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The problem with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress March 3 was not the risk of offending Washington, but rather Washington’s receding relevance. President Barack Obama is not the only leader who wants to acknowledge what is already a fact in the ground, namely that “Iran has become the preeminent strategic player in West Asia to the increasing disadvantage of the US and its regional allies,” as a former Indian ambassador to Oman wrote this week.
For differing reasons, the powers of the world have elected to legitimize Iran’s dominant position, hoping to delay but not deter its eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons. Except for Israel and the Sunni Arab states, the world has no desire to confront Iran. Short of an American military strike, which is unthinkable for this administration, there may be little that Washington can do to influence the course of events. Its influence has fallen catastrophically in consequence of a chain of policy blunders.
The best that Prime Minister Netanyahu can hope for is that the US Congress will in some way disrupt the Administration’s efforts to strike a deal with Iran by provoking the Iranians. That is what the White House fears, and that explains its rage over Netanyahu’s appearance.
Tehran may overplay its hand, but I do not think it will. The Persians are not the Palestinians, who discovered that they were a people only a generation ago and never miss an opportunity to miss and opportunity; they are ancient and crafty, and know an opportunity when it presents itself.
Most of the world wants a deal, because the alternative would be war. For 10 years I have argued that war is inevitable whatever the diplomats do, and that the question is not if, but how and when. President Obama is not British prime minister Neville Chamberlain selling out to Hitler at Munich in 1938: rather, he is Lord Halifax, that is, Halifax if he had been prime minister in 1938. Unlike the unfortunate Chamberlain, who hoped to buy time for Britain to build warplanes, Halifax liked Hitler, as Obama and his camarilla admire Iran.
China is Chamberlain, hoping to placate Iran in order to buy time. China’s dependence on Middle East oil will increase during the next decade no matter what else China might do, and a war in the Persian Gulf would ruin it.
Until early 2014, China believed that the United States would guarantee the security of the Persian Gulf. After the rise of Islamic State (ISIS), it concluded that the United States no longer cared, or perhaps intended to destabilize the region for nefarious reasons. But China does not have means to replace America’s presence in the Persian Gulf. Like Chamberlain at Munich, it seeks delay.
Obama, to be sure, portrays his policy in the language of balance of power. He told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in 2014, “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other. And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion – not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon – you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
That, as the old joke goes, is the demo version. On the ground, the US has tacitly accepted the guiding role of Iranian commanders in Iraq’s military operations against ISIS. It is courting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who just overthrow a Saudi-backed regime in Yemen. It looks the other way while its heavy arms shipments to the Lebanese army are diverted to Hezbollah.
At almost every point at which Iran has tried to assert hegemony over its neighbors, Washington has acquiesced. “In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power,” wrote Henry Kissinger. The major powers hope for peace through Iranian hegemony, although they differ in their estimate of how long this will last.
Apart from its nuclear ambitions, the broader deal envisioned by Washington would leave Iran as a de facto suzerain in Iraq. It would also make Iran the dominant power in Lebanon (via Hezbollah), Syria (via its client regime) and Yemen (through its Houthi proxies). Although Sunni Muslims outnumber Shi’ites by 6:1, Sunni populations are concentrated in North Africa, Turkey and South Asia. Iran hopes to dominate the Levant and Mesopotamia, encircling Saudi Arabia and threatening Azerbaijan.
It is grotesque for America to talk of balance of power in the Persian Gulf, because America destroyed the balance of power that defined the region’s politics from the end of the First World War until 2006, when Washington pushed through majority rule in Iraq.
The imperialist powers in their wisdom established a power balance on two levels. First, they created a Sunni-dominated state in Iraq opposite Shi’ite Iran. The two powers fought each other to a standstill during the 1980s with the covert encouragement of the Reagan administration. Nearly a million soldiers died without troubling the world around them.
Second, the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 created two states, Syria and Iraq, in which minorities ruled majorities – the Alawite minority in Syria, and the Sunni minority in Iraq. Tyranny of a minority may be brutal, but a minority cannot exterminate a majority.
America’s first great blunder was to force majority rule upon Iraq. As Lt General (ret.) Daniel Bolger explained in a 2014 book, “The stark facts on the ground still sat there, oozing pus and bile. With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency. Absent the genocide of Sunni Arabs, it would keep it going.”
Under majority Shi’ite rule, Iraq inevitably became Iran’s ally. Iranian Revolutionary Guards are now leading its campaign against the Sunni resistance, presently dominated by ISIS, and Iranian officers are leading Iraqi army regulars.
This was the work of the George W Bush administration, not Obama. In its ideological fervor for Arab democracy, the Republicans opened the door for Iran to dominate the region. Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s National Security Advisor, proposed offering an olive branch to Iran as early as 2003. After the Republicans got trounced in the 2006 Congressional elections, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a pink slip, vice president Dick Cheney got benched, and “realist” Robert Gates – the co-chairman of the 2004 Council on Foreign Relations task force that advocated a deal with Iran – took over at Defense.
In the past, China has sought to strike a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran with weapons sales, among other means. One Chinese analyst observes that although China’s weapons deliveries to Iran are larger in absolute terms than its sales to Saudi Arabia, it has given the Saudis its best medium-range missiles, which constitute a “formidable deterrent” against Iran.
As China sees the matter, its overall dependency on imported oil is rising, and the proportion of that oil coming from Iran and its perceived allies is rising. Saudi Arabia may be China’s biggest provider, but Iraq and Oman account for lion’s share of the recent increase in oil imports. China doesn’t want to rock the boat with either prospective adversary.
Among the world’s powers, China is the supreme rationalist: it views the world in terms of cold self-interest and tends to assume that others also view the world this way. One of China’s most respected military strategists told me bluntly that the notion of a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran (and by implication any regional nuclear power and Iran) was absurd: the Iranians, he argued, know that a nuclear-armed Israel could destroy them in retaliation.
Other Chinese analysts are less convinced and view Iran’s prospective acquisition of nuclear weapons with trepidation. It is not only war with Israel but with Saudi Arabia that concerns the oil-importing Chinese. For the time being, Beijing has decided to accommodate Iran. In a March 2 commentary, Xinhua explicitly rejected Israeli objections:
The US Congress will soon have a guest, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to try to convince lawmakers that a deal with Iran on its nuclear program could threaten the very existence of the Jewish state.
Despite the upcoming pressure, policymakers in Washington should have a clear mind of the potential dangers of back-pedaling on the current promising efforts for a comprehensive deal on the Iranian nuclear issue before a March 31 deadline …
With a new round of talks in Switzerland pending, it is widely expected that the P5+1 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany] could succeed in reaching a deal with Iran to prevent the latter from developing a nuclear bomb, in exchange for easing sanctions on Tehran.
The momentum does not come easy and could hardly withstand any disturbances such as a surprise announcement by Washington to slap further sanctions on Tehran.
The Obama administration needs no outside reminder to know that any measures at this stage to “overwhelm” Iran will definitely cause havoc to the positive atmosphere that came after years of frustration over the issue.
While it is impossible for Washington to insulate itself from the powerful pro-Israel lobbyist this time, the US policymakers should heed that by deviating from the ongoing endeavor on Iran they may squander a hard-earned opportunity by the international community to move closer to a solution to the Iran nuclear issue, for several years to come if not forever.
Russia has taken Iran’s side explicitly, for several reasons.
First, Russia has stated bluntly that it would help Iran in retaliation for Western policy in Ukraine, as I wrote in this space January 28. Second, Russia’s own Muslim problem is Sunni rather than Shi’ite. It has reason to fear the influence of ISIS among its own Muslims. If Iran fights ISIS, it serves Russian interests. Russia, to be sure, does not like the idea of a nuclear power on its southern border, but its priorities place it squarely in Iran’s camp.
The Israeli prime minister asserted that the alternative to a bad deal is not war, but a better deal. I do not think he believes that, but Americans cannot wrap their minds around the notion that West Asia will remain at war indefinitely, especially because the war arises from their own stupidity.
Balance of power in the Middle East is inherently impossible today for the same reason it failed in Europe in 1914, namely a grand demographic disequilibrium: Iran is on a course to demographic disaster, and must assert its hegemony while it still has time.
Game theorists might argue that Iran has a rational self-interest to trade its nuclear ambitions for the removal of sanctions. The solution to a multi-period game – one that takes into account Iran’s worsening demographic weakness – would have a solution in which Iran takes great risks to acquire nuclear weapons.
Between 30% and 40% of Iranians will be older than 60 by mid-century (using the UN Population Prospect’s Constant Fertility and “Low” Variants). Meanwhile, its military-age population will fall by a third to a half.
Belated efforts to promote fertility are unlikely to make a difference. The causes of Iranian infertility are baked into the cake – higher levels of female literacy, an officially-sanctioned culture of sexual license administered by the Shi’ite clergy as “temporary marriage,” epidemic levels of sexually-transmitted disease and inbreeding. Iran, in short, has an apocalyptic regime with a lot to be apocalyptic about.
Henry Kissinger is right: peace can be founded on either hegemony or balance of power. Iran cannot be a hegemon for long because it will implode economically and demographically within a generation. In the absence of either, the result is war. For the past 10 years I have argued in this space that when war is inevitable, preemption is the least damaging course of action. I had hoped that George W Bush would have the gumption to de-fang Iran, and was disappointed when he came under the influence of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates. Now we are back in 1938, but with Lord Halifax rather than Neville Chamberlain in charge.