Not Saussure

September 17, 2006

Krauthammer vs Chatham House

Filed under: Chatham House, Iran, Neo-conservatives, Politics, usa, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 2:47 pm

The Tehran Calculus — not, as I initially thought, a thriller by Robert Loodlum, on the lines of such works as The Moscow Vector, The Maltarese Circle and The Bourne Trajectory, but a Washington Post article by a gent — rather an influential gent in the US, it seems — by the name of Charles Krauthammer has been causing some comment in the American neo-conservative blogosphere (quite why they call themselves ‘Conservatives’, I do not know, since they have even less to do with what I understand by Conservatism than does David Cameron… splutter… where was I?)

I apologise for the length of this piece, though there is an entertaining movie buried inside it.

Anyway, Mr Krauthammer looks at the prospects of US military action against Iran and things don’t look good, unless, possibly, you follow the Rapture Index, in which case you’re probably quite pleased. I was struck by the article, because I’ve recently read — which it seems Mr Krauthammer hasn’t had the opportunity to — the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House) report on Iran, Its Neighbours and the International Crisis, and I found it interesting to compare them. I’m not saying that Chatham House are necessarily right and Mr K is necessarily wrong, but they are pretty well-respected body and what they have to say is usually worth considering, if only to dismiss it.

‘The signal is unmistakable,’ Mr Krauthammer tells us;

An aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities lies just beyond the horizon of diplomacy. With the crisis advancing and the moment of truth approaching, it is important to begin looking now with unflinching honesty at the military option.

And, as Mr K acknowledges, ‘The costs will be terrible’; disruption of oil supplies, both because Iran would doubtless interrupt its oil exports and, Mr K suggests, attempt a blockade of the Straights of Hormuz.

The U.S. Navy will be forced to break the blockade. We will succeed, but at considerable cost. And it will take time — during which the world economy will be in a deep spiral.

This got me wondering a bit; in Chatham House’s analysis of the prospects of an aerial attack, the bombers come from Israel; difficult to see where else they’d come from, unless it’s US aircraft carriers. Since, as Chatham House put it, Israel

has always had an interest in internationalizing the problem. Israel’s current policy is to present the threat of a nuclear Iran as a challenge to the international system as a whole (p 31 — this, and subsequent, page numbers refer to the .pdf page rather than the printed numeration, for ease of online reference)

I rather wonder if the Iranians would actually go so far as to blockade the Gulf, thus inevitably drawing the US into the conflict as active participants and doing exactly what Israel want by ‘internationalizing the problem’. As Chatham House says,

The US may have the upper hand in ‘hard’ power projection, but for all its ability to win military battles, the Bush administration has shown a lack of ability in planning for and mastering the subsequent peace. Iran has traditionally been a master of ‘soft’ power – the ability to use politics and culture to pursue its strategic interests. Its knowledge of the region, fluency in the languages and culture, strong historical ties and administrative skills have given Iran an advantage over the West. (p 9)

I’d have thought that they would want to keep that advantage; buggering up your neighbours’ oil exports, drawing the US into direct military confrontation and upsetting less partisan countries than the USA and Israel by screwing the world economy even more than the air-raids would do anyway would seem to be a pretty bad move. Better, I’d have thought, to play it as cool as possible, while letting events play out to what you hope will be your advantage and Israel and the US take the flack for the high oil prices. Meanwhile

US policy-makers would also need to consider the threat to the American national interest resulting from a disruption of Iranian oil exports of 2.7mnb/d. (Chatham House, p 19)

Besides, as Mr Krauthammer says, Iran can make enough military mischief without committing its own troops;

Iran will activate its proxies in Iraq, most notably, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Sadr is already wreaking havoc with sectarian attacks on Sunni civilians. Iran could order the Mahdi Army and its other agents within the police and armed forces to take up arms against the institutions of the central government itself, threatening the very anchor of the new Iraq. Many Mahdi will die, but they live to die. Many Iraqis and coalition soldiers are likely to die as well

And ain’t that the truth. As the Chatham House report puts it,

If the US were to attack Iran, then it would do so knowing that its forces in Iraq would be at an even greater risk than they currently are. Any US attack against Iran would expose the US presence in Iraq to retaliatory destabilizing interventions by Tehran. Such interventions could take a variety of forms, but would most likely be focused upon increasing the activity of Shi’a militias in Iraq and facilitating increases in general insurgent attacks against the Multi-National Force (MNF). Such a development would place the British contingent of the MNF, based in Basra, in a desperately perilous situation. […] (my italics)

Washington’s biggest security headache, as it considers whether to embark upon an assault against the Islamic Republic, is neither Iran’s ability to fight in the airspace, nor even in the streets of its border towns (if the US were indeed to surprise most analysts and attempt a land invasion). The greatest threat to the US is Iran’s ability to further destabilize the already chaotic public spaces of Iraq (p 19)

And it won’t just be the Mahdi Army who get stuck in;

it is not only in the south that Iran can make its presence felt in Iraq. The Iranian presence is keenly felt in Iraq’s Kurdish cities, including Suleimaniyah and Erbil. Currently relatively peaceful, the Kurdistan region remains vulnerable to Iranian and Turkish interventions and it is not inconceivable that this one relative success story of the regime change could be turned into a dangerous and volatile region, like the rest of Iraq. Also, Iran is perfectly capable of supplying and supporting insurgent groups of an Arab Sunni hue – even those associated with Al-Qaeda – and these groups would be more than happy to accept any assistance to take the fight to the US. (p 20)

Or, as Riverbend put it more succinctly back in May,

While I hate the Iranian government, the people don’t deserve the chaos and damage of air strikes and war. I don’t really worry about that though, because if you live in Iraq — you know America’s hands are tied. Just as soon as Washington makes a move against Tehran, American troops inside Iraq will come under attack. It’s that simple- Washington has big guns and planes… But Iran has 150,000 American hostages.

What then of the diplomatic consequences? For, as Mr Krauthammer acknowledges,

There will be massive criticism of America from around the world. Much of it is to be discounted. The Muslim street will come out again for a few days, having replenished its supply of flammable American flags, most recently exhausted during the cartoon riots. Their governments will express solidarity with a fellow Muslim state, but this will be entirely hypocritical. The Arabs are terrified about the rise of a nuclear Iran and would privately rejoice in its defanging.

However, a reading of the Chatham House report suggests he may be overly sanguine about this prospect. ‘The Muslim street’ in Iraq, as he’s acknowledged, will do more than burn a few flags, and the report suggests that, by and large, Iran’s neighbours — including, it should be remembered, the non-Arab Turkey and Afghanistan, and — the non-Arab and non-Muslim, of course — Russian Federation are more or less sanguine about a nuclear Iran (selling them masses of kit and expertise in the case of Russia); they’re considerably more bothered about what’ll happen as a result of the US’s possible intervention than they are of anything Iran might do. As Newsday puts it, in Saudi

America’s standoff with Iran is a source of much stress here — with Saudi Arabia worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions but also fearful of the prospect of strong U.S. action. Although the kingdom opposes any attempt by Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, it fears military action against Iran would be devastating for the Gulf region.

And, of course, there’s always the worry for Arab governments more or less friendly to the US — like Saudi, the Gulf States and Jordan that US intervention may cause things to spiral out of control;

Jordan has supported Iran’s right to a civil nuclear programme, warned against the use of force to
resolve the crisis and argued the need for a nuclear free region. As regional armed conflict could be
disastrous for Jordan, it strongly supports a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off with Iran. King
Abdullah warned in March 2006 that ‘a strike against Iran would cause the whole region to
explode’. (Chatham House, p 33)

The problem, it seems to me, is that the more or less friendly Arab governments aren’t necessarily particularly popular with their citizens and that, while these citizens might well do no more than burn some flags when they’re upset about Danish cartoons or the Pope, they — particularly the Shi’a minorities there — might do considerably more, and considerably worse, in a situation where the already highly influential Iran is under attack by America and encouraging them to cut up rough — doubtless with interventions from Iran’s supporters in Iraq — and where the economy is severely disrupted, and take the opportunity to replace their governments with ones more to their — though probably not to our, and certainly not to the US’s — liking.

And what about us over here in Europe (I’m assuming that Britain counts as part of Europe in Mr K’s world-view)? Glad you asked me that; we can be as easily dismissed as the flag-burning Arabs, apparently, because we’re irrational, too.

The Europeans will be less hypocritical because their visceral anti-Americanism trumps rational calculation. We will have done them an enormous favor by sparing them the threat of Iranian nukes, but they will vilify us nonetheless.

This irresistibly reminds me of the bit in Team America where — oh, soddit, I’ve been serious for too long; let’s have some light relief and watch it rather than me summarise it:

Sorry, Mr K; you’re going to have to do better than that. It isn’t ‘visceral anti-Americanism’ that makes me fearful of our troops getting slaughtered in Iraq — and I rather think the other participants in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ will feel the same way, nor is it ‘visceral anti-Americanism’ that makes me worried about the economy being buggered by an oil crisis and severe economic disruption in the Gulf (including in Iran, of course, with whom we, and most other European countries, do a lot of business), nor is it ‘visceral anti-Americanism’ that makes me fearful of the Gulf and the whole Middle East in chaos. It’s a rational calculation that those are bad things, in general and in particular for Britain, and I rather resent being told that you propose to do us all a favour by removing a hypothetical threat that seems to worry folks in America a deal more than it does anyone else other than the Israelis.

The rest of the world, by the way — places like India, Pakistan, Japan and China — oh yes, China might certainly have things to say about it, at least according to Chatham House pp 48 — 50 — don’t get a look in.

Anyway, as Mr Krauthammer acknowledges,

These are the costs. There is no denying them. However, equally undeniable is the cost of doing nothing.

In the region, Persian Iran will immediately become the hegemonic power in the Arab Middle East. Today it is deterred from overt aggression against its neighbors by the threat of conventional retaliation. Against a nuclear Iran, such deterrence becomes far less credible. As its weak, nonnuclear Persian Gulf neighbors accommodate to it, jihadist Iran will gain control of the most strategic region on the globe.

The problem with this analysis is that Iran, partly because of its geography and its diplomatic efforts, and partly because we’ve been kind enough to remove the counter-balance that Saddam’s Iraq provided, is shaping up to be the hegemonic power there anyway. The picture of a jihadist Iran just itching to take a swipe at its neighbours — Iraq, Turkey, Syria,… Afghanistan…Russia… — and only being constrained by the threat of conventional retaliation is science fiction, at least according to Chatham House. They reckon

A recurring theme is the desire of most states to maintain good relations with Iran or, where the relationship is less strong, to avoid antagonization or any further deterioration. There exist a variety of reasons for this which have generally been strengthened by the turmoil in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Iran is in a powerful regional position and its cooperation and positive influence are needed to help douse the many fires currently alight. Were Iran to feel seriously threatened by outside forces, it does have the potential to inflame the region yet further. (p 8 )

And that

Even though Iran is frequently depicted as a manipulator and instigator of violence in the broader Middle East, most recently through its military and financial support for Hizbullah and Hamas in their struggles against Israel, the Iranian regime is wary of provoking generalized chaos in the region because it is essentially conservative and seeks to maintain the status quo. (p 9)

That might sound counter-intuitive, but if you think — as do the authors of the report — about Iran’s geography, it makes a good deal of sense. They’re in the middle of a very volatile region, with very long borders; instability in the area is as much a threat to them as to anyone else, and they don’t really need to get involved in any military adventures — they can better achieve their ends of regional influence with diplomatic and economic means rather than through force of arms.

Ah, but…

Then there is the larger danger of permitting nuclear weapons to be acquired by religious fanatics seized with an eschatological belief in the imminent apocalypse and in their own divine duty to hasten the End of Days. The mullahs

Oh, it’s them he means… sorry…

Just to clarify, I realise that it’s a travesty to suggest that the US is actually in the hands of loonies who want to bring about the end of the world, and, despite the recent excitement over the Rapture Index, I dare say that most of the folks who believe in it at one level are, in reality, far more bothered about more long-term, mundane matters like their children’s education, their job prospects, pensions and so forth. But you see how easy it is to travesty things — as easy, indeed, as many Muslims seem to have found it to travesty the Pope’s recent speech.

Is there, in reality, any reason seriously to fear that

The mullahs are infinitely more likely to use these weapons than anyone in the history of the nuclear age. Every city in the civilized world will live under the specter of instant annihilation delivered either by missile or by terrorist

Even if you’re Israeli? Is it a more realistic fear than the theoretical possibility — doubtless a real fear in some parts of the world — that the evil Christian neo-con crusaders might decide to crank up the Rapture Index?

Digression time — the End Of The World is but one of the many things about which I doubtless know less than I should, but one Lew Rockwell (of whom I hadn’t before heard but who clearly has an axe to grind) seems to suggest that Israel’s main significance to many American Christian fundamentalists, though not one the fundamentalists wish to advertise, for obvious reasons, is to play a highly necessary role in their being raptured, as it were, but with consequences that would not commend themselves to many Israelis in the immediate, and not uneventful, aftermath of this remarkable event.

On this reading, their main objection to the Iranians nuking Israel isn’t a concern for what’ll happen to the Israelis so much as a worry that if it happens to them too soon, this shoots the born-again Christians’ fox since if their interpretation of Scripture is correct, the Jews don’t get killed en masse until slightly later. Can anyone help with this?

Mr Krauthammer concludes his peroration thus

Against millenarian fanaticism glorying in a cult of death, deterrence is a mere wish. Is the West prepared to wager its cities with their millions of inhabitants on that feeble gamble?

These are the questions. These are the calculations. The decision is no more than a year away.

Well, as to the immediate question, Turkey, who seem to have as much as most people to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran, seem to think it is, since deterrence, combined with a refusal to have anything to do with any American military adventures in that country, so maybe it’s not quite as open and shut as Mr Krauthammer suggests. Chatham House certainly think — and they may be mistaken, as I said, that

While the full impact of changes taking place across the Middle East and Asia is yet to be determined, one implication is clear: the complexity of regional relationships currently emerging highlights dimensions of the regional crises that neither the US nor the EU can afford to ignore. Focusing on Iran’s nuclear capabilities alone – or extending criticism to include Iran’s support for Hizbullah – will neither explain nor address the positions being adopted across the Middle East and Asia towards what many see as a struggle for the interconnected future of this wider region. Many in the West have failed to appreciate the complexities of Iran, its deep ties with its neighbours and its long-practiced ability to influence its neighbourhood. The resolution of the many crises afflicting Iran’s region will partly require an improvement in Iran’s relations with the West through careful and patient diplomacy on both sides. Iran’s intricate involvement in these crises and its selfconfidence means that confrontation carries serious risks. (p 8 )

Meanwhile — to return to what I, taking my cue from Michael Oakeshott, think of as conservatism, as opposed to the neo- variety, let us remember that,

Innovating is always an equivocal enterprise, in which gain and loss (even excluding the loss of familiarity) are so closely interwoven that it is exceedingly difficult to forecast the final up-shot: there is no such thing as an unqualified improvement. For, innovating is an activity which generates not only the “improvement” sought, but a new and complex situation of which this is only one of the components. The total change is always more extensive than the change designed; and the whole of what is entailed can neither be foreseen nor circumscribed. Thus, whenever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be off-set by changes for the worse. [ …]

The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better. He is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered, or shipwrecked. If forced to navigate the unknown, he sees virtue in heaving the lead every inch of the way. What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognizes in himself as rational prudence; what others interpret as inactivity, he recognizes as a disposition to enjoy rather than to exploit. He is cautious, and he is disposed to indicate assent or dissent, not in absolute, but in graduated terms. He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world

He’s talking about innovation; I suggest it applies equally to attacking Iran.


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