Reflecting beyond the day I found out why.

U.S. Left With No Good Options in Iran

Published March 10, 2010 in Geopolitical Intelligence - 1 Comments


ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES CHIEF OF STAFF Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi arrived in Washington on Monday for a visit in which he will meet with a series of U.S. officials, including White House National Security Advisor James Jones and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. The topic of sanctions on Iran will inevitably come up, just as the White House has downgraded the once “crippling sanctions” package it has tried to compile. The downgrade follows months of failed attempts to bring on board all members of the P-5+1, most notably Russia and China.

The Americans have reportedly moved on to a more watered-down, weaker version of sanctions that target not Iran’s gasoline imports, but rather the country’s shipping, banking and insurance sectors after appearing to have resigned themselves to the fact that Russia and China were not going to come on board with the initial, more severe proposal. The latest deadline being considered by those drafting the new package is reportedly May, though with the way deadlines have been treated throughout the affair (remember the February deadline?), even that seems like a stretch.

The United States thus finds itself in a geopolitical bind, stuck with no good options and the still formidable task of convincing Russia and China to come on board with the rest of the P-5+1 in agreeing to a way to pressure Tehran into giving up its nuclear ambitions while avoiding a war in the Persian Gulf. But even with watered-down sanctions, Russia still has an interest in seeing the United States remain mired in this imbroglio. Every day of American distraction in the Middle East means another day of Russian resurgence in its former Soviet domain carried out with minimal interference from Washington. And China, which depends on Iran for a significant portion of the oil essential to greasing the wheels of its ever-expanding economy, is happy to push for more talks as long as it is not the only U.N. Security Council member that refuses to bow to Washington’s desires.

With U.S. President Barack Obama’s hopes for a change in the Russian and Chinese positions hinging on how Moscow and Beijing respond to the new draft, the world’s superpower finds itself in uncomfortable terrain. Washington knows that this latest version of sanctions –- labeled as “smart” sanctions due to the fact that they are not intended to target the Iranian people, but rather the country’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps –- is only as good as its ability to appease the Israelis, who would want to be able to draw the United States into a fight with Tehran and utilize the strength of the American military as a way of setting back the Iranian nuclear program.

One of the United States’ main strategic imperatives is to prevent the formation of a dominant power on the Eurasian landmass. One of the tactics Washington has been known to employ to achieve this imperative is to wait as long as possible to join a fight as long as there are others present that can do the brunt of the dirty work. For example, the United States stood on the sidelines until 1917 before entering the Great War, and waited until 1944 to land on the beaches of Normandy, giving its Western European allies (as well as its Soviet friends on the Eastern Front) plenty of time to absorb casualties and weaken the Nazi war machine before putting any of its own soldiers into the line of fire.

“One of the United States’ main strategic imperatives is to prevent the formation of a dominant power on the Eurasian landmass.”

Another tried and true tactic, however, has been to utilize a third force –- whether that be a state actor or a non-state actor –- to do Washington’s bidding. Unleashing Islamist insurgents against the Soviets during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (with financial support from Saudi Arabia and logistical assistance from Pakistan) is a well-known example, as is the use of Awakening Councils in Iraq’s Sunni provinces during the 2007 surge, which helped turn the tide of what then looked like an interminable war. And with the recent focus on the empowerment of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police eerily mirroring the obsession with “Vietnamization” in the 1970’s, the last 100 years of American foreign policy show a country that operates according to the notion that it is easier to allow others to do something for you than it is to do it yourself.

When the United States surveys the current landscape in the Middle East, it does not see any good candidates for helping it to contain Iran. The historic counterweight to a strong Persia, Iraq finds itself weak and fractured, possibly even at the risk of becoming an Iranian satellite as a result of the 2003 American invasion, which toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. The Russian comeback in central Asia and the Caucasus has largely bottled up any possibility of taking that route to destabilize Tehran, short of enlisting the support of Moscow itself. The Persian Gulf states recognize that geography is king, and while the United States buys these countries’ oil, the Iranians are a permanent presence in the region that will not go away over time. Then there are the Saudis, who, despite the sophistication of its equipment, have a military with a very limited capability of operating beyond its borders. Turkey –- a strong country in the region that theoretically could pose a big help to the United States — is focused on other foreign policy agendas that likely outrank helping the Americans at the moment. Afghanistan has problems of its own — namely the fact that it has never existed as a coherent nation state — while Pakistan is currently battling a jihadist insurgency at home. Hopes for a revolution in Iran, through the much-publicized Green Movement, failed to materialize, while the few anti-regime domestic militant groups whose interests could possibly intersect with those of Washington -– Mujahideen-e-Khalq and Jundallah -– do not come close to having what it takes to take on Tehran.

There is, of course, the possibility of negotiations. But all sorts of Faustian bargains arise from this route as well, meaning that when it comes to Iran, the United States is left with no good options.

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

  • Prescott Paulin

    It will be interesting to see what Israel does, especially since they hold one of the few weapons from our arsenal that was conveniently “lost” in our bookkeeping.