Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Iranian nukes: Bringing the Bear to bear and the Iraq endgame 

Here's an interesting bit of news -- Russia is quietly squeezing Iran:

Moscow has warned Tehran it will not deliver fuel to a nearly completed Russian-built nuclear reactor unless Tehran lifts the veil of secrecy on suspicious past atomic activities, a European diplomat said Tuesday.

Separately, a U.S. official said Russia is not meeting other commitments that would allow the Iranians to activate the Bushehr nuclear reactor and suggested the delays were an attempt to pressure Tehran into showing more compliance with U.N. Security Council demands.

So, two diplomats, one European and one American, simultaneously leak a story that the Russians have decided to mess with Iran's Track B to a bomb (the Bushehr plant is the plutonium path, different from the Natanz centrifuge cascade for enrichment of U-235 that you hear about more often). This has actually been going on for some time. One cannot avoid suspecting the invisible hand of Condoleezza Rice, whom history may yet reveal to be a more subtle Secretary of State than the chattering classes now understand.

The interesting question is not that the Russians are squeezing Iran -- they have been doing that for centuries and are presumably delighted to keep squeezing so long as it does not appear to give advantage to the United States -- but that they are doing it now. A daring person -- and I am nothing if not daring, safe behind my pen name -- might suppose that the Russkies are pressuring Iran to accelerate the American retreat from Iraq.

In the abstract, virtually all Americans wish the United States could substantially withdraw from Iraq. Those of us who oppose a rapid or scheduled withdrawal worry broadly about three adverse reactions. They are: an intramural bloodbath or other humanitarian disaster within Iraq, the emergence of an unpoliced "haven" for transnational terrorists, and the domination of Iraq by Iran and its Iraqi political allies to such a degree that Saudi Arabia becomes subject to Iranian coercion.

Most supporters of a fast American withdrawal have decided that they can dispose of the risk of the humanitarian disaster, often because they have persuaded themselves it will not happen, and occasionally because they believe that it would be so particularly "George Bush's fault" in the first place that it should not trouble their conscience. Well, that will certainly be true if the reporters leave when our soldiers do.

Suppose for a moment that we can live with the risk of humanitarian disaster. That leaves the danger that we will leave a vacuum that al Qaeda will fill and the possibility that Iran will "Finlandize" Iraq to such a degree that it threatens Saudi Arabia (or, at least, that Saudi Arabia has good reason to feel threatened).

The "surge" was meant to contend with both of these risks.

Regular readers of this and other blogs know that David Petraeus has forged alliances of convenience with Sunni tribal leaders. Whether or not Iraqis like the United States, they are polarizing against al Qaeda. Another speculation: The American command believes that we and our allies can essentially defeat the transnational jihadis if we keep at it for another 6-12 months. After that, we might be able to sustain Sunni vigilence against al Qaeda and its cognates with the mere threat that we will return when al Qaeda does.

That leaves Iran, which brings us back to the endgame of the American adventure in Iraq and Russia's motives.

For the endgame discussion, see "The Major Diplomatic and Strategic Evolution in Iraq," which Stratfor has helpfully made available to non-subscribers. Fair use excerpt:
Longtime Stratfor readers will recall that we have been tracing these Iranian-American talks from the back-channel negotiations to the high-level publicly announced talks, and now to this working group on security. A multilateral regional meeting on Iraq's future was held March 10 in Baghdad, followed by a regional meeting May 4 in Egypt. Then there were ambassadorial-level meetings in Baghdad on May 28 and July 24. Now, not quite two weeks later, the three sides have met again.

That the discussions were frank and serious shouldn't surprise anyone. That they continue in spite of obvious deep tensions between the parties is, in our view, extremely significant. The prior ambassadorial talk lasted about seven hours. The Aug. 6 working group session lasted about four hours. These are not simply courtesy calls. The parties are spending a great deal of time talking about something.

This is not some sort of public relations stunt either. First, neither Washington nor Tehran would bother to help the other's public image. Second, neither side's public image is much helped by these talks anyway. This is the "Great Satan" talking to one-half of what is left of the "Axis of Evil." If ever there were two countries that have reason not to let the world know they are meeting, it is these two. Yet, they are meeting, and they have made the fact public....

There are three major powers with intense interest in the future of Iraq: the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States, having toppled Saddam Hussein, has completely mismanaged the war. Nevertheless, a unilateral withdrawal would create an unacceptable situation in which Iran, possibly competing with Turkey in the North, would become the dominant military power in the region and would be in a position to impose itself at least on southern Iraq -- and potentially all of it. Certainly there would be resistance, but Iran has a large military (even if it is poorly equipped), giving it a decided advantage in controlling a country such as Iraq.

In addition, Iran is not nearly as casualty-averse as the United States. Iran fought a war with Iraq in the 1980s that cost it about a million casualties. The longtime Iranian fear has been that the United States will somehow create a pro-American regime in Baghdad, rearm the Iraqis and thus pose for Iran round two of what was its national nightmare. It is no accident that the day before these meetings, U.S. sources speculated about the possible return of the Iraqi air force to the Iraqis. Washington was playing on Tehran's worst nightmare.

Saudi Arabia's worst nightmare would be watching Iran become the dominant power in Iraq or southern Iraq. It cannot defend itself against Iran, nor does it want to be defended by U.S. troops on Saudi soil. The Saudis want Iraq as a buffer zone between Iran and their oil fields. They opposed the original invasion, fearing just this outcome, but now that the invasion has taken place, they don't want Iran as the ultimate victor. The Saudis, therefore, are playing a complex game, both supporting Sunni co-religionists and criticizing the American presence as an occupation -- yet urgently wanting U.S. troops to remain.

The United States wants to withdraw, though it doesn't see a way out because an outright unilateral withdrawal would set the stage for Iranian domination. At the same time, the United States must have an endgame -- something the next U.S. president will have to deal with.

The Iranians no longer believe the United States is capable of creating a stable, anti-Iranian, pro-American government in Baghdad. Instead, they are terrified the United States will spoil their plans to consolidate influence within Iraq. So, while they are doing everything they can to destabilize the regime, they are negotiating with Washington. The report that three-quarters of U.S. casualties in recent weeks were caused by "rogue" Shiite militia sounds plausible. The United States has reached a level of understanding with some nonjihadist Sunni insurgent groups, many of them Baathist. The Iranians do not want to see this spread -- at least not unless the United States first deals with Tehran. The jihadists, calling themselves al Qaeda in Iraq, do not want this either, and so they have carried out a wave of assassinations of those Sunnis who have aligned with the United States, and they have killed four key aides to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key Shiite figure.

If this sounds complicated, it is. The United States is fighting Sunnis and Shia, making peace with some Sunnis and encouraging some Shia to split off -- all the time waging an offensive against most everyone. The Iranians support many, but not all, of the Shiite groups in Iraq. In fact, many of the Iraqi Shia have grown quite wary of the Iranians. And for their part, the Saudis are condemning the Americans while hoping they stay -- and supporting Sunnis who might or might not be fighting the Americans. (bold emphasis added)

By this reasoning, the Yankee-Sunni alliance of convenience is a card in our hand with Iran as well as against the jihadis. The logic of the entente is exceeded only by its irony.

So where does the United States stand? It cannot withdraw until it is reasonably confident that Sunni Iraq will not be a comfortable place for the transnational jihadis. There is reason to believe that we are well on our way to achieving that objective. It also cannot withdraw if Iran dominates Iraq, particularly in the Shiite south, to such a degree that the Saudis take destabilizing steps in their own defense (such as funding Iraqi jihadis against Iran or out of desperation requesting the United States to set up a "tripwire," which would get us back to the famous problem of American soldiers on Saudi soil).

Iran, therefore, wants the United States to leave, but the United States cannot leave until it has a workable plan for containing Iran, both in Iraq and otherwise.

Enter Russia. The Bear does not want to help the United States in its confrontation with Iran in the abstract (because that would improve America's position in the Persian Gulf, which is not in Russia's interests), but it does want the United States out of Iraq, which Russia knows will only occur once the United States has a credible plan for containing Iran. That plan requires, as Stratfor argues, a reasonably sustainable multi-party deal on Iraq, and that the Saudis and the Americans persuade themselves that Iran will not get deployable nuclear weapons in the near future. Pressure from Russia on Iran's Track B -- the Bushehr plant -- reinforces both those objectives, if for no reason other than it forcefully reminds the Iranians that they will have to negotiate their way out of the circle of hostile states around them.

Your comments are required. Release the hounds.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 08, 10:28:00 AM:

I don't agree with Stratfor's "analysis" at all. They have no evidence of the content of these talks as anything other than the publicly released statements, and yet they assume the US & Iran are discussing something 180 degrees from all previous policy. Ant hen they assume Russia and Saudi Arabia are in on the new plan too. Nonsense.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Aug 08, 10:34:00 AM:

Stratfor didn't mention Russia, I did. That particular nonsense is all mine.

So, if my speculations and Stratfor's are so wrong, why is Russia pressuring Iran now? Why are the United States and Iran having so many meetings, and what are they talking about?  

By Blogger Escort81, at Wed Aug 08, 11:44:00 AM:

Stratfor's interpretation of the context of Iranian thinking:

In addition, Iran is not nearly as casualty-averse as the United States. Iran fought a war with Iraq in the 1980s that cost it about a million casualties. The longtime Iranian fear has been that the United States will somehow create a pro-American regime in Baghdad, rearm the Iraqis and thus pose for Iran round two of what was its national nightmare. It is no accident that the day before these meetings, U.S. sources speculated about the possible return of the Iraqi air force to the Iraqis. Washington was playing on Tehran's worst nightmare.

Why would Iran fear an Iraqi invasion of Iran in a scenario where Iraq had been pacified by the U.S. military? Just because a Saddam-led Iraq invaded in 1980 (financed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, whose loans Saddam did not want to pay back, precipitating Gulf War I)? Or because of the long history of animosity between Arab and Persian, and Sunni and Shia? This sounds an awful lot like the excuse that Soviet apologists had during the Cold War -- of course the Soviets want buffer states (Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc.) to prevent a third invasion from the West in a century, can you blame them? It seems to me that this is a rationalization swallowed whole by those in the West who close their eyes to the expansionist ambitions of a totalitarian regime. Certainly we can consider the effect of history on the strategic perception of an adversarial regime. But just as the Soviets understood the absolute devastation that much of Europe had experienced during WWII (and the Soviets inflicted at least their fair share in the East in 1945), and that the field of play had been altered for the foreseeable future, Tehran must realize that a Saddam-less Iraq poses little threat to it. Iran should be worried about the American military (if Iran continues down its path toward nuclear weapons), or I suppose, possibly the Israeli military, but not Iraq.

As to why Russia is pressuring the Iranians on Bushehr, could the explanation be as simple as money? Russia has no great love for the Mullahs -- the Russians certainly have their own problems with Islamic extremists and do not need to improve the standing of the center of the universe of Islamic extremism. While Russia benefits from higher energy prices caused in part by political turmoil in the Mid East, it does not want (or should not want) crippling energy prices that harm its trading partners in Europe and have the Chinese start to seek to expand its sphere of influence in energy-rich Siberia.

Talking with the Iranians (in a multilateral fashion with the Iraqis, or one-on-one) is fine, because the two sides should keep the lines of communication open. Breakthroughs can happen when interests become parallel (or is it intersect?), but that usually requires a change in thinking on the part of one or both sides, which seems unlikely as long as the Mullahs retain power. U.S. negotiators need to remain realistic that the Iranians may simply be engaging in more rope-a-dope -- delaying the West with talks until Iranian engineers reach a key milestone, and their strategic and tactical situation improves.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Aug 08, 11:52:00 AM:

Escort81 - There is obviously an enormous amount of speculation embedded in my argument and Stratfor's. On the question of Iranian fear of Iraq, though, I think you are considering it a tad narrowly.

First, we cannot overstate the trauma Iran suffered at Iraq's hands during the 1980s. Of all the various irrational fears the Iranians might have, fear of Iraqi belligerance is the most understandable.

Second, we should not forget that as late as the 1970s the idea that Iraq would attack Iran was considered to be absurd. The Shah had built the most powerful military in the region, and basically was having his way with Saddam. The worm turned in a startlingly short period of time. So current conditions may not prevail for very long, and Iranians know that, too.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Wed Aug 08, 01:22:00 PM:

There was a new story a few months ago about how Iran has been slow on paying.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Wed Aug 08, 01:31:00 PM:

TH -

OK, I am probably being slightly narrow in looking for justification of present-day Iranian fear of Iraq.

Agreed that "we cannot overstate the trauma that Iran suffered at Iraq's hands during the 1980s," just as it is fair to state that the Soviets experienced total KIA casualties in one battle -- Stalingrad -- nearly as great in number as the total of all U.S. KIA casualties in all wars in U.S. history. Those Soviet casualties did not justify the suppression of a generation of Central and Eastern Europeans, particularly once the Soviets had a plausible nuclear defense (a geographic buffer being less meaningful with a change in military technology, though obviously Stalin would not quit occupied countries once he had the bomb and his leverage was greater). The Union inflicted tremendous damage on the Confederacy, particularly in 1864-65, none of which justified the southern states enacting Jim Crow laws following the failure of Reconstruction. Et cetera. In wars between actual armies, the suffering of one side or the other of the combatants does not provide a rationale for bad acts once the war is over. That's essentially how one war leads to the next, or in the case of the U.S. Civil War, a century of continued codified racial injustice.

The Shah had been supplied with U.S. military hardware and Saddam with Soviet hardware, which had as much to do with Cold War international politics as anything else. I am not aware of any direct significant conflict between the Shah and Baath-led Iraq during the 1960s or 1970s, but I am not well informed on that period in that border region. Few predicted the fall of the Shah (including former CIA head Richard Helms, who had business interests there at the time of the fall). When Khomeni's rhetoric became clearly antagonistic and hostile toward Sunnis (as well as the U.S., somewhat beside the point) Saddam saw his chance to make his bones, as Mo Green would say, and increase his standing in the Arab world.

Are you implying that the Iranians are looking five or six chess moves ahead to a possible scenario where a resurgent Sunni-dominated Iraq, free of the American yoke, and somehow armed to the teeth, crosses over the border and charges toward Tehran in 2015? In what? Are there any T-72s left? I suppose it doesn't matter that we don't think it's realistic, it matters that they have that fear.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 08, 02:48:00 PM:

In reference to Russia, I think you considered the problem from many different angles except the most obvious one: Russia doesn't want another neighbor with nuclear weapons, period. Especially if it is Islamic state. So in this matter Russian and US interests coincide (again). Actually, Russians might be much more concerned about Iranian nuclear program than the US, as much as they try not to show it.

I think you made a very shrewd point that as much as Russian policy against Islamic extremism is very much in agreement with the US policy and derives significant benefits from it, present Russian administration would never acknowledge that and will always pretend to the contrary.  

By Blogger Jason Pappas, at Wed Aug 08, 02:59:00 PM:

One other possibility worth considering: Russia is responding to the installation of the missile shield in Eastern Europe.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Aug 08, 03:26:00 PM:

Candide -

I certainly agree that Russia does not want Iran to get nuclear weapons. No question. But as you say it would much prefer to subvert Iran's program out of sight than appear as though it is helping the United States.

Roughly speaking, Russia has competed with Anglo-America for influence in Persia/Iran for more than 200 years. That has not changed. My observation is that Russia is now able to contend with the U.S. for influence in the region, subvert Iran's quest for a bomb, and "help" the United States craft an exit from Iraq, all at the same time. Pretty interesting, I think.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 08, 03:43:00 PM:

Russia is pressuring Iran to either get some more money or to get some more help with their Chechen insurgency, or both. They certainly aren't doing it for our own good. We have seen this behavior from Moscow every 12 months or so.

The public statements about the discussions between the US and Iran (all of 2 meeting so far) consists of the US telling the Iranians to stop arming the Shia militias, and the Iranians denying that they are. If they are talking about anything else, it has not been made public, therefore Stratfor could as well speculate they're trading recipes for babba ganoush. The entire scenario Stratfor wrote about is derived from pure speculation on the content of 2 meetings. The speculation is contrary to past US and Iranian foreign policy.

Russia's goal is to make money selling nuclear technology to Iran, to make money selling weapons to Iran, to crank up tension btween Iran & the US, thereby driving up oil prices which makes even more money for Russia. Ultimately, if the US is forced to take military action against Iran, that to will make even money for Russia as oil prices soar, and generate huge anti-US feelings in the world. A win-win for Russia.  

By Blogger K. Pablo, at Wed Aug 08, 04:42:00 PM:

To amplify on Anonymous Aug 08, 03:43:00 point above, I'd consider the possibility that the Russians have much to gain by keeping the entire region unstable for as long as possible. With Iran befouled in an Iraqi tar baby, the mullahs are unlikely to have much capital on hand to improve the refining capacity of Iran. Russian oligarchs can have relatively free reign at developing new sources of oil and natural gas in the 'stans and at the polar ice cap.

A resource-draining "managed instability" would indeed sap resources from Saudi, Iran, and the U.S., and might have the effect of retarding development of the Iraqi national oil reserves for a great while, as well.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 08, 05:33:00 PM:

Today we learn that Russia has threatened Iran with withholding fuel rods for its reactor, unless Iran comes clean on its nuclear past. America thinks that Russia is thus pressuring Iran in order to make it more amenable and compliant with UN security demands.
However, the Bushehr reactor is not linked to Iran’s nuclear weapons program but is being used as a decoy.
Shortly before the G-8 summit of industrialised nations opened in Germany, the Russian manufacturers Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant tankers delivered the initialising fuel rods to a special train, that delivered the rods to Iran.
Iran has made a recent agreement with Turkmenistan and Turkey on a new gas pipeline, which would cut into Moscow’s monopoly control over the gas routes from Central Asia to Europe.
Putin is therefor applying pressure on Iran to pull out of this deal.
Russia is intent on creating a natural gas cartel to match OPEC, and will do most anything to achieve this.
This pressure will have the added effect of possibly delaying military action against a compliant Iran until after the US elections.
This action, and many such actions in relation to international oil companies, and gas companies in the middle east and the mahgreb, and global cartel discussions, speak of detailed strategic thinking, coupled of course, with the usual dose of meddling for meddling sake, and disinformation.. The recent pollonium in London episode and the ongoing chapters are evidence of this.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 09, 08:38:00 AM:

Your comments are required.

Well, er, dang. I didn't want to be irksome (granted, it would have been a first), but since you insist, here goes:

"In the abstract, virtually all Americans wish the United States could substantially withdraw from Iraq."

Are you saying that, in the abstract, virtually all Americans wish the United States could substantially withdraw from South Korea as well?

What's the dif?

Personally, I like having a few flat tops and Marine platoons spread around the place. In the future, please make that "virtually all Americans except one".


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 09, 03:41:00 PM:

The longtime Iranian fear has been that the United States will somehow create a pro-American regime in Baghdad...

And as Escort has pointed out, that wouldn't necessarily have to be destabilizing, from a military standpoint.

It might well, however, be destabilizing for the mullahs from a cultural/political standpoint, and as such should maybe be something we should consider pursuing to completion.  

By Blogger TheLootenant, at Thu Aug 09, 10:57:00 PM:

Well, because we are so mired in Iraq there's not much we can do about it is there?  

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