This piece looks at the situation in Iran from the point of view of an American security analyst using a terse style to simplify the presentation down to the core choices. It is hoped that what it loses in nuance is compensated by clarity.
Lest there be any confusion, it goes without saying that that I disapprove of the basis of the analysis, i.e. that the USA has the right to intervene at all. Nevertheless, it is interesting to put their thinking cap on so as to be able to develop a thoughtful socialist position in advance, rather than reacting in a knee-jerk fashion when the media pressure starts to come on.
European and American dominance of Iranian politics was a staple for the first eighty years of the 20th century with Russia, Britain and later the USA exercising a preponderant influence. There are two major geo-strategic factors at play: In the days of the British Empire, Russia’s expansion through Central Asia towards India was a cause of concern. Iran bounds the Russian sphere of influence to the south and has long prevented it and, later, the Soviet Union from expanding its influence into India and, importantly, from gaining access to a warm water port in the Indian Ocean.
More importantly nowadays, given the decline in Russian power, is the reverse of that geo-political concern: Iran’s position as a gateway into Central Asia is of importance both as a means of surrounding Russia, preventing its influence in the former Soviet Republics and, not least, as a thoroughfare for access to the abundant oil and gas in the region.
Iran also serves as a bad example of pursuing a national road to development outside of the supervision of the West. Since the 1979 revolution Iran has attempted to navigate an independent nationalist policy with a Shia Islamic ideology as its basis, thereby minimising opportunities for western capital to exploit both its labour and resources.
A more amenable regime existed from 1997 to 2005 under Khatami that provided potential for a healing of the rift. It suggested a grand bargain to the United States in 2003, proposing to settle all outstanding issues between the two countries and which would effectively have meant Iran becoming becoming a satellite state. It was rebuffed due to the arrogance of the Bush regime. A more nationalist government was elected in 2005 and 2009. It has limited support amongst the intelligentsia but thus far has remained popular with the rural population and the poorer section of urban areas.
Install a subservient regime in Tehran that opens Iran up to investment and becomes an ally of the American security system.
1. Elections to government of pro-Western faction.
2. Colour Revolution.
Method 1: Elections
Prospect: Deterioration in the performance of the economy will dent the popularity of the current government.
1. Cripple the economy, build up a viable and subservient electoral candidate.
2. Further split the ruling strata via pressure such that an overwhelming momentum develops behind a moderate Islamic force who will be favourable to US business and strategic interests.
3. Fund candidates sympathetic to our interests
4. Saturate the media, the internet with pro-opposition publicity
1. The nationalist / religious candidate is most likely to win an election
2. The electoral system is policed by the regime which places restrictions on the nominations of candidates and overall power resides outside the electoral process, similar to the Kaiserreich of pre-1918 Germany.
3. The stakes are high for regime supporters within the state apparatus as well as some business elements. A pro-Western government will be extremely negative for them. Thus they will have an incentive to ensure a correct election result.
Method 2: Colour Revolution
Colour revolutions, essentially massive street demonstrations coupled with behind the scenes messaging to key elements in the security apparatus, are a tried and tested method of overthrowing governments which have lost the support of the intelligentsia, are in defiance of the west, and are stagnating economically, socially, and politically. This description fits Iran.
A dubious election result is the best launchpad for a street insurrection as it provides a defensive posture for an offensive operation, as with Serbia in 2000, Georgian in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004. It is achievable to depict any election result as being rigged since the west has unparalleled influence over the international media.
Although Ahmadinejad most likely won 60% of the vote in 2009, the Iranian economy has declined which will affect his core support. This should make the next election a close run thing, thus providing the opportunity for disputing an unfavourable result.
The continuing pressure on the state apparatus opens up the prospect of factions spinning off from the core who are willing to come to terms with the west.
1. Heavily fund student groups, unions, academics and dissidents as well as providing organisational expertise etc.
2. Create climate of expectation that any election result will be unfair
3. Give guarantee of intervention to prevent civilian casualties in any crackdown of street demonstrations.
4. Isolate Iran by installing a pliant regime in Damascus
Colour revolutions only work against a regime that has lost its self-confidence. A residual adherence to the Islamic revolution by substantial numbers of its security forces will be sufficient to crush a street insurrection.
Method 3: War
War has much wider ramifications for the United States than either of the first two methods. Not only will it lead to direct military confrontation, it will have repercussions for its world standing and for the world economy. The Iraq invasion increased the fear of not bending the knee to the United States but also led to a serious decline in its prestige, particularly amongst European and Middle Eastern countries. Despite an initial wave of support in the US, it also led to substantial dissatisfaction amongst the domestic population.
The Obama regime has rectified that loss of standing and its military interventions, while persistent, have been much less obtrusive and have therefore not provoked the same ire, particularly amongst the western liberal intelligentsia, as Bush’s Iraq adventure.
Therefore any military assault will have to be far more successful in framing an attack on Iran as a legitimate move. It must be more Libya and less Iraq. This will require a) creating the climate where international popular opinion will support – or at least not seriously oppose a war and b) a convincing pretext.
It should also require that success can be achieved without having to invade with a land force, though the use of covert ‘special forces’ will of course be unproblematic.
The nuclear issue can be used to beat the Iranian regime in the press over the next 18 months years, thus gradually increasing the popular expectation that some sort of assault is justified and, more importantly, inevitable. The more it is seen as inevitable, the less opposition it will engender. Human Rights abuses are always an excellent stick to beat a recalcitrant regime over the head with.
The delicate nature of the world economy may not be in a position to weather anything other than a brief triumphal war against Iran. On the other hand, the Europeans are likely to suffer more than the US in this regard.
1. Beat the nuclear drum periodically. Hype stories which highlight an Iranian threat to national security (spying, assassination attempts).
2. Accuse Iran of interfering in Iraq and Afghanistan and supporting a vicious regime in Syria.
3. Build up military forces around Iran.
4. Get Israel to act insane periodically.
Prepare for military action on foot of (i) accusations of rigged elections, (ii) suppression of peaceful street demonstrations. As the interventions Libya have shown this will garner more public support than an intervention on grounds of WMD.
Elections are scheduled for the summer of 2013. This gives a long run in to prepare public opinion in the West and to apply severe pressure to the regime which may see it crack before it ever comes to all out war. If it doesn’t crack, as it failed to do in 2009, escalation to a limited Kosovo style war can be instigated.
The cultivation of opposition militias, as in Syria, will be necessary given the fairly solid base of the ruling clique, especially if a street colour revolution proves insufficient. At worst this will lead to the severe weakening of Iranian strength. The costs to the West are negligible both in terms of blood and treasure.
A full scale Iraq-level invasion is far more costly in terms of blood, treasure, and prestige. It is not advisable for the foreseeable future as Iran is too weak to be an actual threat to the United States in any field whatsoever and therefore there is nothing to be gained by losing substantially in all three areas.
The world economy is in delicate health. Western public opinion may be unfavourable and coupled with intense dissatisfaction with austerity measures could lead to public unrest. Russia and China will have to be neutralised if action is to be sanctioned by the UN Security Council (thus it is imperative to continue to continue to encircle it with advanced missile defense systems that can be traded in for support in the Security Council). However, these problems can be circumvented by a Kosovo style war and in any case, the disorganised nature of the western opposition prevents their protests from escalating into anything approaching a threat.
The three strategies are complimentary rather than exclusive. The US can first try to gain a favourable result in elections; if that doesn’t work then a colour revolution can be attempted. If that should fail, its very failure can be used as a pretext for military interventions.