By Glenn M. Stewart
In light of the revelation this week of the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US and to bomb the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in the United States, it is high time the US Administration got its act together on how to deal with Iran. (Not that there’s actually much chance of this happening.)
The first reality that needs to be faced is that given the way things work in Iran it is utterly naïve to think that this plot was not sanctioned by their highest authority. The second reality that we need to come to terms with is that plotting to carry out such actions on US soil constitutes an act of war.
We are already engaged in a proxy war against Iran which is using the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada Al Sadr to extend their influence in Iraq and has blatantly been killing US troops for 8 years now.
Iran is also at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia over the expansion of Shia power in Iraq, over the Saudi’s support for the minority Sunni regime in Bahrain and over the Saudis increasing attempts to influence the situation in Syria, where the Saudis increasingly want to see the overthrow of Bashar Al Assad and the Shia offshoot Alawi sect.
As I’ve said before, the misguided US policy in Iraq is directly responsible for the growth of Iranian power in the Middle East region. However, given what is going on in the region this doesn’t mean that we haven’t got the time or the ability to reverse this trend before the Iranians finish developing their nuclear weapons. Once that happens, and at present the current administration hasn’t got the guts or the will to stop it; the strategic situation will change for the worse. The Iranians have been running diplomatic rings around the US and the EU in their efforts to develop nuclear weapons up to now and I see no reason for that pattern to change anytime soon.
That the Saudis are clearly in the Iranians crosshairs gives further credence to the already plausible reports that the Saudis have given the Israelis over flight rights so that they can strike at key parts of the Iranian nuclear program. This will probably become necessary in due course but will be very messy as the Iranians will retaliate with conventional missile strikes on Israel, Saudi Arabia and on American military facilities in Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE.
In the meantime there are three things we can do to reduce Iranian power in the region.
First we should be working actively to help the Syrian opposition groups overthrow the regime in Syria. This is long overdue. As usual, however, western economic interests are not large enough to give anyone the shove to get past rhetoric. I’m sure that no one is under the illusion that the French and British led the charge with Italy and the US tagging along to get rid of the Ghaddafi regime in Libya because those governments all had a sudden Damascene conversion and realized that they had a moral duty to remove a bloody tyrant from power.
I’m sorry did I say governments. I meant Total, British Petroleum and Eni. And there is the crux of the problem over helping the opposition in Syria. Syria only produces 400,000 barrels of oil a day and as the British used to say’ the game isn’t worth the candle’. However, the removal of the Alawites from power would have the positive effect of choking off a large part of the arms supply that flows to Hizbullah and Hamas and thus substantially reducing Iranain influence in the region.
The second action that should be taken against Iran is the one that was widely reported in the press that the US Administration was actually contemplating. That is putting the Iranian Central Bank under sanctions. This would have a profound effect on the Iranians ability to run their economy including their ability to sell oil. However, there are a couple of problems for the US in taking this step that we would have to swallow. The first is that it would drive the price of oil up which would hurt the US economy not to mention US consumers. Secondly our European friends and allies would probably resist it as they are all engaged in lucrative commerce with Iran that they would prefer not to sacrifice in the short term, irrespective of the long term political risks that coddling the Iranian regime entails.
Any fantasies that are being entertained by people either within or outside the US government that somehow the problem of Iran will eventually be solved by an outbreak of pent up democracy by young Iranians yearning to break free of the dead hand of aging Ayatollahs is just that, fantasy.
The third thing that we could do is a real solution to the problem of Iranian aggrandizement and the imbalance of power in the region. We could effect it without engaging in a direct war with Iran. The solution is both elegant and complex but achievable. It would change the balance of power in the Middle East in a way that would make the policing of this turbulent, unstable yet vital part of the world easier.
First we need to set up an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. This shouldn’t be too difficult as the current Iraqi state is not viable and the basic governmental infrastructure already exists there. That state should then be used to liberate the two million odd Kurds living in Iran. The Kurdish parts of Syria can also be added to it as part of the restructuring of that country in a post Alawite period.
The Turks will not like this of course, but let’s get real about the position of Turkey both in the world and in the Middle East. First Turkey is no longer a vital ally of the west. The cold war is over and there is no likelihood of a war with Russia in the near future. Secondly what can they do about it? They are not going to go to war with us over Kurdistan. They can’t win and the army is already losing its grasp on power in that country. What else can they do, close the Dardanelles to our shipping? It’s not 1914 and it would have no strategic affect on us. They could withdraw from NATO but this would be of greater detriment to them strategically than it would be to the West. They could throw us out of Incirlik but the Kurds would jump at the chance to give us a base in Kurdistan to replace it which would have the same strategic value.
I have to ask myself whether no one in the US government understands power politics any more. They know how to operate effectively on a tactical level but strategic thinking seems in very short supply.
The deal to offer Turkey would be that in return for their acceptance of the establishment of a Kurdish state that we would guarantee their current eastern boundary and that we would work with them to liberate the 10 million Turkic peoples currently living under the yoke of Iranian tyranny and thereby create a greater Azerbaijan.
If they balk at this then we could threaten to throw the full weight of our support behind the Kurds to take the Kurdish parts of Anatolia and create a greater Kurdistan.
The advantages of this plan are 1) it would give us a truly grateful and co-operative ally in the region i.e. The Kurds. Bases in Kurdistan would enable us to maintain a necessary military presence in the region that would enable us to project power throughout the region without the problems of dealing with a never ending insurgency as in Iraq. 2) It would leave a much diminished Iranian state that was in much less of a position to threaten its neighbors.
Unfortunately the West no longer seems capable of using its power to maximum effect anymore in order to protect its vital interests. Creating a stable situation in the Middle East is in the entire world’s vital interests. However, I predict that we will see little but hot air, posturing and prevarication from the current Administration coupled with fatuous and useless diplomatic efforts by them to try to get the Iranians to curb their nuclear program.
So plus ca change.
Glenn M. Stewart is a renowned expert on Middle Eastern affairs and business. a graduate of Oxford University, Glenn M.Stewart holds an advanced degree in Islamic History and Arabic and lived in the Middle East for 27 years. A successful entrepreneur and businessman, Stewart has a unique insight into this critical and important area of the world.
If you would like to see my other writing, please visit www.glennmstewart.com