Winds of War? Tensions between Israel and Iran are at a Boiling Point

Yesterday’s exchange of missile and air attacks between Iranian forces stationed in Syria and Israel was the most violent and overt exchange so far between them in their “secret war”. In this shadowy conflict, Tehran is making strenuous efforts to consolidate its military foothold in Syria, gained by being the military savior—along with Russia and with proxy Shiite militias—of the Assad regime, into a permanent presence. The Islamic Republic also hopes to improve its strategic capabilities there, especially surface-to-surface missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and air defense. Israel is determined to prevent such an eventuality: Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, it has carried out, without taking credit until the last few weeks, over one hundred airstrikes against the Hezbollah and Iranian strategic capabilities in Syria.

The back-and-forth between Israel and Iran has escalated over the course of 2018. In response to Iran dispatching an unmanned aerial vehicle into Israeli airspace on February 10, Israel carried a series of air operations against Iranian targets. Israel’s operations reached their  peak in the April 9 attack on Iranian targets in the T-4 airfield in Syria, which resulted in numerous Iranian casualties; they were uncharacteristically publicized by the Iranian regime. The April 9 attack raised the profile, and the stakes, of the conflict. Netanyahu’s exposé of the intelligence operation inside Iran that brought a secret Iranian archive to Israel, and the ensuing diplomatic and information campaign, only strengthened this vector.

On May 9, according to Israeli military sources, the Quds Force—the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards under Qassem Suleimani—fired some twenty rockets from Syria at Israeli military outposts on the Golan Heights: three were intercepted by Israel’s missile defense systems, and the others landed in Syrian territory. There were no Israeli casualties. In response, Israel carried out a large-scale strike against the gamut of Iranian targets in Syria and attacked five Syrian air defense targets which had fired on Israeli aircraft. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed that the country’s air force had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria; be that as it may, Iran’s forces in Syria seem to have suffered a severe blow.

The U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany backed the Israeli action.

Israel had been anticipating Iran’s reaction to the recent strikes and warned its citizens of the possibility of a limited missile attack on Israeli military targets from Syria or Lebanon. Shelters were opened in some Northern areas of Israel, by decision of the local councils. There has been no special alert status proclaimed nationwide by the Rear Area Command. Senior military sources quoted in the Israeli press spoke of concrete preparations by the Quds Force for a retaliatory salvo from Syrian territory. Israeli strikes over the weekend around Damascus, which preceded yesterday’s exchange, are reported to have been aimed at disrupting this activity.

What will happen next is unclear. The fact that Iran has responded so far in a measured manner, from Syrian territory, and in accordance with Israeli estimates, is illustrative. Iran has much to lose from further escalation with Israel at this juncture. The American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as “the Iran Deal,” has made it even more important for Iran to portray itself as a responsible international actor, committed to international agreements and legitimacy. Doing so would put it in contrast to the internationally unpopular American President, who is already being portrayed as a tool of Israeli interests. In addition, its instruments are limited and somewhat crude: Iran does possess conventional surface-to-surface missiles which could reach Israel from within Iranian territory, but it is unlikely to launch such an attack and risk massive Israeli retaliation against its homeland, especially in view of Israeli missile defense capabilities. Iran could “unleash” its intelligence services and proxy networks worldwide against Israeli and Jewish targets, but such a strategy may well harm the significant international political gains it has achieved in the past three years and play into the hands of the anti-Iranian camp in the international and regional arenas. It can also use cyber attacks.

Yesterday’s barrage was the first time Iranian forces fired directly at Israel. Up until now, it has responded to Israeli actions from Lebanon using Hezbollah or other proxy forces, usually Palestinian. But it appears Hezbollah might not be willing, or able, to take that role after their long, successful but costly engagement in Syria. It is unclear whether it will be willing to fight Iran’s war to the last Lebanese. There still seems to be a fair degree of residual deterrence from the 2006 war with Israel (the degree and robustness of deterrence, of course, can only be measured if and when it fails). In addition, Hezbollah and its allies have just achieved significant gains in the Lebanese elections with a rise in the representation of their allies and decline of support for their arch-rival, Prime Minister and Sunni leader Saad Hariri. Hezbollah appears appear loath to threaten their political position and risk being seen again as those who brought destruction to Lebanon.

Russia—with its radar coverage and air defense in Syria, the presence of embedded Russian advisors in Syrian units, and a “hot-line” with the Israeli Defense Forces to avoid friction between the two air forces operating in close proximity—is undoubtedly aware of much of the Israeli campaign and does not seem to give advance warning to its ostensible allies. In its campaign, Israel takes special care to avoid any threat to Russian forces and has quickly engaged diplomatically with Moscow when inadvertent tensions arose.

An Israeli military spokesman reported that Israel had informed Russia prior to its response strikes against multiple targets in Syria, through the existing mechanisms. Russia may have its own doubts and concerns about the role of Iran in the future of Syria; the close military cooperation in the field was necessary to save Assad, but the Russian calculus may have now changed. Moscow understands that Israel has the ability to disrupt the new strategic architecture and that Russia needs Israel to feel confident about her own national security concerns. Prime Minister Netanyahu paid a visit on very short notice to Moscow on May 9 (and participated alongside Putin in the Victory Day parade), hours after the American announcement of its withdrawal from the JCPOA and immediately before the most recent exchange. Netanyahu  noted after his visit that he has no reason to believe that Russia will restrict Israel’s freedom of action. Israel’s increased willingness to use force against the Iranian presence in Syria may be aimed partly at Moscow. What is happening now may be, inter alia, an attempt to convince or compel the Russians to rein in the Iranians by raising the stakes of their “sitting on the fence” vis-à-vis the stability of the Assad regime and the Russian-constructed status quo ante in Syria.

Israel is determined not to allow the crystallization of new “rules of the game” in Syria, similar to those which have hardened in Lebanon since 2006. There, Hezbollah has, on the one hand, been deterred by the destructive results of the Second Lebanese War—which resulted from their miscalculation of the Israeli threshold for violence—from carrying out attacks or barrages across the border into Israel. On the other hand, it has solidified its de facto control of the Lebanese governing system and of territory near the Israeli-Lebanese border (the “Blue Line”), as well as created of a vast rocket and missile arsenal aimed at Israel. Recent Israeli actions and statements are overt and tacit messaging aimed at influencing Iranian behavior in the direction of greater caution, thereby reducing the possibility of greatly expanded open conflict. Deterrent messages are also aimed at Damascus: Israeli officials have ramped up their statements that if President Assad does not control the Iranian buildup, his regime might be toppled.

There is of course linkage with the Israeli campaign regarding the roll-back of the Iran deal. Jerusalem is concerned about the creeping normalization of the Iranian regime internationally since the nuclear deal. Putting a spotlight on the Iranian threat in Syria, then, serves the greater narrative regarding the need to contain and roll back Iran, and cancel or rewrite the Iran Deal. Some cynical observers link Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent steps regarding the Iranian issue to a desire to concentrate public attention on external security threats, which in Israeli politics traditionally trump any domestic concerns, rather than on investigations and questions about possible involvement by Netanyahu in dubious activities. Some connect the current atmosphere of crisis to the Knesset’s lightning approval on April 30 of a moribund law transferring responsibility for declaring war from the full government to the smaller security cabinet. In extreme circumstances, the law authorizes the prime minister, in consultation with the defense minister, to make such a decision on their own. While there is less to this than meets the eye—almost all of Israel’s wars have not been accompanied by formal declarations, and the full government is a dysfunctional forum for debating and deciding pressing national security issues—the optics of the timing are both striking in the domestic context and strongly support the deterrent messaging toward Iran.

The era of “all-out,” decisive wars in the region, which solved problems and had clear victors, has passed—if it ever existed. Israel is in the midst of a Thirty Year War with Hezbollah and Iran, as well as with Hamas, characterized by peaks and troughs. We are currently in a warm, peak phase. What happens next is dependent on the interplay of the various parties’ interests and needs, and especially on whether Israeli actions lead to a slowdown in the Iranian encroachment in Syria or to a change in the Russian tolerance towards it, on the one hand, and how Israel will calibrate its next steps, on the other.

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Afghanistan Achieves Pyrrhic Success via Chabahar Port

Afghans celebrated the new access that Iran’s Chabahar port provides the country, but this victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one. As recent as May 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed their first-ever trilateral partnership agreement allowing Indian goods to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran, while also inserting new geopolitically competing players into the region. Over one year later, in October 2017, the first shipment of Indian wheat arrived in Zaranj, Afghanistan, via Chabahar port.

While utilizing Chabahar does fuse common regional and economic interests by allowing an alternate trade route into Afghanistan—and thereby reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistani ports—relying too heavily on Chabahar raises serious security and economic concerns in Kabul because using Chabahar is bound to further fray Afghanistan’s already tenuous relationship with Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s access to Chabahar will have greater implications for the geopolitical situation and for countries in the region, specifically India, Pakistan, and Iran.

India: Developing New Opportunities

India’s development of the Chabahar port is a calculated move granting New Delhi unimpeded access to Afghanistan and thence to wider Central Asia, while summarily bypassing the subcontinent’s archrival, Pakistan.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s mid-February visit to India indicated a new strategic collaboration between India and Iran punctuated by the countries’ signing of nine additional agreements extending Iran’s 2018-19 bilateral energy infusion to India by some half a million barrels per day (25 MT), an increase of 25% over the 2017-18 estimate of 370,000 barrels per day (18.5 MT). Considering India’s lack of oil and natural gas reserves, opening the gates to Iran’s major ones makes perfect sense, and it is specifically Chabahar that has afforded India the opportunity to import even more natural resources from Iran, which will surely add to the port’s already growing geo-economic cachet.

India made this strategic move to compete with China, its main economic rival in Asia, and also the world’s top importer of Iranian oil commodities. However, India’s reaping of its own political and economic benefits via its agreement with Iran is certain to leave Afghanistan as the odd-country-out, standing more unstably vis-à-vis its potential economic threat to Pakistan, due to Afghanistan’s declining resource dependence.

Pakistan: Complicated Relationships

According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s contribution to Afghan trade has declined from 56.5% in 2008 to 38.9% by 2015, with Iran and India now as the largest importers of Afghan goods. The trilateral agreement on Chabahar port between Iran, India, and Afghanistan has allowed Afghanistan to diversify the ways and means by which it distributes goods to and from its provinces. By design, it completely bypasses Pakistan, which could create a new conflict between Kabul and Islamabad, and more so if Afghanistan continues to disentangle its import/export ties. The resulting deeper tensions would certainly result in further adverse effects on Afghanistan’s still fragile security and economy. The potential for such adverse effects has been amplified by the World Bank’s 2016 public recognition of Pakistan’s hostile Afghan intentions, a recognition that sharply indicates that if push comes to shove over Afghanistan’s further utilization of the Chabahar port, Afghanistan would remain defenseless if faced with a threat from Pakistan.

Iran: A New Power Broker?

Iran’s February anti-government protests again signaled Tehran’s instability to the region and the world. The West’s frequent imposition of sanctions, coupled with international criticism over Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen, reveals that global mistrust of Iran is still widespread. Furthermore, in March, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran would extend the Chabahar port project to Pakistan and China. The statement may have come as a shock to the region since the sole purpose of the port was to sidestep Islamabad. It is not a concrete partnership and more of a diplomatic declaration to indicate that ties between Tehran and Islamabad are not hurt.

Kabul doesn’t trust Tehran, yet Afghanistan still views Iran as its obligatory, if fickle, diplomatic partner. U.S. intelligence officials have recently revealed that Tehran has gallingly equipped the Taliban with arms, and even deployed Afghan refugees as its foot soldiers in Syria’s bloody civil war. Given these developments notwithstanding the geographic necessity of Iran in the Chabahar agreement, Afghanistan has little say in final trade route decisions; it’s hard not be cynical about the long-term prospects of Afghan international trade. Having such a domineering, frequently disruptive regional power as a neighbor and primary trade partner forces Afghanistan to tacitly accept its severe disadvantage. Another disadvantage is that Afghanistan can’t cut ties with Pakistan because then it would have to rely solely on the already hemmed-in Chabahar route. Were that to occur, Iran would have a leading role in the region not only by establishing Tehran as a major channel of trade entry and exit, but also by potentially giving the Islamic Republic the upper religious and cultural hand in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Gambit: Looking to the Future

History tells us that something deceptively simple and non-political as a trade port can have major security implications both regionally and globally. This is especially true in the Chabahar case, given its natural limitations and the generally fraught state of affairs in Central Asia. The United States remains a strong partner to Afghanistan, both in fighting terrorism and in bolstering Kabul’s overall progress as a governing body, and the Trump administration has (so far) pledged its full support. However, Kabul simply cannot—and should not—rely on a single partner, especially due to its rising tensions with Pakistan. This dynamic makes Afghanistan’s strategic relationships with India and Iran essential, though these relationships are by no means be a perfect one, due to the haranguing influences of Pakistan.

Though Afghanistan is often referred to as the “beating heart” of Central Asia, its distant and isolated geographic position has always left it economically, politically, and militarily vulnerable. There are no easy solutions to the country’s difficult circumstances, but connecting Afghanistan with Chabahar via a calculated geopolitical strategic move with India and Iran could prove a worthwhile gambit, despite its potential for only pyrrhic success.

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The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed—Yet

The current protests throughout Iran are unprecedented in its post-revolutionary history. They are driven primarily by a popular sense of economic indignity borne of decades of mismanagement, rampant cronyism, low oil prices, and tough sanctions; in other words, the catalysts are not ideological. The protests are spread across the country, remarkably making their way to the capital, rather emanating from it. They are at present leaderless, unlike 1979 or 2009. And distinct from the latter year’s Green Movement, when perhaps less than one million Iranians possessed smartphones, over 47 million now have them at their disposal. When the revolution eventually comes, it will be streamed.

A number of Arab autocrats were brought down in comparable circumstances. Endemic corruption. Social injustice. Egalitarian grassroots movements connected through social networks and other exciting tools of information communication technology. Yet, as time has shown, the courageous struggles of millions of Arab peoples were met with mixed success, if not abject failure in Egypt and Syria. Reflections on those events known as the Arab Spring would be worrying if used as a prism foretelling the Iranian regime’s imminent collapse.

And collapse it will—but not just yet. Rather than pointlessly reviving the genuine, but unwarranted, headiness of the Summer of ’09, for now, a more sobering view best be taken with considerations of what is different this time.

“It’s the economy…”

The unmet economic expectations of many Iranians have boiled over at last. President Hassan Rouhani had widely foregone the gratuitous and unsustainable subsidy programs of his predecessor. (Former President Mahmood Ahmadinejad was uniquely astounding in his unswerving ignorance of basic economics.) Yet, Rouhani was able to do so with the implicit belief of the Iranian people that, nuclear deal with the West secured, the economy would open up with attendant wealth generation. To the questionable extent that it did, there was no trickle down. Thus, it is worth noting Iran analyst Mohammed Ali Shabani’s prescient application of the J-curve theorem, whereby economic hardship crystallized in unmet expectations tips into civil strife.

To argue with certainty that something other than pitifully poor economic performance is the primary driver behind the past week’s demonstrations would be disingenuous. Recognizing that the 20th century’s major revolutions were largely rooted in cries for greater economic equality, they were coupled with political demands based in an ideology that would theoretically deliver social justice as understood by the discontented. Accordingly, the economic malcontent that led to the 1979 Revolution was shared among its competing factions of liberal democrats, leftists, and Islamists, yet each with their own specific concept of governmental (e.g. political) remedy. And while poor standards of living were a factor in the Green Movement’s broad appeal, 2009’s protestors initially took to the streets calling “Where’s my vote?”—a political appeal, first and foremost.

The absence of genuine political demands at present suggest that regime change is secondary, so don’t be misled by chants of “Death to the Dictator.” As one analyst aptly noted,

Iranians have been conditioned for nearly 40 years to reflexively shout “death to” something when they are enraged. It can mean anything from “please overhaul this whole system” to “please get rid of this particular leader who embodies all my grief at my troubled life.”

Or, it could simply mean, “Bring the prices of eggs and such under control, some real job opportunities, and a little less isolation and we’re cool.”

It is no coincidence that these rather politically rudderless demonstrations lack central leadership. Among other things, people look to leaders for solutions, i.e. alternative approaches to fix what isn’t working. Absent such an individual(s), the ball sits in the regime’s court as they scramble to craft a mollifying response, one that may be acceptable to the majority of demonstrators while preserving the state’s post-revolutionary foundations.

No Rest for the Wicked

Can the regime apply a Band-Aid big enough to finagle an extended lease-on-life? Perhaps so, but one increasingly short term as indicated by the other two unprecedented—and interconnected—aspects of the past week’s uprisings.

First is the geographic expanse of the protests, underlining their economic impetus. This is a level of discontent that can’t be explained away as whining by “disloyal” urban elites. Iranians of all classes are increasingly fed up not only with a weak economy, but also with a rapidly diminishing water supply, endemic air pollution, and the state’s deplorable response to last November’s earthquake, not to mention a bulging youth demographic desiring greater individual freedoms.

So while some Basij—a paramilitary militia under Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps direction—goon may club a hipster for being part of an imaginary Fifth Column, it is conceivably harder for him to beat a poor farmer demanding water for his crops. Nor might a small town policeman be inclined to shoot at a neighbor (cousin?) on the pretext that he or she, demonstrating for the sake of job opportunity, is actually an agitator in some fabricated imperialist plot. There still exists among many Iranians a sense of human decency that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran can’t and will never control. This scares them to death and rightfully so.

Second, the regimes’ desired command control of communications is becoming increasingly illusive. The once-touted “Halal Net” has yet to effectively block Iranians from multiple avenues to unadulterated information. Unable to rollback the remarkable expansion of smartphone usage and the mass dissemination of information that they enable, the Iranian government is decreasingly capable of isolating its citizens from one another, much less them from the world beyond its borders. To place the potential impact of these means of communication in perspective, hypothesize how much shorter the USSR’s life span would have been had Soviet citizens such accessibility to information and contact.

Returning to the present: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not make the grave error of showing empathy and a willingness to negotiate. He watched the Shah do so in late 1978 and then witnessed the opposition remorselessly go for emperor’s jugular. Tragically, he and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps will probably soon respond with as much torturous and murderous brutality as necessary to quell the streets. As effective as that tactic may be, it could drive Iranians to nationwide strikes, an especially effective maneuver that worked effectively in the late 70s. Should the wheels of the economy halt, then perhaps a more conciliatory tack may be taken by the Supreme Leader.

Considerations of the waning years of the Soviet Union are warranted, much more so reflections on the Arab Spring. Not only are more and more citizen becoming gravely dissatisfied with their government’s rule, but some regime elites (perhaps even Rouhani himself) see the system as untenable. Challenged are the merits of regional power projection at the price of their most pressing domestic needs. The economic model is hollow, and the regime’s ideology is bankrupt.

Time is on the side of Iran’s opening. Those who participated in the ’79 Revolution and the hundreds of thousands more who lost their beloved in the barbaric war with Iraq that followed are slowly passing on. Replacing them are generations with no connection to those sacrifices, instead staring at the dysfunction surrounding them, detached from their forefathers’ emotional baggage. They will unequivocally demand a different kind of life. And I’ll wager that a technocrat will lead them. But it will be a bit longer for the next revolution’s uploads.

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Iranian Missile Tests on the Rise

In February 2017, the Islamic Republic of Iran conducted a test of its Soumar cruise missile. The test was declared a success, and according to reports, the missile flew 600km during flight. The test occurred only a few days after Iran conducted a flight test of its medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). After the MRBM test, the United States imposed sanctions on Iran for its “continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program [which] poses a threat to the region, to our partners worldwide and to the United States.” But despite the new sanctions, Tehran conducted a flight test of the Soumar cruise missile. According to reports, the cruise missile is nuclear capable.

Tehran’s missile development programs—like developing solid fuelled ballistic missiles, bottle-necked warheads, multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs)—suggests that Tehran is pursuing a missile program that can defeat the missile defence systems of its adversaries, and cruise missiles could be a credible counter measure against enemy ballistic missile defence systems.

In March 2015, Iran declared that it had developed a long-range cruise missile with a range of 2500km called the Soumar, named after the Iranian town destroyed by Iraqi chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). This advanced surface-to-surface missile can hit targets with higher precision and greater accuracy than its predecessors and has modern navigation and propulsion systems. The range of this missile can be increased to 3000km with external fuel tanks. Brigadier General Hossein Deqhan, the Iranian Defence Minister, said that the successful test of this missile was a “crucial” and “effective” step “toward increasing the country’s defence and deterrence might.” According to Deqhan, the cruise missile is able to eliminate various targets and is equipped with radar in order to improve the accuracy of the missile.

The Soumar cruise missile can target Middle Eastern and Southern European countries. Though the missile resembles the Soviet era Kh-55 cruise missile, it was bought from Ukraine and reverse-engineered in Iran. The Soumar can be launched from the sea or from land and is able to perform pop-up manoeuvres during flight, which further enhances the credibility of the missile system. Also, it might be a variant of the “Meshkat” cruise missile that the Iranians have been trying to develop for some time.

Despite the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on Iran restricting the development of ballistic missiles, Tehran has continued to develop and modernize its arsenals. However, the likelihood of U.S. and Israeli ballistic missile defence being able to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles may be the reason why Tehran has kept the option of cruise missiles as a component of its deterrence capability. Also, as Tehran aspires to develop and produce smart weapons for Iran’s armed forces, the government is working towards the development of a new generation of advanced weapon systems, and the Soumar is an example of this effort.

While Iran’s ballistic missile program was considered for inclusion during nuclear deal negotiation process in 2014, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did not cover ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. This omission is extremely alarming as Iran’s missiles are nuclear capable. Iran declared that it would not include anything related to its defence capabilities, which includes ballistic missiles, as a part of the nuclear deal. Iran also argued that missiles are a component of its conventional deterrence.

Due to their advanced capabilities, Iran could use these cruise missiles to deliver chemical warheads or chemical sub-munitions. Such a scenario is possible since cruise missiles are the best delivery system for chemical warheads and sub-munitions (as compared to ballistic missiles). Even though Tehran is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), these new developments cannot be ignored.

Developing sophisticated missile systems despite several rounds of sanctions by the UNSC is Iran’s clear cut message to the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) that no amount of political pressure can prevent it from developing a credible deterrent capability for its armed forces.

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Putting the Battle for Mosul in Context

It has been over two years since the Islamic State sacked the Iraqi city of Mosul and captured much of the Sunni Arab regions in northern and western Iraq. The country remains mired in military conflict and political instability. This week Iraqi forces, with the backing of the American led coalition, are currently fighting to re-take Mosul. They hope that doing so will deliver a serious blow to the Islamic State. However, this battle, while extremely important, will not put an end to the crisis in Iraq or the threat of the Islamic State. To understand why, one must put the battle into its larger political context. In this post, I will try do just that and then attempt to provide a brief look ahead at the short, medium, and long term repercussions for the crisis in Iraq.


Iraq is currently divided into three distinct regions: Iraq proper, which is governed by Baghdad; the Kurdish autonomous zone; and the areas controlled by the Islamic State. Militarily, the Iraqi Armed Forces, with significant aid from popular mobilization forces (al-hashd al-sha‘bi), Kurdish Peshmerga, and American-led coalition forces, have been advancing steadily on the Islamic State’s positions. The Islamic State has been losing territory for over a year, and because of coalition air superiority, has not been able to mass forces for a counter-attack since the Spring of 2015. This success has often come at a steep price. While there has been some token Sunni Arab participation in the popular mobilization forces, they are dominated by sectarian, often Iranian-backed, Shi‘i militias. As these forces advance into Sunni Arab territory, they have clashed with the local populations. Human Rights Watch has “documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes” by elements of the popular mobilization forces.[1]     


The current focus of the combined military operations in Iraq is to re-take the city of Mosul. Theoretically, a military operation to re-take the city is fairly straightforward. However, in practice, it has been delayed for some time because it needs to be carried out in a manner that is consistent with the long-term political goals of a unified Iraq. A military assault that defeats the Islamic State while alienating much of the population or creating a humanitarian crisis will ultimately prove counter-productive. Recent Iraqi campaigns to re-take Sunni Arab cities left them in ruins and displaced most of their populations. Those cities had, at most, a few hundred thousand residents each. Mosul has almost two million residents. Thus, if the Iraqi forces employ their previous tactics in Mosul, they will likely trigger an acute humanitarian crisis. There are also fears that disputed areas liberated by the Kurds will be forced into the Kurdish autonomous region against the will of Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities.


American and coalition forces clearly understand this dynamic. In July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted a defense ministers summit and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a parallel foreign ministers summit.[2] In both meetings, representatives of the anti-Islamic State coalition emphasized the importance of post-conflict stabilization and development in Sunni Arab sections of Iraq. By doing so, they hope to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have a place in a united Iraq. These efforts face difficult challenges. Atrocities carried out by Kurdish and Shi‘i militias have had a deep impact on Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Some of the Sunni Arab population in Iraq continues to see Shi‘i and Kurdish forces as greater evils than the Islamic State. It is difficult to determine the extent of this sentiment, but there are some troubling signs. A recent, un-scientific poll conducted by al-Jazeera found that “72 percent of respondents said they supported the Islamic State over the Shia militias in the battle of Fallujah; 84 percent said that the Iranian occupation posed a greater threat than the Islamic State; and 86 percent said the goal of the Fallujah campaign was to consolidate Iranian occupation of Iraq rather than to fight terrorism.”[3] As un-scientific as these numbers may be, if they bear even a passing resemblance to reality, they signal a difficult road ahead. If Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than the Islamic State, then retaking Mosul will represent little more than a tactical victory. And the strategic landscape will be ripe for the reemergence of the Islamic State or a similar group in the near future. 


Over the long-term, the anti-Islamic State coalition’s goal of convincing Sunni Arabs to support the Iraqi government faces several structural political and economic problems. First, for several centuries, Sunni Arabs formed Iraq’s social, political, and economic elite. In 2003, the American-led invasion of Iraq disrupted the country’s system of rule, leaving Iraq’s Shi‘i majority in control. This created a disparity between the historical positions of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the possibilities they face under an even semi-democratic Iraq. As a result, they have been ambivalent at best about their prospects under the current regime in Baghdad. That situation will continue to provide openings for groups such as the Islamic State well into the future.


The two most widely discussed solutions to this problem are: (1) to de-centralize the government in Iraq, giving the Sunni Arab regions much more autonomy; and (2) to create a power-sharing system in Baghdad that would grant the Sunni Arabs more power. However, Iraq’s main oil fields are in the Shi‘i south and the Kurdish north. Thus, in a decentralized system, Baghdad would have to finance the Sunni Arab regions while agreeing to limit its political control over them. Such an arrangement is unlikely to be popular in non-Sunni Arab regions. Furthermore, since 2003, Iran has worked to install its allies in Baghdad. It has significant influence in many of the most important ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. Because Iran views Iraq as part of a broader regional struggle with Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, it is likely to block policies that cede power to Sunni Arabs.


To put it succinctly, the crisis in Iraq is not going to disappear after the liberation of Mosul and as long as the political and military conflicts in Iraq remain unresolved, Iraq will continue to be a source for terrorism and mass migration. Retaking Mosul is a vital first step in alleviating these problems, but we should be under no illusions that it will end the crisis in Iraq, or that the U.S. can refocus its attention elsewhere.






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President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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Iran Before and After 1979: How Did We Get Here from There?

Thirty-six years ago on February 11, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy came to an end and with it the commencement of an era of disorder throughout the Middle East. Just previously characterized by President Jimmy Carter as an “island of stability,” the political Shi’a clerics’ rapid confiscation of the state apparatus under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically shifted Iran’s foreign policy by  frequently supplanting national interests with sectarian ones. Khomeinism blended Third Worldism (anti-US), pan-Islamism (political Islam), and Shi’a-tinged liberation theology while also occasionally appealing to Persian historical greatness. That radical shift persists to this day. The consequences of this deviation from a more rational, national interest based, approach to policy formulation reverberate throughout the region today, particularly in the Levant and Mesopotamia. This reversal upended what had been a mutually beneficial de facto strategic alliance between Iran, Israel and the US that helped to maintain a balance of power in the region. Today’s relations among the three states could not be more different from the pre-1979 era as there is very little hope for democracy and secularism in today’s Iran.

How Did We Get Here?
In the wake of the events marking that wintery day of 1979, the trilateral Iran-Israel-USA alliance gave way to counter-natural realignments with unforeseeable consequences. Indeed, a cascade of incremental regional disintegration was to follow. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rent asunder the generally amiable relations between the countries since the signing of a friendship treaty in 1921. To the south, the House of Saud-led Arab Sunni sheikhdoms engaged in an ongoing battle against the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader overtly challenged the former’s religious legitimacy.[1] From this struggle for the leadership mantle of Islam, a particular brand of Islamic extremism developed and became militarized, thus giving rise to the forces of al-Qaeda and ISIS decades later. On Iran’s west, Saddam Hussein assumed Iraq’s presidency in a brutal bloodbath, turning his military on what he perceived as a vulnerable Persia in the following year. Lacking allies in an increasingly unstable and threatening Middle East, post-revolutionary Iran took its friends where it could find them, targeting Shi’ite co-religionists in Damascus and southern Lebanon in need of oil and financing. And as Hezbollah (and eventually even Sunni Hamas) opened up smoldering fronts on Israel’s borders, that country’s political leadership gradually shifted from kibbutz-minded labor Zionism towards one increasingly religious.

While these events and the regional realignments they produced are varied in their underlying causes, they are in many ways direct consequences of Iran’s revolution.  Taking into account the exceptional degree of regional instability borne of policies beholden to the ideological precepts of the Vilayat-e Faqih, it remains highly unlikely that a greater peace will come to the Middle East while the present regime’s concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran persists. This is not to say that Iran’s current leadership behaves irrationally: if rational is the systematic pursuit of a set objective, then that leadership has consistently been rational from the onset in 1979. However, its calculus is based first and foremost in the survival of the revolutionary regime with a focus on sectarian concerns, and the relegation of genuine national interests to a distant second. For evidence, one needs to look no further than the milestones of this leadership’s record of the last 36 years.

By way of example, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the savage dismantling of the country’s military chain of command, as it immediately followed the `79 Revolution, with Saddam’s armies offensive as its direct consequence. Similarly, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the post-`79 destruction of the nation’s civil society, coupled with the executions and exile of its entrepreneurs and academics, which further placed Iran on a downward trajectory that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only accelerated for the sake of its religious ideology with corollary financial benefits. On current display is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intransigence over the nuclear issue, despite those debilitating sanctions presently levied against his country: since the so-called “revolution of the disinherited” and over the past 30 years, the number of people living in shanty towns in Iran has been multiplied by seventeen.[2]

The regime’s combined efforts to control any and all spaces for dissent culminate in a turn from a pluralistic reading of the country’s history to one that is strictly dogmatic in its Shia mania: a realistic reading of this country’s millennia-long journey shows that reducing Iran’s history, culture and identity to Islam, reducing Islam to Shiism and Shiism to Khomeinism is an academic nonsense. As a result, there is little hope of a reliable relationship with a “partner” committed to a culture of sectarianism despite today’s common concerns, be they geopolitical, geoeconomic, or environmental.

Consider this state of affairs with the regional policies of pre-revolutionary Iran. With Reza Shah’s drive to modernize and reform in the 1920s, Persia simultaneously embarked on a policy of good relations with its neighbors in order to better concentrate efforts on its internal development. This conciliatory, non-interventionist approach was consistently reaffirmed from the 1937 Sa’dabad Pact through the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO; 1955) to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD; 1964), the latter comprising Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. Significantly, Mohammad Reza Shah’s Iran further maintained its regional balance through its reliance on US and Israeli military and economic aid, designed to contain Soviet ambitions from the north and increasingly radical governments in Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Combined, these alignments coincided with an unprecedented period of stability throughout the Northern Tier states, with resultant socio-economic benefits for Iran, prospering under the protective umbrella of the country’s well-equipped and trained armed forces.

Once a Successful Alliance

The former functionality of the Iran-Israel-US alliance was noteworthy in its pragmatic aspects: 

  • US and Iranian concerns of Soviet expansion into the Middle East, with Iran securely straddling a region bridging the Asia Minor to the Indian Ocean.
  • The multitude of US business interests entrenched in Iran, especially in its petroleum and arms industries.
  • Iran’s pivotal position in Israel’s “alliance of the periphery”, firmly coupled with US protective concerns for both countries.
  • The non-Arab cultural, linguistic, and historic Judeo and Persian national identities distinct in an otherwise predominantly Sunni-Arab region.
  • Common energy interests as Iran became the near-exclusive oil provider of Israel, as well as those in commerce, the military, and intelligence.

In an ideal future world, one might imagine Iran and Israel moving towards a new balance in their regional relationships given these common geographic, demographic, and economic interests, as well as certain civilizational considerations, that had brought them together in the past.

For the forseeable future, however, the Periphery Doctrine is no more and will never be the same as it once was. The reasons are several. The greatest, of course, was the paradigm shift of 1979 and the resulting challenge Khomeini made to the rival Riyadh, one that could not advance without taking the Arab side in the Palestinian Question, thus fundamentally putting it at odds with Israel. In stark contrast to decades of a cooperative relationship in military and economic spheres, Turkish-Israeli relations under Recip Tayyip Erdogan have sunk to new lows and will unlikely rebound without either a change of government in Ankara or a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran’s younger generations have shown a greater degree of concern and sympathy for Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel’s relations with Ethiopia during the era of the periphery alliance fluctuated, and although now improved, it may shift again. Finally, taking into account the post-Cold War Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as what may be history’s first independent Kurdish state), a new group of states or nations that may constitute reliable peripheral allies have has expanded (e.g. Israeli-Azerbaijani security and trade relations).[3]


This is not to advocate for the resumption of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary status quo ante under an authoritarian ruler, who was quite far from being a liberal democrat. Indeed, his regime and the current are untenable due to the extraordinary amount of authority resting in the hands of a single individual, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader. If a system of governance is to be defined as the tangible and intangible relations of interdependent, rational elements whose raison d’être is the sustainability of the whole, the durability of a structure based predominantly in the power of one is limited. The lesson here is that whether the Pahlavism[4] of yesteryear or the current U.S. administration’s tacit acceptance of Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, placing long-term bets on oppressive Iranian regimes has borne and will continue to bear out poorly.

As noted, Khomeini’s victory in the wake of Iran’s revolution presaged an unforeseen era of strife reverberating throughout the Middle East over three decades later. Recognizing their limits, some counterfactuals are worth considering: Would the Red Army have invaded Iran’s neighboring Afghanistan had the strong military and intelligence Iran-Israel-US ties persisted? Would Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have dared to attack Iran, had the command structure of the Iranian armed forces not been devastated by Khomeini and his “religious intellectuals”? Would Saddam Hussein have sent his armies to Kuwait, had Iran remained strong and influential? Could a non-revolutionary Iran have played a potentially constructive role as a bridge between Jews and Arabs?

The tragic reverberations from the ‘79 Revolution actually represent an anomaly, a disruption of aligned interests. Before 1979 the convergence of interests between these states went deeper than Cold War politics. At one point in history, by reason of geopolitics, economy, security, culture, and energy, Iranian and Israeli concerns were in line and enjoyed attendant US engagement. Is it possible for such an arrangement to be realized once again? Not in the near future, but if it is to become an eventual possibility it could only be done through the establishment of a democratic and secular government in Tehran.  In the weeks and months ahead, many variables could radically change the entire Iranian equation: from the radicalizing internal antagonisms in the run up to the next Majlis elections in June 2016, to the medical condition of the Supreme Leader and the foreseeable major crisis that his succession would inevitably unleash. Free and fair elections represent the most viable political strategy over this period and beyond: The Islamic Republic is a signatory of the Paris 1994 inter-parliamentary declaration that defines the criteria for such elections. Wouldn’t a freely elected law-making assembly in Tehran be the West’s best Iranian partner in trust-building measures so badly needed to solve the nuclear and regional crises?


[1] Fuller, Graham. The Center of the Universe – The Geopolitics of Iran. Westview Press, 1991, p. 105.

[2] Radio Farda, March 13, 2015,

[3] Shaffer, Brenda, “Azerbaijan’s Cooperation with Israel Goes Beyond Iran Tensions,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 16, 2013,

[4] Bill, James. The Eagle and the Lion – The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Yale Press, 1988, pp. 374-378. 

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Open Letters, Closed Minds, and the Making of US Foreign Policy

Friends and colleagues have asked me several times today for my opinion on the open letter to the Iranian government signed by forty-seven Republican members of the Senate, also known as the “Tom Cotton Letter.”

Since both the letter and the reactions to it have raised significant questions about the conduct and direction of American foreign policy, I think it is worth presenting a brief analysis, to help advance the conversation.

‪1. The best face to put on the letter is that Senator Cotton (R-AR) and his colleagues are expressing their concerns about what they consider a dangerous direction in American diplomacy, and their skepticism about any likely deal with Iran. That is of course very much within the rights of any member of congress (indeed, any American citizen). We are under no compulsion to agree with everything the President does, no matter what his more enthusiastic supporters may be implying on Facebook and elsewhere these days. I am also worried about how this deal is shaping up, and think we should be having a serious and public discussion of our policy vis-à-vis Iran.

‪2. That being said, the form chosen is so inappropriate as to severely undermine any point the authors hoped to make. Writing a brief “open letter” to a foreign government that includes condescending and amateurish (and, may I add, passive-aggressive) references to Congress’s role in the treaty process serves no good purpose at all. It not only shows contempt for the Executive Branch’s responsibility for foreign affairs, it also insults the intelligence of the Iranians. On top of that, it also undermines our negotiating partners, who include many of our closest allies in the world. Loudly announcing that the President has no authority to make a deal is deeply destructive, and will not be much help to future presidents either, whatever party they represent. I do not pretend to be able to look into the souls of the authors, but it appears to me that they have allowed their contempt for the president and the process, and their desire to play to certain putative elements of their political base, to blind them to the deeply problematic elements of this course of action.  An open letter that reflects a closed mind is bad politics and worse policy.

‪3. I repeat, the problem is not that they disagree with the president, but rather in appealing to the Iranians in this way. I fail to see how it serves any purpose other than to make them appear petty and the United States government appear dysfunctional. If the looming agreement is so terrible, then a better agreement will take further negotiation. They cannot seriously expect this letter to improve the western negotiating position; if they just want to torpedo any possibility of continued talks with no sense of what should come next, they are being irresponsible in the extreme.

‪4. What could/should they have done instead? Give speeches in the Senate, write op-ed pieces for American newspapers, and give TV interviews expressing their concerns about the deal. Those are perfectly legitimate ways to participate in public debate. I made a joke yesterday to a colleague (Michael Schwarz of Ashland University) that I “was still smarting about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,” which criticized the Alien and Sedition Acts, and reflected Jeffersonian doubts about Federalist foreign policy. (Historians, I admit, joke about odd and obscure things sometimes.) The difference, however, is that Madison and Jefferson were within their rights to criticize government policy in print and debate. Of course one can always say “the enemy is listening,” but it does not hurt anyone for the world to see how vibrant and constructive political debate in a democracy can be.

5. With that in mind, any complaints about the negotiations and the possibilities of a deal with Iran should be adult enough to deal in specific concerns and possible solutions. What would a good deal look like from the perspective of these critics? If they have complaints about the President not including Congress in his plans, how about making that the meat of their argument? The letter as it stands merely says that an agreement without Congressional approval could be reversed by the next President, which is true but irrelevant to the policy question. A better piece would make a constructive argument for congressional participation in the discussions, and even go on record as to what the Congress would like to see in a final agreement. Not including such things makes the organizational complaints sound disingenuous. If Senator Cotton and his colleagues believe that no agreement is possible under any circumstances, they should have the courage to say it, and the common sense to say what implications that has for American foreign policy.

‪6. Finally, I am especially pained to see that many smart conservatives, in their rush to defend compatriots against criticism, are acting as though questions of form and method are unimportant, or simply saying “well the other guy did/does/will do it too.” It matters a great deal how a state manages its foreign policy. It matters a great deal that the leaders of a democratic state recognize the legitimacy of their colleagues, even if they happen to be from the other party. And it matters a great deal how well the institutions of a representative government relate to each other and to any policy debate, now and in the future. Everyone knows that, and for columnists and commentators to pretend otherwise is a further insult to our intelligence and does neither the spokespeople nor their cause any good.

‪7. The release of this letter is a new low in the management of serious foreign policy debate in this country. Somebody needs to stop this race to the bottom, or no one will be able to govern this country and manage its relations with the world at all.

‪This entire discussion reminds me of a favorite quote from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons—which is a favorite play of mine, about one of my heroes, Thomas More. In it, More defends the need for formal legal procedures against the arguments of his fanatical son-in-law, Roper:

‪Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

‪More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

‪Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

‪More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

For the sake of our, and the world’s safety, American leaders need to respect each other and the foreign policy process, if we hope to develop a sensible foreign policy.

Related Post: Reflections on Granieri’s “Open Letters, Closed Minds, and the Making of US Foreign Policy,” by John R. Haines, Senior Fellow, FPRI, March 12, 2015

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Netanyahu’s Speech: What Difference Does it Make?

In the run-up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday, one important question was being asked that is worthwhile to revisit in the aftermath of the Israeli premier’s address:

Will Netanyahu’s speech help prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

This, of course, was Netanyahu’s stated reason for taking the podium before Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner.

On one side, many argue that, by bringing his case to Congress, Netanyahu may have been able to halt a disastrous deal between the Obama Administration and Iran from within.

These commentators and pundits claim that Netanyahu had the opportunity to energize opponents of the deal being discussed and convince those on the fence that such a deal would be a nightmare. In turn, so the argument goes, lawmakers would be emboldened to try to block a deal with Iran, and the American public would be energized to organize against it. With one speech, therefore, Netanyahu would singlehandedly be able to prevent a bad deal with Iran from being reached and the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon.

On the other side, many argue that Netanyahu’s speech has only damaged Israel’s interests and weakened any say Israel might have had in the ongoing talks.

Members of this camp point out that one of Israel’s most vital interests is to maintain close relations with the United States, the world’s greatest superpower and top provider of aid to the Jewish State. They argue that by publicly expressing disagreements with the Obama Administration in an open session of Congress, Netanyahu is severely undermining these ties. As evidence, some point to reports (which surfaced before the speech was delivered) that in the run-up to Netanyahu’s address, the Obama Administration decided to stop briefing Israeli officials on the progress of the talks with Iran. Therefore, so this argument goes, Israel is already losing what little clout it had in the talks to begin with.

To a certain degree, both sides are correct: Netanyahu’s speech will undoubtedly energize lawmakers and others who oppose a deal with Iran, and it will also put a severe strain on relations with the Obama Administration at a very crucial time.

But what about the central question? Will Netanyahu’s speech help in his (and, coincidentally, the Obama Administration’s) goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

Unfortunately, it will be impossible to answer this question for years or even decades. It will likely be for historians and analysts far into the future to decide whether or not Netanyahu’s speech had an influence on whatever happens (or does not happen) in Iranian-American negotiations – and what happens after they end.

That being the case, all one can do is focus on the here and now – the waves Netanyahu’s speech will surely generate in America against a deal and the turbulence in the Netanyahu government’s relations with the Obama Administration. Observers will also be prudent to keep an eye on the upcoming Israeli elections on March 17. In less than two weeks, the Israeli people may topple Prime Minister Netanyahu at the ballot box and usher in a new government headed by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. This would likely put American-Israeli relations on an entirely different trajectory and could therefore alter the ongoing Israeli-American-Iranian saga significantly.

Justin Scott Finkelstein is the Harvey Sicherman Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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Oman: Wasta Par Excellence

By Kathleen Reedy

Oman has recently opened the doors of a new school in downtown Muscat to teach Persian language classes to its residents, both national and expatriate. It is being run by the Omani Ministry of Education, but students who complete the 12-week courses will receive a certificate from the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad in Iran. The Iranian Ambassador to Oman, Ali Akbar Sibeveih, hopes that Oman will open an equivalent Arabic language institute in Tehran in the near future.[1] Undoubtedly, some of the first to register will be some of the 100-person delegation of Omani businessmen who have made plans to visit Iran in the upcoming months to develop cross-country business ties.[2] Or perhaps those interested in furthering plans for a proposed natural gas pipeline that will run between Oman, Iran, and India.[3]  

Since the final vestiges of Persian rule were finally cleared out of Oman in the 18th century, Oman and Iran have maintained fairly consistent friendly ties, even when such ties appeared to be inconsistent with Oman’s joining the GCC with its Saudi-led antipathy toward Iran. While it shares a direct border with Saudi Arabia, Oman’s proximity to Iran across the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and its gratefulness for Iranian help during the Dhofar War (1965-1975, when Iran had over 3000 troops stationed in Oman) has made Iran an equally important neighbor. Narratives of Iranians who “died fighting for Oman on Omani soil,” are still strong among the Omani people today. Even with the ouster of the Shah, Oman continued to maintain ties with Iran and remained largely unaligned during the Iran-Iraq war. In more recent years, Oman has kept those relations going, and helped serve as the middleman between Iran and the United States, helping to facilitate the release of American hostages in 2011 and then the US-Iranian détente in 2013. The newly elected President Rouhani then made Iran’s first visit to a GCC state in more than a decade to Oman to discuss the possibility of opening a natural gas pipeline between the two countries. [4]

What is perhaps more unlikely is Oman’s strength of relations with Saudi Arabia, which funded civil unrest in Oman in the uprising of the 1950s and then again in the Dhofar War. Shared geopolitical concerns as an oil producing state (if not nearly as much as many of its GCC neighbors) as well as Arab Spring and Salafist incursion concerns has kept Oman rooted in the Gulf, though not to the point of submissiveness to Saudi aims, as the Sultan demonstrated when he stated unequivocally that Oman would not enter into a formal GCC union in 2013. However, ties remain strong between the two and Oman supports much of the GCC economic agenda.

Oman’s foreign policy, then, is a carefully crafted balancing act that plays on its location and on the fact that Oman is too small for the major players to consider it a threat. Sultan Qaboos has, since he deposed his father in 1970, managed this balance and relies heavily on the theory that a primary way to deal with enemies and threats to national security is through openness and dialogue. In other words, pragmatism. He combines this approach with a staunch policy of nonintervention in other countries, aside from allowing partners the use of Omani soil as a military base launching location.[5] Omanis are largely proud of their country’s middle role, with the only complaints coming from young military service members who feel they only get to train, not actually practice combat.

When you ask Omanis, then, what it is that drives the philosophy behind the foreign policy they are so proud of, their first reaction is often to explain it through religion. Among Oman’s two million or so citizens, almost all of them are Muslim, but most practice a rare version of Islam known as Ibadhism. It is so uncommon that it is found almost exclusively in Oman, with a few patches of practitioners in North Africa, and many educated Muslims themselves have never even heard of it. What makes it unique—and gives Oman a degree of credibility when it comes to sitting on the fence between Iran and Saudi Arabia’s wrangling—is that it is neither Sunni or Shi’a, meaning that Oman does not neatly or obviously fall into the camp of the two major regional powers.

Ibadhism, like other schools of Islam, has a long legal tradition, but in the way it is discussed and practiced today, it has several main points that make it unique. First is that it preaches righteousness. Only those who live righteously will ascend to heaven. Second, and most important for foreign policy discussions in Omani eyes, is acceptance of non-righteousness. Unlike some forms of Islam, Ibadhism preaches a great deal of acceptance for people of all religions who are not yet able to live up to the standards of righteousness. There is an element of humility in the way this concept is practiced, with many Ibadhis refusing to judge other people as wrong or to attempt to limit their practices. A common example is the tolerance for alcohol consumption, which is prohibited in Islam. Rather than heavily restricting its access, as is the case in several Gulf countries, it is fairly easy to both find alcohol in Oman, as well as Omanis drinking it without the intense stigma they might receive elsewhere. It is their sin to commit and Ibadhis do not see it as their religious responsibility to impose their will on anyone.

“Friend to all, enemy to none,” is, if such analysis is taken at face value, the result of Ibadhi’s acceptance of all. By that logic, however, it would also have been the basis for the previous sultan’s isolationism and even the creation and expansion of the Omani Empire, which stretched from Pakistan to Zanzibar in the 1800s. The answer more realistically lies with the political acumen of Sultan Qaboos,[6] who has defined himself and Oman as the perfect wasta.

Wasta is the Arabic concept for intercession, clout, middleman, connections, and patronage all rolled into one. One can have wasta, but one can also be a wasta for someone else. The word comes from the root wasat or to be in the middle, and wasta is at the center of how Arabic culture and politics function. Have a dispute with your neighbor? Need a job? Need some help with a homework assignment? Want to buy or refurbish a home? Want to get out of a speeding ticket? Need to get a form filed with a government office? Unless you are willing to wait a long time, you had better have some wasta. Your wasta may be members of your family or tribe (where there are expectations of caring for each other), but they are just as likely to be acquaintances. Wasta builds prestige—when you use your pull to help someone else, you increase your honor. It also encourages reciprocity, for if someone does a favor for you, you must now maintain the relationship and return the favor at some point. This debt is not viewed negatively, put as a positive aspect of relationship-building and equality (not unlike exchanging birthday presents). In some cases, such as helping someone get a job, there is a strong patronage element, where there is clearly someone in a higher position of power, but more often, wasta is a matter of people helping out social equals.

This wasta role, then, is what Oman is aiming to achieve. It aspires to be the trusted middle man for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. What Sultan Qaboos lacks in power independently, he has made up in his role as the go-between, the wasta that can and will negotiate with everyone in turn, ultimately to ensure its own peace, stability, and long-term wellbeing as the great nations of the world remember and find ways to repay their small partner. And as every good wasta deal should end, all parties feel like they have gained something from it, a win-win situation that might appear to transgress all sorts foreign policy realities, but is in fact a clever play to balance everyone and gain some prestige in the process. And to ensure that relations between Oman and the big players are more than just skin deep, Oman—whose citizens already speak the language of Saudi Arabia and have ample free education that includes English—is now paving the way for its people to learn Persian as well, so that Omanis can truly talk to everyone.


Kathleen Reedy, Ph.D., works for Cubic Inc., as the Middle East Region and Culture Expert at the USAF Air Advisor Academy. The views and opinions reflected here are her own and do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States Air Force or the U.S. Government.

[1] “Center for teaching Persian language starts in Muscat,” EdArabia. 2014.

[2] Pourmohammadi, Elham. “Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry to explore avenues in Iran,” Times of Oman. April 27, 2014.

[3] Panda, Ankit. “India, Iran and Oman open talks on deep sea gas pipeline,” The Diplomat. March 1, 2014.

[4] Friedman, Uri. “Oman: The world’s hostage negotiator,” Foreign Policy. Nov 14, 2011.; Baltaji, Dana. “Oman fights Saudi bid for Gulf hegemony with Iran pipe plan,” Bloobmberg. Apr 22, 2014.

[5] “Oman: A unique foreign policy,” RAND Research Brief.

[6] Kaplan, Robert. “Oman’s Renaissance Man,” Foreign Policy. Mar 1, 2011.

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