Thursday, October 6, 2011

Iran, Israel, and the US: A Perfect Storm Building?

Some recent reports - from a variety of fronts - point to a frightening concatenation of developments that suggest that it might not take much to tip the Middle East - and beyond - into huge turmoil, with Iran pinned as the culprit, or else Iran lashing out against what it might see as the inevitability of an attack.
The Iranian leadership, of course, is at odds within itself, with the ongoing struggle between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the alleged "crazy" who, in fact, seems to have lost much of his influence after losing a series of internal skirmished with Khamenei.  That kind of internal disarray, with hard-line religious ideologues pitted against those (like Ahmadinejad) who favor some kind of outreach to the West, does not lend itself to consistently pragmatic decision-making in times of crisis. (One might remember Japan's situation on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack.)
And on the external front as well, this is most surely a time of crisis for Iran:
  • Although its ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, continues to hang onto power and has evaded UN sanctions, he is nonetheless being hammered hard by the US and its allies, but perhaps most tellingly, by his erstwhile ally, Mr. Erdogan of Turkey, who has vowed to join EU countries in imposing his own sanctions.  And if Assad goes down, Iran's influence among the Arab countries will likely take an enormous hit.
  • Mr. Netanyahu continues to rattle his saber - the size of which was recently expanded significantly with Obama's decision to provide Israel with 55 bunker-buster bombs of the kind necessary for any success in a future Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations.
  • The Saudi government is trying to pin Iran with the blame for recent uprisings in the oil-rich eastern Saudi provinces, where live the majority of Saudi Arabia's minority Shiite population.  As Patrick Cockburn notes in The Independent, this will surely have gotten the attention of the US, which "as the main ally of Saudi Arabia, is likely to be alarmed by the spread of pro-democracy protests to the Kingdom and particularly to that part of it which contains the largest oil reserves in the world." 
  • Finally, both Iran's and Israel's navies have been asserting their presence in the Red Sea, the main corridor through which oil tankers pass en route to the Suez Canal and destinations west.  That the US views unrestricted access to the Suez Canal, Red Sea, and Bab el-Mandeb (the narrow opening where the Red Sea joins the Arabian Sea) as a strategic necessity goes without saying.
  • Then, for good measure, add to this combustible mix a US Congress that has as much as sworn its fealty to Mr. Netanyahu, along with a US president, about to re-enter what he himself has referred to as the "silly season" of election politics, who is struggling in the polls and dare not come down too hard against anything Netanyahu might do - including authorize an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear installations - or more.      
In other words, way too many flashpoints for comfort - and at a time when the Iranian leadership is feeling increasingly up against the wall both at home and abroad and is lashing back with increasingly strident rhetoric.  Trita Parsi's recent LA Times essay notes this (and Tony Karonpicks up on Parsi's essay as well), as well as the unfortunate fact that the US and Iran are not talking with each other, nor do they have any established channels for communication.
As Parsi notes:

This has led to a collapse of statecraft and an increase in bluster that could prove quite dangerous. One small spark could cause a conflagration.
The U.S. military leadership is rightfully worried about this situation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, has repeatedly raised the lack of communication between the United States and Iran as a major concern in the last few weeks.
"We are not talking to Iran so we don't understand each other," Mullen said last month. "If something happens … it's virtually assured that we won't get it right." The lack of communication has planted seeds for miscalculation, Mullen argued. And miscalculations often lead to dangerous escalations.
A recent piece at the Atlantic by Patrick Disney puts much of this into a broader historical perspective - the possibility of nuclear confrontation that existed between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and how close the two sides came (not only during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but as recently as the Reagan era) to horrifically destructive launches of their nuclear weapons because of blurred communications and misread intentions.  He concludes:
Without an official dialogue, the U.S. and Iran struggle to avoid miscommunication, deescalate crises, or build trust in the diplomatic relationship. U.S.-Iran relations extend little further than trading rhetorical barbs -- in much the same way that Reagan eschewed dealing with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, often preferring speeches to summit meetings. Contrast this with the U.S.-China relationship, which consists of multiple nodes of direct contact through trade, finance, and exchanges, and it's easy to understand why few observers worry about a U.S.-China miscalculation or miscommunication spiraling out of control as happened with the Soviet Union in 1983. Yet the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs recently warned of just such a clash breaking out between the U.S. and Iran in the Persian Gulf.
The way things are going now, the above outcome, in which mutual misunderstanding leads Iran to believe its best course is to go nuclear, is highly predictable and, therefore, should be avoidable. Washington can't do much to convince Iran to make unilateral concessions, but it can tailor its own policies to account for Iran's predictable response. That means understanding the risks of a backlash when engaging in provocative actions like cyber warfare and sabotage, and making careful calculations about whether we stand to gain more from the policies we choose than the risk of it blowing up in our face.  The current policy of sanctions, sabotage, and assassinations is on course to hand Iran a pretext for building nuclear bombs, whether or not that was Tehran's plan all along. 

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