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The Iranian Threat
Robert Baer is a well-known former CIA field officer who served extensively in the Middle East for over 20 years. Last year he wrote the book “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.” In light of the fact Iran remains one of the key stories for 2009, following are a few excerpts from an essay he wrote for the November/December issue of The National Interest.
“Holding sway over a third of the Middle East and blackmailing 55 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Iran is looking more and more like a superpower. Tehran has not achieved this through classic imperialism – invasion and occupation – but rather through a three-pronged strategy of proxy warfare, asymmetrical weapons and an appeal to the Middle East’s downtrodden. If Tehran’s ascendance continues, it will not be a rising China or Russia that challenges the United States for global supremacy – it will be Iran.
“Right now, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hizbullah, is the de facto state. With friendly governments in Damascus and Baghdad, Iran intends to put the rest of the Levant under its thumb. The power of America’s traditional allies, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, is diminishing at a time when Iranian influence is spreading across the Palestinian territories and the Gulf sheikhdoms. Iran is quietly but inexorably building an empire, securing territory, resources, raw economic power, military strength and the allegiance of the ‘oppressed.’ If Iran’s rise continues, it will find itself at the heart of Middle East oil and at the apex of power.
“Yet, American Iran-watchers tend to dismiss Tehran as a serious power. They point out that Iran spends only 2.5 percent of its GDP on its military, its air force is antiquated, and even its relatively new Russian and Chinese arms are in disrepair. Iran does not represent a conventional military threat to the United States, they believe, and Tehran’s military forces would succumb to a Western attack almost as quickly as did Saddam’s….
“Americans’ views are colored by the belief that Iran is on the edge of revolution. With double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment, the mullahs there cannot hold on very much longer, or so goes conventional analysis….
“A comforting delusion. In reality, Tehran is expanding and consolidating its power in unstable parts of the Middle East….America views Iran’s military capabilities as limited; Iran does not pose a military threat to either its neighbors or the West. This is a laughable proposition to those between the Strait of Hormuz and the Mediterranean Sea. Though Iran may not be strong in terms of the laundry list Washington uses to calculate power – tanks, guns, armor, aircraft carriers – Iran has developed a different sort of mastery in projecting power. It possesses effective military strength, in the sense that it controls popular and lethally efficient guerilla groups. And in Lebanon and Iraq it manipulates sovereign armies. Iran’s military might, through its proxies and allies, in fact vastly eclipses that of its neighbors.”
“Iran is uniting Sunni and Shia, Persians and Arabs, across the Middle East. Through eighteen years of war in Lebanon, Iran pulled into its grasp Lebanese Shia, turning Hizbullah into a world-class military force. Iran also slowly but systematically recruited Lebanese Sunni to its side, and today has even established ties with Christian Maronite groups….Even if Americans missed it, Israel understood the significance of the fact that Hizbullah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, doesn’t have a drop of Persian blood in him and yet loyally and obediently fights in Iran’s ranks….
“On the Iranian road map to domination, once the Sunni Palestinian territories are under its thumb, Sunni countries like Jordan and Egypt will have no choice but to follow suit. The hearts and minds of the poor Sunni in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco are already half-won – they overwhelmingly sided with Hizbullah during the 2006 war.”
“In a nightmare scenario, America’s will in Iraq fails and the United States ultimately leaves an even-larger power vacuum Iran will then exploit. Iraq could very well drift, not just partly, but completely into Iran’s orbit. Whether the United States leaves in 2011 or ten years later, Iran will understand how to co-opt the mess: the divisions between the Shia and the Sunni, and between Iraq’s two main ethnic groups, the Kurds and the Arabs. The irreducible fact is that the only country that can stop Iraq from tipping into complete chaos will be Iran, if for no other reason than that Iran can quickly put a million people into uniform – and is more than willing to intervene….
“It is a waste of time trying to predict exactly what Iraq will look like after the United States leaves, but in the worst case, the country would succumb to the same fate as Lebanon, with a Hizbullah-like party taking over, or in an extreme scenario, turning into a full-blown Shia Islamic Republic. Assuming that a weak regime in Damascus will remain in Iran’s sphere of influence, the Levant at that point would be Iran’s. It would be a direct threat to Israel and would endanger the Arab Gulf states with their large Shia populations and weak monarchies.”
“Iran has made little secret of its strategy: widen its power through proxy warfare and gain control of the Gulf’s oil. It has the means, motive and opportunity to expand its empire across the Persian Gulf.
“Not only does Iran intend to become the first hydrocarbon empire, Tehran is painfully aware that oil is its lifeblood. Given the widening disparity between Iran’s real and claimed reserves – and if current levels of depletion continue – Iran knows that it could be tapped out within ten years. Without energy, or revenues from energy exports, Iran would become domestically unstable, and obviously any of its greater international ambitions would die. To satisfy domestic demand, Tehran in the not-too-distant future must look elsewhere, and Saudi Arabia for one – with its extensive reserves and weak government – is a prime target for takeover.
“That may not be as difficult as it seems. Iran’s reach is long. On one level, its proxies have the ability to stir up domestic unrest and sabotage oil fields along the Persian Gulf (which is 90 percent Shia and where, incidentally, the bulk of Gulf oil sits). The area’s Arab Shia are increasingly susceptible to Iran’s gravity, putting the Sunni sheikhdoms in peril without a single missile ever being fired….
“Then, on another level, there’s pure military blackmail. As tension with Washington rose after the invasion of Iraq, the Iranians made a point of going to the Gulf states to inform them that in the event of a conflict with the United States or Israel, Iran would either prohibit exports through the Strait of Hormuz or destroy the Arab oil facilities that sit along the rim of the Gulf – all vulnerable to attacks by surface-to-surface missiles. That Arab sheikhdoms are militarily weak; there’s nothing they can do to fight back. And lest we forget, Iran is the only true local power in the Gulf….
“Worst-case scenario, this is where we end up: Bahrain would be the first Arab Sheikhdom to fall under Iran’s control, and as Bahrain goes, so goes the Persian Gulf. With its 70 percent Shia population, gaining control of the country would only be a matter of Iran inciting its Bahraini Shia proxies to declare the end of the monarchy and then stepping in with armed force to support the new ‘legitimate’ government.”
“The best thing about disaster scenarios is that they rarely come about. But as Iran moves through the Middle East with its tried-and-successful strategy of imperialism via proxy, of bridging sectarian differences, of blackmailing oil exports, of adapting advanced weapons to classic guerilla tactics and of thwarting modern armies, we must consider that Tehran could very well succeed in establishing the virtual empire it seeks….
“With rising anti-Americanism and the absence of a Palestinian peace deal, Sunni and Shia will be goaded into overcoming sectarian differences and uniting with Iran against the West. As long as the United States and Israel postpone a Palestinian settlement, Iran will fill the void, inserting itself as the one leader of the discontented, poor, oppressed and downtrodden across the Middle East. Its most important concern now is that Iraq remains calm so a wedge is not driven between Sunni and Shia.
“The United States needs to go to Tehran to see what kind of bargain can be struck. To be sure, if indeed the balance of power has shifted to the degree it seems it has, a deal won’t be cheap. Iran would demand an important and open role in the security and rebuilding of Iraq. It would demand an open role in policing the Gulf, not unlike the role the Shah’s regime played in the 1970s when Iran was the Gulf’s ‘policeman.’ Tehran would demand the lifting of all sanctions. But we won’t know any of this with certainty until we sit down and listen to the Iranians.
“The other choice is to let the logic of war play itself out and hope, against the evidence, that we are wrong about Iran’s rise.”