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Thursday, January 11, 2007

In the Eye of the Storm: Iran in Global Perspective

In the Eye of the Storm: Iran in Global Perspective

Mordechai Ben-Menachem; Ben-Gurion University; Beer-Sheva, Israel

On Tuesday, this past, 9 January 2007, I attended a conference at Hebrew University, Mount Scopus campus. The title of the conference was "In the Eye of the Storm: Iran in Global Perspective."  The conference was sponsored by The Israel Project and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.  The objective of the conference was to, "…learn about these issues from leaders in the field of Iran studies and international relations."  This report is intended to provide my readers with my take on this conference. 

Firstly, this conference was important and timely.  Most of the speakers were good – or better.  Acoustics and logistics left much to be desired and hence, two speakers were unfortunately inaudible (both in the first session). 

Some points raised may appear obvious in hindsight, but were raised expertly and in their proper context, giving even things that may seem so, new import and putting all of it into an organized framework.  I thank the Israel Project for inviting me and I hope this report is useful to my audience.  People with distribution lists may redistribute this providing it remains unchanged (I retain copyright and request that this notice be included). 

Hegemony:  One of the points raised by a broad plurality of speakers was the general psyche of Iran and Iranian leadership.  It should be emphasized that Persian Hegemony is the most basic aspect of their thinking.  There's nothing new here; Persian empires, of one sort or another have been at war with the "West" for most of the past three thousand years.  For instance, in the first seven centuries of the Common Era, there were fewer than a hundred years without war. 

Hegemony is linked with a concept of Iran as a future superpower.  Please do not misunderstand that.  Great Britain is a power; Japan is a power; they are not superpowers.  Iran intends to be a superpower and fully intends to contend with the United States.  They are developing a massive arms manufacturing capability, including tanks, missiles, and nuclear weapons.  But more than this, they are developing tools for conducting asynchronous contention; and not necessarily as warfare.  The statement was made that every Iranian embassy is a military base – even the Soviets never did that.  The US State Dept. stated that Iran remains the greatest epicentre of Global Terrorism.  It will remain so for the foreseeable future as this is a planned strategic asset, and Iran must export its ideology.  This is a need, even more than a desire; towards this, they support both Shia and Sunni insurgencies, all over the world. 

They have a clear plan to implement this and are in no rush.  The first stage in this plan is hegemony over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – the so-called Shia Crescent (more on this below).  Once this is accomplished, the next step is to gain control over Mecca and Medina, the Islamic holy cities.  By these two steps, they intend control Islam. Their intension is to be a Pan-Islamic superpower.  Khumanism is NOT Shia, it is pan-Islamic with elements of Shia, Sunni, Marx and even "New Age" religiosity.  By the way, 50% of Iran is non-Persian ethnic, the largest minority is Azeri.  Azeri's now have a country.  (Interestingly, Azerbaijan is #1 supplier of oil to Israel, Kazakhstan is #2 and Russia is #3.  Egypt is negligible.) 

Even for the hysterical optimists, if Iran has control of the entire Persian Gulf, with its oil and gas, they have moved very far towards implementing the goal of strategic parity with the United States.  Russia's Putin understands this. 

It must also be understood that Ahmadinajad is nothing; irrelevant.  He is a former Revolutionary Guard (He was one of those who committed the crime of the US Embassy during Carter's watch).  He later became Mayor of Teheran and from there was elected as president on a platform of cleaning up the rampant corruption – just as Hamas in the PA.  The present movement in the Iranian parliament to get rid of him is showmanship.  "Fool the stupid infidels!"  The US's "Project Democracy" is a failure.  Contrary to US belief, democracy does NOT begin with elections.  Elections are a tool for efficient implementation of democratic principles, but those principles need to exist in the society before they can be implemented.  Existence of elections in places like Iran or the PA has nothing to do with democracy. 

Relations:   Another point is how Iran views the world.  Iran views US policy as "debate ad nauseum" and European as "negotiate ad nauseum"; while Iranian policy is intransigence – as principle.  This is why the discussions with Europe went nowhere.  Iran never intended to commit.  That is aside from the fact that Europe negotiates as the European Union, which is economic, not military.  They 'do' carrots.  They do not 'do' sticks. All carrots and no sticks means the other side simply plays with them.  Europe today is seen as a set of impotent and toothless old men; has-beens.  Who can be bothered to pay them any mind?  Constructive dialogue must have a fallback position. 

Iran & Arabs:         Much has been said about the Iranians not being Arabs and that the Arabs don't like or trust them.  This is still true.  What are the useful dimensions of this? 

During the war between Iraq and Iran, the Gulf States transferred to Iraq some $25 billion.  Iraq, since its founding in 1921, has been viewed as the outpost and bulwark against hegemonic Iran.  (Iran took a few islands in the Gulf, which strengthened this age-old fear.)  As recently as April (2006) Mubaraq of Egypt declared that Shia are more loyal to Teheran than to the states in which they live.  Of course, Arabs have never really accepted the western concept of nation states (except where and when useful). 

Syria holds the cards for formation of the Shia Crescent; and are very aware of this.  Syria is a Sunni country (74%) ruled very heavily-handedly, by a small Shia minority (~5%) and is perhaps the only Arab state that does not fear Iran, for now.  Once the 'crescent' is formed, they no longer hold any sway.  All the Arab states, the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, fear the Iranians.  This is not new.  The fear has been there since before Islam. 

Iran's Near Abroad:          The most obvious element of Iraqi politics is confusion.  There exist basically 4 components to Iraqi politics, Sunni, Shia, Kurds and a small group "Iraqi Patriots".  This (very small) latter group believes that Iraq is a country.  Notice that the first two are religiously divided, the third is ethnic (about 10% of Iraqi Kurds are Shia, but none are Arab) while the fourth is political.  Most Sunni in Iraq believe that the Shia are a fifth column and have primary loyalty to Iran.  This is actually not correct.  Most Shia are first primarily Arab and distrust the Iranians as much as they distrust Sunni, Kurds and everyone else in the world. 

The single most important aspect of Iraqi politics is that America will eventually go away, Iran is forever.  Shia distrust Iran; Sunni hate and fear Iran; Kurds hate and fear Turks.  Turks could not care less about Iran; they have their own proud history. 

Turkey is NOBODY'S backyard or 'Near Abroad' – they constitute their own.  The Cold War was geopolitically important for Turkey.  They were a buffer state and everyone was interested.  Their importance to the West reduced significantly with its end.  The US-Iraq war weakened Turkey.  Today, they are looking for their place in the world.  Turkey tried to attract ethnic Turks in Central Asia and to lead them towards a New World Order; they failed.  Both Turkey and Iran blame each other for instability – they're both right. 

Iran and China; Iran and Japan:    Iran supplies China with about 5% of its oil and represents about 0.6% of its trade.  Iran is not indispensable to China!  International terror, Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear Iran are anathema to China.  They don't like Ahmadinajad, either – he foments instability and China values stability above everything else.  China never said they will oppose sanctions; they also never said they will support sanctions. China is perhaps the world's most diplomatically careful country.  (They have used their Security Council veto twice.) 

Iran supplies about 13% of Japanese oil.  Iran is not indispensable to Japan!  Iranian cooperation with North Korea, particularly in nuclear weapons and missile development is anathema to Japan, and very rightly so.  This is viewed as the largest security threat to Japan and is potentially existential.  Japan has just elevated their Self Defence agency to cabinet level for the first time since World War II. 

Iran cannot count on China or Japan or Russia for diplomatic support, particularly for their more aggressive moves. 

Conclusion:            The conference was good and worth attending; despite the logistical difficulties and despite that I could not remain for the ending session.  Some of the points above are highly significant, some perhaps less so.  All seem important in context. 

How much of a threat does Iran really represent to the United States?  Is the US totally safe from them because of the bit of a lake between them?  I think these are poignant questions and real issues.  Would I say that Iran represents an existential threat to the United States?  Certainly not!  However, Iran definitely does represent a very significant strategic threat.  Can Iran seriously hurt the US and/or US interests and do they have such a will and interest?  Very definitely!  Iran will wage an aggressive campaign to weaken the US and to control oil and gas.  In the short term, their nuclear program is intended to tightly fit the Islamic world under their hegemony, with its resources – oil, gas, (the world's most fanatic) manpower, influence and fantastic quantities of cash and additional monetary devices.  With this accomplished, they will turn to other things.  Israel is a speed bump in their program, to be eliminated at the earliest convenience.  Genocide is a tool which they will use gleefully. 

©       Copyright 2007, by Mordechai Ben-Menachem

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