The Adventures of Chester: The Latest from George Friedman -- "The Three Power Game"
In his latest article, George Friedman asks:
First, once Iraq holds elections, what will Iran's policy be toward Iraq's new Shiite government? Second, since the Shiite-Sunni split is fundamental to the Islamic world, how will the United States manage and manipulate that divide?He answers thus:
For Iran, the best outcome of the war would be a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad. The second best outcome would be chaos in Iraq. Both provide Iran with what it needs: a relatively secure frontier and an opportunity to shape events to the west. The third -- and least acceptable -- outcome would be a neutral Iraq. Neutrality is highly changeable.There seems to be a fourth possible -- and worst for Iran -- outcome: a stable, US-friendly regime in Iraq.
Friedman has organized Iran's outcomes into these categories because of his take on Iran's strategic goals:
The Saudis cannot afford chaos in Iraq or for the road from Iran to be wide open. They will increase their dependence on the United States and will be forced to do whatever they can to reduce the rebellion in the Sunni region. A united Iraq under a Shiite-dominated coalition government will secure Iran's western frontiers, but will deny it the opportunity to dominate the region. A divided Iraq will give Iran secure borders, an opportunity for domination and serious responses from Arab states. It will drive the Arabs into the Americans' arms. Things could get dicey fast for the Iranians. The United States is letting them know -- via the convenient conduit of Seymour Hersh and The New Yorker magazine -- that it is ready to push back hard on Iran. U.S. President George W. Bush directly warned the Iranians on Jan. 26 to stay out of the Iraqi elections. The Iranians are signaling back that they are a nuclear power -- which is not true yet.Looking at the flip side of this logic, what are the fundamental strategic decisions for the US to make? Friedman notes:
The Iranians have a fundamental strategic decision to make. They can work with the United States and secure their interests. They can undermine the United States and go for the big prize: domination of the Persian Gulf. The first is low risk, the second incredibly high risk.
Behind this all there is a complex three-power game. There is the United States, in a war with factions of the Sunni.This much is true. The Iraqi terrorist insurgency is largely Sunni. But is the war on terrorism restricted solely to Sunnis? Is the Bush administration pursuing a policy of detente with Iran? The Iranians are Shi'ite, and their Pasdaran has long supported Hizballah (Party of God -- also Shi'ites). Hizballah are certainly war on terror material . . . does it seem wise to think that the US will discriminate against threats based on their religious origin? Don't Bush's latest remarks in his inaugural imply that whatever his choices with Iran, he would prefer it were a more fully-functioning democracy?
The US is engaged in a game of long-term modernization and alliance construction in the Middle East. it is creating new nation and state-based centers of power to replace religious centers of power. The new centers are allied with the US: Afghanistan, a nation-state, replaces the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, which were ethnically and religiously-based. In Iraq, a Sunni and tribe-based power center is replaced with a Shi'ite and Kurd-dominated nation-state (it's a gamble, but can certainly succeed). Whereas the old power centers in the Islamic world looked like this:
1. Sunni Wahabbi dictatorship in Afghanistan
2. Sunni Wahabbi dictatorship in Saudi Arabia
3. Shi'ite clerical dictatorship in Iran
4. Ba'athist Sunni secular dictatorship in Iraq
5. Ba'athist Sunni secular dictatorship in Syria,
the new power centers are so:
1. Aghani-nation state.
2. Mixed ethnicity Iraqi nation-state.
3. Sunni Wahabbi terrorist insurgency in Sunni Triangle, Iraq
If the insurgency is defeated, no longer will the populations of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia see their world solely in terms of religious blocs. National blocs, mainly mixed-ethnicity nations, will have replaced them.
The goal of the Bush administration is to redefine the Middle East in terms of nation-states rather than religion. The key question is, how badly does a nuclear Iran muddle those long-term plans? This is why the question of whether the US sees itself as solely fighting the Sunnis is so important. If the US also sees itself as wishing to influence modernizing change with the Shi'ite portions of the Middle East as well, then a nuclear Iran could scuttle those plans entirely.
The strategic choices vis a vis Iran then become:
1. Let Iran keep its current state of security and influence in order to stabilize Iraq, the goal being that a non-religiously defined Iraq will spark Iran not to religiously define itself. Iran may shortly become a nuclear power. This is low-risk, low-reward.
2. Pressure Iran to keep its influence out of Iraq, and to end its nuclear weapons program. The outcome would be a stable Iraq, and a non-nuclear Iran ready for its regime to be destabilized in the future. This is low-risk, medium reward.
3. Attempt the destruction of the Iranian nuclear weapons program in order to stop the possibility of a nuclear Iran from interfering with long-term democratization and the goal of redefining the Middle East in terms of nations rather than religions. This is high-risk, medium/high reward. The very act of military action in Iran could cause a backlash from those portions of its society which would find themselves in the vanguard of any democratic movement. It has been widely noted that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is seen as valuable to the regime even by those who detest it, because their nationality is stronger than their democratic desire.
4. Attempt the destruction of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the replacement of the Iranian regime in order not to allow a nuclear Iran to interfere with long term democratization and the goal of redefining the Middle East in terms of nations rather than religions. In fact, to speed up the democratization and redefinition. This is very high risk, very high reward.
The US cannot allow Iran's sphere of influence to increase, giving Iran larger influence internally in Iraq and significantly destabilizing the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.
It seems that a nuclear Iran is a serious setback to regional strategic goals for the United States and US statements have indicated that senior decisionmakers feel as such.
Posted by Chester on January 31, 2005 11:33 PM to The Adventures of Chester