Monday, January 08, 2007

The Surge: Target Tehran? 

I have been traveling so much lately that I am probably behind the curve on the Surge, at least by the standards of my readers. Today again I will have no time for thinking deeply, but I did want to pass along the interesting bits of Stratfor's analysis of the Surge from its letter last night. It does not contain any new information per se, but it does provide an interesting framework for considering the merits of the Surge.

The target of all of this is the Shiite militias -- and Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, in particular. Bush speaks publicly about Sunni insurgents, but at this point, the issue is the Shia -- and more than that, it is the Iranians who are encouraging al-Sadr and others to stand hard against the Sunnis and the Americans. Assuming that the violence in Baghdad as a whole cannot be pacified, it is possible that al-Sadr can be broken by this military surge. Possible, but far from certain or even likely.

However, neither al-Sadr nor the Iranians can be certain that it will fail. Like Bush, they are going to be gambling everything on an assumption -- in their case, that the offensive will fail. But if it succeeds, and al-Sadr's forces are decimated, an entirely new dynamic could emerge in Iraq: Shia factions that are less heavily influenced by Iran would emerge as the dominant force, the political process could be revived and the Iranians lose their historic opportunity to dominate Iraq. No one knows how a war will turn out, including the Iranians. They have in the past miscalculated on American cunning -- such as after the fall of the Shah, when the United States encouraged Iraq to attack Iran, locking down the revolution for a decade.

We suspect that what Bush is hoping for is less a military victory than a psychological one, creating a sense of profound uncertainty in Tehran and among Iraqi Shia that causes them to hedge their bets. It's not an accident, in our view, that at the same time the surge is being rolled out, the Israelis have carefully orchestrated a discussion of their options in the event that Iran approaches nuclear status. The analysis by an Israeli think-tank as to the uses of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear facilities is the perfect counterpoint to the U.S. surge strategy. It creates two massive and vital uncertainties for the Iranians: First, their position in Iraq might not be as secure as they thought, and second, their nuclear program could suddenly evaporate. If both were to happen, Iran's position would be much worse than it has been in decades.

The United States is driving hard into the land of "if." Between Bush's announcement and the actual beginning of post-surge military operations, there will be a period of uncertainty on all sides. From the American point of view, uncertainty is a marked improvement from the sense of complete failure that had taken hold in November and December. From the position of the Iraqi Shia and the Iranians, the introduction of uncertainty marks a decline from the heady sense of near-victory during that same period.

So now the question is simply this: How confident are al-Sadr and the Iranians that the U.S. surge will fail and the Israelis won't strike? Exactly how strong are their nerves? Carefully generated perceptions of the Iranian leadership as complete fanatics masks the fact that they are shrewd and careful gamblers. Some in Tehran and Baghdad will be arguing that the U.S. surge is too little, too late and that the Israelis are bluffing. Others who have fought the Americans and know the Israelis will be more thoughtful.

Iran and al-Sadr could choose to try to close a political deal without increasing their risks. The Americans would probably deal. Or, they could go big, absorb the surge, break it and try to pick up all the chips. Plans for the U.S. surge will be set this week, but it will take weeks for forces to deploy. We are not confident in the success of this strategy, but then what we think is much less significant than what the Iranians and the Shia think. What is their appetite for risk? They may not, themselves, be sure at this moment.

But this much they know. They did not expect the United States to increase troops after the mid-term elections in November. On that they were wrong. Now they have to ask this question: Having guessed wrong once, are they feeling lucky now? We expect that forcing that question on the Iranians and Shia is the primary purpose of the surge.

I do have one comment before I hop in the shower and put on my suit: I don't think that Israel coordinated or even consulted with the United States over its weekend leak regarding plans to nuke Iran. That story, which I do believe was an intentional leak, was more likely part of an Israeli effort to increase the pressure on the great powers to do something about Iran's nuclear program so that it does not have to. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert departed for a state visit to China today to talk about Iran. A little deniable advance publicity that underscores Israel's capabilities and determination and even hints at a willingness to cross the nuclear threshhold would help Olmert in his talks with China more than it would hurt. All that oil won't be much use to China, after all, if Iran has been so hammered that it is not a safe place for China to operate.


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