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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is Russia the real issue?

Geopolitical Weekly argues that the real issue going on right now with Iran and with the US capitulation to Russian demands to cancel ballistic missile defenses (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic is American relations with Russia. The Russians are toying with President Obama. Here's how that ties in with Iran:
First, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no one-day affair. Intelligence on precise locations had uncertainty built into it, and any strike would consist of multiple phases: destroying Iran’s air force and navy, destroying Iran’s anti-aircraft capability to guarantee total command of the skies, the attacks on the nuclear facilities themselves, analysis of the damage, perhaps a second wave, and of course additional attacks to deal with any attempted Iranian retaliation. The target set would be considerable, and would extend well beyond the targets directly related to the nuclear program, making such an operation no simple matter.

Second, Iran has the ability to respond in a number of ways. One is unleashing terrorist attacks worldwide via Hezbollah. But the most significant response would be blocking the Strait of Hormuz using either anti-ship missiles or naval mines. The latter are more threatening largely because the clearing operation could take a considerable period and it would be difficult to know when you had cleared all of the mines. Tankers and their loads are worth about $170 million at current prices, and that uncertainty could cause owners to refuse the trip. Oil exports could fall dramatically, and the effect on the global economy — particularly now amid the global financial crisis — could be absolutely devastating. Attacking Iran would be an air-sea battle, and could even include limited ground forces inserted to ensure that the nuclear facilities were destroyed.

The country most concerned with all of this is Israel. The Iranians had given every indication that they plan to build a nuclear capability and use it against Israel. Israel’s vulnerability to such a strike is enormous, and there are serious questions about Israel’s ability to use the threat of a counterstrike as a deterrent to such a strike. In our view, Iran is merely creating a system to guarantee regime survival, but given the tenor of Tehran’s statements, Israel cannot afford to take this view complacently. [I believe they're understating the threat from Iran to Israel. Why doesn't anyone outside Israel seem to take Ahmadinejad's genocidal rhetoric seriously? In any event, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what anyone else's view is, because if Israel attacks, the rest of the world is likely to be drawn in as will be seen below. CiJ].

Israel could unilaterally draw the United States into an airstrike on Iran. Were Israel to strike Iran by any means, it most likely would lack the ability to conduct an extended air campaign. And the United States could not suffer the consequences of airstrikes without the benefits of taking out Iran’s nuclear program. Apart from the political consequences, the U.S. Navy would be drawn into the suppression of Iranian naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf whether it wanted to or not simply to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Even if Iran didn’t act to close off the strait, Washington would have to assume that it might, an eventuality it could not afford. So an Israeli attack would likely draw in the United States against Iran one way or another. The United States has had no appetite for such an eventuality, particularly since it considers a deliverable Iranian nuclear weapon a ways off. The U.S. alternative — in both administrations — was diplomatic. [Of course this is what makes the idea of using an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack so attractive - it's much less likely that the Iranians would be able to respond. The counter-argument is that it could have effects far beyond Iran and introducing this weapon into world warfare would be devastating going forward. But when it's your rear end in the sling, you do what you have to do. CiJ]


Washington wanted to create a coalition of powers able to impose sanctions on Iran. At meetings over the summer, the Obama administration appears to have promised Israel “crippling” sanctions to prevent any unilateral Israel action. At an April G-8 meeting, it was decided that Iran must engage in serious negotiations on its nuclear program prior to the next G-8 meeting — on Sept. 24 — or face these sanctions.

The crippling sanctions foreseen were some sort of interruption of the flow of gasoline into Iran, which imports 40 percent of its supply despite being a net exporter of crude. Obviously, in order for this to work, all of the G-8 nations (and others) must participate, particularly Russia. Russia has the capacity to produce and transport all of Iran’s needs, not just its import requirements. If the Russians don’t participate, there are no sanctions.

The Russians announced weeks ago that they opposed new sanctions on Iran and would not participate in them. Moreover, they seemed to flout the ineffectiveness of any U.S. sanctions. With that, the diplomatic option on Iran was off the table. [The Obama administration doesn't seem to understand that yet. CiJ] Russia is not eager to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, but it sees the United States as the greater threat at the moment. Moscow’s fundamental fear is that the United States — and Israel — will dramatically strengthen Ukraine, Georgia and other states in the FSU and on its periphery, and that Russia’s strategic goal of national security through pre-eminence in the region will be lost. [If Obama were a strong President, he could trade a commitment not to strengthen those countries - so long as Russia keeps its hands off them - for a Russian agreement to go along with sanctions on Iran. But Russia sees Obama's apologetics as weakness - as does most of the world - and as a result, it is going for broke. CiJ]

From the Russian point of view, the U.S. desire for Russian help with Iran is incompatible with the U.S. desire to pursue its own course in the FSU and countries like Poland. From the U.S. point of view, these were two entirely different matters that should be handled in a different venue. But Washington didn’t get to choose in this matter. This was a Russian decision. The Russians faced what they saw as an existential threat, believing that the U.S. strategy threatened the long-term survival of the Russian Federation. The Russians were not prepared to support a U.S. solution for Iran without American support on Russian concerns. The Americans ultimately did not understand that the Russians had shifted out of the era in which the United States could simply dictate to them. Now, the United States had to negotiate with the Russians on terms Moscow set, or the United States would have to become more directly threatening to Russia. Becoming more threatening was not an option with U.S. forces scattered all over the Middle East. Therefore, the United States had to decide what it wanted.

American attention in the run-up to the Oct. 1 talks with Iran was focused by Israel. The Obama administration had adopted an interesting two-tier position on Israel. On the one hand, it was confronting Israel on halting settlement activity in the West Bank [This is completely wasted energy. It is astounding how much time, effort and political capital the Obama administration has spent on the 'Palestinians.' Even the Arab world recognizes that Iran is a far more important issue. But Obama is obsessed with the 'Palestinians.' CiJ]; on the other hand, it was making promises to Israel on Iran. The sense in Israel was that the Obama administration was altering Washington’s traditional support for Israel. Since Iran was a critical threat to Israel, and since Israel might not have a better chance to strike than now, the Obama administration began to realize that its diplomatic option had failed, and that the decision on war and peace with Iran was not in its hands but in Israel’s, since Israel was prepared to act unilaterally and draw the United States into a war. Given that the Obama diplomatic initiative had failed and that the administration’s pressure on Israel had created a sense of isolation in Israel, the situation could now well spiral out of control. [I'm not sure the Obama administration has figured this out yet. If it had, it would have quietly stopped sending George Mitchell here and Obama wouldn't be having his photo-op with Netanyahu and Abu Bluff on Tuesday. Israel Radio has been reporting nearly hourly for the last two days that Netanyahu will make a 'major policy address' in his speech to the UN General Assembly and that it's all going to be about Iran. Only Obama is still concerned with the 'Palestinians.' CiJ]

Although all of these things operated in different bureaucratic silos in Washington, and participants in each silo could suffer under the illusion that the issues were unrelated, the matters converged hurriedly last week. Uncertain what leverage it had over Israel, the United States decided to reach out to the Russians. [Well, that's certainly not going to help them gain leverage over Israel, and I haven't heard any indication it's gotten the Russians to play along with sanctions. Maybe Obama should have cut that deal before he announced that he was going to sacrifice Poland and the Czech Republic. Anyone remember 1938? If anything, this might be worse. At least Chamberlain walked away with a deal. CiJ] Washington sought a way to indicate to the Russians that it was prepared to deal with Russia in a different way while simultaneously giving away as little as possible. That little was the redeployment of BMD components originally planned for Poland and the Czech Republic to ships. (Money already has been allocated to upgrade additional Atlantic-based Aegis warships to BMD capability.) Whatever the military and engineering issues involved, whatever the desire not to conflate U.S. strategic relations with Israel with pressure on the settlement issue, whatever the desire to “reset” relations without actually giving the Russians anything, the silos collapsed and a gesture was made.

From the Russian point of view, the gesture is welcome but insufficient. They are not going to solve a major strategic problem for the United States simply in return for moving the BMD. For that, the United States got access to Afghanistan through Russia if desired, and the removal of missiles in Kaliningrad. The Americans also got a different atmosphere at meetings between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the United Nations next week. But the sine qua non for Russian help on Iran is Russia’s sphere of influence in the FSU. The public relations aspect of how this sphere is announced is not critical. That the U.S. agrees to it is.

This is the foreign policy test all U.S. presidents face. Obama now has three choices.
1. He can make the deal with Russia. But every day that passes, Russia is creating the reality of domination in the FSU, so its price for a deal will continue to rise from simply recognizing their sphere of influence to extending it to neutralizing Poland.
2. He can select the military option of an air campaign against Iran. But this means accepting the risk to maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the potentially devastating impact on the global economy if oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz are impacted significantly.
3. He can wait to see how things unfold, and place overwhelming pressure on Israel not to attack. But this means finding a way to place the pressure: Israel in 2009 does not have the dependence on the United States it had in 1973.
It sounds like Obama is choosing Option 3, which is the most dangerous and uncertain and the least likely to be effective. I would choose Option 2 - it's the one that has the best chance of re-establishing American deterrence and setting the record straight that the US is the only super-power in the world, but the timid Obama - who doesn't believe in American exceptionalism - is less likely to choose Option 2 than to choose any other option. He will choose Option 3 and when that collapses under an Israeli attack, he will choose Option 1 and pay an even higher price to the Russians.

Russia is not the real issue. The real issue is President Obama's weakness and his refusal to take advantage of American exceptionalism.

What could go wrong?

Read the whole thing.


At 5:10 PM, Blogger David Zager said...

Good analysis. I would add that Israel needs to choose option 1 (making its own deal with Russia) prior to attacking Iran. Then when option 3 happens, Israel will be protected from Russian response. Israel must make clear to Russia that it will supply Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine and any other Eastern neighbor of Russia with missiles, planes and other arms for defense or attack of Russia, if Russia does not stop all transfers of weapons to Iran. Israel must successfully negotiate with Russia that it will not leave Iran under its protective radar umbrella alerting Iranians the moment that Israel has launced its attack. Russia must promise not to help Iran after Israel attacks.


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