Posts tagged Iran

Friday’s conversation on US-Israel cooperation over Iran was wonderful. It highlighted the fact the United States and Israel, despite the very loud ‘red line’ campaigning by a certain head of state, are on the same page and generally agree on the way forward on Iran.

In my mind there are a couple lingering issues: the covert option and the mess that is Syria.

From what I got from the presentation is that sanctions and diplomacy are preferred to attacking as any overt attack would be costly, complex, and won’t necessarily achieve the desired end goal. In this context, sanctions raise costs of operation for Iran and diplomacy offers a way out, basically a legally and financially complex form of attrition; raise costs to the point where your adversary agrees to your terms or is willing to negotiate terms.

So where do we place the covert option like sabotage? Its the more “physical” aspect of the legal and financial attrition that sanctions provide. Sanctions and sabotage all raise the costs of maintaining a nuclear program while diplomacy gives the Iranian government a way out.  Though, I think in terms of cooperation the United States and Israel tend to over emphasize sanctions and sabotage over diplomacy, and there isn’t really a gap in regards to covert action.

The developing gap seems to be over what to do with Syria. The United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia fall on the side of downing Assad albeit each is acting more or less independently, Iran and Hezbollah are on the side of propping up Assad, where can we place Israel?

For a moment imagine the difficulty that is in front of Israel: for decades they have built up intelligence networks in, out, and around the Assad regime, and suddenly one day they find out that the networks that have been carefully cultivated for years are actually on the wrong side of the war. Factor in that there is a good deal of evidence pointing to the fact arms flows to Syria are aiding the most extreme insurgent groups and that arms environment is slowly involving SA-7 missiles, and your ally, the United States, isn’t necessarily stemming the flow of arms and in some political quarters is dead set on aiding the rebels.

Is this a game changing challenge to the US-Israeli relationship over Iran? Probably not. Currently, the conflict seems to be stuck in a mode where Iran and Hezbollah violate rules of waging a successful counterinsurgency (namely, "Shore up the Neighbors," "Make Sure Your Constituents Approve of Your Intervention," and "Economy has to be in great to excellent shape") and are paying for it in blood and treasure. No need for a full on “eager pest" yet, just sit back and develop intelligence networks, create a who’s who of the rebellion, and watch historic irony plague Iran and Hezbollah.

The game changer might be the lack of the United States’ or even Turkey’s ability to broker a compromise between the government of Syria and the rebels or even convince Assad to step down. The one with the greatest ability to convince Assad to step down is the one with access to the throne room: Iran, and I don’t see that happening in the near future. Yet, a conversation with Iran is what is needed to mitigate the blooming damage from the Syrian war: increasing political and sectarian tension in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s decreasing ability to produce, maintain, and hold to social cohesion of the Lebanese Shia, and a growing refugee crises (atop of the Iraqi refugee crises). 

To be certain, the United States and Israel have the upper hand, and can sit back and enjoy history’s greatest developer-of-insurgency and insurgent lose their fight in Syria. Remember having the strategic upper hand is no excuse for poor politics and an indecisive policy whether its Syria or the nuclear program.

A version of this post can be found at the Center for Sensible Iran Policy.

Thomas Erdbrink has a good piece on the affect that the rial plunge has had on the Iranian economy. An interesting passage:

After risking his life to get to Iran from Afghanistan, Amin, 18, had thought he was lucky to find a job sweeping the floors of an expensive Tehran apartment building. Now, he said he felt as if he were working for free. “I can make more money working in Afghanistan,” he said shyly, turning his face away. “The people are good to me here, but I have to think of my family back home.”

I found this passage interesting because mostly the analysis on Iran’s rial issue has been focused on Iranian domestic politics not Iran’s relations with its two neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan. The economic flow between Iran and Afghanistan seems to go from Iran to Afghanistan through Afghan migrant labor, drug trade etc ( See War & Migration: Social Networks & Economic Strategies of the Hazara of Afghanistan for a detailed look and analysis.) Migrants are paid in rials and then remit that cash back to Afghanistan. The cash tends to circulate most in provinces that border Iran like Herat, Nimroz, and Farah, along side Afghanistan’s other unofficial currency the US dollar. The rial’s use is deep enough in these provinces that the collapse of the rial threatens a general market collapse in those areas. Despite the threat of a general collapse, there are opportunities, as detailed in this story

It is in western Afghanistan, in the provinces of Herat, Nimroz and Farah which border Iran, where the rial circulates in the largest quantities. In some areas the rial is even used exclusively. But if the dollar continues to rise, people will stop utilizing the rial as a second currency, said Hossaini. He believed western Afghanistan markets would collapse, sending prices sky high. Jan Agha Farahi, a merchant from Herat, reported of already-dramatic exchange rates.”Earlier, when Iranian dealers received loans from us, the money was at least worth something,” he said. “For a million rials I got 40,000 Afghani. Now that’d be 15,000. People are getting angry.”Since Islamic law prohibits profiting from interest on debt and loans, Afghan dealers have to look toward other sources of income. Many of them have relocated their activities directly to Iran. For dirt-cheap prices they can by goods there and sell them in Afghanistan.

The devaluation of the rial and its affect on the drug is left to be seen, but my feeling is that bricks are bought in dollars (or any other currency but rials) and users purchase product in rials.

Iraq on the other seems to be the place where the Iranian government buys up dollars. As featured in this post in April on Musings on Iraq, the flow of dollars out of Iraq had been such an issue that the Central Bank of Iraq had to step in and manage the issue. The other issue concerning Iraqi is religious tourism at the popular level which one assumes is conducted in rials. The current rate favors the dinar (.99 rials to .09 dinars, from here), so the purchasing power of Iranian tourists visiting Karbala is reduced, and to a degree the ability of Iran connecting itself to the Iraq’s religious market (khums, zakat, husseinyas, etc) is also reduced.

Thus Iran’s approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of currency seems to be invest in dollars, pay in rials seems to be the approach.

With that being said, it is left to be seen whether Iran’s currency crisis will dramatically affect Iran’s foreign policy conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan. And my feeling is that a lot of potential is rooted in Iran’s foreign currency reserves. The loss of value of the rial isn’t necessarily a foreign policy problem, so long as the Iranian government can switch to using the dollar. Though this also comes with caveats, for example this passage in "Iran’s Sea Trade Buckles under Western Sanctions" hints at the dwindling amount of hard currency in Iran:

Mohammad Hussein Dajmar, managing director of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), said this week that the central bank had blocked $50 million of the company’s assets - reflecting the acute shortage of U.S. currency. This is restricting the supply of foreign currency, which Iran’s top commercial cargo shipper needs to pay bills outside the country and keep operating.”Unfortunately this step by the Central Bank presents many problems for the company,” he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “The Central Bank is holding this amount as foreign currency and is only ready to return the rial equivalent of it to us,” he said. On top of this, the central bank would pay the rials at the official rate of 12,260 to the dollar, far from the open market rate of more than 30,000.

This analysis has treated Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan as wholly separated from its counter insurgency folly in Syria, its separation from the larger financial institutions like SWIFT (not to mention compounding effect of multiple set of sanctions), and the reduction of how many barrels of oil they are exporting. In reality, all this bears on the Iranian economy.

To put it swiftly and shortly: Iran is over extended, over matched, and not an existential threat.

Cross posted on Center for Sensible Iran Policy.

Iran, Iraq, and the GCC: New Realities in Persian Gulf Security Comments and Thoughts

The key element left out of the discussion in regards to the religious element between Iran and Iraq was Ashura. The celebration of Ashura commemorates the death of Hussan bin Ali at the Battle of Karbala. For Shiite Muslims, Hussein was martyred at the hands of Yazid and the Umayyad; the righteous struck down by a tyrant. The martyrdom of Hussein and the celebration is so potent and rife with imagery of resistance and rebellion that in modern times the celebration is often banned or limited. For instance in Saddam’s Iraq.Furthermore, Ashura is also used/can be used for constituency building, for example see Norton’s Hezbollah or Aghaie’s Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols & Rituals in Modern Iran. (Still looking for a volume that covers Ashura in contemporary Iraq. Any help would be nice.)

So my question is what does Ashura look like in modern Iraq? If, indeed, the various religiously oriented players are trying to claim Sadiq Sadr’s legacy of resistance AND a fractured political environment that is led and influenced by fifty shades of Shi’ite, then what can we make of Ashura?

Lastly, I stick by my idea that Iran’s influence in Iraq is equal parts “House Majority Whip (motivating politicians), Jack Abramoff (influencing politicians), Oprah (largesse at all levels), and Billy Graham (evangelizing, h/t @caidid for the Billy Graham reference).” Only Iran has to be much more competitive, and much more selective with the issues it deals with.

The World of Stratcraft

The World of Warcraft is banned in Iran. As Blizzard is quoted in this story:

 “Our team has been watching this thread closely, and we understand the desire for more information about this situation. Blizzard Entertainment cannot speak to any reports surrounding the Iranian government restricting games from its citizens. What we can tell you is that United States trade restrictions and economic sanction laws prohibit Blizzard from doing business with residents of certain nations, including Iran. Several of you have seen and cited the text in the Terms of Use which relates to these government-imposed sanctions. This week, Blizzard tightened up its procedures to ensure compliance with these laws, and players connecting from the affected nations are restricted from access to Blizzard games and services.”

In the larger scheme of things, like sanctions taking a toll on the sick, preventing Iranian players from paying the monthly subscription fee and blocking access to the game is not that major.  The larger point is not the toll on the Iranian gaming community but rather the toll on US businesses. What products does Blizzard produce? Blizzard produces the Starcraft series, the Diablo series, and, of course, World of Warcraft. Blizzard doing business with individual Iranians has nothing to do with the development of the Iranian government’s pursuit of a nuclear program, support of terrorism, etc. yet Blizzard felt that because of trade regulations and sanctions, it needed to withdraw its services from Iran.

What does this episode tells us in terms of stratcrafting? Sanctions on Iran are strategy, but in the absence of policy, what is driving the passing of sanctions is politics, specifically Congressional politics. Policy acts as a bridge between politics and strategy; when politics dictates strategy you have “drift”, a state where the strategy is  constantly widen and deepen in hopes that a political, not policy, aim is achieved.

The key difference between a military in strategic drift and a sanctions program in a similar state is that a military has essentially limited use and limited harm. Meaning that a military can invade, overthrow, and even state build. The harm is limited to who is being invaded, overthrown, and rebuilt. What the military can do in terms of institutional creation (political, social, etc) and challenges to existing institutions is limited, the effects are limited to the target, as well as how the target adapts 

Sanctions, on the other hand, maintain a targeting list that can potentially include every financial interaction with an economy regardless of that the type of transaction and who is involved in that transaction.  Furthermore focusing on and targeting economic entities is nonlinear. The impact isn’t just felt on the intended target but more widespread and, more importantly, unpredictable in terms of how the target adapts to the sanctions (political, social, economic adaptions).

What is the toll and impact? A state of stereotypical drift. So far Iran hasn’t been moved in its development of its nuclear program, its support for terrorism nor its support for Syria. The sanctions pressure is building and building with no discernible endpoint to act as a “release valve.” As the pressure builds on Iran, more and more liabilities both financial and legal are passed on to American companies, Iranian-Americans, and Iranians, while the Iranian government can adapt and move on. What should be a clear and simple policy connected to the sanctions strategy, is instead guided more by unclear and murky Congressional politics; politics dictating strategy not strategy being created to fit a policy.

The point is that maintaining a sanctions program that is so broad, designed to deal with the grit of financial systems, and serves politics not policy, yields unintended and often uncontrollable consequences.  A solid foundation for successful stratcrafting involving Iran is: a policy that sets ATTAINABLE goals with limits on sanctions that selectively target the elements of the Iranian government, paired with a developmental plan that focuses on slowly opening up legal/diplomatic infrastructures allowing US companies and Iranian-Americans to invest in Iran.    

This post also be found at Center for Sensible Iran Policy.


The Immediate Disaster

The new IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program just dropped, and it’s already a classic. Arms Control Now gives a good summary of the contents of the report: Iran has expanded the machinery to enrich but has not begun to use them thus the rate of enrichment stays the same, Tehran has converted much of its 20% enriched uranium to reactor fuel with the available stockpile remaining unchanged. Most importantly, owning much to having converted most of its fuel to reactor plates Iran still doesn’t have enough fuel for a bomb.  (Reading the report and the rest of the Arms Control post is worth your time.)

And now read this from the NYT:

“For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his longstanding position that while harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up. But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.”

Red lines are not based on persuasion, rather they are based on compelling the other side to act in your interests and, possibly, against their own. Israeli redlines puts diplomacy at risk with Iran, it creates severe liabilities both material and political that would stanch any reasonable approach to resolving the nuclear issue. Think about it for one moment and incorporate these pictures of Iran’s nuclear sites and Iran’s nuclear research and material facilities into your thoughts:

(Google also has a nifty map)

Now design an air campaign that incorporates the difficulty of logistics (use of airspace, cost/transport of munitions, cost of flight etc), dealing with air defenses (what to avoid), and a target list (what to hit). After all that effort, now admit to yourself that all planning and bombing cannot possibly erase knowledge or the policy rationale for developing a nuclear program. Not to mention any of the post attack political problems.

That brings us to the concept of the immediate disaster. For the United States immediate disaster is one where the nuclear issue goes unresolved, and the longer the issue is unresolved the more likely Iran becomes confident in exposing cracks in the sanctions coalition arranged against diminishing US leverage. The immediate disaster for Israel is that it engages in overt warfare that does not stop Iran’s nuclear program but rather reinforces every Iranian instinct to maintain its program, and push towards weaponization. The immediate disaster for Iran is the incredible damage, havoc, and costs an attack would bring down onto the civil population, the environment, and its investment. For the United States the immediate disaster can be avoided by engaging in diplomacy that deals with Iran’s nuclear interests and at the same time persuades the Israelis that if all diplomacy truly fails the Iranian nuclear program can be a dealt with in such a way that does not engage in war.

The Resurgence of Egyptian-Iranian relations by Chelsea Daymon

The election win of Mohamed Morsi on June 24, 2012 - Egypt’s first competitively elected president - caused a stir in international headlines as well as the foreign policy world. In the first three months of his presidency, Morsi has not been idle in his new role and has made it evident that there will be new policies developed for Egypt and new diplomatic friendships forged.

Morsi’s first official foreign visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on July 11, 2012 had the clear intention of securing bilateral associations between the two key players in the Middle East as well as safeguarding continued Saudi investment in Egypt. During his visit, Morsi stressed the great importance of sustained stability and security in the Gulf and Egypt’s priorities in developing relations in the region. In an interview with China’s Xinhua news agency, Amin Shalabi, director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations commented that Morsi’s visit was a message showing Egypt’s keenness to cooperate with Gulf countries, starting with Saudi Arabia, regardless of the changes that had taken place in the Egyptian presidency.

Read the rest here: The resurgence of Iranian-Egyptian Relations

Check out the first in the series: The ebb and flow of Iranian-Egyptian Relations

The Imminent Disaster

A couple days ago a 6.0 magnitude struck the northwest of Iran with approximately 300 dead and much more injured. Earthquakes in Iran are nothing new and occur with an alarming frequency. The US geographical survey data of seismic activity in Iran documents that from 2006 on, Iran has consistently experienced earthquakes ranging from 5 to 6 magnitude based in the western part of Iran in places like Tabriz, Kahnooj, Hosseinabad, and in Qeshm. (For information can be found here, and a detailed list here.)  Now look at the above map detailing the placement of Iran’s nuclear sites and compare it to the seismicity map below.

The fact is that Iran’s nuclear program is built not just on a very active fault line but also within and near major populated areas.  If one of these sites were to fall in or near the epicenter it has the potential for Chernobyl or Three Mile Island to seem subtle by comparison.

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Iran and Afghanistan I: Background and Drivers

I’ve been meaning to do either an academic paper on Iran’s relationship with Afghanistan or a series of a post on the subject.  Been dragging my feet, my interest on the topic waxing and waning, owning much to the fact that Iran’s contemporary relationship with Afghanistan isn’t as obvious, discussed, or written about when compared to Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan or the US’s relationship with Afghanistan.  Delving and diving into the subject matter is…exhausting. Iran’s history with and policies towards Afghanistan are never really examined on their own merits through the prism of Iranian interests and/or Afghan reactions but rather the issue crops up when discussing Pakistani relations with Afghanistan, US relations with Afghanistan, etc etc.

I got a much needed kick in the pants when I attended an event at USIP titled “The Afghanistan Security Transition: the Role and Importance of Afghanistan’s Neighbors.” The Iran analyst’s analysis of Iran’s role in Afghanistan was paltry and more aggravating than thought provoking. I would’ve been better served just rereading Mohsen Milani’s 2006 piece “Iran’s Policy towards Afghanistan” (Middle East Journal Vol 60 No 2, 2006 pg 235-256).  With that being said, the “Iran and Afghanistan” series of posts will serve, hopefully, as a way to get the conversation on Iran’s role in Afghanistan started.

Broadly speaking what can we consider the drivers that go into Iran’s policy towards Afghanistan?

  • A strong desire not to engage in direct conflict with the great power in the region, be it the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan or today, the United States.
  • Iran’s Iraq policy
  • The structure of Afghan Shia politics
  • Iranian government’s treatment of and reaction to Afghan refugees

More so than anything else I think these four drivers define Iran’s Afghanistan policy. In the coming days I will begin to expand and the explain the four drivers in greater detail.