Posts Tagged 'Iran'

The Next Presidential Election and Conservative Anxiety in Iran

By Yadullah Shahibzadeh

When asked about his political future after the next year presidential election, in his recent interview with Iran’s state TV, Mohmoud Ahmadinezhad kicked off a new political controversy in Iran. He responded by saying that; “Who says that my government will end after the next year presidential election?”  According to the Iranian election laws, two terms presidents can stand as presidential candidates after a four year pause. Ahmadinezhad’s statement indicates his hopes for the victory of a members of his government in the next year election. Iranian Politicians and analyst in Iran have compared Ahmadinezhad’s style of government to Vladimir Putin and his tendency to copy the Putin-Medvedev model, with Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaiy, his chief of staff as the Iranian Medvedev. There are several other candidates for the Iranian Medvedev in the Ahmadinezhad’s government, if Rahim-Mashaiy is disqualified by the Guardian Council.  Hypothetically, if one of  Ahmadinezhad’s close allies wins the presidency in the next year presidential election he will continue his  control of the government until he regains presidential power in the 2017 presidential election. But with regard to the fate of previous political alliances, the Putin-Medvedev model will hardly work in the Islamic Republic.

It began with Abolhasan Banisadr’s alliance, an Islamist social democrat with the radical Islamist left to marginalize the liberal forces that led the provisional government in 1979. Less than two years later Banisadr was ousted from office by a parliament that was dominated by the Islamist left. In order to establish its extended dominance on political power in Iran the Islamist left took side with the Islamist conservatives against president Banisadr in 1981 and against Ayatollah Montazari in 1988. Montazeri was supposed to become Iran’s next leader after Ayatollah Khomeini. The Islamist left was sidelined by the alliance of Hashemi Rafsanjani and the conservatives in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Again, in the late 1990s, after the Islamist left became reform oriented and took power 1979-2005, it tried to force Hashemi Rafsanjani out of Iranian politics because of his previous alliance with the conservatives in the late 1980s and the early 1990s against the Islamist left. As a result, Rafsanjani entered in a new alliance with the conservatives to contain democratic reforms in the system. The anti-reform alliance served neither Rafsanjani nor the leaders of the conservative establishment. It, surprisingly, gave birth to young neo-conservative forces that did not follow a clear ideological line but claimed total obedience to Iran’s leader, Ayatllah Khamenei.  In fact, Ahmadinezhad was an accidental product of the competition between the newly emerged pragmatist and hardliner neo-conservative forces that grew on the margin of the reformist-conservative disputes in 1997-2005. The hardliner neo-conservative forces received support from the Revolutionary Guard, the archconservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and Iran’s leader. What Ahmadinezhad shared with Mesbah Yazdi and the Revolutionary Guard was their total obedience to the leader’s authority that as they claimed had no constitutional limits. Ahmadinezhad said during his first presidential election campaign that as Iran’s president he would leave all political decisions to the leader in order to have enough time to carry on an effective executive role. Now, seven years later, Ahmadinezhad is blamed by Mesbah Yazdi and the Revolutionary Guard for his disobedience to the leader. He is hated by the majority of the neo-conservatives in the parliament. He has no reliable connection to the Revolutionary Guard and several members of his government are accused of economic corruption by the Iranian judiciary. According to the estimates released by his former conservative and neoconservative allies, Iran’s oil earnings during his government equates to the total oil revenue that Iran had gained since the discovery of Oil in 1907 to 2005, the year Ahmadinezhad became Iran’s president. Ahamadninezhad is accused, by the same people who supported him by all institutional, legal and illegal means in the 2009 presidential election against the reform oriented candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, to have destroyed the Iranian economy in a way that no government has never done before.

In April 2011, Ahmadinezhad fired his intelligent minister. The decision was reversed by Iran’s leader. He ordered the intelligent minister to remain in his position. Believing that the leader’s action was an illegal action that questioned the president’s constitutional authority, Ahmadinezhad refused to go to work and stayed away from cabinet meetings for 11 days. Ahamadinezhad expected that his action instigate a popular response. When 11 days passed and not a single sole in Iran bothered about the president’s situation and nobody outside the tiny circle around him took his side he became an easy target for Khameni’s supporters. Disappointed with the people and disconnected with the leader, Ahmadinezhad has become, according to many politicians in the conservative camp, a pain in the system that must be tolerated until the end of his term.

While many of Ahmadinezhad’s former allies share the view that he has no political future, he has started to raise political issues for which the reform oriented forces and the Green Movement activists have been prosecuted, imprisoned and deprived from the political rights that they enjoyed in the past. In Ahmadinezhad’s new terminology the country’s president is the expression of the general will of the nation and the guardian of the constitution and the protector of people’s constitutional political and civil rights. Ahamdinezhad’s relationship with his former conservative allies in the last two years proves that the ones who start a political game to gain a bigger share of political power and those who win the political power at the end of the game in the Islamic Republic are not necessarily the same people. Ahmadinezhad’s ascendance to power was a result of the political dispute between the reform oriented and the conservatives. While leading figures in the conservative including Iran’s leader did not did not consider Ahmadinezhad as more than a footsoldier in their fight against the reform oriented political forces, it was Ahmadinezhad who used every accessible means to the conservatives for his own personal gains and then refused to share his power with the conservative establishment. Now, with regard to the ways Ahmadinezhad has treated the people who assisted him in his ascendance to power, he cannot be sure that the person he helps to become the next president will remain loyal to him as president. But what is at stake in the next presidential election is not Ahmadinezhad’s political future, but the role of Iran’s leader in presidential elections. Ali Motahari, an outspoken Iranian parliament member said recently that Ahmadinezhad’s presidency was a political and economic disaster but the disaster would not have occurred if the conservatives did not misjudge the relation and support of the leader to Ahmadinezhad. According to this parliament member almost 90 % of the conservatives knew that Ahmadinezhad would bring nothing but economic and political failure. Yet they supported him because they believed he was the leader’s preferred presidential candidate. The conservatives should have, according to this view, thought independently and select and support a presidential candidate who could have eased political tensions instead of inflaming them by his every word and action. The explicit message of this view to the leader is clear; please stay away from the next year presidential election.

Saudi Arabia’s oil: essential, but how vulnerable?

By Torgeir Fjærtoft

Saudi Aramco is a main sponsor of this year’s Norwegian oil, gas and off- shore fair, ONS, in Stavanger. When the Norwegian organizers accord such a role to the Saudi Arabian oil company, it is probably in recognition of the essential role of Saudi Arabia in the global oil supply , and therefore in the shaky global economic stability. To manage this role Saudi Arabia maintains spare capacity to adjust its volume of oil production to maintain supply and price stability.

How vulnerable is this role?

Currently two main factors bear on the Saudi ability to maintain its oil exports: the technology available to recover oil from the fields, a main topic at this year’s ONS, and the political stability in the region, essential to stable shipping lanes. The shipping lanes in the Gulf would be highly vulnerable in case of hostilities with Iran. To reduce this vulnerability Saudi Arabia maintains spare capacity in a cross country pipeline to divert oil exports to Red Sea ports. Skeptics point out that the Saudi surge capacity in production and contingency plans for shipping have yet to be proven viable and may not be dependable. Also, a new, emerging risk is the looming disintegration of Yemen which could turn into a new Somalia, lining both sides of the alternative shipping lanes with pirates and terrorists. The vulnerabilities are aggravated by the nerves of market actors and the calculations of speculators.

Beyond the current crisis over Iran, both regional political stability and global economic stability will hardly be viable without a degree of Iranian Saudi cooperation. There are even unconfirmed reports about nascent projects

In the longer-term, the relationship between oil and gas is the central issue in the future of the whole region as global energy supplier. To escape the current trend of increasing domestic energy consumptions over exports, at the expense of both export earnings and the global oil supply, Saudi Arabia needs to replace as much as possible of its current domestic oil use with gas, in power production, desalination and manufacturing.  Since Saudi Arabia is not a gas producer, at least not yet, such substitution takes regional cooperation.  Iran holds the second largest gas reserves in the world, and shares its huge South Pars field under the Gulf with Qatar.

In an even longer-term, the global dependence on fossil fuels from Saudi Arabia is not sustainable. Oil is a finite resource inflicting serious climate damage. In this perspective the Saudi oil minister is reportedly concerned about what the optimal oil price would be to provide effective incentives to several compelling policy goals: make marginal fields profitable in the interest of global oil supply, and at the same time encourage conservation of this essential, but finite resource. The price of oil should also be high enough to make alternative energy sources profitable and provide necessary incentives for research and development.

Saudi Arabia may tap the power of the burning sun for solar power, but drifting sand and dust in the desert makes this difficult with the current state of technology. Saudis are concerned that sand and dust are increasing due to climate change: less rain, more wind.  At ONS Saudi Aramco engineers told about their program to inject the climate gas CO2 to recover more oil, rather than water, a scarce, precious resource.

The ONS will hopefully continue to be a venue for discussions with Saudis on solutions to pressing global problems. Saudi Arabia will either be part of the solution or part of the problem. It will be their decision, but we can influence them by dialogue.

Coping with crisis: intervention versus regional cooperation

By Torgeir E. Færtoft


The perceived success of the NATO bombing to prevent mass murder by Gadaffi has revived the idea of humanitarian intervention, as set out in my previous blog input.  Humanitarian intervention now emerges as an option in Syria as violence persists and destabilization and disintegration looms.

But humanitarian intervention is still an intervention, with the risks and unintended consequences now especially evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, both failed attempts at social engineering by invasion.

Are there alternative policy options to the fatalism of non-intervention and the impotence of social engineering by force?

There are now some encouraging signs that regional political frameworks may be emerging to stem the threatening chaos in the practically contiguous belt of looming social and political breakdown from Somalia, over Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Somalia the AlQaida affiliate AlShabaab, who exploited the political vacuum left by the failed state, is forced on the defensive by a combination of Kenyan, Ethiopian and an African Union troops. As a result, there is now the prospect of a first functioning central government since it broke down in 1991. Across the narrow stretch of sea and pirate infested waters, in Yemen, where a Somalia like scenario has loomed for some time, the regional organization of the Gulf Arab states, the Gulf Cooperation Council, has engineered a political solution, which, if imperfect, is still a step in the opposite direction from chaos, violence and a heaven for organized crime and terrorism.  The GCC countries will now at an upcoming summit consider further integration steps.  In the case of Syria, Turkey holds the key to a regional framework for a political solution. In Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, now backing different sectarian factions, would need to cooperate. In the case of Afghanistan, a regional political solution needs Iran, who supported the anti-Taliban Northern alliance before it became the vehicle for the Western invasion, and then supported the Pashtu-based current regime. Iran must be joined by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which must keep the rivalry with India over Kashmir from spilling over to Afghanistan.

Why would the regional powers cooperate rather than undermine each other by proxies?   Greg Gause points out the temptation to exploit politically trans-boundary identities, ethnic and religious, with potentially backfiring effects. Often the temptation to undermine the adversaries outweigh the concerns about the destabilizing effect, but perhaps not now.  Both Somalia and Afghanistan, and to some extent Yemen, are victims of superpower rivalries during the Cold War. Today their instability has repercussions beyond their borders. Such repercussions, inevitable in all internal conflict leading to social and political breakdown, create incentives for the regional cooperation necessary for stability. Without stability development is not possible and human misery will persist.

The Significance of Friday’s Parliamentary Election in Iran

By Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Regardless of their ideological orientation and political affiliation, millions of Iranians expect this Friday’s parliamentary election to verify their political stance. It is not the electoral results but the level of the election turnout that matters most. While the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamanei tells the Iranian people that their participation in the election will deter foreign aggression against Iran,  oppositional forces affiliated to the Reform and the Green movement, believe that people will stay away from the election. Since the disputed presidential election in 2009, politicians who led post-revolutionary governments for 25 years have argued that the Iranian political system loses its popular legitimacy if it does not implement its constitution fully. The former president, Mohammad Khatami, put forward three demands as precondition for oppositional forces’ electoral participation; release of all political prisoners, protection of freedom of speech and assembly by the government and finally, guarantees given by the government to hold free and fair election. None of these demands have been fulfilled. Fulfillment of the first demand would be interpreted as acknowledgment of a wrong and injustice done to all those who questioned the presidential election result. Realization of the second demand would unleash unprecedented criticism of the leader and the revolutionary guard for engineering the presidential election and oppressing street protesters. Finally, the third demand would have dismantled The Guarding Council which has been engineering the elections for the assembly of experts since the late 1980s. The Council in collaboration with the Revolutionary guard has also been engineering parliamentary and presidential elections since 2004.

Since the 1979-revolution, different types of oppositions have boycotted different elections to no avail. The Islamic Republic has held tens of elections and no boycott this far has forced it to change its course. The main problem with the oppositions that have boycotted previous elections in Iran was that they did not represent a political force. They might have represented hundreds of thousands of like-minded Iranians ideologically, but they could not touch them politically. That is why they did not contribute to spectacular political events such as 1997 presidential election which resulted in Mohammad Khatami’s take over and the emergence of the Reform movement in 1997. It is the same story with the 2009 presidential election, which resulted in the Green movement. Both political events were results of high turnout in elections. Those creating and leading these political events were the main founders of the Islamic Republic and its defenders from the revolution until the late 1980s. Now the main founders and defenders of the Islamic Republic who are excluded from political power look forward to a popular boycott of the Friday election. The former founders and defenders of the Islamic Republic claim that they will stay away from the election, but they do not ask people to do the same. They say it is up to the people to choose whether they vote or not. Do the advocates of the Reform and Green movement have an overwhelming popular base? Do the Iranian people care about what these politicians and activist think of the Friday-election and what they do on the Election Day?  We cannot find a straight answer for these questions before the Election Day. Nevertheless, we can interpret signs indicative of people’s electoral attitude in the Election Day.

Iran is neither a democracy in which you can produce unbiased opinion polls nor a police state in which people cannot express their political views publically. Conservatives are in power and reformist individuals and supporters of the Green movement are prosecuted and imprisoned. But if you look at a number of the conservative websites you can see that over 80 % of the comments are in their favor of the Reform and Green movement.

Understanding of a recent cultural event in Iran may also be helpful to map the status of the Reform and Green movement and its level of popularity in Iran. A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) is a film that has touched hundreds of thousands of Iranians since last year.  While the conservatives in power controlled street demonstration through repression and intimidation, people made, A Separation, the symbol of resistance and defended it against the Outcasts ( Ekhrajiha). The Outcast ridicules politicians and intellectuals who have advocated the Green movement and is directed by Masoud Dhenamaki one of the leaders of Ansar-e Hezbollah, a semi-official gang that attacked political and cultural gatherings disliked by conservatives in 1990s. The film had the total backing of the Ahmadinezhad government. Unfortunately for the Outcast, A Separation received one award after another. In Iranian newspapers, every word expressing admiration for A Separation has been followed by a word of condemning the Outcasts.  Finally, A Separation received an Oscar for best foreign language film on 26th February. Almost all leading political figures engaged in the democratic struggle such as Mohammad Khatami, political prisoners, literary and artistic figures in Iran publicized their messages of congratulations to the writer-director Asghar Farhadi with explicit and implicit critique of the political situation in Iran. The most competent commentator of the Iranian cinema Parviz Davaiy said, A Separation is the culmination of Iranian cinema.  How can a filmmaker make the culmination of Iranian cinema, while the conservatives in power have tried to control and privatize many aspects of the public sphere to prevent democratic ways of thinking, saying and acting in Iran?  A separation must be the culmination of Iranian cinema since it does not allow any of its characters to judge other characters without showing his or her moral flaws and lack of knowledge of the situation that is a result of their obsession with their own private affairs.
Few months prior to the 2009 presidential election, students, political activists and artists gathered to persuade Khatami to stand as a candidate in the presidential election. A known Iranian actress was invited on stage to say her reasons as to why Khatami should stand as a presidential candidate.  The actress said that in order to realize his previous promises which were the realization of the democratic demands of the Iranian people and in order to revive the hopes of those who have become disappointed with the political situation, Khatami should enter the presidential campaign. She got emotional in the middle of her speech and burst into tears but managed to say a few words.  “I am asking you to enter  the presidential campaign for the sake of small children and for the sake of those who do not want to leave their country,” while she was being watched thoughtfully  by her husband who was sitting in the audience.  Since last year, film critics around the globe talk about the intensity and greatness of the first scene in A Separation. In this scene the leading female character is asking for a divorce because her husband has reneged on his agreement to leave Iran for the sake of their daughter. The female character cannot imagine a bright future for her daughter in Iran.  The actress who plays the character in the first scene is no other than Leila Hatami, the same actress who became emotional while asking Khatami to stand as a candidate in the 2009  presidential election  and the words she uttered in this scene are the logical consequence of her statement in real life. Liela Hatami whose dream of democracy was shattered by the oppression that followed the 2009 presidential election takes the role of Simin in A Separation to care for her private affairs and defend her own and her druthers’ interests. What she does not know as Simin, the film character, is that when seeking private interests becomes a rule; her interests would collide with the interests of anyone and everyone surrounding her.  The result would be the shattering of her private dreams as well as the life of others.  A Separation is based on Leila Hatami’s shattered dream of democracy in Iran. However, she gets the opportunity to play in a film that is described by its writer-director as a democratic film, a film that free from dictatorial role of the director respects the equal rights of all its characters to express their views about their situation. When asked by a French journalist whether his film is political Farhadi replies that, his film is not political but he hopes that it is democratic.  The film is as political as it is democratic because it is about the people who regardless of their social position and religious or cultural background created the most spectacular political event in the Middle East in 2009 but were going to lose their passion for politics and started to care for their private affairs. This political passion remained alive only in an Alzheimer father who cares for other things than his own wellbeing through two unfinished sentences which he manages to say throughout the film, “I want to buy newspapers” and asking his son; whether he knows that certain “Ali got married.” The son answers reluctantly; who is Ali? Meaning, who cares.
What has the content of this film and its universal success to do with the level of election turnout on Friday? This political and democratic film reminds millions of Iranians that politics and experience of democratic unity may prevent them to become obsessed with their private affairs and self-interests and thus unpredicted tragic consequences. Different characters in A Separation; young, old, middle class, poor, religious, secular, are all recognizable in pictures and video footages of the Green movement that in the eyes of many analysts of Iranian politics is the culmination of Iranian democratic politics.  A Separation’s final achievement this week made the politicians, activists and political prisoners fighting for democracy in Iran more visible than before while conservatives including Ahmadinezhad and the leader remained silent on the subject.  Fridays election will show whether the culmination of Iranian cinema in combination with the culmination of Iranian democratic politics persuade Iranians to stay away from the election or not. A Separation may persuade the Iranian people that their separation from the ballot boxes that persist on their inequality with those who grabbed political power by chance but keep it by force and engineered elections is the expressions of their unity.
Conservative in Iran claim that they know very well that it will be a low turnout in Tehran, but the turnout will be high outside Tehran and especially in smaller cities. This week, I visited the website of a major local newspaper in the province of Bushehr many times. It was full of news on A Separation but not a word about the Friday election.


Iran beginning of 2012: diplomacy or war?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Most foreign policy analyses are flawed. They discuss issues and options on their own merit, as if actors’ behaviour were guided by our perceptions rather than their own. Actual behaviour is shaped by two factors: the actors’ motivation and their perceptions of constraints, external as well as domestic. To understand, we must try to enter their minds, admittedly a speculative venture.

The policy and the capacity of the United States remain the factors that weigh most heavily in the power equations of all regional actors in the Middle East. What motivation and sense of constraint is currently driving President Obama’s policy towards Iran? His number one concern is probably stopping nuclear proliferation, to discourage other countries in the region from acquiring their own nuclear arms in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which must therefore be stopped.  A nuclear balance of terror between Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey (already host to US nuclear arms under NATO) and possibly others would be unstable and dangerous, placing at risk vital but vulnerably energy sources as well as the countries themselves.
He probably sees the Iranian rebuff of his original offer of reconciliation in the light of the domestic power struggle in Iran which makes any change of policy extremely difficult to bring about. Obama’s original rhetoric failed to change Iran’s threatening behaviour, but a credible threat of attack could hopefully shake the current Iranian perception of superiority and impregnability sufficiently to induce contending factions to compromise. In other words, since Obama’s speech failed to change Iranian motivation, he now tries to change the Iranian perception of constraints.
Should also this last-ditch attempt at coercive diplomacy fail, he will resort to force. He has no hesitation about this, should diplomatic options fail. Obama has stated that he is influenced by the so-called “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr whose central message is that there is evil in the world that needs to be fought, but in a humble spirit. Nuclear arms are definitely evil.
His acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize was held in the spirit of Niebuhr. He would as US President use military force when necessary (“Wanting peace is in itself rarely enough to bring it about”). But he will calibrate his use of force. Military experts point out that even an underground plant can be incapacitated by a small charge collapsing the entrance and destroying machinery, such as centrifuges, by shock waves.
Obama’s own constraints are
•    His potentially limited time-window created by the presidential campaign since he could lose the election. The bad record of the massive and costly, but largely failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by Obama’s Republican predecessor and the rhetoric of his Republican opponents, probably adds a sense of urgency to stopping the Iranian nuclear program lest a new Republican President once more resort to extreme policies that could create worse problems than those they set out to solve.
•    The twofold challenge by Israel: the need of any US president to neutralize the Israeli lobby against him in Congress and the US public, and in the current policy predicament prevent unilateral Israeli attack on Iran which could force him to deal with Iran in a different, more violent scenario, in which Israeli vulnerabilities could force him to conduct more comprehensive operations.
•    The need for Iran as a constructive partner in a post-conflict phase to stabilize the vital energy supplies of Saudi Arabia and Iran itself. Also for the political stability of Iraq and Afghanistan after US withdrawal is Iran’s cooperation needed since such stability can only be achieved by cooperation of the regional powers.

To overcome these constraints he has no alternative but to prepare surgical strikes, first as pressure and then, should that fail, as the ultimate recourse. However, to succeed coercive diplomacy and, if unavoidable, attack, need to be followed by military restraint and crisis diffusing diplomacy providing incentives for cooperation.

In Iran, the currently two main rivals, supreme leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, by all appearances share the motivation of a combination of a revolutionary Islamic and anti-Imperialist ideology, and traditional nationalistic quest for power, prestige and recognition. The overriding concern of both is the protection of the revolutionary Islamic regime in Iran.
Their expansionist revolutionary vision is therefore constrained by their perception of any serious risk to the regime their ideology may give rise to. But they appear to differ over whether the nuclear program has reached that stage yet. When President Ahmadinejad initiated a compromise with the concerned outside world fall of 2009, the deal came to naught because the Supreme Leader Khamenei failed to support him when the President’s rivals seized the opportunity to undercut his position.  In fact, the main constraints perceived by any Iranian actor, may be even the Supreme Leader himself, is presumably the intense domestic power struggles which make anyone proposing to depart from the current course, e.g. the nuclear program, vulnerable to attack by rivals.
After all, an Iranian politician advocating compromise on the nuclear program will be faced by the argument that, seen from Teheran, the current pressure they experience along with their reading of the Libyan experience (Kaddafi toppled by Western military intervention after he had given in to pressure to renounce his nuclear program) combine to form persuasive arguments for nuclear arms as guarantee against forced regime change. Also, as in any nuclear state, there will be powerful vested interests behind a nuclear program, which offers position, prestige and income to those involved.
The crucial question now is whether the Supreme Leader Khamenei will have the power to change course, should he decide that compromise would be the smarter course for Iran. Despite whatever policy assets he may see in nuclear arms, the constraint may dawn on him that Iran will be stopped in its nuclear program because as the program progresses, the concerned outside world will increasingly see the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms, including the risks of proliferation, as worse than the collateral risks of a limited, surgical attack, should failed diplomacy leave the world with those options. Consequently, whatever the Iranian motivations for the nuclear program, nuclear arms will not be an option for regime protection. The only chance for diplomacy in the current confrontation is that the Supreme Leader and hopefully contending factions in Iran will be brought around to see compromise and a degree of cooperation as the only viable options for protecting the Islamic, revolutionary regime.

Saudi Arabia
The Royal Family, the governing political elite of Saudi Arabia, is motivated by deep-seated suspicions and resentment of Iran, a sentiment shared by the majority of Saudis and consequently an integral part of the regime’s political legitimacy. These resentments are partly due to the religious Sunni / Shia divide, partly political because of the declared Iranian revolutionary intent to overthrow the pro-Western Saudi royal family.
But those of the Royal Family in responsible policy positions are known to differ over how to weigh the perceived Iranian threat against the constraints on Saudi anti-Iran policies. The King has blamed the US for invading the wrong country in 2003, toppling the stable Sunni regime in Iraq instead of the revolutionary Shia regime in Teheran, urging them to “cut off the snake’s head, not its tail”. But others in the ruling elite are known to think the risks inherent in the confrontation the King seems to be seeking, outweigh the risks currently emanating from Teheran, even with the perceived Iranian encirclement by proxies of Saudi Arabia (“the Shia crescent”, or even “full moon”) .
The Saudi constraints are the potentially disastrous implications of armed conflict for the vulnerable oil production in the Eastern provinces and oil exports through the choking point of the Strait of Hormus. In addition, conflict with Iran also carries serious opportunity costs for Saudi Arabia, in need of cooperation with the revolutionary Shia enemy to exploit shared gas fields in the Gulf. This is potentially serious since gas deficiency forces the Saudis to divert export earning oil to domestic purposes, such as desalination and power production. In case of armed conflict with Iran, the Saudis also fear for their domestic stability should, as a side effect of confrontation with Teheran, Riyadh’s conflicts escalate with its Shia minority in the oil producing Eastern provinces.
The Saudi interdependence with their indispensable ally the USA constitutes another constraint on Saudi policy. (The huge Saudi arms procurements are seen partly as a conscious policy of prepositioning equipment for US forces, partly as a means to strengthen alliances by creating commercial bonds with Saudi Arabia.) With Israel the Saudis share the feeling of having been let down by President Obama in his refusal to support the Arab dictators against the revolting people of the Arab spring (leading to the first independent Saudi military action in contravention of US policy, the intervention in Bahrain).  But in contrast to Israel, with whom the Saudis also share the view on the Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia lacks the capacity for independent military action against Iran To compensate, in case President Obama backs down from attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the Saudis, to retain the option of attack should they find that President Obama let them down again, even seem to have a tacit agreement with Israel to offer operational cooperation in case of an Israeli attack on Iran, over which they would have virtually no control, but for which they may have to absorb the brunt of the collateral damage of Iranian counter attacks due to vulnerability by proximity.

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is motivated by an overriding fear of a nuclear armed Iran, for the psychological effects it would have on Israelis, the sense of invulnerability nuclear arms could induce on Iran, daring them to more active hostilities by way of proxies such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and of course the ultimate horror of nuclear war, by accident if not by design. He apparently sees the Iranian threat in the context of the collective Jewish trauma of pogroms and the Holocaust. This sentiment is shared by practically all Israelis (although some of them will see the legitimacy the Iranian regime bestows on the Iranian Jewish minority as evidence that the issue between Israel and Iran is political, not racist).
However, there is strong disagreement in Israel, openly aired, over how to weigh the risks emanating from the Iranian nuclear program against the risks inherent in military options.  This disagreement is also reflected in conflicting views in the Israeli coalition government. As a consequence, the differences over Israel’s policy towards Iran remain unresolved at this time of writing, with Defence Minister Barak supporting the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Liebermann leading the opposition.  But since the differences are over tactics, not goals, this balance is volatile. Small changes in risk perception by individual Israeli politicians could change the balance and end the stalemate, sending off Israeli planes or cruise missiles from the Israeli submarines known to hide in the Gulf.
Israel’s constraints derive from the uncertain success of a unilateral Israeli attack and potentially disastrous effects of Iranian counter attacks, which in response to Israeli attacks could be widely perceived as legitimate defence by Israel’s neighbours, thus adding a serious political cost in the current volatile political environment of the Arab Spring.
Adding to the Israeli constraints, Israeli policy makers, with Israel’s total military and political dependence on the US, can ill afford to ignore the strong US rejection of a unilateral Israeli attack, openly and strongly voiced by the Obama administration. So far Israel has had virtually unlimited political capital in the US; no US politician would stand much chance of election without practically unconditional support of Israeli policies. But in the current American political climate, wary of new military entanglements, even US support could wither if Israel were seen to drag Americans into a new war.
To the military risks inherent in a unilateral Israeli attack cautious Israeli politicians are therefore in the current climate forced to add the combined political risk of Arab and American rejection.
But despite the fact that for these combined military and political reasons, the option of unilateral Israeli attack remains hotly contested in Israel, also in the current government, the unanimous Israeli view remains that the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms exceed the collateral risks of military action, unilateral, if need be. The prevailing Israeli view is that if left alone, they will go it alone.

In other words, the prospects of diplomacy versus war over the Iranian nuclear program are determined by the actors’ motivations and sense of constraints as outlined here. But the relationship between the actors is dynamic in the sense that their perceptions of constraints change by mutual influence. Therefore, the ultimate course of events cannot now be foreseen, although a US surgical strike against Iranian nuclear installations seems the more probable scenario at this time of writing. With the strong commitment by President Obama to prevent Iranian nuclear arms, a commitment shared by all possible alternative Presidents as well as US allies, Iran will be forced to change its current nuclear program. This will be an important victory for the efforts to reverse the dangerous current trend towards nuclear proliferation.

Will Israel reassess its security strategies?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Israel, with its legitimacy disputed in its region, drives vital political dynamics in the Middle East. All contending factions in the neighbouring countries relate to Israel and its policies, directly or indirectly, one way or the other. The region is now undergoing dramatic change in its political landscape.  As a result, traditional policies no longer work, in the sense that they fail to achieve intended effects, and may even have turned counterproductive. Will Israel reassess its security strategies?
Israeli security strategies have been threefold:
•    uphold legitimacy as a democratic, Jewish state,
•    project superior power,
•    deter and, when perceived necessary, preempt attack.
There are currently two major challenges to these Israeli security strategies: Iran, a threat aggravated by its nuclear program, and the emerging regional power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Power versus legitimacy
To explore the changing circumstances of Israel I will draw on the ideas of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Henry Kissinger, who, as professor and central policy advisor to President Nixon, became perhaps the foremost theorist and practitioner of diplomacy in modern times, in the sense of developing an overarching historical thesis on the relationships between states, while he exploited options and forged deals. In an interview with Der Spiegel on President Obama’s foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East, he reiterated his two requirements to stable and peaceful relations between countries: First of all a balance of power must prevent one country from overthrowing the existing order, but, secondly, to be stable, those parties to such an order must perceive it as basically just. None of these conditions are present in Israel’s relations with its region, but below I argue that the situation may evolve in this direction, conditional upon smarter moves by Israel in adapting to changing circumstances.

Israel’s problem
In the absence of political acceptance in the region of its existence, Israel has primarily staked its security on the projection of superior power.  Power projection is mainly effective against regimes controlled by one leader or limited ruling clique. But this is precisely the decisive condition that is now changing in Israel’s region as people take to the streets. They are not intimidated by power, unlike the dictators they strive to overthrow, but driven by a quest for justice.

Against Iran, which, pending the victory of the Green Revolution, remains a centrally controlled dictatorship, the traditional strategy of power projection is still the only effective strategy. But in relating to the Arab Spring, it has lost its edge to the point of becoming counterproductive – to the degree that people in the streets succeed in empowering themselves. Towards the Arab public opinion only shaping their perception of legitimacy will work.

Israel’s legitimacy undermined by Israeli policies
Israel has undermined its twofold legitimacy, as a democratic and as a Jewish state. The underlying problem is its failure to merge the Jewish identity with the ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism of a modern democratic state. This failure to forge a modern state identity in Israel causes a basic problem of attitudes towards Arabs under its rule, aggravated by the occupation of the Palestinians following the war of 1967. These attitudes towards Arabs have eroded the democratic legitimacy, while the Jewish identity has been undermined by imposing Israeli rule on a large number of non-Jews. The Israeli historian, Tom Segev, describes in his book “1967. Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East” how evolving policies, not an original design, resulted in the current state of affairs, which is incompatible with the dual basis for the state of Israel, modern democracy and Jewish identity.

Balance of power changing
It was the new sense of power, legacy of the victory of 1967, that according to Tom Segev deluded the Israelis to make short-sighted choices, neglecting the long-term effects that created the current Israeli predicament.  As a consequence of the changes in Israel’s regional circumstances, the balance of power is also changing. Therefore, the internal political pressure in Israel, that has driven the occupation and the boycott of Gaza, is losing weight relative to the new external pressure; this must be the emerging perception of the power equation in the Israeli political elite, or so we must assume. The traditional strategy of power projection towards Arabs is becoming less effective, perhaps even counterproductive.

Israel needs to avoid long-term effects of mistakes
The current occupation, despite the overwhelming power behind it, will not be politically sustainable in the larger strategic picture now emerging. As a consequence, Israel is now, without an effective Palestinian state, set on a course that, if not corrected, will result in a new pluralistic state in which the Jews will be in a minority, and where the new majority will not, in the predominant Israeli view, share Israel’s democratic values. Under the current political trends the new Arab majority in Israel, which would be formed by the current minority of 20 % if joined by the Arabs on the West-Bank now under occupation, will likely come under strong influence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shot Hamas. In the perception of the Israeli political elite, Israel’s dual legitimacy would then erode. Israeli fear that such an altered Israel would no longer be democratic in the Western sense because they feel convinced that current Israel’s western democratic principles are not shared by the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the equality of women and acceptance of political dissent. Nor would Jews, with the trauma of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, feel safe in a state they no longer control. (In fact, according to the theories of the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, on the dynamics that cause humans to commit evil, the strong hostility Israel engenders could conceivably, in case power shifted hands, lead again to genocide.)

Israel needs regional allies against Iran
Where traditional power projection is still appropriate, the changed political circumstances of Israel make greater legitimacy in its region imperative. As Kissinger points out, without a shared perception of legitimacy, power will not produce stable relations. Israel will need political and probably military backing also from the regional powers to effectively and sustainably contain Iran, its overriding foreign policy concern also without Iranian nuclear arms because of Iran’s declared revolutionary vision aimed at Israel.
If Israeli politicians see a need to adapt policies to altered circumstances, they could take a clue from Kissinger. It was by his initiative to improve relations with China that the United States neutralized the potentially disrupting consequences of withdrawal from Vietnam. In the same vein, Israel will need to reduce current political tensions to forge regional alliances against Iran to off-set adverse effects of the changing political landscape. (At some point reduced tensions could even lead to improved relations with Iran. More about this in a later blog input.)
In forging regional alliances, the unresolved issues of the occupation and the boycott of Gaza will remain obstacles to those potential allies that share Israel’s concern over Iran. In Israel’s old ally Turkey popular resentment of Israeli policies limits the room for manoeuvre of the Government, should they find that concerns over Iran supersede resentment of Israeli policies. In Israel’s tacit ally Saudi Arabia, its ruling elite as well as its public opinion resent strongly what they perceive as Israel’s refusal to consider the Arab peace plan the King initiated, a sentiment shared by the other Gulf States.
Perhaps the single most important political actor bearing on Israel’s security interests now is the Muslim Brotherhood, an emerging regional political force based on political mobilization, because this movement wields significant power by its influence on Arab minds. But whatever the leadership could be persuaded to agree to, they will also have a limited room for manoeuvre towards Israel as long as the Brotherhood’s supporters resent so strongly Israeli attitudes towards Arabs, most blatantly manifested in the occupation and the boycott of Gaza.
For a balance of power in Israel’s region to be stable in Kissinger’s sense, alliances need to be more than tacit, transient, circumstantial or instrumental. Only a foundation of a shared sense of justice and perceived mutual benefits can provide peace and security. Perceptions and emotions shape motivation.
But should luck run out while a state of confrontation persists, even the coolest of minds cannot prevent everything from going terribly wrong; this was the lesson drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis by one of crisis’ central actors, Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence.

The risks of fallibility
Henry Kissinger, in the interview in Der Spiegel, described Obama as a “chess player”, Kissinger’s professed ideal for a foreign policy operator. In this ideal, Kissinger unfortunately fails to grasp the limits to rational analyses and control, limits described by the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, as I have set out in a previous blog input. Kissinger therefore fails to address the weakness in his balance of power ideal, how it can maintain under stress the stability which is its purpose. Kissinger notoriously fails to address the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in his own diplomacy in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 war he acted more like a poker player, pressuring the Soviets by raising the US nuclear alert.
Kissinger’s Middle East brinksmanship of 1973 is an analogy to the current confrontation with Iran. The requirements of diplomatic pressure are seen to need the option of war to be credible. The problem for crisis management is that the path to building diplomatic pressure by making the threat of war more credible is the same as to actual war. When the parties to such a confrontation edge towards the brink of war, they could by inadvertence, if not by design, tip over the edge and find themselves in a situation immeasurable worse than what they set out to avoid.
Kissinger, in the interview, stated that the concept of victory in war is now meaningless.  There would be no victors in a war between Israel and Iran, only losers. Kissinger has joined other central actors from the Cold War in calling an end to all nuclear arms since they serve no purpose, but remain an existential threat. As a step towards realizing this vision in the region, trust must be established that no new nuclear arms are in the process.

From power projection to consensus building
But Kissinger still fails to address the basic risks inherent in any power thinking, be it by “chess players” or “poker players”: the ramifications if one “player” tries to outsmart or call the bluff of a posturing opponent.  Everybody could easily find themselves without bearings in situations resembling what Clausewitz described as “the fog of war”. Kissinger’s basic assumption is flawed, the primacy of the power equation, one nation’ power relative to others. Today, almost all national interests can only be protected in cooperation with other countries as self-motivated partners, while conflict entails huge costs to all, especially opportunity costs.
Kissinger’s work “Diplomacy” of 1994, setting out to summarize his ideas, makes his flaw clear. The book starts out with the peace negotiations following the end of the Thirty Year War resulting in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, in hindsight seen as the starting point for the modern international system of nation states pursuing national interests to be mutually checked by a balance of power. Kissinger’s hero was the French leader Cardinal Richelieu for his adept exploitation of this principle, then a novelty, to pursue the national interests of France. But Kissinger, in his analysis of the innovative principles driving the negotiations leading up to the agreement of Westphalia, commits a serious omission: It was not the novel principle of Richelieu, pursuance of national interest by power, that prevailed as much as another novel principle, consensus-building diplomacy, driven by the unassuming Trautmanndorf, the emissary of the weaker party, the Austrian emperor.

From confrontation to cooperation
Israel today, dominated by the spiritual heirs of Richelieu, probably needs to find another Trautmanndorf. He bequeathed the heritage of consensus by compromise, a necessary first step towards effective cooperation in joint interest, such as the current European cooperation.
In fact, only cooperation and economic integration along the European model can solve the really serious security problem in the region, economic stagnation and unemployment. Especially young unemployed men are a ticking bomb in any society. Only effective economic cooperation can prevent despair, desperation and aggression caused by a feeling of hopelessness.  To cope with this security threat, Israel could, in the spirit of Trautmanndorf rather than Richelieu, take the European Union’s agreement with those non- members that qualify for membership, the European Economic Area, a proven instrument for peace, security and prosperity, and suggest to neighbouring countries and the Palestinian Authority that relevant parts of it could be applied selectively and gradually. That could be a beginning to a new regional process that in everybody’s interest.

Israel’s options
What can Israel now do to escape the long-term effects of the mistakes of 1967 that Tom Segev points out? In this perception of the current predicament, the only option available to Israel is to exercise its right to terminate the occupation of the West Bank. (Israel already did so in Gaza.) In the same vein, the single most effective move to counter Iranian ability to conduct “asymmetric warfare” in Lebanon would be to reach an agreement with the post-Assad regime in Syria over the Golan, to deprive Iran of its channel to Hezbollah.
Kissinger’s point that those parties to the political order must perceive it as basically just, or legitimate, has important implications for both Israeli and western considerations of strategies in the altered circumstances: It matters what the Muslim Brotherhood, the emerging regional political power, thinks of Israel and the West, perhaps even more than what Israel and the West think of them. They are today the most effective channel for influencing the perceptions of the new emerging elite that will shape Israel’s vicinity.

Israel, in its inevitable reassessment of its security strategies, may lament the passing of the old dictators for the stability they provided, but indulging in such counterfactual thoughts, which some Israeli seem to do, remains an exercise in futility.  Within Israeli power, however, is the ability to influence perceptions among the emerging Arab political elites of options in relating to Israel, on the continuum between confrontation and cooperation.

How misperceptions may cause war, and how we prevent them?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

In a previous blog contribution I have raised doubts about the realism of Israeli, Iranian and Saudi Arabian perceptions, both of each other’s power and intentions as well as the risks inherent in war. As they edge dangerously towards the brink of war over the prospects of Iranian nuclear arms, the question becomes imperative of how these perceptions are shaped?

The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his application of insights into the limitations of the human mind in decision making, questioning the realism of the traditional models premised on decisions reached exclusively by rationally weighing options. Applying his theories to political decision making about war, he warns against misperceptions built into the human mind[1], in short:

  • Overrate own capabilities and control of events,
  • Exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries,
  • Misjudge how adversaries perceive us,
  • Expect adversaries to understand that our own behaviour may be dictated by the constraints of circumstances, but attribute adversaries’ perceived hostile behaviour to their nature, character or persistent motives.

These warnings stare us in the face when we consider the current narratives of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their narratives share basic messages, but cast each other in reverse roles of aggressor and victim.

To overcome the cognitive limitations that Kahneman points out, it is necessary to critically examine the historical analogies that form the narratives. In fact, applying historical analogies is our only way to analyse policy options along the continuum between confrontation and cooperation. We think about policies in terms of alternative scenarios. A scenario is a narrative about what has not yet happened based on an interpretation of what has. But our concept of the past is a construct.  We are forced to make a choice among the infinite number of variables that shape political reality; consequently, any description is a choice. Besides, each new policy choice will face a unique set of circumstances since there is no repetition in history. Yet, there will be a generic core in each new policy dilemma. Henry Kissinger, a central analyst and political actor during the Cold War, set out the relevance of his study of the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic upheavals of Europe by maintaining that “history teaches by analogy”.  Following up on Kissinger’s dictum I maintain that historical analogies are relevant to the degree they are believed to be. No new situation is identical to any previous, but there will be elements that can be transferred and lessons to be learnt, especially from such recent formative experiences as the Cold War. The current reading of the Cold War is mostly mindless. Rarely do analyses extend beyond the simplistic image of “We, the West, won; they, the Soviets, lost”.

The current dangerous crisis in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia is mainly driven by the Iranian nuclear program. Still, Iran seems to misjudge the implications, and instead appears to be driven by a sense of strength following the perceived weakening of their adversaries following the US defeat they see in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this, Iran resembles the state of mind of the Soviet Union in 1975. That year the Soviet leaders experienced a similar hubris following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, which precipitated an aggressive foreign policy starting in Africa and ending in Afghanistan.  (The legacy today is two failed states, Somalia and Afghanistan, that prior to becoming pawns in other countries’ rivalries were on the threshold to modernity, but are now the source of great suffering and cause of dangerous regional instability.)

The year 1975 launched a new era of cooperation with the signing of the Helsinki accord on Cooperation and Security in Europe. The Soviet agreed to principles of human rights, an agreement that, although entered into in bad faith, nevertheless proved to undermine the Eastern bloc regimes, contributing to their eventual demise at the beginning of the 1990’s. Yet, the policy of cooperation and dialogue gave the Soviet leaders a false sense of supremacy, seducing the leaders, obsessed with prestige and power and deluded by ideology, to the catastrophic foreign policy adventures that caused the climate of cooperation of 1975 to turn into a deep frozen Cold War only five years later, leading the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1983 as the result of misreading of intentions.

What are the lessons for dealing with Iran today? First of all, a non-confrontational approach could prove a more effective policy for advancing regime change than threats, probably even more so in a pluralistic polity like Iran. But avoiding political confrontation is not in itself enough to prevent dangerous misjudgements since it could be misread as weakness and tempt the adversary to exploit the situation. In hindsight it becomes obvious that what caused detente to turn into dangerous confrontation were exactly the misjudgements built into the human mind that Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for identifying in the field of economics. Kahneman would find all his insights into to fallibility of decision making confirmed by the decision makers in both the West and the East during this period, as he no doubt will today in the confrontational relationships in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, only effective dialogue, by balancing advocacy of owns views with exploring the adversary’s, can overcome these fallacies of the human mind.  This is as true in interstate relations as it is in interpersonal communication. But if it is so obvious, why is it so difficult?  Again, the answer is found in the way our minds are wired, and the solution is to be found in understanding this connection and learning how to deal with it. Kahneman points out that our brains react with positive emotions when our views are confirmed, but cause discomfort when we are contradicted.  In the words of the British Ambassador during my posting at the UN, Sir Crispin: “Gentlemen, let us never forget, we are all animals”.

Given these constraints, how can we bring the “human animals” to better understand, cope and cooperate on win-win options?  Professor Daniel Shapiro at Harvard Program on Negotiation has identified five core emotional concerns that affect our will and ability to overcome the fallacies that Kahneman find potentially catastrophic:

1.           Appreciation: The desire to feel understood and honestly valued.

2.          Affiliation: Recognizing shared identity traits.

3.          AutonomyMaking decisions without imposition.

4.           Status: Positive emotions grow when status increases self-esteem; Negative emotions fester in competition for status.

5.            Role: A role should fulfill emotional needs. Temporary roles may facilitate communication and compromise.

These concerns form the generic core of the motivation for all political behavior. They will therefore be the litmus test for any constructive political process in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Daniel Kahneman’s  good news is that when we chose to engage in deliberation, yet another part of our brain is activated.



[1] Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon Why Hawks Win, Foreign Policy, No 158 (Jan. – Feb., 2007), pp. 34-38

Do Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia heed Sun Tzu?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

The ancient Chinese theorist on strategy from 476 – 221 BC, Sun Tzu, whose presumed timeless observations have been embraced by such diverse figures as Napoleon, Mao Zedong and Vo Nguyen Giap, as well as modern military and business leaders, do Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia heed him in the current confrontation? In his work, The Art of War, Sun Tzu warns in part III, Attack by Stratagem, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Are their self-assessment and their perceptions of their adversaries entirely realistic, given the stakes and risks of the conflict?

Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei, seems emboldened by the perceived US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and impending US withdrawal from Iraq to continue defying concerned countries with confrontational rhetoric and the nuclear program, presumably trusting Iran’s ability to prevail politically and ride out any attack. Should this indeed be his perception, he probably underestimates Iran’s vulnerabilities, likely to be further aggravated soon by sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank. Consequences of war would be terrible; potentially catastrophic in the event of a war spinning out of control as the result of preemptive strategies, panic and decentralized and fragmented Iranian command and control structure. The Supreme Leader most likely also underrates the capabilities of Israel and Saudi Arabia – and fails to grasp the extent of their desperation facing a threat they perceive as almost of existential gravity.  At the same time, the previous Iranian leverage against Israel by way of Hezbollah has now been weakened by developments in Syria, the Iranian route to Lebanon, a change leaving Israel less vulnerable to Iranian counterattack. Israel could easily weaken further Iran’s collusion with Syria by compromising on the Golan Heights. A regime change in Syria, still pending, could present Israel with a window of opportunity to dramatically improve its strategic position versus Iran.

Israel’s current government could, in spite of dire warnings to the contrary by Israeli military and intelligence experts, be bent on stopping by preemptive attack Iran’s nuclear program, irrespective of risks and consequences because they perceive it as an existential threat. Their assumption is probably that an Israeli attack would force the hand of any US president to join, should Israeli forces prove insufficient.

But would the now war-weary US public necessarily support a new risky military campaign in the region after the attrition in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially if the war were precipitated by another country –even Israel? Also, by escalating the military and political leverage against the Iranian leaders beyond a certain point, the unintended side effect could be to strengthen the domestic support for the Iranian regime by rallying also opposition forces behind the leadership, otherwise divisive, in an effort to contain perceived threats to the nation (even if some blame President Ahmadinnejad for enabling aggression against Iran by his provoking rhetoric). Consequently, the very strong US response to the alleged Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, a stepped-up political pressure probably intended also in defense of Israel, could prove self-defeating as a diplomatic strategy: The pressure, by inducing Iranians to rally behind the otherwise resented regime, could inadvertently provide cunning Iranian leaders with a motive to create the kinds of threats the pressure was intended to contain.

Saudi Arabia’s royal family probably feels left vulnerable by the US policy of not supporting allied rulers against their domestic opposition in Egypt and Bahrain, as well as by the Shia protests in the Eastern provinces and Bahrain, which they attribute to Iranian influence. The recent allegations of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington have no doubt confirmed the Saudi perception of a threatening, dangerous Iran. To counter both the unsettling force of the Arab spring and the Iranian threat, they now seem to seek closer collusion with Israel, possibly including operational cooperation in the case of an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Furthermore, the Saudi royal family probably sees their huge arms procurements both as a means to acquire allies as well as a prepositioning of equipment for US and other forces in case of war with Iran. But has Saudi Arabia surrendered the ultimate decision of attack to others less vulnerable? Saudi Arabia’s vital oil fields would be within striking distance of an Iran bent on counterattack, which, given the decentralized and fragmented Iranian command and control structure, could easily spin out of control. As a consequence, Saudi Arabia could conceivably end up suffering the main collateral damage of an attack against Iran.

Su Tzu also said, in Chapter XII, The Attack by Fire, “the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general is full of caution.”






Implications of 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Iran

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Iran’s parliament elections are scheduled to take place in early March 2012.[1] Last two parliament elections were engineered by Iran’s Guardian Council of the Constitution in such a way that conservative forces close to Mahmud Ahmadinezhad won the majority of the seats in the parliament. Disqualification of hundreds of reform oriented candidates in the previous parliament elections and the suspicious results of 2009 presidential election convinced reform oriented forces close to Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami, to stay away from the debates on 2012 parliament elections. While conservative political organizations and politicians supporting Ahamadinezhad in the 2009 presidential elections are preparing themselves for the coming elections they express their concern over the consequences of eventual absence of reform oriented forces in the elections which may put popular legitimacy of the political system in danger.[2] The absence of reform oriented forces in the election would certainly result in low voter turnout, something the Islamic Republic has tried to avoid throughout its history even though it has not always been able to handle the consequences of high voter turnouts as the outcomes of the 2009 presidential election have shown. The 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi who contested the results of the election are now under house-arrest and many politicians and political activists who supported them in their presidential campaign have been sentenced to prison and their newspapers and organizations closed down. Right now, reform oriented forces led by Khatami are united behind the demands he put forward as a condition of their participation in the elections according to which all political prisoners must be released, freedom of expression and assembly must be protected, and finally free and fair elections must be guaranteed by the government.[3] Since last year, Khatami reiterated these demands several times but has not received any positive response from the conservatives in power. The reluctance of the reform oriented forces to be engaged in the debates on the coming elections has irritated veteran conservative figures who assume that the reform oriented forces may pursue undercover electoral strategies in the elections. According to this supposedly secrete strategy they will not participate in the elections officially but would select and support candidates declared by the Guardian Council as qualified candidates provided they follow a reform oriented politics in the parliament.[4]  The absence of the reform oriented forces from the coming elections makes the efforts of the conservative forces with their meetings, debates and negotiations to form a joint list of candidates in the coming elections to look like a worthless effort since the elections seem to lack real electoral competition. While the absence of a real electoral opponent should have made conservative forces to expect an easy electoral victory, it makes them more cynical and has intensified their divisions and inner fighting. At the moment, there are three conservative sub-factions expecting to win the majority of the seats in the new parliament. Traditional conservatives alliance the United Front of Principalists (jebheye motahed-e osulgarayan) led by the current president of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kkani, the neo-conservative radical forces, which paved the way for Ahamdinezhad’s  presidency in 2005 and 2009, in the Resistance Front (jebheye paidari) led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and finally supporters of Ahmadinezhad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiy referred to as deviators (monhatefin) by their conservative rivals.[5]

The traditional conservatives believe they would benefit from participation of reform oriented forces in the elections, because it would restore the popular legitimacy the state enjoyed but has been seriously damaged in the aftermath of 2009 presidential election and force Ahmadinezhad’s allies to obey the majority rule within the conservative faction which they have ignored in the previous elections since 2005. But popular legitimacy is a strange word for Ahamdinezhad and his neo-conservative allies whether in the Resistance Front or among those backing Rahim Mashaiy. They both prefer to get rid of reform oriented candidates at all costs.

The traditional conservative faction has good reason to worry about unpredicted consequences of its internal rivalry and the informal support of reform oriented forces to little known reform oriented parliamentary candidates. In the case of a unified conservative list of candidates, the Guardian Council would have an easy job to disqualify unwanted candidates but it might be unable to perform its function satisfactorily when conservatives forces enter the elections with different lists of candidates, because in that case unknown reform oriented candidates cannot be easily recognized, classified and disqualified. There is a chance, the conservatives assume, that as a consequence of their internal confusion the reform oriented forces come out victorious from the elections without compromising their demands as a condition for their electoral participation. Unlike presidential elections in which voters distinguish candidates according to their political affiliations and in terms of their reformist or conservative approach, parliament elections entail many regional and local interests and concerns. For instance, there is an elite competition between Arabs and non-Arabs in the province of Khuzestan which has been exploited by conservatives close to Ahmadinezhad and Mohsen Rezaiy, former commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, in the previous elections and it will be exploited in the forthcoming elections as well. While the former can mobilize Arab voters behind Arab candidates in the south-west of the province, the latter would invest his political influence in the north-east of the province to mobilize non-e Arab voters behind his own candidates. With regard to the split within the conservative faction in this province, reform oriented forces may support Arab or non-Arab candidates advocating local causes and would like to join the reform oriented politics. The political scene in the province of Bushehr is friendlier for such reform oriented electoral maneuvering since the local public sphere in this region is dominated by local intellectuals and political activists who are unanimous in their support for democratic reforms on a local and national scale. Local intellectuals and political activists in this region would support reform oriented candidates since they can transmit their voice and discuss local grievances in the parliament and force governments to take the interests of their province and cities into consideration.[6] The current representatives of Bushehr in the parliament are supportive of reform oriented city councils and local non-governmental organizations and raise their voice against central government’s policies in the region. So it is more likely that local intellectuals and political activists in this region give their support to, at least, two current parliament members if they stand as parliament candidate and are qualified by the Guardian Council.[7]



Peace or war in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia? What to make of two recent US policy moves.

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft 

The US is the outside force that weighs most heavily in the power equations of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. US policy is currently mainly driven by concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. Towards Iran US policy will, in the absence of a trust-building agreement, be based on the assumption that the goal of Iran’s nuclear program is nuclear arms, despite remaining uncertainties and Iranian claims to the contrary. A further US assumption is probably that without a solution acceptable also to Israel and Saudi Arabia, stability in the region, the overriding US policy goal, will not be possible and war hard to prevent.

Two recent US policy moves may appear contradictory: The Obama administration has – after hesitation dating back to the Bush Administration – authorized the transfer to Israel of fifty five sophisticated bombs designed for penetrating underground targets, such as the Iranian nuclear installations. At the same time the top US military commander, Admiral Mullen, has frequently warned against any war scenario with Iran, and is now probably behind the initiative for a hotline with Iran’s naval command to avoid inadvertent clashes in the Gulf between Iranian naval vessels and the US fleet headquartered in Bahrain,  sharing narrow and crowed shipping lanes.

Are these US policy moves incompatible, pulling in opposite directions? Yes and no.

First of all, the US is not a monolithic entity. As in Israel and Saudi Arabia, there are factions that urge military attack against Iranian nuclear installations. These factions are oblivious to or underrate the high risk of escalation by dangerous Iranian counter attacks, a risk severely aggravated by the decentralized Iranian military command and parallel structure of the Revolutionary Guard, fragmenting Iranian control in crisis. The easiest target for Iran’s attacks, closing the Strait of Hormus, would potentially have the most catastrophic consequences world-wide by closing off an estimated 40% of the world’s oil supply.  A sober look at reality should show beyond doubt that none of the four countries – nor the rest of the world, for that matter – can escape an extreme vulnerability in any war scenario – or in the unpredictable, potentially chaotic and destabilizing aftermath. Therefore, war should appear highly inadvisable as a policy option in any conceivable set of circumstances.

The problem is that not everybody sees it that way. The US President is not omnipotent in the US political system, but must compromise, necessarily resulting in occasional incoherent policies. So when agreeing to provide Israel with offensive weapons against Iran, did President Obama against his better judgement succumb to pressure from the advocates of military action to enhance Israel’s capacity to strike Iranian nuclear installations? No, not likely.

President Obama is known to approach decisions in a highly analytic manner. In these two political moves, the following reading of his mind is likely: He fully endorses his top military commander’s rejection of war as a policy option and shares the concern to avoid military confrontation by accident and misunderstanding. But at the same time he is convinced that adding Iran to Pakistan as nuclear armed trouble spots in the region would be unacceptable. In his view, nuclear arms serve no sensible purpose, not for anybody. Therefore, nuclear arms would not make Iran more secure, only severely boost tensions, create the risk of Israeli panicked pre-emptive attacks, and most likely provoke a nuclear arms race in the region. By arming Israel with weapons that conceivably could destroy the Iranian underground nuclear installations, he intends to put pressure on Iran to negotiate.  He trusts that influential circles in Iran realize that in the event of diplomatic failure, military action may become difficult to avoid, irrespective of risks and consequences. If President Obama is seen to fail in a peaceful solution with Iran, his opponents in the upcoming election will use it against him. By failing to compromise now, Iran may come  to face a new US President who, like influential circles in Israel and Saudi Arabia, sees war as the only option left, an option to be exercised urgently in the perceived window- of-opportunity until Iran is fully nuclear armed.

This window-of-opportunity argument for attack is of course politically self-defeating, inadvertently providing a rational argument for Iran’s leadership to acquire a nuclear deterrent, thus providing a lever for those in the domestic Iranian power struggle seeking to undercut any rival that may agree to a compromise.  Realizing this, President Obama’s exceedingly difficult strategy is to create pressure to compromise while reassuring that attack is neither intended nor imminent. With his second term uncertain, as an astute politician Obama probably sees the rest of his first term as the window-of-opportunity for negotiations, and hopes to convince Iran of the same by demonstrably making the option of Israeli attack more militarily credible.