Friday, September 20, 2019

What About Iran?

That has to be the number one thing on Trump's mind these days. My view, my hope, is that Trump is coming to the realization that his policies--and they are his policies, no matter who advised or persuaded him for whatever reasons--have put him in a box with no good alternatives. The Iranian mullahs--possibly assisted by foreign advisers--know that, for the US, war with Iran would be an act of insanity. The only sufficient reason for undertaking such an act would be an act of mass terrorism that dwarfs anything in our past. We've done nothing about past Saudi attacks on the US, so why would we do anything so insane as attacking Iran? The Iranians understand that, and now the rest of the world understands that. Which puts Trump in a box.

While we wait for Trump to sort all this out and, hopefully, find advisers who will prevent future impasses of this sort, here are a few articles/blogs that lay out some of the issues involved.

Pat Buchanan asks, Can Trump Still Avoid War With Iran? and sets forth some of the strategic misunderstandings in Trump's policy of "maximum pressure."

[I]f neither America nor Iran wants war, what has brought us to the brink? 
Answer: The policy imposed by Trump, Pompeo and John Bolton after our unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. 
Our course was fixed by the policy we chose to pursue. 
Imposing on Iran the most severe sanctions ever by one modern nation on another, short of war, the U.S., through "maximum pressure," sought to break the Iranian regime and bend it to America’s will. 
Submit to US demands, we told Tehran, or watch your economy crumble and collapse and your people rise up in revolt and overthrow your regime. 
The demands Pompeo made were those that victorious nations impose upon the defeated or defenseless. Pompeo’s problem: Iran was neither. 
Hence Tehran’s defiant answer to Pompeo’s 12 demands: 
We will not capitulate, and if your sanctions prevent our oil from reaching our traditional buyers, we will prevent the oil of your Sunni allies from getting out of the Persian Gulf. 
America might emerge victorious in such a war, but the cost could be calamitous, imperiling that fifth of the world’s oil that traverses the Strait of Hormuz, and causing a global recession.

Many readers will be familiar with former CIA analyst, Larry Johnson, from his work on the Russia "hacking" hoax. Today he has a blog on the Iran situation: Iran, We Got to Do Something? Like Buchanan, Johnson is by no means hostile towards Trump, but he sees that Trump's policies have led to the current unpalatable impasse. Moreover, he describes some of the complexities and uncertainties that Trump faces if he should allow himself to be talked into military action:

Colonel Lang's earlier piece warned the President that war with Iran will ensure he is only a one term President. He knows what he is talking about. Unless we are committed to a full war with Iran and defeating the Islamic Republic on the battlefield (set aside a trillion dollars and send 500,000 troops for that effort) we should not launch any kind of air strike--e.g., fixed wing, drones or cruise missiles. The amount of force we would deliver would not cripple Iran's capabilities. 
This much is certain. Iran has the weaponry to strike decisively against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies of the Saudis and could severely damage Saudi Arabia's ability to pump oil and purify water. Taking out the Saudi water supply would be more deadly and damaging than anything Iran could do to the Saudi oil infrastructure.  
Then what? The political pressure in the United States to really hit back at Iran would escalate. Are you ready to pay that price? A military strike on Iran also raises the specter of the war spinning out of control and dragging in other countries. It is highly likely that oil exports from the Persian Gulf would be shutdown. That would likely touch off a global economic collapse. 
We need to step back and try to define what it is that we are trying to do. Regime change in Iran? Destroy their nuclear program? Weaken Iran's influence in the Middle East? I do not see how U.S.or Saudi airstrikes on a limited number of sensitive Iranian targets would advance any U.S. interest or objective. I am open to your suggestions and analysis. 
I have said nothing about cyberwarfare. I have heard some pundits suggest we should hit Iran on that front. Ok. Answer me this--whose economic system is more vulnerable to a cyber attack? The U.S. or Iran? I believe the U.S. has more to lose in such an encounter. Our economic sanctions on Iran have not made them more dependent on computer networks. 
And how will Russia, China, Japan, Western Europe and India react. All but Russia rely on oil coming out of the Persian Gulf. What is the worst case for oil disruption? A responsible planner must take that into account in order to ensure the President understands the potential and long lasting ramifications of any "feel" good military strike. 
Ever since the Korean War the United States public has been sold the lie that we can fight foreign wars and not have to make any sacrifices or incur any costs at home. What did our 1991 war to oust Iraq from Kuwait accomplish? We got the Iraqis back across the border and then became bogged down in trying to police Iraq for the next decade. How about the 2003 invasion of Iraq? We got rid of Saddam, ignited the ISIS threat and installed Iraqi Shias, who are beholden to Iran, in positions of power. And now we wonder how Iranian influence was able to spread throughout the region. We did that, not the mullahs.

Angelo Codevilla--from whom much more in a moment--offers this interesting observation:

The German government, strongly backed by public opinion, is the United States’ chief opponent with regard to Iran.

I hope I've made my views on the German government clear in the past. I'd much rather see Trump dealing with Germany than with Iran at this point. There really is such a thing as having too much on your plate.

Nearly a year ago Angelo Codevilla wrote an article titled: What Is Saudi Arabia to Us? The article was written in the context of the Saudis butchering someone they didn't like in the embassy in Turkey--isn't that what embassies are for? However, if you suspect that Codevilla can't possibly talk about US-Saudi relations without getting into the whole business about Iran, you won't be disappointed. The main point of Codevilla's article is to address the question of: When we protect the Saudis, what are we really protecting? If we think protecting such a loathsome society as Saudi Arabia is really in our interests, then we had better be very clear in our own minds about exactly what interests are being served, and be sure that there is no other way to accomplish those interests. And that leads to some very sobering considerations.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers are a subspecies of the desert rats endemic in the region. The ones on the cheese now are of the clan of seven sons out of old king Saud’s favorite wife, Suda, and hence are known as Sudaris. The previous ruler, Abdullah was the only son of another wife. When Abdullah’s birth-order turn came, in 2005, he took the throne thanks only to having mobilized the national guard of Bedouins for war against the national army (and everything else) controlled by the Sudaris. Today, when you read about Mohammed bin Salman’s “anti-corruption reforms,” you should know that they target primarily Abdullah’s son and other relatives. In other words, what is going on, including murder, is a purely dynastic power play. But that is Saudi Arabia’s nice side. 
The fundamental reality is that this is a slave society, (the Arabic word for black man is the word for slave) which considers work something that inferiors do for superiors, prizes idleness, and practices cruelty as a means of asserting superiority. ... 
Saudi Arabia is marvelously well-connected in America—and especially in Washington D.C.—thanks to countless millions of dollars spread in all manner of ways to any and all who might be useful to the Kingdom over decades. ... The Saudis have been able to get away with whatever they wanted. 
In the aftermath of 9/11, not only did the U.S. government fly Osama bin Laden’s family out of the country forthwith, it also flew out the Saudi consular officials who had helped the hijackers. Sections of the 9/11 commission report dealing with Saudi Arabia remain classified. Since the security camera photos of the 19 Saudi hijackers do not match the names on their passports, to this day, we still do not know their real identities. Nor has anyone investigated whence came the money for the operation. 
Saudi foreign policy has been far from U.S.-friendly. Until around 1990, it might well have been described in one word: “pay.” Who? Anybody, to keep them from making trouble for the Kingdom. Thus the Saudis were the Syrian Assad regime’s main financiers. The money went to buy Soviet weapons. The same was true for Egypt prior to 1979, after which the money went to buy U.S. weapons. The Saudis paid most of the bill for Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran. And yes, they financed the PLO until, in 1990, both the PLO and Saddam turned against them—which led to firming up connections with the United States. 
But those connections did not prevent the Saudis from playing a double game during the Iraq war—entirely understandable from the Saudi standpoint, but the acceptance of which by the U.S. establishment proved its abysmal incompetence. In short, the Saudis wanted above all to protect Iraq’s formerly ruling Sunni minority. That is why they lobbied hard and successfully to turn the successful U.S. invasion of March-April 2003 into the disastrous 2003-2010 U.S. occupation. Worse, during that occupation, the Saudis were the principal financiers of the Sunni war against U.S. forces, and the suppliers of most suicide bombers. 
Today, the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran—effectively between the Muslim world’s Sunni and Shia blocs, is the great issue in the Middle East. 
The Saudis rightly fear Iran. Make no mistake: Much as Iran rails against the Great Satan, (America) and the Little Satan (Israel), Saudi Arabia is its chief enemy. Whatever faults Iranian forces may have, whatever equipment they lack, they are still superior to the Saudis. Most important, the Saudis and their Sunni allies in the Gulf lord it over Shia minorities (in Bahrain they are the majority) who look to Iran for relief. The Shia in Saudi inhabit the oil-producing regions. The Saudis know how vulnerable they are. The United States does not have to convince them to be anti-Iran. Since Iran is far more a danger to them than to us, they will always be more anti-Iran than we. 
Nor do we have to treat them gingerly because they are the principal part of OPEC. In fact, the world oil price is now set largely by American production. Much as the Saudis would love to raise the price by cutting production, they know that maximizing their income requires pumping as much as they can at whatever the world price happens to be. 
In short, we owe them nothing. 
Our relationship with Saudi Arabia should flow from our own needs—not theirs—based on the realities of the region. 
... we should now draw a bright line between our way of life and that of the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now as then, this is primarily for the American people’s benefit. Now as then, we cannot change others, but must deal with them. We don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like us. ... 
Above all, we realize that Saudi Arabia is even less a permanent fixture of the international scene than the Soviet Union was. It is even more unstable. Stabilizing it, saving it from the consequences of its congenital dynastic wars, is beyond our capacities, as John Quincy Adams might have said. That is why now, as in 1823, the essence of good American foreign policy is to be very clear about our very few interests, to commit to those, and to let the rest of the world fight their own battles.

UPDATE: The National Interest offers 5 Reasons Why the Saudi Oil Attacks Won’t Lead to War with Iran. I'll just comment that #2 is a clear defeat for Trump. I doubt that he wanted to show his hand. Being placed in that position has to be frustrating for him:

1. Americans don’t want war with Iran.

2.  Trump has shown his hand. He prefers negotiation to conflict with Iran.

3.  The “devil incarnate” has left the building.
Until last week, John Bolton—who former Secretary of Defense James Mattis joked was the “devil incarnate”—was Trump’s National Security Advisor. Bolton’s dismissal has significantly weakened the influence of the so-called  “B-Team” consisting of Bolton, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

4. The U.S. military is opposed to fighting Iran.

5. Iran doesn’t really want a war with the United States.


  1. The answer is simple= Privateers. Issue letters of Marque and take out Iran's shipping.

    1. In essence we've been trying to do something like that--remember the Brits engagin in piracy at Gibraltar?--but that didn't stop Iran from calling Trump's bluff. This is an area where cooperation with Russia would probably pay dividends, since the Russians are surely wary of Iran, despite playing both sides.

  2. The only Middle East instability since Egypt & Israel agreed to get along many decades ago has been produced by Bush's overthrow of Iraq & Obama's overthrow of Libya & support of terrorists throughout the region (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt & ISIS everywhere & the Iranian Mullahs).
    Otherwise, small-scale conflicts are normal & nothing to sweat. A few oil tanks exploding in Saudi Arabia is trivial. The smart response to this is to sell more military equipment & training to Saudi Arabia.
    If anyone is going to escalate, it should be Iran or Saudi Arabia, not the USA. If Iran wants to block oil exports out of the gulf, they can do that. It’s their front yard.
    The implication that Trump has provoked Iran to do anything they don’t normally do is absurd.

    1. Good points until the end. My best recollection is that Iran does not "normally" place bombs on oil tankers. Since Iran relies on oil exports for revenue, instability in the gulf is obviously against their interest. Iran clearly invoked a tit for tat--if the US continues to prevent Iran from selling oil on the world market, it will take steps to prevent other gulf nations from doing so. That clearly appears to be a response to a provocation. Whether Trump's actions were justified in the first place is another question, but Iran was pretty obviously acting in response to US sanctions.


      "From December 2011 to January 2012, some Iranian government officials openly threatened to
      close the Strait of Hormuz, a major artery of the global oil market, if sanctions are imposed on
      Iran’s oil exports. "

    3. Exactly my point. They threatened to react if provoked. And, Trump-like, they kept their word. Buchanan is right.

  3. The essential dilemma in this conflict with Iran is not about the potential for imminent war or the economic impact of a Gulf oil supply interruption. Rather, it is about nuclear weapons proliferation. The longer this low grade conflict ensues, the more likely it is that Saudi Arabia will begin steps that could lead to it's own nuclear program. This would be a replay of the India-Pakistan nuclear arms race, and have many highly volatile consequences.

    In particular, Israel would view this development as an existential threat and pull out the stops, both with respect to US lobbying and escalating clandestine attacks on Iran. Which, in turn, would prompt Iran to use it's proxies in Lebanon and Syria to instigate direct attacks on Israel. The ensuing chaos and vicious cycle could rapidly spin out of control and lead to a war in which everyone loses.

    So what should Trump do? Sell the Saudi's more anti-missile and anti-drone technology, leave the sanctions in place, provide more regulatory relief to the US oil & gas production industry (and thereby drive crude prices lower), and play tit-for-tat on Iranian attacks. Iran's petrochemical industry is now paying the price for the attack on the Saudi oil production facility. As to the public face of Trump's Middle East policy, it should be stone-faced silence. Despite the current news rhetoric, Iran's is hurting badly and they will blink and come to the negotiating table sooner rather than later.

    1. I hafta say, Iran doesn't seem to have blinked. I still say that, in return for concessions by the US, Russia could be a key part of the solution in applying the pressure on Iran. The US going it alone, IMO, is not going to work.

    Tom S.

    1. Hmmm. Does this mean that those additional troops will be somehow more capable of detecting incoming missiles than those that were already there? Two things have emerged:

      1) US missile defenses can be defeated;

      2) The US will not counter force with force unless the US is directly attacked. Or, possibly, the limits have yet to be determined.

      Defense Secretary Mark Esper: "the U.S. does not seek conflict with Iran, and urge the nation to halt their aggressive actions."

      Pat Buchanan: "Imposing on Iran the most severe sanctions ever by one modern nation on another, short of war, the U.S., through "maximum pressure," sought to break the Iranian regime and bend it to America’s will."

      I have no illusions about any of the ME actors, but I'm not convinced that Trump's policy was well thought through.

    2. My original guess that Trump would call King Saudi and sell him more hardware + training seems to have come true. The Saudis are famously lazy, and as long as King Saudi is paying a premium, it makes sense to send Americans to operate the anti-missile stuff they bought but can't operate. We are "allies", after all.

  5. "The essential dilemma in this conflict ... is ... nuclear weapons proliferation." (Unknown, 6:01pm)

    I think it's critical here to remember why we (the U.S.) are doing what we're doing. The JCPOA was very much a glide path to an internationally sanctioned Iranian nuclear weapons program. Not in some distant future but almost certainly within a decade from now, at most. Any idea that an Iran with nukes would not cause far greater problems for the U.S. than whatever problems we're facing now are, to me at least, fanciful.

    I've been pulling my hair out (figuratively, not literally LOL) for years now over the fact that no politician nor news organization has insisted on educating people on the unquestioned JCPOA terms and their clear implications. Most people actually believe, or at least don’t clearly reject, the scandalous myth that it PREVENTS Iran from getting nukes. Earth to anyone who cares: that mistaken belief makes this problem infinitely harder to deal with than would otherwise be the case.

    It's true these sanctions are a very sticky wicket for President Trump, under any circumstances, but if he would lead the American people to understand the alternative, then a combination of "Don't worry, people, we're NOT going to be getting into any sort of war with Iran over this" plus "but we can't let Iran go nuclear and so we have to do something, even if people over there decide to kill each other over it and cause economic hiccups in the process" would go a very long way to giving the President the breathing room he needs to manage this thing in a way that benefits the world, the U.S and that very same President himself.

    1. This is one reason why I think Russian involvement could be helpful. If you think that "an Iran with nukes would ... cause far greater problems for the U.S. than whatever problems we're facing now," imagine how the Russians would regard a nuclearized Iran. Yes, that would require us to come to other accomodations with Russia. I think that would be workable.

    2. The Theocrats of the Shia death cult ruling Iran are, in fact, True Believers and their goals are not limited to defeating their Sunni rivals. Realpolitik's is to them the same as Democracy, a train you ride until you reach your destination. Mohammed explicitly denies them the right to moral compunction in dealing with heretics (Sunnis) and Kuffar (Christians and Jews) much less polytheists (Hindus). If they perfect the manufacture of nuclear weapons, with attendant delivery systems, the world in general, and the middle-east in particular, will be a very different place.
      The options are limited. 1) Do nothing and hope for regime change. 2) Squeeze them with sanctions (with or without the Russians) and hope for regime change sooner. 3) Total war. No. 3 won't happen. No one has the stomach for that other than the Sunnis and if they could have wiped out the Shia they would have, a thousand years ago, for their goals are no different. Nos. 1 and 2 leave the question, "Who comes next?" One thing is certain, it will NOT be Jeffersonian Democracy. That template has been in the mankind's hands for a century and a half and has had zero takers (that's why "nation-building" was such a stupid excuse for the last generation of folly in the middle-east, any People that wanted it would have had it already). If the Theocrats of the Democrat Party and Deep State (Republican Inc. included) have their way we may not be paying even lip-service to it ourselves in another decade.
      Tom S.

  6. I'm not persuaded that the Iranians actually are seeking to develop nuclear weapons--although I assume they want to have the technical capacity to do so. The two are very different things.

    Why would they not desire to possess nuclear weapons? Two reasons.

    1) It would be more trouble for them than it could possible by worth. Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers that have historically been hostile and couldn't want Iran to go nuclear. Russia, Israel, Pakistan, India. Only slightly further afield, China. And, of course, the US. If Iran went nuclear Egypt and Turkey (historically perhaps the most significant enemy of Iran) would not be far behind.

    2) They have no need for for nuclear weapons for their strategy to succeed--they need only wait for their enemies to make mistakes. The elimination of Saddam--who benefited from that? The attempted destruction of Syria--who has benefited from that? The Saudi campaign against Yemen--who has benefited from that? And of course there are many more such examples.

    All this has benefited Iran, and most have been "own goals"--accomplished not so much by Iranian action as by Iranian opportunism. Taking advantage of self inflicted mistakes of others. All without nukes, and arguably none possible if Iran had nukes.

    Time to start thinking outside the standard issue box. Trump is trying to do that, in a situation not of his making. He has been hampered in a number of ways by those still thinking within the standard issue box.