Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Striking A Deal With The Devil

Stratfor Geopolitical Diary - The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released on Monday -- the little bombshell that says Iran has had its nuclear weapons program on hold since 2003 -- raises two fundamental questions. First, if Iran really does not have a military weapons program, why has it resisted international inspections? Second, why is the United States allowing this news to break?

The Iranian motive for resisting inspections should first be considered.

For the past five years, Washington and Tehran have been engaged in on-again, off-again negotiations over Iraq's future. In these talks the Iranians have been at a sizable disadvantage. The United States has more than 100,000 troops in the country, while Iran's leverage is largely limited to its influence with many of the country's Shiite militias. This influence is a useful tool for denying the United States the ability to impose its desires, though it is not a powerful enough one to allow the Iranians to turn their own preferences into reality.

Moreover, given that the majority of Iran's population is either in or behind the Zagros Mountains, Iran might be difficult to invade, but it lacks military expeditionary capability. Its infantry-heavy army is designed for population control, not power projection. Therefore, for Iran to have a lever in manipulating events in its region, it must develop other playing cards.

Its nuclear program is one of those cards. Iran has had a vested interest in convincing the world -- unofficially, of course -- that it possesses a nuclear program. For Iran, the nuclear program is a trump card to be traded away, not a goal in and of itself.

As to the U.S. motive, it also wanted to play up the nuclear threat. Part of Washington's negotiation strategy has been to isolate Iran from the rest of the international community. Charges that Iran desired nukes were an excellent way to marshal international action. Both sides had a vested interest in making Iran look the part of the wolf.

That no longer is the case. There are only two reasons the U.S. government would choose to issue a report that publicly undermines the past four years of its foreign policy: a deal has been struck, or one is close enough that an international diplomatic coalition is no longer perceived as critical. This level of coordination across all branches of U.S. intelligence could not happen without the knowledge and approval of the CIA director, the secretaries of defense and state, the national security adviser and the president himself. This is not a power play; this is the real deal.

The full details of any deal are unlikely to be made public any time soon because the U.S. and Iranian publics probably are not yet ready to consider each other as anything short of foes. But the deal is by design integrated into both states' national security posture. It will allow for a permanent deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq to provide minimal national security for Iraq, but not in large enough numbers to be able to launch a sizable attack against Iran. It will allow for the training and equipping of the Iraqi military forces so that Iraq can defend itself, but not so much that it could boast a meaningful offensive force. It will integrate Iranian intelligence and military personnel into the U.S. effort so there are no surprises on either side.

But those are the details. Here is the main thrust: Ultimately, both sides have nursed deep-seated fears. The Iranians do not want the Americans to assist in the rise of another militaristic Sunni power in Baghdad -- the last one inflicted 1 million Iranian casualties during 1980-1988 war. The United States does not want to see Iran dominate Iraq and use it as a springboard to control Arabia; that would put some 20 million barrels per day of oil output under a single power. The real purpose of the deal is to install enough bilateral checks in Iraq to ensure that neither nightmare scenario happens.

Should such an arrangement stick, the two biggest winners obviously are the Americans and Iranians. That is not just because the two no longer would be in direct conflict, and not just because both would have freed up resources for other tasks.

U.S. geopolitical strategy is to prevent the rising of a power on a continental scale that has the potential to threaten North America. It does this by favoring isolated powers that are resisting larger forces. As powerful as Iran is, it is the runt of the neighborhood when one looks past the political lines on maps and takes a more holistic view. Sunnis outnumber Shia many times over, and Arabs outnumber Persians. Indeed, Persians make up only roughly half of Iran's population, making Tehran consistently vulnerable to outside influence. Simply put, the United States and Iran -- because of the former's strategy and the latter's circumstances -- are natural allies.

On the flip side, the biggest losers are those entities that worry about footloose and fancy-free Americans and Iranians. The three groups at the top of that list are the Iraqis, the Russians and the Arabs. Washington and Tehran will each sell out their proxies in Iraq in a heartbeat for the promise of an overarching deal. Now is the time for the Kurds, Sunni and Shia of Iraq to prove their worth to either side; those who resist will be smears on the inside of history's dustbin.

Separately, a core goal of U.S. foreign policy is to ensure that the Russians never again threaten North America, and to a lesser degree, Europe. A United States that is not obsessed with Tehran is one that has the freedom to be obsessed with Moscow. And do not forget that the last state to occupy portions of Iran was not the United States, but Russia. Persia has a long memory and there are scores to settle in the Caucasus.

Back in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy has often supported the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, favoring the weak against the strong in line with the broad strategy discussed above. A United States that does not need to contain Iran is a United States that can leverage an Iran that very much wishes to be leveraged. That potentially puts the Arabs on the defensive on topics ranging from investment to defense. The Arabs tend to get worried whenever the Americans or the Iranians look directly at them; that is nothing compared to the emotions that will swirl the first time that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands.

We expect the days and weeks ahead to be marked by a blizzard of activity as various players in Washington and Tehran attempt both to engage directly and to prepare the ground (still) for a final deal. Much will be dramatic, much will be contradictory, much will make no sense whatsoever. This is, after all, still the Middle East. But keep this in mind: With the nuclear issue out of the way, the heavy lifting has already been done and some level of understanding on Iraq's future already is in place. All that remains is working out the "details."