In order to understand what's going on in the Middle East, you have to understand what the key players are up to, and focus beyond the United States. Iranfilter has a couple of useful articles. We'll start with Iran's objectives in Iraq: bq. "Anyone in the White House who imagines that the Iranians are running scared because more than 100,000 U.S. troops are bivouacked next door hasn't been reading the papers. From Iran's standpoint, the United States is pinned down and vulnerable. And because of Tehran's overt and covert influence among Iraq's Shiite majority, the mullahs may actually be in a position to shape the terms and timing of America's departure." It's actually a bit more complex than that, though the Washington Post article is useful as a summary of Iran's intentions and plans. The next step is to look to Iran's position and interests, in order to understand why hostility to America and subversion of its neighbours are really the only options open to the mullahs' theocratic dictatorship - regardless of America's actions.
The Demands of Power & The Mullahs' Strategy Reuel Marc Gerecht is correct that the "realist" school of foreign policy is ill-equipped to deal with the Iranian regime. While his arguments have merit, a detailed analysis of Iran's regime and its strategic requirements reveals the full depth of the realist failure - a failure whose ironic fatal flaw lies in its refusal to face the power politics driving the Iranian regime itself. Let's start with the situation in Iran. The mullahs are well aware that their support among Iranians is crumbling, and that their only remaining move is open repression of a largely apathetic but hostile populace. Their recent farce of an "election" represents both a clear demonstration of that reality and the beginning of that shift in practice. As December 9th, 2003 demonstrated, the mullahs are prepared to use whatever force is necessary in order to maintain their rule within Iran. The Basij, the importation of "Arab" (read: Palestinian) bully boys and even the shelter given to al-Qaeda gives Iran's dictatorship a range set of tools it can rely upon to carry out any orders given, without having to worry about loyalty or second thoughts among the army. Given Iranians' apathy, the lack of serious leadership among the Iranian opposition, and historical precedent, I believe that this strategy will work. It is a belief that the mullahs appear to share. Implications: The Core Strategy Given that belief, all that's left to do in order to assure the continued survival of Iran's theocratic dictatorship is to [a] prevent an American invasion; and [b] ensure that no competing political models arise among Shi'ite populations on its borders. If they do arise, they must be rendered unsuccessful or unattractive to Iran's populace. All else follows from that. Once one understands these rational requirements of a dictatorial power-state in Iran's position, its policies can be seen to be both predictable and largely immune to significant change. While American and European actions may influence the mullahs' exact strategy, their aims are largely non-negotiable. And therein lie the problems for the realist / accomodationist view. The Border Shi'ites Shi'ites in border states who live in more freedom than Iranians are an obvious threat to the Iranian theocrats, especially given the tendency of news and relationships to filter across borders. The Iranian mullahcracy's position is especially imperiled if those border state Shi'ites are allied with the Americans in any way. Even if America could somehow be convinced to overlook Iran's status as the world's #1 state sponsor of terrorism and turn its back on active support for democrats in Iran, its example, cultural magnetism, and activities with neighbouring Shi'a populations would constitute a potentially deadly "transmission belt". A regime that must keep its masses quiet at all costs simply cannot afford that. The conclusion is both simple, and inescapable: the Americans must be tied down in conflicts, especially if they are present in states that border on Iran. Above all, they must not be given a respite in their war that would allow them to mobilize the Iranian people and/or end Iran's theocratic dictatorship by force. Afghanistan: Inside the Sphere In Afghanistan, the NW Hazara area of Afghanistan must either remain under strong Iranian influence or become a source of trouble, with Iranian "advisors," "border posts" inside Afghanistan, and paramilitaries present in force to ensure this. Friendly Afghanis like the warlord Hekmatyar add an additional layer of intrigue, as Iran plays a multi-sided "Great Game" with India, Pakistan, and the United States. This pretty much describes Iran's approach to date, with the added twist that the mullahs are using 'anti-drug' efforts as a cover for some of these activities. I say 'ironic' because the first 2 sentences of the recent U.S. Department of State Narcotics Control Report for Iran read as follows (Hat tip to Iranfilter): bq. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is a major transit route for opiates smuggled from Afghanistan and through Pakistan to the Persian Gulf, Turkey, Russia, and Europe...." While legitimate Iranian efforts to stem this trade are detailed elsewhere in the report, this certainly caught my eye: bq. "Iranian seizures in the first nine months of 2003 display some surprising trends. In contrast to recent years, the quantity of heroin seized in Iran, expressed as a share of all opiates seized (i.e., heroin, morphine and opium), has fallen sharply from 19 percent of all opiates seized in 2002 to just 10.4 percent in the nine month statistics available for 2003. The absolute quantity of opium seized is also down even more sharply, by about 70 percent. It is hard to account for this shift analytically, as expectations were for a continuing increase in heroin seizures, as heroin consumption in Iran continues to grow." Unless, of course, a blind eye was being turned to certain shipments from Afghanistan, which consist mostly of opiates. Iraq: More of the Same The status of Karbala and Najaf as Shi'ite pilgrimage destinations makes Iraq a country of particular concern to Iran's mullahs. Afghanistan is simply a convenient distraction that may distract the Americans and their allies - but Iraq is truly strategic. A successful Iraqi state with a Shi'a population that offered both a political and religious alternative to Iran's mullahcracy is Khameni's worst nightmare. If his regime wishes to survive, therefore, this outcome must be prevented at all costs. Those efforts are well underway. Inflitration of allied terrorists from Lebanon and Syria, plus open efforts to seize power in the Shi'ite areas via agents like Sadr and infiltration of Badr militias, are designed to keep the Americans fighting fires rather than planning their next moves. They have been partially successful in these efforts, and the Washington Post article describes the next phase of the mullahs' gambits. In addition, Alphabet City notes that the Iranian mullahs are transmitting into Iraq - in Arabic - propaganda that accuses the US and "Jews" of fomenting sectarian discord to insure that the United States will have an excuse for continued occupation of Iraq. Further details can be found in this FBIS Report on Iranian Al-Alam TV's charges that Americans and 'Zionists' are behind Iraqi 'unrest'. Note recent news reports from AP that show echoes of these very themes appearing in the wake of the recent Baghdad and Karbala bombings: bq. "This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces," a loudspeaker outside Kazimiya blared. Inside, cleric Hassan Toaima told an angry crowd, "We demand to know who did this so that we can avenge our martyrs." An acceptable medium-term outcome for the mullahs would have the Americans working hard to prop up a weak government in an Iraq riven by ethnic strife. In such an environment, it is then hoped that the Shi'ites could be radicalized over time and induced to seek Iranian support. The ideal outcome would of course be a Shi'ite Islamic state in Iraq, whether or not it follows the Iranian model. Even a situation in which Shi'ite clergy had an effective right of paralysis or veto similar to that of Iran's Guardian Council would effectively remove the threat of a competing political model on Iran's borders, seal off Iraq as a potential base for the Americans to use against Iran, and potentially destroy America's policy since 9/11 of ending terror-sponsoring regimes and sponsoring a wave of reform in the Middle East. In short, this outcome would virtually guarantee Iran's mullahs another 5-10 years in power - more than enough time to develop nuclear weapons and therefore create the wherewithal to rule almost indefinitely. Which is why Iran's current rulers can never give up their efforts to destabilize Iraq, whatever they claim to the contrary. Their motivations for this conduct are structural, not opportunistic. Which means accomodation is not a winning strategy, because it won't really change behaviour. At best it can produce the illusion of progress, followed by one or more rude wake-up calls. Of course, one can lie about this in order to get room to maneuver - and given the long standing predisposition of the lib-left faction within the West to take all such lies at face value, we can surely expect this behaviour in spades as long as the Iranian regime survives. Which brings us to... Insurance, Enablers & Proxies While Afghanistan and especially Iraq may be primary battlefields in Iran's proxy wars, they are not the regime's only theaters of war. In ascending order of cooperation: The Europeans mean little, except as a convenient shield for Iran's nuclear program: "useful idiots," to borrow an apt old Soviet phrase. Given the object lesson of North Korea - that signing a treaty and cheating on it to develop nuclear weapons guarantees security against the United States - the Europeans are proving very useful indeed. Russia is a more potent ally, and their joint wish to limit American influence in Central Asia makes the two countries natural allies up to a point. Reactor technology and fuel, scientific expertise, weapons, and more can all be had for a price. Unlike the EU, therefore, Russia is actively accelerating Iran's capabilities. So is China. Yet neither nation can successfully act as a shield against U.S. attempts to undermine the regime. At best, they can combine with the EU to fight a delaying action and raise the perceived costs of active intervention, until Iran's possession of atomic weapons makes the question moot. On a more active front, Iran's recent discussions with Syria re: military cooperation are hardly new, given that the 2 states have been cooperating closely for some time now. In addition, the alliance with Syria is critical to Iran's ongoing support of client organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, as well as Arafat's Fatah. These organizations give Iran a truly global reach, and they have been used for operations as far away as Latin America (more here) and as close as the area around Israel. Expect violence in and around Israel to ratchet up sharply if Iran believes the USA is close to a major move or applying successful pressure, accompanied by more insistence that the problems of the Middle East cannot be solved until the Palestinian situation is resolved. Iraq and Afghanistan are not the only locales in which an entanglement strategy can be pursued. Each of these gambits may seem inadequate against a strong and determined America, and they are. The border Shi'ites are a 2-edged sword, many Iranians are hostile to the regime and positively inclined towards America, and a truly determined USA could always undertake full mobilization and crush the regime in an invasion. Nevertheless, time changes many things in politics. America's will may shift, or a change in leadership may cause a shift in policy that gives the mullahs the breathing room they need to succeed. A wise power-state acts to prepare for such possibilities - and Iran is certainly preparing. The great game for the mullahs' regime is one of victory or death, and they're not dead yet. Fix that, please.