Trend: Iran is expanding its power and gaining credibility with Muslims in the Middle East.
In John Mauldin's InvestorsInsight - Outside the Box, George Friedman, the President of Stratfor.com, has posted a reality based in-depth and logical analysis of the dilemma facing the U.S. on the situation in Iraq.
The Iranians had always wanted an Iraqi satellite state, as protection against another Iraq-Iran war. That was a basic national security concept for them. In order to have this, the Iranians needed an overwhelmingly Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and to have overwhelming control of the Shia. It seemed to us that there could be a Shiite-dominated government but not an overwhelmingly Shiite government. In other words, Iraq could be neutral toward, but not a satellite of, Iran. In our view, Iraq's leading Shia -- fearing a civil war and also being wary of domination by Iran -- would accept this settlement.
We may have been correct on the sentiment of leading Shia, but we were wrong about Iran's intentions. Tehran did not see a neutral Iraq as being either in Iran's interests or necessary. Clearly, the Iranians did not trust a neutral Iraq still under American occupation to remain neutral. Second -- and this is the most important -- they saw the Americans as militarily weak and incapable of either containing a civil war in Iraq or of taking significant military action against Iran. In other words, the Iranians didn't like the deal they had been offered, they felt that they could do better, and they felt that the time had come to strike.
A Two-Pronged Offensive
When we look back through Iranian eyes, we can now see what they saw: a golden opportunity to deal the United States a blow, redefine the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf and reposition the Shia in the Muslim world. Iran had, for example, been revivifying Hezbollah in Lebanon for several months. We had seen this as a routine response to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. It is now apparent, however, that it was part of a two-pronged offensive.
First, in Iraq, the Iranians encouraged a variety of factions to both resist the newly formed government and to strike out against the Sunnis. This created an uncontainable cycle of violence that rendered the Iraqi government impotent and the Americans irrelevant. The tempo of operations was now in the hands of those Shiite groups among which the Iranians had extensive influence -- and this included some of the leading Shiite parties, such as SCIRI.
Second, in Lebanon, Iran encouraged Hezbollah to launch an offensive. There is debate over whether the Israelis or Hezbollah ignited the conflict in Lebanon. Part of this is ideological gibberish, but part of it concerns intention. It is clear that Hezbollah was fully deployed for combat. Its positions were manned in the south, and its rockets were ready. The capture of two Israeli soldiers was intended to trigger Israeli airstrikes, which were as predictable as sunrise, and Hezbollah was ready to fire on Haifa. Once Haifa was hit, Israel floundered in trying to deploy troops (the Golani and Givati brigades were in the south, near Gaza). This would not have been the case if the Israelis had planned for war with Hezbollah. Now, this discussion has nothing to do with who to blame for what. It has everything to do with the fact that Hezbollah was ready to fight, triggered the fight, and came out ahead because it wasn't defeated.
The end result is that, suddenly, the Iranians held the whip hand in Iraq, had dealt Israel a psychological blow, had repositioned themselves in the Muslim world and had generally redefined the dynamics of the region. Moreover, they had moved to the threshold of redefining the geopolitics to the Persian Gulf.
This was by far their most important achievement.
A New Look at the Region
At this point, except for the United States, Iran has by far the most powerful military force in the Persian Gulf. This has nothing to do with its nuclear capability, which is still years away from realization. Its ground forces are simply more numerous and more capable than all the forces of the Arabian Peninsula combined. There is another aspect to this: The countries of the Arabian Peninsula are governed by Sunnis, but many are home to substantial Shiite populations as well. Between the Iranian military and the possibility of unrest among Shia in the region, the situation in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Peninsula is uneasy, to say the least. The rise of Hezbollah well might psychologically empower the generally quiescent Shia to become more assertive. This is one of the reasons that the Saudis were so angry at Hezbollah, and why they now are so anxious over events in Iraq.
If Iraq were to break into three regions, the southern region would be Shiite -- and the Iranians clearly believe that they could dominate southern Iraq. This not only would give them control of the Basra oil fields, but also would theoretically open the road to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. From a strictly military point of view, and not including the Shiite insurgencies at all, Iran could move far down the western littoral of the Persian Gulf if American forces were absent. Put another way, there would be a possibility that the Iranians could seize control of the bulk of the region's oil reserves. They could do the same thing if Iraq were to be united as an Iranian satellite, but that would be far more difficult to achieve and would require active U.S. cooperation in withdrawing.
We can now see why Bush cannot begin withdrawing forces. If he did that, the entire region would destabilize. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula, seeing the withdrawal, would realize that the Iranians were now the dominant power. Shia in the Gulf region might act, or they might simply wait until the Americans had withdrawn and the Iranians arrived. Israel, shaken to the core by its fight with Hezbollah, would have neither the force nor the inclination to act. Therefore, the United States has little choice, from Bush's perspective, but to remain in Iraq.
The Iranians undoubtedly anticipated this response. They have planned carefully. They are therefore shifting their rhetoric somewhat to be more accommodating. They understand that to get the United States out of Iraq -- and out of Kuwait --they will have to engage in a complex set of negotiations. They will promise anything -- but in the end, they will be the largest military force in the region, and nothing else matters. Ultimately, they are counting on the Americans to be sufficiently exhausted by their experience of Iraq to rationalize their withdrawal -- leaving, as in Vietnam, a graceful interval for what follows.
Iran will do everything it can, of course, to assure that the Americans are as exhausted as possible. The Iranians have no incentive to allow the chaos to wind down, until at least a political settlement with the United States is achieved. The United States cannot permit Iranian hegemony over the Persian Gulf, nor can it sustain its forces in Iraq indefinitely under these circumstances.
Iran has set a clever trap, and the United States has walked into it. Rather than a functioning government in Iraq, it has chaos and a triumphant Shiite community. The Americans cannot contain the chaos, and they cannot simply withdraw. Therefore, we can understand why Bush insists on holding his position indefinitely. He has been maneuvered in such a manner that he -- or a successor -- has no real alternatives.
There is one counter to this: a massive American buildup, including a major buildup of ground forces that requires a large expansion of the Army, geared for the invasion of Iran and destruction of its military force. The idea that this could readily be done through air power has evaporated, we would think, with the Israeli air force's failure in Lebanon. An invasion of Iran would be enormously expensive, take a very long time and create a problem of occupation that would dwarf the problem faced in Iraq. But it is the other option. It would stabilize the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula and drain American military power for a generation.
Sometimes there are no good choices. For the United States, the options are to negotiate a settlement that is acceptable to Iran and live with the consequences, raise a massive army and invade Iran, or live in the current twilight world between Iranian hegemony and war with Iran. Bush appears to be choosing an indecisive twilight. Given the options, it is understandable why.