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Move and Countermove: Ahmadinejad and Bush Duel

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - 11:33 Print Text Size

By George Friedman

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Aug. 28 that U.S. power in Iraq is rapidly being destroyed. Then he said that Iran, with the help of regional friends and the Iraqi nation, is ready to fill the vacuum. Ahmadinejad specifically reached out to Saudi Arabia, saying the Saudis and Iranians could collaborate in managing Iraq. Later in the day, U.S. President George W. Bush responded, saying, "I want our fellow citizens to consider what would happen if these forces of radicalism and extremism are allowed to drive us out of the Middle East. The region would be dramatically transformed in a way that could imperil the civilized world." He specifically mentioned Iran and its threat of nuclear weapons.

On Aug. 27, we argued that, given the United States' limited ability to secure Iraq, the strategic goal must now shift from controlling Iraq to defending the Arabian Peninsula against any potential Iranian ambitions in that direction. "Whatever mistakes might have been made in the past, the current reality is that any withdrawal from Iraq would create a vacuum, which would rapidly be filled by Iran," we wrote.

Ahmadinejad's statements, made at a two-hour press conference, had nothing to do with what we wrote, nor did Bush's response. What these statements do show, though, is how rapidly the thinking in Tehran is evolving in response to Iranian perceptions of a pending U.S. withdrawal and a power vacuum in Iraq — and how the Bush administration is shifting its focus from the Sunni threat to both the Sunni and Shiite threats.

The most important thing Ahmadinejad discussed at his press conference was not the power vacuum, but Saudi Arabia. He reached out to the Saudis, saying Iran and Saudi Arabia together could fill the vacuum in Iraq and stabilize the country. The subtext was that not only does Iran not pose a threat to Saudi Arabia, it would be prepared to enhance Saudi power by giving it a substantial role in a post-U.S. Iraq.

While dangling the carrot of Saudi participation in a post-war Iraq, Iran also is wielding a subtle stick.

Iran is saying that Saudi Arabia does not need to defend itself against Iran, and it certainly does not need the United States to redeploy its forces along the Saudi-Iraqi border in order to defend itself. While dangling the carrot of participation in a post-war Iraq, Iran also is wielding a subtle stick. One of the reasons for al Qaeda's formation was the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia regarded the U.S. presence as sacrilege and the willingness of the Saudi regime to permit American troops to be there as blasphemous. After 9/11, the Saudis asked the United States to withdraw its forces, and following the Iraq invasion they fought a fairly intense battle against al Qaeda inside the kingdom. Having U.S. troops defend Saudi Arabia once again — even if they were stationed outside its borders — would inflame passions inside the kingdom, and potentially destabilize the regime.

The Saudis are in a difficult position. Since the Iranian Revolution, the Saudi relationship with Iran has ranged from extremely hostile to uneasy. It is not simply a Sunni and Shiite matter. Iran is more than just a theocracy. It arose from a very broad popular uprising against the shah. It linked the idea of a republic to Islam, combining a Western revolutionary tradition with Shiite political philosophy. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a monarchy that draws its authority from traditional clan and tribal structures and Wahhabi Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis felt trapped between the pro-Soviet radicalism of the Iraqis and Syrians, and of the various factions of the Palestinian movement on the one side — and the Islamic Republic in Iran on the other. Isolated, it had only the United States to depend on, and that dependency blew up in its face during the 1990-91 war in Kuwait.

But there also is a fundamental geopolitical problem. Saudi Arabia suffers from a usually fatal disease. It is extraordinarily rich and militarily weak. It has managed to survive and prosper by having foreign states such as the United Kingdom and the United States have a stake in its independence — and guarantee that independence with their power. If it isn't going to rely on an outside power to protect it, and it has limited military resources of its own, then how will it protect itself against the Iranians? Iran, a country with a large military — whose senior officers and noncoms were blooded in the Iran-Iraq war — does not have a great military, merely a much larger and experienced one than the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia suffers from a usually fatal disease: It is extraordinarily rich and militarily weak.

The Saudis have Iran's offer. The problem is that the offer cannot be guaranteed by Saudi power, but depends on Iran's willingness to honor it. Absent the United States, any collaboration with Iran would depend on Iran's will. And the Iranians are profoundly different from the Saudis and, more important, much poorer. Whatever their intentions might be today — and who can tell what the Iranians intend? — those intentions might change. If they did, it would leave Saudi Arabia at risk to Iranian power.

Saudi Arabia is caught between a rock and a hard place and it knows it. But there might be the beginnings of a solution in Turkey. Ahmadinejad's offer of collaboration was directed toward regional powers other than Iran. That includes Turkey. Turkey stayed clear of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, refusing to let U.S. troops invade Iraq from there. However, Turkey has some important interests in how the war in Iraq ends. First, it does not want to see any sort of Kurdish state, fearing Kurdish secessionism in Turkey as well. Second, it has an interest in oil in northern Iraq. Both interests could be served by a Turkish occupation of northern Iraq, under the guise of stabilizing Iraq along with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

When we say that Iran is now the dominant regional power, we also should say that is true unless we add Turkey to the mix. Turkey is certainly a military match for Iran, and more than an economic one. Turkey's economy is the 18th largest in the world — larger than Saudi Arabia's — and it is growing rapidly. In many ways, Iran needs a good relationship with Turkey, given its power and economy. If Turkey were to take an interest in Iraq, that could curb Iran's appetite. While Turkey could not defend Saudi Arabia, it certainly could threaten Iran's rear if it chose to move south. And with the threat of Turkish intervention, Iran would have to be very careful indeed.

But Turkey has been cautious in its regional involvements. It is not clear whether it will involve itself in Iraq beyond making certain that Kurdish independence does not go too far. Even if it were to move deeper into Iraq, it is not clear whether it would be prepared to fight Iran over Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Turkey does not want to deal with a powerful Iran — and if the Iranians did take the Saudi oil fields, they would be more than a match for Turkey. Turkey's regime is very different from those in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but geopolitics make strange bedfellows. Iran could not resist a Turkish intervention in northern Iraq, nor could it be sure what Turkey would do if Iran turned south. That uncertainty might restrain Iran.

While Turkey could not defend Saudi Arabia, it certainly could threaten Iran's rear if it chose to move south. But it is not clear whether Ankara would be prepared to fight Iran over Saudi Arabia.

And that is the thin reed on which Saudi national security would rest if it rejected an American presence to its north. The United States could impose itself anyway, but being sandwiched between a hostile Iran and hostile Saudi Arabia would not be prudent, to say the least. Therefore, the Saudis could scuttle a U.S. blocking force if they wished. If the Saudis did this and joined the Iranian-led stabilization program in Iraq, they would then be forced to rely on a Turkish presence in northern Iraq to constrain any future Iranian designs on Arabia. That is not necessarily a safe bet as it assumes that the Turks would be interested in balancing Iran at a time when Russian power is returning to the Caucasus, Greek power is growing in the Balkans, and the Turkish economy is requiring ever more attention from Ankara. Put simply, Turkey has a lot of brands in the fire, and the Saudis betting on the Iranian brand having priority is a long shot.

The Iranian position is becoming more complex as Tehran tries to forge a post-war coalition to manage Iraq — and to assure the coalition that Iran doesn't plan to swallow some of its members. The United States, in the meantime, appears to be trying to simplify its position, by once again focusing on the question of nuclear weapons.

Bush's speech followed this logic. First, according to Bush, the Iranians are now to be seen as a threat equal to the jihadists. In other words, the Iranian clerical regime and al Qaeda are equal threats. That is the reason the administration is signaling that the Iranian Republican Guards are to be named a terrorist group. A withdrawal from Iraq, therefore, would be turning Iraq over to Iran, and that, in turn, would transform the region. But rather than discussing the geopolitical questions we have been grappling with, Bush has focused on Iran's nuclear capability.

According to Bush, the Iranians are now to be seen as a threat equal to the jihadists.

Iran is developing nuclear weapons, though we have consistently argued that Tehran does not expect to actually achieve a deliverable nuclear device. In the first place, that is because the process of building a device small enough and rugged enough to be useful is quite complex. There is quite a leap between testing a device and having a workable weapon. Also, and far more important, Iran fully expects the United States or Israel to destroy its nuclear facilities before a weapon is complete. The Iranians are using their nuclear program as a bargaining chip.

The problem is that the negotiations have ended. The prospect of Iran trading its nuclear program for U.S. concessions in Iraq has disappeared along with the negotiations. Bush, therefore, has emphasized that there is no reason for the United States to be restrained about the Iranian nuclear program. Iran might not be close to having a deliverable device, but the risk is too great to let it continue developing one. Therefore, the heart of Bush's speech was that withdrawing would vastly increase Iran's power, and an Iranian nuclear weapon would be catastrophic.

From this, one would think the United States is considering attacking Iran. Indeed, the French warning against such an attack indicates that Paris might have picked something up as well. Certainly, Washington is signaling that, given the situation in Iraq and Iran's assertion that it will be filling the vacuum, the United States is being forced to face the possibility of an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

There are two problems here. The first is the technical question of whether a conventional strike could take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities. We don't know the answer, but we do know that Iran has been aware of the probability of such an attack and is likely to have taken precautions, from creating uncertainty as to the location of sites to hardening them. The second problem is the more serious one.

Even if the United States attacked and destroyed Iran's nuclear facilities, the essential geopolitical problem would not change.

Assume that the United States attacked and destroyed Iran's nuclear facilities. The essential geopolitical problem would not change. The U.S. position in Iraq would remain extremely difficult, the three options we discussed Aug. 27 would remain in place, and in due course Iran would fill the vacuum left by the United States. The destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities would not address any of those problems.

Therefore, implicit in Bush's speech is the possibility of broader measures against Iran. These could include a broad air campaign against Iranian infrastructure — military and economic — and a blockade of its ports. The measures could not include ground troops because there are no substantial forces available and redeploying all the troops in Iraq to surge into Iran, logistical issues aside, would put 150,000 troops in a very large country.

The United States can certainly conduct an air campaign against Iran, but we are reminded of the oldest lesson of air power — one learned by the Israeli air force against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006: Air power is enormously successful in concert with a combined arms operation, but has severe limitations when applied on its own. The idea that nations will capitulate because of the pain of an air campaign has little historical basis. It doesn't usually happen. Unlike Hezbollah, however, Iran is a real state with real infrastructure, economic interests, military assets and critical port facilities — all with known locations that can be pummeled with air power. The United States might not be able to impose its will on the ground, but it can certainly impose a great deal of pain. Of course, an all-out air war would cripple Iran in a way that would send global oil prices through the roof — since Iran remains the world's fourth-largest oil exporter.

A blockade, however, also would be problematic. It is easy to prevent Iranian ships from moving in and out of port — and, unlike Iraq, Iran has no simple options to divert its maritime energy trade to land routes — but what would the United States do if a Russian, Chinese or French vessel sailed in? Would it seize it? Sink it? Obviously either is possible. But just how broad an array of enemies does the United States want to deal with at one time? And remember that, with ports sealed, Iran's land neighbors would have to participate in blocking the movement of goods. We doubt they would be that cooperative.

Finally, and most important, Iran has the ability to counter any U.S. moves. It has assets in Iraq that could surge U.S. casualties dramatically if ordered to do so. Iran also has terrorism capabilities that are not trivial. We would say that Iran's capabilities are substantially greater than al Qaeda's. Under a sustained air campaign, they would use them.

Iran also has terrorism capabilities that are not trivial — substantially greater than al Qaeda’s. Under a sustained air campaign, they would use them.

Bush's threat to strike nuclear weapons makes sense only in the context of a broader air and naval campaign against Iran. Leaving aside the domestic political ramifications and the international diplomatic blowback, the fundamental problem is that Iran is a very large country where a lot of targets would have to be hit. That would take many months to achieve, and during that time Iran would likely strike back in Iraq and perhaps in the United States as well. An air campaign would not bring Iran to its knees quickly, unless it was nuclear — and we simply do not think the United States will break the nuclear taboo first.

The United States is also in a tough place. While it makes sense to make threats in response to Iranian threats — to keep Tehran off balance — the real task for the United States is to convince Saudi Arabia to stick to its belief that collaboration with Iran is too dangerous, and convince Turkey to follow its instincts in northern Iraq without collaborating with the Iranians. The Turks are not fools and will not simply play the American game, but the more active Turkey is, the more cautious Iran must be.

The latest statement from Ahmadinejad convinces us that Iran sees its opening. However, the United States, even if it is not bluffing about an attack against Iran, would find such an attack less effective than it might hope. In the end, even after an extended air campaign, it will come down to that. In the end, no matter how many moves are made, the United States is going to have to define a post-Iraq strategy and that strategy must focus on preventing Iran from threatening the Arabian Peninsula. Even after an extended air campaign, it will come down to that. In case of war, the only "safe" location for a U.S. land force to hedge against an Iranian move against the Arabian Peninsula would be Kuwait, a country lacking the strategic depth to serve as an effective counter.

Ahmadinejad has made his rhetorical move. Bush has responded. Now the regional diplomacy intensifies as the report from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is prepared for presentation to Congress on Sept. 15.

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