How America continues to miscalculate Iran
One of my favourite Seinfeld episodes is titled “Bizarro Jerry”. In it, the lead characters - Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer- meet up with their bizarro/polar opposites, characters that could only exist in a “bizarre world”. Where Jerry is funny, self-absorbed and shallow, his bizarro-self is serious, considerate and contemplative.
In a cultural, societal and political sense, America’s bizarro-self is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran and the US occupy such polar opposite extremes, one could be fooled into believing the respective nations each occupy an alternative universe. What is up in Iran is down in America. What is illuminated in America is performed in deeply guarded secrecy in Iran.
“In almost every other way the Iranians don’t behave like us. They are some of the most secretive people in the world,” writes former CIA operative Robert Baer. “They don’t keep bureaucratic records. They don’t rationalise their decisions on paper. They don’t leak. They don’t splash mistakes or scandals on the front pages of their newspapers. They don’t hold parliamentary hearings, or allow anyone to write frank memoirs.”
If a general of the Revolutionary Guard ever penned a “tell all” autobiography, and he never would, he’d certainly never leak classified information to the biographer he’s sleeping with - cough - Petraeus - cough.
Despite having been at war with Iran via proxy for the past three decades, America doesn’t understand Iran and continues to make false assumptions about Iran. It is America’s collective ignorance of Iran that has effectively handed Iran hegemony of the entire Middle East. If America understood Iran’s ambitions, it would never had toppled Saddam, who stood as the last line of defence between the US’s Sunni Arab allies and the start of the new Persian Empire.
Today US politicians are torn between “bombing Iran” (Republicans) and “negotiating with Iran” (Democrats). In short, the approach of both political parties for dealing with the “Iranian threat” is sound but not for the reasons they communicate.
Republicans want to take military action because they are unable to see beyond Iran’s apocalyptic religious face. While Democrats believe negotiating with Iran will bring the isolated Islamic Republic into the “international world order”. In other words, Republicans are constrained to 1979 thinking, while Democrats are naively optimistic about Iran’s overarching ambitions.
What Iran seeks is complete Persian domination of the Persian Gulf. What Iran seeks is absolute hegemony in the Middle East. What Iran seeks is to upturn 1,300 years of Sunni Arab dominance. What Iran seeks is superpower-dom. It seeks a seat at the table with the US, China, Russia and Europe.
Ultimately, what Iran really seeks is total dominance of the world’s oil supplies, and it has been waging a highly effective covert war to attain that goal.
With Iran now increasingly in control of Iraq, something that the Iranians would never have achieved without US intervention, Iran is now within range of becoming the world’s largest oil producer. Today Iraq produces four million barrels per day and Iran more than six million per day. Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading producer, pumps out nine million barrels per day. In case you missed it, Iran-Iraq has surpassed the Saudis – and this is what gives the kingdom nightmares.
“Under a scenario like this, Iran calls the shots in world oil markets, deciding levels of production that lower or raise world prices, which also aids Iran’s ongoing campaign to decouple oil from the dollar. If oil markets again tighten, it could fall within Iran’s reach to set the global price of oil,” notes Baer. “If Iran were to force a cutback of, let’s say, five million barrels a day, Americans could end up paying $10 a gallon for gasoline. If the cutback was compounded with an assault on the dollar, it would start something very much like a depression in the United States.”
Republicans, at least communicatively, overlook Iran’s imperial and pragmatic ambitions. Wrongly, they see only a backwards, theocratic regime that aims to drive Israel off the map. Democrats, however, are unable to see the means to Iran’s imperialistic ends - namely dollars and guns funnelled to Iranian proxy militias in Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen.
The Democratic Party’s approach to Iran, while reasonable and praiseworthy, is “dangerous”, notes Jason Ginsburg, a staff writer for Brown Political Review. “As a State Department-designated sponsor of terrorism, Iran continually provokes violence in the Middle East ... Iran also shows little consideration for international norms of human rights. Without a denouncement of violence and a respect for the rights of all individuals, Iran cannot be a responsible leader in the Middle East.”
Saudi Arabia knows an Iranian invasion is coming, which is why the kingdom so enthusiastically cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pleas to the US to bomb Iran, and why the Saudis’ bombing of Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen is for them an effort to ward off the inevitable. But even without an Iranian invasion, the mere expansion of Iranian influence is an existential threat to Saudi Arabia.
“The House of Saud created a single country, but its roots may be shallower than we think,” notes former US State Department advisor Vali Nasr. “Shias cannot break away from Saudi Arabia but they might break it up. The Saudi rulers and their clerical allies find such a prospect deeply frightening and disconcerting: it would threaten the end of Wahhabism. Saudis fear not so much Iran, but the pluralism that Iran has promised to force [on] their country if ever the chance arises - a pluralism that would speak loudly to the multitude of Saudi citizens whose ethnic and sectarian aspirations do not line up with the Saudi-Wahhabi ideology of state.”
In the meantime, as Baer notes, the Saudis have two choices: they can goad the US into a war against Iran, or more likely, “they can raise the white flag and hope Iran will be satisfied with dominion over the Gulf rather than occupation”. While at the same time, Saudi Arabia is “buying all the arms it can, hoping against hope that they will serve as a deterrent against Iran”.
With or without a nuclear deal, and with or without and end to US-led sanctions, there is nothing to stop Iran becoming the superpower it desires. The Sunni Arab order of the 20th century has evaporated. Sunni Arab armies have lost every war they’ve fought since 1948. More significantly, it was Saddam’s army that acted as a bulwark against Iran invading the Sunni Arab Gulf states. That bulwark now belongs to Iran. Effectively, Iraq is now a barrier that prevents Sunni Arab Gulf states counter-attacking Iran.
“Destroying Iraq was the greatest strategic blunder this country has made in its history,” notes Baer. “Unless we change course, there’s every reason to believe the Iraq War will end up changing the United States more than it will ever change Iraq.”
Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2010, the US has been locked in a desperate effort to prevent Iran attaining a nuclear weapon. The US has tried sanctions, threats, and incentives – none have contained Iran. Moreover, a nuclear weapon is an Iranian wish, not an Iranian need. A myopic focus on a would-be Iranian nuclear bomb further underscores how much America misunderstands the nature of the Iranian threat.
Iran took over Iraq and Lebanon without firing a shot. It arms Shiite militias in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq with conventional weapons. For instance, Iran-backed Hezbollah defeated the Israeli military in 2000 and 2006 using conventional weapons and guerilla tactics. It will use the same tactics to overwhelm its Sunni Arab neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, the Gulf States and somewhere in the distant future Turkey. No nukes needed.
Thus why, in terms of US strategic interests, it can be argued both bombing and negotiating with Iran are indeed the right choices, but not so if the US doesn’t know why they’re making said choice. In other words, ignorance is no longer bliss. America will have to work harder to understand what and who its bizarro-self is.
- CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry stands next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during nuclear talks (AA)