Monday, 23 July 2012

Connecting the dots between Syria, Iran, and the United States (updated)

Three seemingly disparate events over the past week peel back the covers of a raging cold war in the Middle East. 

The United States has bolstered its minesweeping capabilities in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy purchased dozens of the German-made vehicles, known as Sea Fox, in February, after a request by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head U.S. commander in the Middle East. The Pentagon also added four MH-53 minesweeping helicopters and four minesweeping ships – bringing its total to eight.

Further north in Syria, as the conflict is entering its end-game, an explosion in the National Security Building delivered a strategic hit to the al-Assad regime. Three of Assad’s top military men were killed in an impressive assassination. These generals were in the perfect positions to stage a palace coup. So whether their deaths are a strategic, pre-emptive manoeuvre orchestrated by Assad or whether the rebels have taken a dramatic leap forward in capability, all indications suggest the al-Assad regime is struggling.

Even further north, Bulgaria was the victim of a bus bombing that targeted Israeli tourists, killing six. The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned the attack that has been tentatively confirmed as a suicide bombing. Iran has been involved in attacks against Israel in multiple countries in the past leading Israeli officials to immediately blame Tehran for the attack.

These events are not occurring without context. The United States and its allies have been ramping up pressure against Iran for many years now. The completion of the Iraq war removed thousands of Western troops and created somewhat of a vacuum in the region. Iran has viewed this as an enormous opportunity to re-establish influence throughout the Middle East and Levant.  

Iran has had some success so far. The Iranian strategic imperative of controlling its western front in Iraq was effectively attained when a strong Iraqi Shiite government came to power in 2010. However there is still much Iran needs to accomplish to achieve hegemony over the region.

Their nuclear program is a calculated method to deter larger countries, especially the United States, from interfering in Iranian expansionist plans. Whether or not Tehran eventually develops a bomb is beside the point. Right now the threat of developing a nuclear weapon is enough to deter the U.S. from becoming too arrogant.

Exactly how all this will play out is unknown. Western and Arab diplomats sit at endless meetings across from increasingly competent Iranian negotiators, and neither party appears to break ground. As a response to deadlock, sanctions are increasing; their goal being to strangle Tehran into reversing its regional trajectory and giving up its nuclear program. Some countries are participating in these sanctions but, just as with all rules, there are inevitably ways to bend or circumvent them entirely.  

Iran is not without its countermeasures against Western containment. About 20 percent of world oil supplies pass through the 21 nautical mile bottleneck called the Strait of Hormuz, although much of this energy is destined for Asian markets not European or American. Iran has threatened the strait in the past, therefore it makes sense that the international community should take measures to protect it.

Western military posturing in the Persian Gulf, a phenomenon that is not calming fidgety economic markets, has outweighed similar Iranian naval projection this year. Militaries from more than 20 nations will participate September 16-27 in a defensive exercise in the international waterways of the Middle East.

The exercise would focus on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Considering the intense public relations campaign of a few months ago, it would be difficult to believe these manoeuvres are not intended to address Iranian expansion.

Further abroad, covert Western efforts in Syria are a tactical measure to limit Iran in the Levant. Iran needs the al-Assad regime to remain in power to foment a crescent of influence stretching from Western Afghanistan through to the Eastern Mediterranean. A broken Syria in control of Sunni power would also potentially destabilise Iraq, a critical consideration for Tehran.

It does Iran no favours that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is struggling in Syria, some reports have indicated he may no longer even be in the capital Damascus. High profile members of Assad’s security council have defected recently and some elite troops are putting down their weapons and escaping to Turkey. Things are rapidly changing in Syria.

This is why the bombings in Bulgaria are important as well. Iran understands what is going on in its near-abroad and is not ready to roll over just yet. If the rumours are true and Iranian proxies did plan the bombings, Tehran is playing some of its most potent cards yet. Because creating a threat for Israel and baiting it into a military response would distract Western powers and collapse their efforts to constrict Iran.

As for the extra naval assets in the Persian Gulf, placing more minesweepers there will ensure that the strait is quickly reopened if Tehran gives the word to scatter shipping mines. But this is an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measure. Tehran knows perfectly well that the international community cannot stop it from closing the strait initially, but it can force it back open. Nevertheless, significant damage to the global market would occur and oil prices, although quickly dropping away from their high, would remain stratospheric and potentially stay there for some time. This is Iran’s most powerful countermeasure, an eventual nuclear umbrella aside.

So however the international community forces Iran to negotiate, Tehran is having trouble consolidating influential territory in the region. P 5+1 countries (those participating in the negotiations with Iran) are ensuring that any Iranian leverage in the Persian Gulf is limited, while Western intelligence agencies are undermining an Iranian strategic ally in Syria. At the same time, Iran is continuing its efforts to strike out at Israel to goad them into a military reaction.

The containment measures slowly encapsulating Iran seem to be tightening. A military buildup and a degradation of the Syrian regime are the United States way of influencing negotiations with Iran. In the same way, proxy attacks and protection of al-Assad’s regime are Iran’s way of gaining the upper hand in any future talks.

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