The following article is adapted from an article in Defense and Foreign Affairs Daily of Nov. 9, 2004.
The re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush significantly affects the entire strategic balance in the Middle East, and particularly with regard to Iran.
The Iranian and Syrian governments, in particular, plus many nominally non-state, transnational players — such as al-Qaida, HizbAllah, and the like — geared much of their strategic posturing over the past few years to removing the Bush Administration in the U.S. This created its own dynamic, but, having failed, the positions and policies of these entities will now evolve.
U.S. evaluation of, and policies toward, the Middle East must take account of this transformation of realities, and potential threats and opportunities.
Clearly, it has to be recognized that much of the greater Middle East is highly unstable, with some aspects moving so detrimentally to international order that the situation could move beyond capacity and power of the United States to control it. The Middle East has witnessed revolutionary change in the past three years, and still more massive changes are underway, particularly as one of the most static focal elements, the Arab-Israeli dispute has transformed with the current transition of power in the Palestinian camp.
But it is important not to forget that the geographical factor in Middle Eastern history has great significance. Geography, in a way, is history in motion.
This region is geopolitically located in middle of three continents and connects and separates three Oceans. The Middle East is, according to British geographer, Sir Hanford Mackinder, “the heart of Eurasian-African world island”, and is also the cradle of civilization and birthplace of important religions such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
This region has always had great role and impact in world history, and there is no reason to suppose that this will change.
In the early 19th Century, and indeed after the expedition of Napoleon to in 1798, and temporary French occupation of Egypt, the Middle East entered into international politics and rivalries and became the bone of contention between Europeans: the French and especially the British, Russia, and Germany.
After World War I, and especially after World War II, the U.S. gradually and finally replaced Great Britain in the region as the dominant power in the Middle East. The U.S. presence gave a new dynamic to the Middle East.
The Change in Iran and the Triumph of Revolutionary Islam
The revolution in Iran, the fall of the Shah in 1979, and the coming to power of fundamentalist clerics that year introduced massive, destabilizing changes to the region as well as to international politics.
In November 1979, Islamist militants raided the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, took diplomats and the embassy staff as hostages. It was the first fundamentalist challenge and a serious test of resolve of the United States Government. It was a challenge which the then-Carter Administration in the U.S. failed to meet. Due to the weakness of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, government-sponsored international terrorism started its advance towards a new kind of war.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Shi'a fundamentalism, in January 1980, in a speech to 120 Pakistani Army officers visiting him in the Iranian city of Qom, said: “We are at war against infidels. Take this message with you. I ask all Islamic nations and all Muslims, all Muslim armies and all Islamic states must join us for holy war; jihad must triumph.” For the first time in the region, a government openly supported jihad, promoted and sponsored international terrorism, and transformed the region into turmoil and posed a threat to moderate regional governments, and to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, to prevent Iranian-style revolution and to compete with the Shi'a Islamic Administration in Tehran, began to promote its own Sunni-Wahhabi version of Islamic fundamentalism. Competition between the two branches of Islam — Shi'ism and Sunnism — and financial, logistical, and ideological support for the promotion of their causes, has been main reason for much of the present unrest, even though the Iranian clerics and the extreme Wahhabists cooperate closely on matters regarding common enemies, such as the United States and the West in general.
Between them, they created new warriors with no fixed address, who devised and undertook wars — using classic and new forms of asymmetrical doctrines in both the psychological warfare arena (including terrorism), and in guerilla warfare — ostensibly on behalf of no state, but against Russia, the West in general, and the U.S. and Israel in particular. Their steady escalation of capabilities, cohesion, willpower, doctrine and capabilities — honed by fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Philippines and, particularly, the former Yugoslavia — led to increasingly direct confrontation with the U.S., and ultimately to the pivotal events of September 11, 2001.
Financial support for building of tens of thousands of Iran-oriented Shi'a and Wahhabist Sunni mosques throughout South Asia, Central Asia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere in the Balkans, in Western Europe, Australia, Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere; the printing and distributing religious literature and organizing religious schools; and the targeted use of television: all this helped to indoctrinate millions of Muslim youths and “remade them” and equipped them for terrorism and suicide bombings.
This surge, now substantially self-financing, and increasingly seeking strategic weapons to support, defend and project their momentum, is the main reason that the world has, in recent years, been catapulted to the verge of a new Dark Age.
The Soviet Union, to prevent fundamentalist contamination of the Central Asian and Caucasian regions, and also to benefit from the vacuum and gain influence in the Persian Gulf, invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The United States and Saudi Arabia, to keep the Soviet Red Army from the Persian Gulf, helped Afghani-based mujahedin with money and arms to fight the Red Army in Afghanistan. This created a sense of mission and identity among many Muslim youth (not just the Afghanis), and, coupled with the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia (created to counter the essentially-secularist military expansion of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein), led to creation of the terrorist and political momentum of Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaida network of terrorist groups which pledge allegiance to him.
Revolution in Iran had another ramification in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein, to fill the vacuum in the Persian Gulf which was created after the fall of the Shah, as well as to dominate the Persian Gulf, was happy to be able to respond to the provocations of the Iranian clerics, and invaded Iran in 1980. The ensuing war lasted eight years. With that war resolved, when it was reduced to a stalemate, Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and the U.S. and an international coalition mobilized, invaded Iraq, defeated Saddam, and freed Kuwait. After September 11, 2001, the U.S., in retaliation for the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, DC, invaded Afghanistan and ended the Taliban Administration which had given shelter and supports to bin laden and al-Qaida.
In early January 2002, in his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress, President Bush warned that an “axis of evil” — made up of Iraq, Iran and North Korea — had accumulated weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which could be used to commit terrorist acts. In a speech in June 2002, at West Point, the President declared his “Pre-emption Strategy”, and, in early 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, defeated Saddam's Armed Forces and ended the Ba'athist Government there. With the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and the subsequent expansion of insurgency wars and terrorism, the status quo has been shattered and the entire region is now in revolutionary turmoil.
The U.S. strategy to remove Saddam from power was basically a logical response to the threat posed to U.S., Western and regional interests. Military operations which led to military victory and the fall of Baghdad in 2003 were historical in their speed and effectiveness, but, perhaps inevitably given the significant planning by Saddam and his advisor to wage a post-war insurgency, the post-conflict violence still confronts the new Iraqi Administration and the Coalition forces.
As Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said: there has been never a protracted war from which a country has benefited.
But all war is hell and chaos. And, in war, no matter what preparations and good plans are laid, there are, inevitably, unpredicted difficulties. According to the German strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, war is the providence of chance, and, moreover, from the Trojan Wars to the present war in Iraq, failures of intelligence have always led (and in the future will lead) to the frustration of the best designs, despite all possible precautions.
In looking at all of the events now challenging the region, it is clear that the catalyst was the revolution which began in 1978-79 in Iran, and the transfer of control of that strategic country to the hands of radical clerics. The clerics started to use Iran as a springboard to advance their revolutionary designs, and historic events took place one after another, and are still continuing to happen. It is almost certain that, but for the involvement of Iran, the ongoing Iran-Iraq competition, and the ongoing Iran-Saudi Arabia (Shi'a-Sunni) competition, the Palestinian question would have resolved into a viable modus vivendi before this.
The Middle East as the New Center of Gravity
Today, the Middle East has — geopolitically — been expanded and extended from the Pamir-Alai mountains on the Central Asian-China boundary, through the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, from the Urals to the Horn of Africa; and it has become volatile, and — in a new manner than in the past century — a center of gravity in 21st Century international politics.
It has become, increasingly rather than less, the nexus of international lines of communications. Despite the growth in available oil and gas reserves in Africa and Central Asia, the Middle East contains some 70 percent of the oil reserves vital to the economies of the U.S., Europe, Japan, India, and China. It is the scene of present and future rivalry, especially between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the U.S. for secure access to energy. The Chinese dependence on oil is growing every year; indeed, energy — together with water — has become the bottleneck for the Chinese economy.
We cannot forget that four of the seven important strategic and commercial passages of the world for commerce and specially oil are located in the Middle East:
1. The Straits of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea is one of the most important chokepoints, and the outlet for more than 14-million barrels of oil a day from Persian and Arabian producers to the world market;
2. The Bab al-Mandeb strait connects the Red Sea-Suez Canal sea lane with the Indian Ocean;
3. The Suez Canal itself connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea; and
4. The Turkish Straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles) connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
The Middle East is a center for fundamentalism, ethnic and religious rivalries, as well as the dispute which has been underway for a half-century between Israel and the Palestinians.
More importantly, the Middle East is the major world center of international terrorism and the fountainhead of the new type of asymmetrical warfare being conducted by Islamist forces against, essentially, Western forces. This form of warfare is pivotal because it has changed the contextual framework of strategic conflict. We no longer see conventional, structured military forces fighting against like adversaries. Rather, we see warfare initiated from within the realms of civil society — masked as to its origins, formations, operating doctrines, and legitimizing framework — as it confronts an economically, technologically and militarily superior set of adversaries on terms conducive to the initiator.
This new form of asymmetric warfare is led by the radical governments of Iran, Sudan, and Syria, none of which could afford a direct and attributable, or conventional, confrontation with their adversaries. Within this strategy sponsored by Iran, Syria and Sudan, fundamentalist militant fringe groups are trying to hijack Islam, to undermine moderates in the region and bring about confrontation between Islam and Judeo-Christian nations. It is not an overstatement to say that Islamists are pushing the cause of radical Islam in a way which could disturb the international order and present a grave threat to the world's equilibrium and to its civilizational structures.
Finally, the region has become center for WMD, including nuclear proliferation and expanded ballistic missile inventories. The uncontrolled WMD environment — which the U.S.-led operations against Saddam was intended to begin to address — holds the greatest potential since the creation of nuclear weapons for globally-catastrophic eruption.
Prescription for Stability
It is the responsibility of the United States, as the only power with sufficient political and military force projection capability, to secure peace and stability in the region. For stability and real reform, however, it is logical and critical that the U.S. policy leaders and their teams should understand the present realities of the region to follow sound and workable policies.
Today in Iran, an administration which is totally irresponsible and which vigorously supports international terrorism, while grossly violating the human rights of its own citizens, is fast moving toward becoming a military nuclear power. It is clear that it already possesses the delivery systems, doctrine, command and control systems, and national command authority to manage nuclear weapons on a sophisticated scale. It has also been known for more than a decade that Iran has acquired nuclear warheads from the former Soviet Union, and possibly from North Korea, while pursuing its own nuclear weapons program.
Strategic analyst and regional expert Yossef Bodansky reported in February 1992: “By the end of 1991, Iran had all (or virtually all) the components needed to make three operational nuclear weapons: aerial bombs and/or surface-to-surface missile (SSM) warheads. Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy has learned from highly-reliable sources that the weapons were assembled from parts bought in the ex-Soviet Muslim republics. These weapons can become operational as early as February to April 1992. Tehran is committed to providing Syria with a nuclear umbrella before June 1992.”
Iran is the biggest and most important country of the Persian Gulf. External powers need to understand that Iran has legitimate security deeds and may need to expand and strengthen it defense capability. However, Tehran clerical Administration's drive to develop nuclear weapons is dangerous for Iran and the region, as much as it is for the West. Indeed, despite the claim that an Iranian nuclear capability is essential to Iran because of the regional proliferation of such weapons (India, Pakistan, Israel, Russia), the main reason for ruling nomenklatura in Tehran wishes to possess nuclear weapons is to consolidate its shaky and domestically-unpopular rule and to prevent external support for the Iranian population.
Indeed, all scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons by the clerical Iranian leadership would be most disastrous for Iran, rather than the states which it attacks with such weapons. Nuclear weapons are not, for Iran, war-winning weapons. Any use by Iran of its strategic nuclear weapons — either as terrorist weapons or as ballistic missile-delivered counter-city weapons — would invite an overwhelming retaliation which would destroy Iran's strategic and social infrastructure even more than has already been done by the clerics' consistent warfare with Iraq and the West.
Indeed, it is logical to suggest that the vast expenditure by the clerics on nuclear weapons and associated delivery and command and control systems may have been totally wasteful from another perspective: Israel and the U.S., the two principal targets of Iranian clerical hostility, are now well-advanced in the development and deployment of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems which could render the Iranian threat essentially meaningless for other than rhetorical purposes.
It must be accepted that the Iranian clerical Government is already de facto nuclear and that it has secured several nuclear warheads which could be mounted on its Shihab-3D intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Hojjat ol-Eslam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the head of powerful Council of Expediency, in his interview in May 15, 2004, elliptically implied that Iran had reached the “breakout path” with regard to its strategic weapons program. The Islamic Republic has accepted new protocol of safeguards (Program 93+2) but has not approved it in the Iranian Parliament, the Majlis. It is possible — even probable — that Iran could withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and follow the path of North Korea in this regard.
Moreover, Russia will not change its commitment to Iran because of economic and strategic interests. Neither will the bulk of the European governments, which are trying in vain to change the mind of the Tehran Administration. They appear to wish to support a government which is totally rejected by its own people. The governments of France, Germany and Britain, due to their economic interests, have been trying to appease the ruling clerics, coaxing Tehran to depart from its strategy of developing nuclear weapons. These governments must soon face realty and understand that nothing will deflect the clerics from their course of action.
President Bush's initiatives for political, social and economic reform, and for promoting democracy in the greater Middle East, along with his roadmap for a viable Palestinian state, are sound within the context of historic trends and current realities, but Muslim leaders, too, are showing signs that they know they must address the region's social and economic problems and proceed toward genuine reform.
Clearly, within this reality, the ongoing stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians would, if not addressed in the emerging post-Arafat era, be detrimental to the security of the wider Middle East. A new approach to Palestinian-Israeli problems is imperative to the stability of the region, and now seems possible.
A stable and democratic Iran — possibly only with the removal of the clerical Government — would be most significant in helping to achieve a stable peace in the region, particularly given the ruling clerics' pivotal efforts in financing and sustaining the Palestinian, HizbAllah and proxy Syrian conflict against Israel. Regional stability, including an end to the Palestinian-Israel conflict can only be reasonably expected to occur when the clerical leadership of Iran is replaced by a secular, democratic Government.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and against transnational terrorism will not be solved or eased unless until the Iranian clerical Administration, the operational and financial center for terrorists and a major sponsor of the insurgency in Iraq, is removed from power. Perhaps as significantly, Iran, with its history, strategic location, population, and resources, can, with a return to a secular, nationalist Government, play an important rôle for peace and stability of the region.
Today, the great majority of Iranians have indicated through a wide range of quiet and public protests that they are against the ruling clerics and are ready to rise to establish a secular democratic government. The President of the United States has repeatedly supported the cause of Iranian freedom, but different voices from different branches of the Administration, expressing different and confusing messages, has been disappointing to Iranians who have been for decades struggling for freedom.
Clearly, however, the history of Iranian and Persian nationalism militates against the efficacy of foreign, armed intervention in Iran, even to support the Iranian people. The Iranian people have shown on many occasions that, at the appropriate “tipping point”, they have the strength to act suddenly to change their situation, provided they understand that the outside world supports them.
But if armed foreign intervention is counter-productive when it comes to Iran, so, too, is the kind of negotiation and ostensible offering of incentives which France, Germany and Britain — the EU3 — are advocating. Nor will sanctions or an Osirak-style surgical military strike (of the type undertaken by Israel against Iraq in 1981) work. Any military attack on Iran will, because of the great strategic depth and military capability of the country, escalate and propel the entire region to a wider war with unpredictable consequences. Iran is advanced in various fields of WMD. Military attack or surgical operations could create centrifugal forces and those weapons could fall into the hands of radicals and terrorist groups and create problems much more extensive than those of today in Iraq.
However, to successfully achieve change in Iran, there cannot be any compromise by the U.S. or any deals by it with the clerics, because such actions will not change the mullahs' mindset. The most practical option for the United States is to assist the Iranian people, given the momentum of the anti-clerical sentiment in Iran.
Negotiation, compromise or the offering incentives, such as is being advocated by various European leaders, will not change the intentions of the ruling clerics, but could bolster and contribute to consolidation of their shaky administration. Indeed, any signs of protection of the clerics by European leaders disappoint and antagonize the people of Iran. Perhaps more importantly, the European proposal — also advocated by failed U.S. Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry — to offer the clerics non-military nuclear energy technology as an incentive for Iran to stop developing military nuclear capability, should be seen as being patently ludicrous, as it was for North Korea.
The Iranian leadership is not overly concerned with energy matters. It wants nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, not nuclear energy, are what it sees as its safeguard and its assurance of continued power.
But the clerical Administration of Iran has lost it political and religious legitimacy. It is fragile and is ready to be toppled.
The Armed Forces as a whole and a large body of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are dissatisfied with the leadership. They fully understand that the mullahs, with their mishandling of foreign and domestic affairs, are leading Iran to the verge destruction and disintegration. More than 270,000 (out of approximately 300,000) clerics have turned against their own leaders.
While hardliners in the February 2004 Majlis election forced out so-called “reformists”, the system is not as monolithic as it looks. A power struggle within the system, like the last days of the Soviet Union, is underway. The only thing the Iranians need is open U.S. moral and political support give them the psychological impetus to act.
Dr Assad Homayoun writes occasionally for WorldTribune.com, and serves on its Advisory Board. He is a Senior Fellow with the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), in the Washington, DC, area, specializing in studies on the Northern Tier region. He is also President of the Azadegan Foundation for Democratic Change in Iran, an institution which promotes Persian culture and history. Dr. Homayoun was a senior diplomat in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and was the last Iranian diplomat in charge of the Imperial Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, when the Shah left office in 1979.