Thursday, March 29, 2012

Strategy in Iran's Neighborhood

Imagine the Iranian crisis not as a U.S./Israeli conflict with Iran but as a regional competition involving half a dozen major players and the conclusion that jumps out is: “instability.”

The core level is the double sectarian problem of Azeris living in Iran and Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. It would not be prudent for a 21st century strategist to discount the potential of these old sectarian issues to cause problems. Turks, even today in the era of Davutoglu’s “good-neighborliness,” still launch military attacks into Iraq in the endless effort to force the Kurdish circle into the three square pegs of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. As for those who think President Truman resolved the Iranian Azeri issue in 1948 when he faced down Stalin, in now independent Azerbaijan, politicians have not forgotten. Sectarian issues, concerning both justice for minorities and irredentist feelings, lie always ready beneath the surface to complicate whatever other political issues may exist.

Dangerous Neighborhood

The broadest level of the regional political scene is the Iranian-Israeli struggle for regional influence that Americans see through the darkly tinted glasses of the nuclear dispute. Whether or not Iran is truly planning to challenge Israel’s overwhelming nuclear superiority, commonly held to be not just a regional monopoly but a massive 200 or more nuclear bombs, there is little doubt that Tehran wants to duplicate Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity and that Tel Aviv bitterly resents Tehran’s efforts to eliminate by duplication Tel Aviv’s psychological nuclear exceptionalism. Given the questionable utility of nuclear bombs for actual military use, Tehran’s ability to match Tel Aviv’s formerly unique policy of nuclear ambiguity may be more significant in political terms than the question of whether or not it actually manufactures a nuclear weapon.

Another layer of the political onion is political competition among Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan. A recent joint declaration by the three states’ foreign ministers in Azerbaijan to improve relations notwithstanding, realities are less friendly:

  • Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, head of Iran's general staff and a general enamored of provocative public remarks about international strategy, is now alleged “not” to have “in fact declared that ‘the people's awakening cannot be suppressed’ or accused Aliyev's government of ‘giv[ing] freedom to the Zionist regime [Israel] to meddle in [his] country's affairs,’ according to a statement issued by the Iranian Embassy in Baku. Nor had he accused Aliyev of giving ‘command to bar Islamic rules.’”
  • Whatever the truth of the curiously detailed “misquotations” of Iranian general Firuzabadi, Azerbaijan recently announced an Iranian spy plot against Israeli interests in Azerbaijan.

Sitalcay Airstrip - Base for Israeli Aggression Against Iran?
With Azerbaijan cosying up to Israel to the point of worrying American strategists trying to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran, it seems that Muslim fraternal relations will be put to the test. Not only is Israel now selling arms to Azerbaijan, it appears to be gaining access to Azeri air bases, of which Sital Chay [Sitalcay], an old Soviet base outside of Baku, beckons Israeli strategists—judging from Mark Perry’s important article on the Foreign Policy website--as a convenient location either for spying on Iran or landing at after an attack. Israel’s policy toward Azerbaijan copies its longstanding policy of using Georgia as a potential base for attacking Iran.

Bilateral Azeri-Iranian tensions, exacerbated by the strategically provocative Israeli factor, are further complicated by the Turkish role. Turkey has treated Azerbaijan as an important state since its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, but the relationship is now clearly troubled, with the recent Israeli replacement of Turkey by Azerbaijan as market for its drones symptomatic. One can easily imagine the $1.6 billion Israeli sale leading to Israeli drone flights from Azerbaijan over Iran. An Israeli-made drone has already been reported shot down over Nagorno-Karabakh. An intruding Israeli drone was also chased, unsuccessfully, by Turkish jet fighters in January, suggesting that Israel is becoming significantly more aggressive (now apparently feeling that it can get away with violating the borders of not just helpless adversaries like Lebanon and Syria but even NATO members). Washington’s example of flying drones over Iran is no doubt seen in Tel Aviv as the pertinent precedent.

More than just imagination, regional drone conflict appears imminent according to Philip Giraldi:

The Israeli government has signed a secret agreement with the government of Azerbaijan to lease two former Soviet military airfields located close to the Iranian border. One of the facilities is being used as an intelligence collection site, with advanced Sigint capabilities and preparations underway for drone operations.

If all these factors fail to give the strategic thinker pause, the number of potential ways in which local misbehavior could pull in the Russians should. After getting a blank international check to demolish Grozniy and cold-clocking Georgia, Russia under the new Putin seems unlikely to tolerate trouble-making on its border. The Heralding the Rise of Russia Blog makes the point clearly:

Moscow has been forced into an alliance of sorts with Tehran due to very distinct geostrategic considerations. Moscow fears that if Tehran falls to its enemies, Russian's already vulnerable position in the Caucasus and Central Asia may become untenable. Moscow fully realizes that the West's main long-term agenda in the region is to exploit the region's remaining energy reserves; to stop emerging nations from growing too powerful; and to contain the Russian Federation and China, the two most powerful nations on the Eurasian supercontinent. 

The full argument is well worth reading. While Turkey may be more of an independent, swing actor than portrayed in Heralding, the point that Moscow's perspective may fail to consider that remains important. Arming Azerbaijan, which certainly has one eye on Armenia, will not go unnoticed in Moscow, nor will the spreading of the Israeli-Iranian conflict into Azerbaijan. And given the current charged political climate in the U.S., any paw swipes by the Bear reminiscent of its behavior in Grozniy or Georgia will surely ruffle the Eagle's feathers. 

From the perspective of U.S. national security, the warning implicit in this convoluted and multi-layered regional competition should be clear: its complexity almost beyond any regime’s capacity to manage, the potential both for a war of choice and a war by accident constitutes a significant threat. Several specific concerns relate to U.S. national security. 1) By giving its Israeli proxy such a long leash, Washington may get itself bit on the leg.  As Israeli policy becomes more provocative, the likelihood of reactions that harm the U.S. (e.g., alienation of Turkey) will increase. 2) Washington's particular combination of a very active but not very effective policy from Somalia to Afghanistan is leading to a power vacuum combined with chaos in the region. This vacuum will suck in Russia, which might not be a problem except that it will, under these conditions, re-enter the Mideast as an opponent of the U.S., a result likely to make Washington's dilemma even worse. 3) Washington may come to regret establishing the precedent that powerful countries have the right to violate the borders of weaker countries with drones. Drones are rapidly proliferating and their rising use by shortsighted politicians happy to have an unmanned weapon suggests that their potential for exacerbating tensions is being overlooked. In the kind of complex situation developing in the region around Iran, drones may prove to be just the spark needed to light exactly the conflagration that Americans--desperate for time to put their own house in order--do not need.

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