deserve serious consideration.
Ironically, these circles who like so much the word existential never stop to ask about the existential threat that Israel poses to Iran. With the weapons, the means of delivery, the superpower protection, the loudly proclaimed political will, and the historical record of aggression [against Egypt (Suez), Lebanon (1982-2001, 2006), Iraq (Osirak), and Syria], Israel poses a threat to Iran sufficiently serious so that it must be considered a key factor influencing Iranian foreign policy calculus and behavior.
Whatever the true motivations of Irans various leaders may have been, Iranian behavior (provision of low power military arms, financial aid, and apparent terrorist attacks on Israeli targets supplemented by endless free rhetoric) certainly suggests hostility but hardly supports the hypothesis that Iran is preparing to attack Israel. Quite the contrary. Irans minor (in a strategic sense) irritation of Israel combined with trumpeting of its hostility alerts (in fact, grossly over-sensitizes) Israel without posing any serious strategic threat. By alerting Israel and giving Israel a huge free card to play in Congress, it facilitates the rapid growth in the military power of the Israeli garrison state. Iran is responsible for enormously increasing the Israeli military dominance over the Mideast and Israels huge military superiority over Iran. This is the game of someone with a very different goal.
What goal might require loud-mouthed hostility not backed up by any serious strategic preparations for war? The answer is obvious. Iran surely dislikes Israels regional shadow and even more surely dislikes its own marginalization. Under the Shah, Iran heedlessly pursued an arms build-up that had no obvious military purpose whatsoever but had a very clear political purpose: to make Iran a regional power. Erected on a socio-political house of cards, the Shahs high-tech toys availed him nothing when everyone decided they had had enough of his dictatorship.
Under Khomenei, Iran launched a campaign to lead the worlds Shia that sputtered and died like a match in a downpour except in Lebanon, where Israels 1982 invasion provoked a nationalist liberation movement that gave Iran an opening to gain influence. Irans attention was soon fixated on Saddam Hussein, whose existential threat provoked a decade-long Iranian effort to survive and then to punish Saddam (no doubt with dreams of reviving its failed Shia crusade). As with the Shah, Khomeneis goal, except when pushed into an existential corner, was to make Iran a regional power.
Today, Irans noisy interference in the affairs of the whole Mideast region combined with the absence of most of the serious military development moves (the main exception being its offensive missile program) is strong corroborative evidence that once more, Irans goal is to transform itself into a regional power. It calmly cooperated with the U.S. to get rid of its Taliban enemy after 9/11. It calmly stood aside and watched the U.S. invade Iraq to get rid of its Iraqi enemy in 2003. It let its Hezbollah ally do all the fighting to stop the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, fighting Hezbollah did with relatively low-power Iranian weapons, vastly inferior to the arms provided to Israel by the U.S.
Nothing Iran has been doing disproves the hypothesis that Iran harbors aggressive intent. It would be hard to identify any country that does things that disprove aggressive intent. Countries normally strengthen themselves. But countries that do not harbor aggressive intent normally do not go out of their way to make themselves look aggressive.
Touting the ability to refine uranium to medical grade constitutes enough bragging to scare Israelis into highly threatening action without actually doing much of military significance. It does have other purposes, however. First, it helps the Iranian regime look good domestically. Second, it gives the impression that Iran is an up-and-coming country that needs to be taken seriously.
In this context, Irans policy toward the Levant looks all too familiar: lots of smoke but just enough fire to be minimally persuasive without costing too much. Israels addiction to beating up Lebanon combined with its utter refusal to negotiate a reasonable, balanced accommodation with Palestinians has awarded Iran a free pass to the Mediterranean, and that free pass is essential if Iran is to be taken seriously as a Mideast power.
Maybe Iran has a hundred-year plan to conquer the Mideast, but by the sharp test of Occams Razor, a much simpler and more persuasive explanation is that Iran wants to stride the regional stage. Iran can do this by playing the neighborhood bad boy, and today it is being taught the very clear lesson that this is its only way forward. However, Iran could also be encouraged to join the crowd by being accepted and offered inducements for playing nice. This, of course, is Ankaras strategy, and the very attractive prize Ankara is offering is Iranian access to the European hydrocarbon market. The route Iran ends up taking will have significant impact on the goals that Iran ultimately strives to reach.

Further Considerations

How many Iranian policies?
Does Tehran (i.e., the regime) have a consensus main foreign policy goal? To what degree to Khamenei, the IRGC, Ahmadinejad, the national security elite have contradictory goals or differing priorities? What evidence would, if it were found, distinguish the goal of destroying Israel from the goal of inclusion as a member of the Mideast Club?

Key factors:
Who benefits? To what degree might integration into the global hydrocarbon trade stimulate an economic bureaucracy in Iran sufficiently powerful to make Iranian foreign policy less risk-taking? To what extent might a U.S. offer of security for Iran undermine its desire to challenge U.S. leadership?

Is Israel the object at all or just a proxy for becoming the leader of a new world order not centered on the U.S.?
What impact would a post-Imperial U.S. foreign policy in general and/or a new U.S. policy, for the first time since the fall of the Shah, of genuine, balanced accommodation with Iran have on Iran’s long-term goals? What evidence would distinguish between a rise in Iranian hubris and determination to overthrow the U.S. on the one hand and an Iranian turn toward cooperation?

Would an Israeli-Palestinian settlement end the Iranian-Israeli hostility?
One can easily hypothesize that an Israeli return to its 1967 borders and the emergence of a secure and independent Palestinian state would pull the Levantine rug out from under Iran and end Iran’s apparent obsession with Israel. But what would it take to end Israel’s obsession with Iran? Would a post-settlement Iran turn to economic cooperation with Turkey? Will Iran continue to tout its nuclear prowess as part of its competition with Saudi Arabia? Would a post-settlement Israel give up regional hegemonic aspirations and focus on restoring the health of its democracy or would an influx of bitter settlers from the West Bank radicalize Israel even more?

Key factors:

  • whether Egypt slips deeper into military dictatorship or manages to build a popular government;
  • the relative influence of Turkey and Israel in post-revolt Syria;
  • whether the Israeli government whips up settler resentment or promotes their smooth reintegration into Israel;
  • whether or not Arab Spring revolts bring Iran head-to-head with Saudi Arabia

Would the U.S., after an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, become freed from its obsession with Israel?
An Israeli-Palestinian settlement would facilitate a U.S.-Iranian detente, which would have multiple benefits for both sides. Would the U.S. seize this opportunity? Would Iran? Would the U.S. then restructure its overall posture toward the Mideast away from the Israeli/Saudi pillars toward a more balanced and flexible interaction with Turkey, Egypt…and Iran?

Key factors:

  • Whether or not Syria collapses and becomes the battleground for outside forces;
  • Ability of Israel to adapt to Smaller Israel status;
  • Ability of Palestinians to develop effective governance, in turn greatly dependent on willingness of world to support and protect them

Rafah: Opening the Gate to Mideast Change

Cairo has just taken the initiative, upping the ante for all those trying to woo her: Rafah will be opened. Now for the devil in the details: let the bidding begin.
There is a world of difference between allowing Palestinians to visit local Egyptian towns in the Sinai to do their shopping and offering them access to the whole world via Egyptian ports and airport. There is a world of difference between allowing Hamas to control international trade and filtering it through Egyptian border guards. Cairo has signaled that it will be listened to but has left everything else open to negotiation.
Nonetheless, the fundamental shift to a “permanently” open border sets something new in motion: Tel Aviv has lost the initiative, and how it is to regain that initiative through its usual brute force is unclear. Gaza, it seems, will in principle at least no longer be a ghetto. Instead of the principle of a ghetto, with occasional exceptions, the reverse will be true: in principle, Gaza will have access to the world, with some exceptions. That shifts the initiative to Hamas. Will it be able to play the international negotiation game?
More, what will Cairo do the next time Israel attacks Gaza? When faced with 1.5 million refugees walking through an open gate, it will need a plan it can put into effect instantly: offer Gazans defensive military aid, set up a very costly refugee city, close the gate and return to the status of Israel’s lapdog…That looks like a very unpalatable set of choices for Cairo.
The alternative is to develop a preemptive policy. Thus, the opening of Rafah will pressure Cairo to continue moving toward the creation of a logically complete policy of resolving the Palestinian issue in a way that will be acceptable to Palestinians. That logic, powered not so much by morality as by very practical political concerns for any Cairo regime, will promote continued change. By a low-keyed shift in border regulations, Cairo will shift not so much the “situation” as the “dynamics” of Mideast politics. 
A small change on Saturday will quite likely transform via multiple,positive feedback loops into an ever more influential political movement as Cairo defends its decision by supporting Hamas and Hamas moderates to facilitate its new cooperation with Cairo and as Tel Aviv blunders from insult to injury, forcing Hamas and Egypt ever closer. The more Cairo starts looking like Arab nationalism’s new champion, the more beleaguered Riyadh will feel, with the likely impact being rising Saudi support for Palestinian justice as it struggles with its cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and ally of Israel.
Opening Rafah can thus be expected to break the Palestinian-Israeli logjam. Rather than constituting a new definition of stasis, it seems likely to launch a process the end of which is invisible but almost sure to require significant strategic repositioning by all the players.
  • Israel will become increasingly isolated and its policy of reliance on superior force increasingly irrelevant.
  • Hamas has the opportunity to become the unquestioned leader of Palestine but will have to reinvent itself to do so.
  • Saudi Arabia and Egypt will begin a tug-of-war to see which can influence the other the most. Riyadh just cut a deal with Cairo to give it $4 billion in aid. Whatever the terms of that deal, it did not prevent Egypt from announcing the opening of Rafah, suggesting that Saudi wealth will have a tough time trumping Egypt’s spirit of reform, size, and new-found confidence.
  • The U.S. alliance with Israel will become steadily more counter-productive and harmful to U.S. national security, though Israeli firsters in Congress will remain in denial.
Two processes are now promoting Mideast change: the Arab spring and Egyptian relations with Palestine, with each reinforcing the other. Egyptian democracy will promote Arab nationalism, which will promote a desire for justice for Palestine, which will further promote Arab nationalism. Whether or not that reinforcing feedback loop will in turn promote Egyptian democracy will depend on many other factors, including economics and the broader international environment, but over the medium term, the two forces for Mideast change will intensify each other. The Cinderella story of peaceful protest gave way in March to the Saudi-sponsored counterrevolution. Now Cairo is reinvigorating the forces of change by using its joint border with Gaza, a tool that Israel will have trouble countering.

Hubris in Tehran?

A Tehran diplomatic blunder threatens to undermine its rising regional influence.

Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, Chairman of the Iranian military joint chiefs of staff since 1989, said on May 1:

Unfair and unIslamic (sic) moves will hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and it will threaten the security of Saudi Arabia.
This is a hard statement to disagree with. Saudi Arabia’s blatantly sectarian move to suppress Shi’i Muslims in favor of Sunni Muslims certainly does seem to be both “unfair” and “un-Islamic.” The subsequent attacks on medical personnel are just one example of behavior that will “hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia.” Whether Iran in any way threatens the security of Saudi Arabia as a result or not, others surely will. It seems impossible to imagine that Riyadh can escape negative consequences to its legitimacy and its stability.
One way or another, it seems almost certain that Washington, now standing almost silent on the sidelines, will see its valuable ally destabilized and its comfortable petroleum partnership with the Saudi kleptocracy impaired. Firouzabadi may be privately delighted to see the Saudis harm their own security while simultaneously empowering Iranian hard-liners or he may be genuinely outraged at the Saudi-Bahraini repression of Shi’i demanding justice…or both. But the bottom line is that Riyadh has undermined its long-term security, Iran looks good by comparison and has probably gained significant popularity in Iraq, and the chasm between the national security interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has just widened.
Firouzabadi  continued:
The Arab dictatorial regimes in the Persian Gulf are unable to contain the popular uprisings. The dictators should relinquish power, end their savage crimes and let the people determine their own future instead of … opening an unworkable front against Iran.
Again, the general seems on solid analytical ground. Riyadh has seized the regional hardline position, while both Iran and Israel suddenly find themselves in the background, looking relatively peaceful. Iran in particular is finding its rhetoric confirmed, its international stance justified, its influence probably enhanced.
But the general went further, noting that “The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran,” a remark that can be taken as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries that share its shoreline. If a cautious Iran can benefit from Riyadh’s clumsy counter-revolutionary campaign, the blatantly one-sided claim that Iran “owns” the international waterway seems a blunder that can only undermine its prestige. It cannot credibly both claim to be supporting justice in the Arab world and “ownership” of an international waterway that belongs as much not just to Saudi Arabia but also to Bahrain and its new friend Iraq as it does to Iran. Indeed, given the bitter half-century competition between Iran and Iraq over access to the Persian Gulf, the last thing an Iranian decision-maker hoping for influence in Iraq would want to do is claim that Iran “owns” the Gulf. How much one should read into this remark is unclear, but to make it in the midst of the Arab revolt at a minimum demonstrates poor judgment. One wonders how many Iraqis noticed this blunder and how much it might offset the rise in Iran’s image due to its defense of repressed Bahraini Shi’a.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1989, Firouzabadi called on Arab military commanders in February to defend their countries and “support popular movements.” He can feel somewhat satisfied that in Egypt and Tunisia they did; in Yemen, the military has split. But his remark about the Persian Gulf tarnishes his “democratic image.” He also warned Washington in 2010 against attacking Iran in no uncertain terms and lauded the anti-Zionist attitude of the Arab revolt in April.
The regional influence of Iran today is rising by itself; Iran’s adversaries are so busy dropping stones on their own feet that Iran looks better and better every minute that it does nothing. Insensitive remarks by senior military officials that effectively confirm imperialist intent on the part of Tehran risk alienating precisely the rising generation of young nationalist Arabs that Iran is currently applauding. His remark constitutes evidence that the normally cautious Iranian foreign policy may shift to a more risk-taking stance as Tehran’s star continues rising and its leaders begin to calculate that they no longer need be so patient.
Over the last decade, Iran saw a superpower adventure eradicate its main enemy and open the door to Iranian influence over Iraq, its main regional ally fight Israel to a draw without any overt Iranian intervention, the development of  broad diplomatic and economic cooperation with rising regional power Turkey, and then a wave of popular revolts that destabilized all its Arab opponents and opened the door to renewed ties with an emergent Egypt. But Iran remains a weak country, imperiled by domestic dissent, economic mismanagement, and regional distrust. It would be ironic if Tehran’s good fortune from the hubris of others came to naught because all that good fortune led to hubris on the part of Iran.