Rather than a Folie à Deux, call it a Folie à 5+1: a mutually reinforcing delusion involving Iran, the United States, Russia, China and the Europeans. What makes the outcome of the Iran nuclear deal so dangerous is that none of the parties to the agreement has thought through the consequences of its actions, least of all Iran itself. They are not so much sleepwalkers, as historian Christopher Clark characterized the combatants who stumbled into World War I, as waking fantasists.

There is one state of the world in which things go right, namely, Iran’s passive acceptance of national decline. There are innumerable ways in which everything can go terribly wrong. Game theorists who try to construct a decision tree from these criteria would assign a very low probability to a good outcome and a very high probably to a bad one.

Iran believes that it will lead the Shi’ite Muslims of the region to restored power; America believes that Iran’s enhanced status will foster a beneficial balance of power; China believes that the balance of military power between the Sunni and Shi’ite states (and between Iran and Israel) will prevent war; Russia believes that Iran will serve as a counterweight to the Sunni jihadist that threaten its southern flank; and the Europeans as usual close their eyes and hope for the best.

All of them are wrong, starting with Iran, which entertains delusions of grandeur. At their most flagrant, these delusions conjure up the prospect of a new Persian Empire. Ali Yousini, the advisor on Ethnic and Religious Minorities to Iran’s president Hassan Rowhani, raised hackles last March with a declaration that “Baghdad is now capital of the Iranian empire.” Iran, Yousini explained was an empire from its inception and “Baghdad has become part of this empire.” Yousini added, “Iraq is not only culturally part of its influence, but it is the [Iranian empire] identity and its capital today… We cannot leave this issue since geographical and cultural relations are ongoing and its demise is possible. We either agree or we will fight.”

Yousini was talking nonsense. There aren’t very many Shi’ites, and almost half of them are in Pakistan, India, or Turkey—surrounded, that is, by overwhelming Sunni majorities. Most of them want nothing to do with Iran; to the extent they did in the past, they suffered terribly for the association. After the Iraqi government condemned this slight to its sovereignty, “Younesi said that he was alluding to cultural similarities with Iraq, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, adding that ‘unification’ of these countries could halt expansionist agendas of powers foreign to the region,” according to al-Alarabiya.

Yousini’s rhetoric about an “Iranian Empire” gauges the Persian frame of mind on the eve of the P5+1 agreement. Imperial fantasies make Iran’s ambitions more dangerous rather than less, for Iran will try to accomplish with missiles and weapons of mass destruction what it cannot accomplish on the ground.

A brief survey of the state of Shia Islam is instructive.

Percent ShiaPercent of World Shia Population
Saudi Arabia151

Note: The first column is the percent of Muslims who are Shia, not total population. Not included are countries where Shia Muslims comprise less than 1% of the world Shia population.

After the Iranian revolution, the Khomeini regime reached out to Pakistan’s 20% Shi’ite minority, with baleful consequences. As Ahmad K. Majidyar wrote in a 2014 report for American Enterprise Institute:

For the first three decades of Pakistan’s existence (1947–77), Shi’ite-Sunni differences were marginal: across the country, Shi’ites coexisted peacefully with the Sunni majority and practiced their faith freely and openly. In fact, the Pakistani Shi’ite community—the largest in the world except for Iran’s—played a significant role in the creation of Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, and many of his political aides were from the Shi’ite sect, although they pursued a secular and nonsectarian agenda to unite the Muslims of India under the banner of Pakistan.

Prime Minister Ali Bhutto (1971-1977) was a Shi’ite as well. The military coup of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq shifted Pakistan towards Sunni sectarianism. Encouraged by the Iranian revolution, Pakistan’s Shi’ites gathered en masse in Islamabad in 1980 and forced the Zia-ul-Haq government to rescind some its most onerous measures. The Shi’ite recover in Pakistan did not last, however. Pakistan allied with Sunni extremists in Afghanistan as well as at home. By the late 2000s, Sunni terrorism against Pakistani Shi’ites claimed several hundred lives a year, to the point that Waris Hussain complained of “early warnings signs of Shia genocide in Pakistan” in a 2014 essay in The Diplomat. Presumably the Pakistani military keeps violence against Shia at a low boil in order to preempt any repetition of the Shia rising of 1980.

Pakistan has more than twice the population of Iran, and a much larger military establishment, not to mention nuclear weapons. Its military-age population is growing rapidly, while Iran’s will shrink from 18 million in 2010 to only 12 million in 2020. In the not-so-long term, Pakistan represents a strategic threat to Iran. It seems likely that Islamabad maintains a low but constant level of violence against Pakistani Shi’ites as a warning to Iran not to repeat its religious outreach. Pakistan’s 40 million Shia Muslims do not represent a strategic facto. Neither do India’s 40 million Shia.

Turkey’s Alevis qualify as “Shi’ites” under a broad definition, but the Sufi quietism of Turkey’s largest religious minority has little in common with Iran’s apocalyptic sect. The Alevis support the secular opposition to the ruling Sunni establishment; Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, is an Alevi. One reads casual allegations of Iranian agitation among the Alevi, but Iran has little real influence in Turkey. The ascendant force in Turkish politics is the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), reflecting Kurdish demographics. A generation from now half of military-age Turks will speak Kurdish as a first language.

Saudi Arabia has a 15% Shia minority, concentrated in Eastern Province, facing Iran across the Persian Gulf. Iranian leaders have warned Saudi Arabia that it will agitate among Saudi Shia in retaliation for the Saudi campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In an extreme case, Iran might succeed in weakening the House of Saud. If the Saudi monarchy falls, however, it will be replaced by something nastier—either the Muslim Brotherhood, which the monarchy has suppressed, or by something like ISIS. Perhaps 10% of the half-million military and security personnel among the Gulf States are Pakistani veterans, including a high proportion of Saudi pilots. They would make short work of a Shia revolt. The Kingdom may not have reliable boots on the ground, but it has the region’s biggest air force and good pilots, including many Pakistanis.

Iran claims some of Azerbaijan’s oil discoveries in the Caspian Sea, but its efforts to subvert its northern neighbour through the country’s religious establishment have been ineffective.

Perhaps 20 million of Iraq’s 34 million people are Shia Muslims, but their strategic value to Iraq is doubtful. Suppressed by Sunni masters since the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Shia have little capacity to fight, as the miserable performance of the Iraqi Army against ISIS makes clear. ISIS has enlisted many former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army as well as militants trained by the US during the 2007-2008 “Surge” through the Sunni Awakening. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard appears to have established something of a balance of power in central Iraq, at considerable cost in blood as well as treasure. Basra Province in Iraq’s Southeast borders Iran, and its 1.5 million people are 95% Shia. The rest of Iraq will remain contested indefinitely. With 12 million Syrians and 4 million Iraqis displaced from their homes, the recruiting pool for military conflict is bottomless for the time being.

Hezbollah makes a great deal of noise given its small demographic base. The United Nations estimates that Lebanon has fewer than 700,000 men aged 20 to 40; if 30% of these are Shia, then the total number of fighters theoretically available to Hezbollah is lower than 200,000. Hezbollah is a militia, though, not a regular army, and its core cadre are estimated at fewer than 10,000. Perhaps 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have died in the Syrian civil war, a rate of attrition that can’t be sustained indefinitely.

This brief review makes clear that Iran has limited means to mobilize the vast majority of Shia Muslims outside its borders, even they wished to be mobilized by Iran. It has control over small pockets of Shia populations in Syria and Iraq. What Iran has, on the contrary, are rocket-launching platforms in northern Lebanon, Gaza and prospectively the West Bank—if the West is misguided enough to force the creation of a putative “Palestinian State,” control of which would be contested between Iran and ISIS. Hezbollah’s role in the Iranian order of battle is to provide an artillery platform against Israel, with human shields around missiles deployed in civilian areas of South Lebanon.

Iran’s missile program is unaffected by the P5+1 nuclear agreement, and Iranian leaders have stated in the plainest language possible that Iran will tolerate no limitations of any kind on ballistic missile development.

The Persians, after all, invented chess. If the paws—the Shi’ite forces on the ground—have limited room to maneuver, one seeks to control the center of the board remotely with rooks and bishops. Those are Iran’s missiles, drones, and WMD capacity. That is as great a concern to Israel as Iran’s prospective development of nuclear weapons. As Lt. Col. Michael Segall wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs:

The rockets, drones and missiles will be a major part of Iran’s growing assistance to its proxy terror organizations and other clients in the Middle East. Iran wants to recast the region in its own image while continuing the process, already in full swing, of ejecting the United States from it. The rockets and missiles are likely to strike U.S. allies in the region (the Houthis are already firing rockets at Saudi territory) and, in the future, the more Iran’s confidence grows, to limit U.S. freedom of movement in the Persian Gulf and in the area of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait while exacting a high price for the U.S. in any military conflict with Iran.

Iran does not need nuclear warheads to inflict catastrophic damage on an adversary. It already has sufficient radioactive material for numerous radiological weapons, or “dirty bombs,” that can be delivered by its existing missile force, as John R. Haines of the Foreign Policy Research Institute noted in a July 4 report. Dirty bombs aimed at a country like Israel with high urban population concentrations could be devastating. Israel has one important advantage in a radiological exchange: it obtains half its water from desalination. Radioactive material in the national water supply could be a game-ender, and Iran is inherently more vulnerable in this case than Israel.

Under the P5+1 agreement, the Middle East will become a continuously morphing chessboard, as Iran deploys ever-more-sophisticated missiles with every-more-terrifying payloads, using its pockets of Shi’ite support to base its missiles as far forward as possible against Israel as well as Saudi Arabia. In chess terms, Iran is moving knights to the center of the board. The balance of power between Sunni and Shia envisioned by the United States is an evanescent mirage, as both sides engage in a deadly high-tech chess game to obtain decisive advantage. As the chess maxim has it, the threat is mightier than the execution: every new Iranian threat will prompt an escalating response from the Sunni side. It is idiocy to believe that this sort of escalation is manageable. Iran cannot establish a Shia empire, but it can assert its power past the threshold at which its neighbors kick over the chessboard.

Russia evidently hopes that a resurgent Iran will act as a check against the Sunni jihadists that plague its southern borders. On the contrary: Iran’s growing power will prompt Saudi Arabia and Turkey to redouble their support for Sunni proxy warriors, and to be far less selective about whom they support. The flow of arms and money to Sunni jihadists fighting Iran in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will increase, and some of that will find its way into the hands of jihadists in the Russian Caucasus.

China has sold missiles to both Saudi and Iran (more quantity to Iran, higher quality to Saudi Arabia). Beijing’s view of the rapidly-shifting situation on the ground in Western Asia does not appear to be fully developed, but its fall-back position has been to rely on balance of power. The default view at the Peoples Liberation Army is that a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel is unthinkable because Israel has sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy Iran.

That is not the way a strategic conflict would present itself: What happens if Hezbollah puts radiological weapons onto GPS-guided missiles and fires a few dozen of them at Tel Aviv? Israel’s anti-missile defences may or may not be sufficient to destroy a large number of guided missiles (as opposed to the ordinary ballistic missiles that Hamas fired from Gaza during the summer of 2014). How will Israel respond to an Iranian radiological weapon delivered from Lebanon? Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons are often mentioned. And how would Iran respond to the Israeli response? The result may be an extended interruption of Persian Gulf oil supplies and the collapse of China’s economy.

When Iran finally breaks out and assembles a deliverable nuclear bomb is now the least important question. Radiological weapons may already give it something of a Strangelovian “Doomsday Machine,” and its myriad missile installations in the region—from Lebanon to Yemen—make it increasingly difficult for any available countermeasures to interdict the delivery of such weapons.

Of course, it is possible that Iran will choose to behave itself, and accept a rapid and humiliating national decline. Iran, to be sure, can choose to sink into national decline, as its population aged 60 years and over rises from 7.4% in 2010 to 30% in 2050, and its median age jumps from 27 years to 42 years. Between 17% and 25% of Iranian women report that they are infertile (compared, for example to 4%-6% of women in South Asia), due to “genital infections and environmental variables, such as dietary factors, [and] low family income.”  Iran apparently has the highest STD infection rate in the world. Educated Iranian women choose not to have children; many uneducated women cannot have children. Iran’s belated, panicky efforts to raise its fertility rate above the 1.6 children per female reported in 2012 are unlikely to have much effect.

History is full of examples of self-styled empires that chose to pass into senescence, but I cannot think of an example of one that did so before it was defeated. After the agreement with the P5+1, Iran feels more confident than ever, which is to say, more megalomaniacal. If it were to choose a slow decline as opposed to imperial self-assertion, it would be an historical first. As Damon Runyon would say, that’s not the way to bet.


David Paul Goldman (born September 27, 1951) is an American economist, music critic, and author, best known for his series of online essays in the Asia Times under the pseudonym Spengler. Goldman sits on the board of Asia Times Holdings.

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