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. [Panarin.com.]

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:

Is Putin Eyeing Pakistan?

Might Putin, looking to burnish his place in history, be tempted to seize an enticing opportunity to pull Pakistan into the Russian orbit?

Put yourself, for a moment, in Putin’s shoes. Does he look, as he rides bareback (I refer to him, not the horse) in one of his photo-ops, like the kind of man who wants to lead his country from its former superpower status into obscurity? We can safely assume that Putin and national security team are inspecting the world on a daily basis, searching for strategic opportunities, and they do not need me to inform them that one they and their Moscow predecessors have been glancing at for generations is now fairly begging to be seized.

Pakistan desperately needs friends, allies, and economic partners. Pakistan needs a pipeline to import Iranian gas but evidently cannot pay for that pipeline, and Iran certainly does not have much extra cash at the moment, given U.S. economic warfare against it. Putin could give Pakistan a much desired full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, improving Islamabad’s negotiating position vis-a-vis an increasingly angry Washington; help fund the pipeline, thus consolidating an emerging Russian-Iranian-Pakistani relationship and simultaneously doing New Delhi, which also wants Iranian gas, a favor. Earning points from Islamabad and New Delhi simultaneously is not an easy thing to do. This much alone make a deal with Islamabad enticing. But there is much more.

Imagine, and I am just guessing that Putin has easily enough imagination to see all this in an instant, that rising Russian-Pakistani economic ties lead to security ties, perhaps including Russian investment in Pakistan’s Baluchi port of Gwadar–Pakistan’s first deep water port–alongside on-going Chinese investment there. It really is not all that hard to see the day when a modest Russian pipeline investment could transform into a Russian strategic presence on the Indian Ocean. Neatly leapfrogging the Afghan quagmire that first trapped the Russians themselves and helped bring down the old Soviet Union and has now trapped the last superpower standing, Russia could suddenly become Pakistan’s new friend just at the moment when heavy-handed American insistence on using drones to attack Pakistani border villages makes Lady Pakistan vulnerable to Russian courting.

For Putin, of course, this is not about romance but cold strategic calculation, the lure of achieving a Russian dream that goes back to Catherine, and–for the former KGB officer–surely a bit of payback for the old Russian defeat in Afghanistan.

Provoking an Oil War Is a Bad Bet for the U.S.

Perhaps Washington has a secret plan for defeating Tehran in a contest over oil, but Tehran has enormous tactical advantages, while the relevance of Washington’s vast military superiority appears questionable. Has anyone in Washington actually thought this out?

Departing Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitriy Rogozin cautioned that:

Iran is our close neighbor, just south of the Caucasus. Should anything happen to Iran, should Iran get drawn into any political or military hardships, this will be a direct threat to our national security.

These are words Washington should weigh carefully. Rogozin did not retire; he was promoted…to deputy prime minister. It seems reasonable to read his words as a clear warning from Moscow that anything remotely like an invasion of Iraq-style adventure by Washington against Iran would be seen as endangering Russian national security. Instead of wondering if Iran can close the Straits of Hormuz, we should be wondering if Russia could do so.

Russia obviously has a wide range of reasons for avoiding a conflict with the U.S., so the question reduces to:

What is the minimum amount of Russian assistance to Iran that would enable Iran to reduce oil shipments through Hormuz sufficiently to cause a severe impact on U.S. policy?

To lay out some scenarios takes little more than common sense and imagination. It is hard to think of anything easier to hit than a monstrous oil tanker, though the difficulty of actually sinking one is debatable. The Exxon Valdez disaster implies that they sink all too easily, but they do have certain passive strengths. Nevertheless, any contest between an oil tanker and a modern military is obviously heavily weighted in favor of the attacking military. That said, reality is even worse for those dazzled by the idea of a quick, easy victory over Iran.

The reason is not all that complicated: the real issue may well be more a combination of finance and psychology than technical or military considerations. How many oil tankers would have to sink or even catch fire before shippers would refuse to continue be sitting targets? Iran has a huge tactical advantage in this game. Someone should list all the anti-ship missiles and mines on the world market today capable of stopping an oil tanker. How long would it take for the U.S. to clear a burning oil tanker from the strait? How much interference to oil shipping (reportedly 14 tankers per day through the strait) would one burning oil tanker cause?

Iran has had more than a decade to prepare for this situation since the last time the U.S. fought a naval war against it to aid Saddam and protect oil tankers. This time Moscow may be less cooperative with Washington. Beyond that lies Beijing’s strong interest in keeping Iranian oil flowing. Then there’s the little issue of domestic support.

If direct conflict erupts between Washington and Tehran, Tehran hardliners will gain an immediate boost in popularity as defenders of the country. Meanwhile, interruptions in the oil flow will be placing one more economic burden on the shoulders of Westerners. As war brings Iranians together, it will be ripping Western societies apart. What are the chances that pampered Westerners will prove willing to accept economic sacrifice as long as Iranians who are fighting for their independence–with the “full encouragement” of a harsh, semi-autocratic regime?

And all the above concerns just direct military conflict.


One more possible Iranian tactic that all those American weapons could not deal with: 

introduce so much hysteria into the oil market that price spikes will allow it to earn the same revenue from a reduced volume of exports [Mark Heller, New York Times, thanks to Friday Lunch Club ]


The assumption that a war over the international oil supply will be military is in many ways a comforting one for Americans, since military superiority is Washington’s one strong card. But why would Tehran choose to play the game this way? The easiest way for Iran to fight back is simply to stop exporting hydrocarbons. If the resulting rise in Western gas and heating fuel prices does not hand victory to Iran, the next most obvious target would perhaps be the roughly 2 million barrels per day exported by Iraq, where many oil workers might be expected to feel some sympathy for a fellow Shi’i society under attack by the U.S. Exactly how does Washington imagine it might respond to the combination of Iran halting exports combined with a quiet sabotage campaign by its friends in Iraq?

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.

Erdogan Broadens His Diplomacy…Still Further

Erdogan is searching in all directions for a solid foreign policy victory.

The Erdogan International Adventure continues, this time with an initiative to lead the world’s Turkish-language states. Just as Erdogan’s rejection of Israel’s foreign policy reliance on force challenges the regional superpower and his effort to achieve a compromise between the U.S. and Iran challenges the global superpower, Erdogan’s effort to carve out a Turkish heritage zone of influence challenges whatever pretensions Moscow may have of reasserting control over Central Asia. Erdogan is challenging a disunited group, of course, and it is not clear that either Washington or Moscow has concluded that his challenge need be met with a frontal rejection.

A Russian perspective, for example, recently noted the shared interest of Russia and Turkey as “Black Sea superpowers” acting as cross-national bridges:

на планете формируются новые центры силы. Один из них — как раз Турция, которая вместе с Россией сегодня принадлежит к числу “черноморских сверхдержав”.

Nonetheless, he is pushing against an increasingly large set of resistance forces. His recent domestic political victory may well help, but he needs a foreign policy victory. The ratio of political meetings full of rhetoric to actual solid accomplishments is verging on the embarrassing. If the above-cited opinion represents Moscow’s perspective and were Washington to adopt a similar attitude, then Erdogan would indeed be on the way to making history, but that, in both cases, remains highly questionable. Erdogan’s rhetoric may be a breathe of fresh air, but somewhere he badly needs to deliver.

Turkey: Next Steps vis-a-vis Israel

Ankara faces some hard decisions in its effort to alter Israeli behavior. No easy solution exists, but both diplomatic and military options worth exploring are available, should Ankara wish to go beyond rhetoric and take the kind of actions that will earn Tel Aviv’s respect. Ankara’s best option would seem to be the designing of a common position with Moscow and Tehran. Ankara may even persuade Washington to join.
Washington has already made it clear that it will not defend its own citizens. It long ago excused Tel Aviv’s attack on the U.S.S. Liberty, would not even protect a former presidential candidate (Cynthia McKinney) when she was arrested by Israel for joining the June 2009 flotilla to Gaza, and is evidently paying no attention to the murder by Israel (with, reportedly, five shots!) of an American on this week’s flotilla. It is hard for Washington to stand up to Tel Aviv when Tel Aviv’s bullying seems to be Washington’s model, as suggested by the similarities between Israeli treatment of Palestinians and U.S. treatment of Iraqis and Afghanis as well as the copying by Washington of the Israeli right’s anti-Iran propaganda.
Ankara is now being subjected to the same treatment that the U.S. has received, but Turkey’s new leaders—Erdogan, Gul, Davutoglu—appear to have more pride than any the U.S. has been able to find this century. The Turkish leaders do not seem prepared to kowtow. Those Turkish leaders claim to be working for a new type of politics. According to Erdogan [Today’s Zaman, 6/4/10], “This is to stop bloodshed and bring peace to the region. We are not after fame. We just want humanity, law and justice.” So Ankara has a problem: exactly what can it do in response to Israeli bullying?
Ankara’s first move was immediately to make an official protest to the U.N., with the result that Ban Ki-moon is now negotiating with the concerned parties his proposal of an independent investigation  [Hurriyet 6/6/10]. Its second move was to send military transports to Israel, successfully demanding the release of all Turkish citizens from the flotilla [Coteret 6/2/10].
Clearly, these two moves, while impressive in comparison with the dithering West, still do not come close to making up for Israel’s killing of peaceful civilians. It may be worth noting, for those confused, that the raging debate over the precise actions of these civilians when Israeli soldiers attacked by air under the cover of darkness completely misses the point: they were behaving peacefully until attacked like any normal people before being mugged.
What might be next?
Rhetoric. Ankara is trying the rhetorical approach, but virtually no one seems to be listening, and Tel Aviv has demonstrated fairly clearly that it understands only “the language of force.”
Diplomacy. Ankara is also laudably trying the diplomatic approach. The U.N. responded to Ankara by calling for an investigation, though it is doubtful that any real pressure will be brought on Tel Aviv to cooperate. Cairo has opened its closed border to a few Gazans, at least temporarily, but essentially remains a partner of Tel Aviv in oppressing Gaza, and British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant focused on the core issue [UNMID 6/1/10], stating:

the events cannot be seen in isolation. They show clearer than ever that Israel’s restrictive access to Gaza must be lifted.

No evidence so far suggests that Britain intends to take any action to back those words up.  UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco also termed Israel’s Gaza blockade “unacceptable,” though again without any indication of action to back up those words [UNMID 6/1/10].  Obama’s most recent remarks appear designed to split the difference between the Israeli nighttime attack and massacre of flotilla members and the effort to deliver medicine to Gaza were mere differences of opinion and on the same moral plane.
One diplomatic move that Ankara may perhaps now be considering is upgrading its ties with both Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas. Such a move would catch attention, but Ankara would surely be punished by Washington and perhaps as well by conservative Arab dictatorships that it does not necessarily wish to irritate. More to the point, aside from angering and provoking Tel Aviv extremists, it is not clear what impact such a move—akin to, say, Switzerland in 1940 demanding the liberation of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto–might have on the lives of Gazans. Nevertheless, Erdogan has already hinted at something along these lines, pointing out that Hamas won the last Palestinian election (in 2006) [Hurriyet 6/4/10] and adding:

I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization. I said the same thing to the United States. I am still of the same opinion. They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land.

Two regional diplomatic coups are potentially within reach, however. Now that Cairo has unilaterally opened its border with Gaza, Ankara should vigorously pursue an agreement with Cairo for a permanent opening. Is there anything Ankara could offer Cairo in return?
The second regional diplomatic option is to reopen nuclear discussions with Tehran pursuant of an agreement that Tehran will voluntarily choose not to exercise its legal right to enrich uranium to the 20%-level required for medical research. Although this does not directly address the Gaza issue, it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s diplomatic position by giving the whole world something it really wants. With skill, Ankara could maneuver so as to allow Moscow to share the credit; indeed, the trade-off to entice Tehran might well be the delivery of modern Russian ground-to-air missiles, enabling Moscow to take the initiative as regional peacemaker even as it earns some useful foreign exchange and minimizes the likelihood of nuclear fallout landing on its territory. The emergence of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish entente would be a Mideast game-changer that would for the first time significantly restrict Israel’s freedom of military maneuver.
Military Moves. If substantive military moves prove to constitute the only language that will have any real impact on the situation, however, what options does Ankara have short of provoking a existential threat to itself?
The obvious answer is Lebanon, which is being denied the weaponry to defend itself against not only Israeli invasions but even Israel’s regular aerial violations of Lebanon’s border. Lebanon is a struggling democracy that has been making progress recently and that certainly deserves the right to defend itself. Whether or not Ankara has the capability to alter this situation is a question that Turkish national security officials should now be asking themselves.
The second most obvious answer is one that Ankara has clearly been considering for at least the past year: upgrading security ties with Damascus. Ankara could further upgrade such ties and send Tel Aviv yet another message, but what long-term benefit Ankara would derive is uncertain. Would closer military ties with Damascus do more harm, by pulling Ankara closer to a dictatorship, than good? Would this end up constraining Ankara’s options and isolating itself? More to the point, it is not clear that either of these moves would have much immediate benefit for the people of Gaza.  It might eventually if it had a sobering impact on the Israeli people, and much sobering Israeli commentary has already been published in Israel. However, the opposite reaction, given the intensity of both political rhetoric and right wing media commentary in Israel, is also a real risk.
The third military option is one that is already in motion: the longstanding resistance by Washington to Moscow’s desire to sell Iran S-300 ground-to-air (i.e., by definition defensive) missiles has evidently ended. The new U.N. Iran sanctions draft explicitly permits the Russian sale of these missiles, which are normally described as sufficient significantly to hinder any potential Israeli air attack (whether or not they would defend Iran against Israeli nuclear-armed cruise missiles [Timesonline 5/30/10] is less clear). Sometimes termed “controversial” by Western proponents of Israeli militarism, the sale of these missiles is in fact precisely what is needed to reassure a threatened Iran and to signal it that its interests can be accommodated—without its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Tehran has now been given something it has been denied for at least the last decade: the right to defend itself. Removing defensive missiles from the sanctions also makes the Western case more logical, by shifting the focus from an effort to humiliate Iran to an effort to prevent militarization of Iran’s nuclear technology. Thus, both sides stand to gain from such a sale. Only extremists hoping for a war against Iran and politicians in Iran, the U.S., and Israel attempting to exploit international tensions to consolidate their domestic political control lose.
Should Moscow go through with this sale, Iran would be more secure and thus have less need of its policy of nuclear ambiguity. That, in turn, would give Ankara a powerful new argument when making its case to Tehran for further compromises on the nuclear dossier. Further, it would raise the possibility of the same missiles being provided to the Lebanese government, perhaps brokered by Ankara; If Iran is entitled to defend itself, why not Lebanon?
Ankara’s immediate reaction shows impressive determination to defend its citizens and punish Israeli extremism. While its way forward is far less clear, an array of interesting options does exist, the most promising of which may be the idea of building a Russian-Turkish-Iranian entente designed to lower nuclear tensions, reassure Iran about its own national security, and send a message to the Israeli people that their current government is doing them no favors. Washington’s quiet but fundamental adjustment to its policy on Iran raises the possibility that Washington might even be persuaded to look with favor upon such a multilateral effort to lower Mideast tensions.

Building Civil Societies…Not State Predators

The Washington debate over the relative merits of brute force vs. state building is, in practice, vacuous. The real choice is between brute force and society building, an endeavor in which the members of the society must be central…and free to talk back to their foreign friends. The building of a centralized and powerful state structure divorced from society is the birthing of a monster.

The debate in the U.S. about how to resolve social instability in Muslim lands that may lead to terrorist attacks against the West frequently centers on the presumed choice between “state building” and military attacks on those identified as enemies. This raises a host of issues, not the least of which is figuring out whether or not Western victims actually are enemies, but that is another story. Here, I want to focus on the concept of “state building.” Bluntly stated, the above debate is so simplistic that it hardly has any value at all (even though on the surface the existence of a debate between war and state building appears to represent a huge step forward from the utterly brainless idea of blowing up everyone who expresses the slightest desire for independence or equality).

The only way “state building” will in fact represent a meaningful advance in U.S. thinking is if the concept is defined well enough to contribute to functioning societies. To put it differently, arguing about “more” or “less” state-building is vacuous. The distinction of value lies not between state building and military force but between effective steps to stimulate the rise of self-sufficient, stable, effective societies and steps that hinder such a process. Both war and the building of repressive state represent steps backward.

The missed point in most U.S. commentary on state building is the dangerously erroneous assumption that having a state is better than not having one (an assumption particularly unexamined in Washington and one that leads directly to assuming that anyone who has managed to seize power—say, via assassination—is a better person to work with than someone, e.g., Sam Adams, who “just” represents a patriotic movement demanding justice). It may in a given case make sense for Washington to deal with a local leader, but to assume that a Saddam or a Saleh deserves automatic respect while a dissident leader merits nothing more than dismissal would be a potentially costly (though hardly unusual) example of unprofessional behavior on the part of a foreign policy decision maker.

The assumption that a state is automatically better than the absence of a state would have been rejected instantly by a large number, probably a large majority, of the august men who created the U.S.A.: in no uncertain terms they placed rights (of both individuals and the 13 colonies) ahead of state power. Had the New England colonies insisted on giving priority to centralized state power, it is doubtful that a unified country would ever have come into being.

A discussion of “state building,” if not clearly defined, is dangerous because it is all too easy for Westerners to assume that means “a Western-style state” or at least “a centralized state.” There is no consensus in many non-Western societies that such a political system is desirable, not to mention any ability to create or manage it for the good of the population (a point sometimes realized all too clearly in a Washington insistent on obedience).

Without both a social consensus that a centralized state is the goal and the ability to manage it for the good of the people, the infusion of aid may amount to empowering whatever predatory mafia may happen to agree to sell itself to the patron. Washington is not the only patron vulnerable to such errors:

The republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia are flashpoints, and Chechnya, newly pacified after years of war, is again experiencing a spate of terrorist attacks. Moscow’s strategy of buying off corrupt local elites in the region has not purchased stability. Islamist radicals thrive on official corruption, interclan warfare, and the heavy-handedness of the police and security services. [Dmitri Trenin, “Russia Reborn,” Foreign Affairs Nov-Dec 2009, 69.]

A better phrase would be “civil society building.” What pre-modern societies often do need is a hand in improving civil societies that, under the stress of interaction with the modern world, have ceased working. Somali civil society, for example, began to fail in the 1980’s after years of superpower interference succeeded only in substituting a nasty dictatorship for old decentralized, clan-based decision-making processes. Similarly, Afghan society was derailed by decades of superpower interference seeking to design modern centralized state structures from the top down. In neither case were the new state structures, when they existed at all, (e.g., tax collection agencies, health care provision agencies, police) effectively connected to the underlying social building blocks of clans, tribes, ethnicity, and religion.

Even after accepting that the focus should be on civil society rather than central government, a danger still remains. Civil society cannot be “built” from the top down or from the outside in. Yes, a supportive global community can help protect a Somalia or Yemen or Bangladesh or an Afghanistan from external threats, but “society,” by definition, is composed of links among the members (Robert Putnam’s bowlers). Incentives can be offered, but the “bowlers” have to decide on their own to bowl together.

Example of how everything can go wrong include when a strong central state imports modern weapons and then gasses the Kurds or uses helicopters to attack villagers in punishment for participating in traditional religious ceremonies that have been banned by a repressive centralized state (as Yemen’s President Saleh is accused of having done). This video of the aftermath of a U.S./Yemeni regime military attack on a dissident Yemeni movement in December 2009 is not an example of “building civil society.” Since the military structure of state government is easier to build than, say, a health care system, and easier to misuse for private purposes, it moves almost inevitably to center stage when a modern, centralized regime is imposed on a premodern, decentralized society. Creating a powerful state before a powerful national civil society has arisen to prevent centralized state abuses of power is exactly the wrong way to go about creating stable, peaceful societies.

So if the creation of potentially oppressive state structures is a key mistake to be avoided, what might be some ways to do things right?

Sponsor civil society dialogue. Demand that any central government desiring Western support first accept the idea of a national dialogue to be followed up by real steps to address dissident demands. One could imagine, for example, conferences to which all dissident groups would be invited. Of course, a predatory regime will use this occasion to identify dissident spokespeople. Therefore, the West needs to be proactive in making its own contacts with those individuals, raising their international visibility, and warning the regime that their disappearance will be taken very seriously. Washington’s first step regarding Yemen should have been to sit down with the leaders of the Houthi and southern dissident groups, not the provision of arms to the regime. Dissident groups should learn that they have peaceful choices. The same argument of course applies to Hamas. It’s not about approval; it’s about stimulating the marketplace of ideas instead of the marketplace of militias. The U.S. should present itself as the defender of peaceful political participation, not as the defender of pet regimes.

Use international peacekeepers to protect civil society, not the regime. In contrast to the Somali model, where an African peacekeeping force supports the government, station international peacekeeping forces in all regions of the country but with direct links in each region to the regional political structure. The goal of the peacekeepers would be to prevent the military suppression of dissident groups in return for agreement by the dissident groups to refrain from violence, thus both offering incentives to behave peacefully and marginalizing those who refuse. In the Somali case, even the most extreme of the groups, al-Shabab, is composed of various sub-groups. In Afghanistan, the heterogeneous nature of “the Taliban” has been widely reported.

The regime, enamored of its own power and privilege, will of course argue that this would “promote disunity.” Precisely so. In a pre-modern society, disunity is the goal. No consensus exists on the form that unity should take. That is the whole point. Until civil society has achieved consensus, confederacy is wiser than centralization. Moreover, the artificial imposition of unity from the outside will almost always go wrong: from Polk’s misunderstandings of Mexican politics through the Vietnam War escapade to the abysmal ignorance of the neo-cons about the complexities of global Islam, history has shown that Washington does not have the eyesight to perceive the George Washingtons or Abraham Lincolns of traditional societies.

Provoking Russian-Iranian Entente

Does Washington risk provoking a new cold, or even hot, war with Russia by asserting the right to intervene massively in Afghanistan but failing to control Afghanistan’s booming heroin export trade?

Moscow is beginning, quite rightly, to view its heroin addiction epidemic as a threat to its national security.

From this, it would be a small step for Moscow to conclude that Washington is intentionally looking the other way. Two glaring facts would seem to support such a view:

  • The American army in Afghanistan is doing little to control heroin export;
  • Alternative methods for Afghan farmers to earn a living are being ignored.

What, then, might Moscow do if it decided Washington were intentionally subverting Russian society the way the Colombian drug cartels are subverting American society?

The list of Russian options for fighting back seems long enough to merit a bit of contemplation by Washington:

  • Cut off the recently-approved flow of American military supplies through Russia into Afghanistan;

  • Work with Tajik contacts both in Tajikistan and the increasingly disaffected Afghan north to separate that part of Afghanistan from the Taliban regions of the Pushtun south to create a buffer zone or just to complicate American plans;

  • Lead a Shanghai Cooperation Organization regional initiative to build a third political force in Afghanistan, independent of both the Taliban and the U.S., perhaps starting with a campaign against large American military bases in Afghanistan that would no doubt attract Chinese interest;

According to a Russian news agency report, a regional conference on Afghanistan in 2008 concluded:

The American counter-terrorism campaign encouraged terrorists, boosted production of drugs, illegal immigration, illicit arms deals, and fomented other threats that compromise the security of Afghanistan itself and other Eurasian countries. All of that necessitates actions by Afghanistan‘s neighbors who view the Afghani crisis resolution as vitally important.

  • Cut a mutually-beneficial two-part deal with its ally Tehran to support increased Iranian influence in regions of Afghanistan historically and religiously close to Iran already to combat the drug trade that both Moscow and Tehran fear.

A Russian Perspective

What really scares Washington – from George W Bush to Obama – is the perspective of a Russia-Iran-Venezuela axis. Together, Iran and Russia hold 17.6% of the world′s proven oil reserves. The Persian Gulf petro-monarchies – de facto controlled by Washington – hold 45%. The Moscow-Tehran-Caracas axis controls 25%. If we add Kazakhstan′s 3% and Africa′s 9.5%, this new axis is more than an effective counter-power to American hegemony over the Arab Middle East. The same thing applies to gas. Adding the “axis” to the Central Asian “stans”, we reach 30% of world gas production….

A nuclear Iran would inevitably turbo-charge the new, emerging multipolar world. Iran and Russia are de facto showing to both China and India that it is not wise to rely on US might subjugating the bulk of oil in the Arab Middle East.


The latter option in particular should be contemplated carefully in Washington. The Central Asian-Middle Eastern region is currently at a tipping point, where any one of at least three historic shifts is possible. These three potential shifts in regional power relationships are all quite conceivable at the present time because the multiple, cross-cutting cleavages of the artificially conceived nuclear crisis and the various regional conflicts have destroyed regional stability.

The first possible shift is the “Netanyahu option,” a nuclear strike on Iran that would, if successful, empower Israeli rightwing militarists dreaming of Israeli domination of the region. Success is highly unlikely, however, since the aftermath of a nuclear strike would be a classic case of a complex (i.e., unpredictable) situation. The winner would probably be bin Laden.

The second possible shift is the “Obama option,” a breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations that would stabilize the region and greatly facilitate American efforts to resolve the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts. Although this option would require recognizing Iran’s emergence to regional prominence with the right to choose its own path and constraining the war party in Washington, the result would be a relatively stable regional balance of power curbing both the threat of Israeli nuclear aggression and Iranian nuclear militarization.

The third possible shift is the “Putin option,” a breakthrough in Russian-Iranian relations at American expense, propelled by mutual concern over the strategic threat of rising American military power in Central Asia. Various cooperative steps in the energy, maritime in this direction, motivated by intense U.S.-Israeli threats against Iran, are already visible. Such a bilateral breakthrough at American expense would encourage both Iranian and Israeli extremism, wreck the chances for resolving the Western-Iranian nuclear dispute, imperil the American adventure in Afghanistan, and very possibly end up destabilizing Pakistan or, perhaps, result in a distinct type of regional stability enforced by Russia, with the U.S. on the sidelines.

It would be ironic, to put it mildly, if willingness in Washington to tolerate Afghan heroin exports ended up provoking the regional replacement of the U.S. by Russia in coordination with an emergent Iran.

Big Power Mideast Rivalry: Hubris vs. Diplomacy

EXCERPT: Following a decade of neo-con provocation, Russia is returning to the game of competing for influence in the Mideast–but using diplomacy and economics while avoiding the wasteful employment of troops, not to mention the angry response that such behavior tends to generate. The result could be serious trouble for an overextended superpower America.

TEXT: According to retired Colonel Sam Gardiner, “Russia is on the path to make Iran a strategic partner, a counter to the United States in the regions of rivalry.” American geostrategists may feel troubled by this, but Washington’s “last superpower standing” hubris brought this situation about. Israel has long been America’s “land aircraft carrier” in the Mideast, but the egregious neo-con bias in favor of proponents of Greater Israel combined with the offensive military footprint constructed in Iraq and now being expanded in Afghanistan could only have been expected to provoke Moscow into attempting to shore up its rapidly eroding strategic position.


Global Gas Cartel

Iran’s Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari said he and Qatar’s Energy Minister Abdullah al-Attiyah and Chief Executive Alexei Miller of Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom agreed to establish a high-ranking natural gas committee.

Unlike Nozari, Miller did not refer to a “gas OPEC” at a joint news conference but said the three sides had set up a “major gas troika” that would help implement joint projects.

Russia, Iran and Qatar are ranked the first, second and third biggest holders of natural gas reserves in the world and together boast more than half of the global total. — source


Unfortunately for Washington, Moscow is moving with more skill, focusing on quiet agreements—both military and economic—designed to create a solid, long-term position in the Mideast. This approach contrasts sharply with the brash American combination of encouraging allied military action (e.g., Israel into Lebanon in 2006, Ethiopia into Somalia in 2007, Israeli into Gaza in 2008, Pakistan into Bajaur in 2008), sometimes brutal military attack by its own troops (e.g., Fallujah), public threats (“all options are on the table”, calling Iranian nuclear arms “unacceptable”), extreme bias in favor of Israeli extremists (defending not just Israeli security but Israeli expansion into the West Bank), and construction of an archipelago of new regional military bases that (whatever any agreements with Iraq or Afghanistan may say) certainly appear permanent.

Where Washington uses threats, Moscow uses quiet diplomacy. Where Washington pours offensive arms of stunning destructive power into Israel, Moscow provides defensive arms to Iran. Where Washington pressures countries to prevent bilateral economic agreements, Moscow focuses on signing economic agreements.

Moscow’s moves may add up to a serious challenge to American control of the Mideast, but each one is small and delicate and subtle enough so that it hardly constitutes much of a provocation to anyone. Washington’s visible and antagonistic moves, in contrast, provoke constant opposition. Over time, such in-your-face behavior already has proven costly to Washington. Examples include:

· the consolidation of Hezbollah’s position after Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon

· the defeat of Ethiopia in Somalia

· the opposition of Moqtada al Sadr that has so troubled Washington in Iraq

· the Taliban successes in interrupting the flow of supplies through the Khyber Pass

· the slow collapse of central control in Pakistan

· and—of course—the rise in Iran’s regional prominence.

If Washington does not soon learn to play its cards more skillfully, the burden of its Mideast posture may become untenable.

Yes, Washington has more military muscle than Moscow, but Moscow is not finding it necessary to apply much military muscle (essentially, just a few defensive missiles). Yes, Washington has more money than Moscow, but Moscow is not dissipating its wealth on adventures in the Mideast; rather, Moscow is signing agreements that seem likely to earn it a solid, long-term payoff. The victory of a spendthrift superpower that is skilled at making enemies and lurches from short-term victory to short-term victory over a soft-stepping big power with a long-term strategy that maximizes bang for the ruble is not a foregone conclusion.


Russian business dealings with Iran:

  1. to export airliners to Iran
  2. possible coordination on global gas markets; also here
  3. air defense missile contract
  4. delivery of S-300 air defense system
  5. possible blackmarket missile technology transfer
  6. Tor M1 air defense system
  7. nuclear power generation
  8. transport helicopters
  9. MIG-29 engines
  10. nuclear technology, fuel, and training