Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Post #423 - Is the Emperor Actually Clothed?

The following article was published by The Tablet (London) on 6/29/13:
Is the West wrong on Iran?

By Jonathan Shaw

We are all prisoners of our own prejudices – dangerously so in the case of the Middle East. The popular press portrays Iran as the principal security threat to the UK, suggesting that its acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable, triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and, at worst, spelling destruction for Israel. These questionable assumptions have led us to a posture at odds with the UK’s national interests. At worst, they may lead us into the very war these interests dictate we should avoid.

I say this in the light of personal experience. In 2007 I commanded the British-led division in the Iraqi city of Basra (not far from the border with Iran) where I faced the challenge of extracting the Coalition (mainly British) forces from the city. Crucial to success was an attempt to read the future, a future in which we would have no part. This forced us to look at the powers at play in the area and to identify their motives and objectives.

I was living within the Shia population of Basra. As I also had access to diplomatic telegrams from the British Embassy in Tehran, I had an unusually informed perspective on Iran and its motives. What I learnt then still seems relevant to the debate now about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

British Christian children tend to be brought up in a cultural tradition that is rooted in the Old Testament and our classical education. The former leaves us with an instinctive sympathy for Israel and the Jews as victims; the latter makes us absorb a Greek view of the ancient world which portrays the Persians as “the enemy”. When considering modern Iran, these twin prejudices reinforce themselves and make it easy to discount contrary evidence.

Iran throughout history has been driven by an urge for cultural recognition, and for respect of its regional status. It is intensely aware of its cultural and religious isolation. Iran is the only dependably Shia-run state (Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are highly contested) and Shias are regarded as apostates by Wahhabi Salafist interpretations of Islam, such as those dominant in Saudi Arabia.

Iran has suffered Western interference. The UK-inspired US overthrow in 1953 of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and imposition of the increasingly tyrannical Shah earned the UK the epithet “Little Satan”. To this day the UK is deemed guilty by association for the actions of the Great Satan, the US. Our current support for “democracy” is seen as hollow and hypocritical by regional observers, especially in Iran.

Iran is surrounded; to the west by Iraq, historically run by Sunni Arabs, then latterly by the US, and to the east by Sunni in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran’s incentive for securing its borders and creating buffers from aggressors is clear.

The West has been cold to Iran’s overtures of support. Having backed the US in its condemnation of 9/11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, Iran found itself weeks later castigated as being part of the “axis of evil”. This not only showed a lack of gratitude for Iranian support to the US, it also discredited the reformist movements within Iran and their argument that it was possible to trust the West.

When I was based in Basra, I found Iranian interference in the city (and Iraq more generally) to be carefully calibrated, enough to make the Coalition uncomfortable but always with the desire to sustain majority Shia rule and economic prosperity. I recognised the huge Iranian investment in Basra’s prosperity, prompted by comments from Arab friends who had advised that the way to deal with Iran was to trade with them, and bind them into mutually advantageous commercial arrangements. Basra represented just such a commercial arrangement, as evidenced by the fact that no one ever bombed the oil pipelines in the south, in stark contrast to the US-run areas; not because UK security was better but because the internal dynamics of the population were different. By seeing Iran as the enemy, the Coalition missed the cohering effect of Iran on Iraq, and its limiting effect on intra-Shia violence. Basra has turned out to be the relatively stable and commercial success we predicted, but it took the Coalition in Baghdad by surprise.

It would be no surprise if Iran did harbour ambitions to have nuclear weapons. It lives (like Israel) with the ever-present fear of an existential threat and any aspiration it may have to nuclear weapons will be unaffected by President Hassan Rouhani’s recent election.

That said, seasoned observers question if Iran is really intent on becoming a nuclear armed power (and in this context it is worth remembering that the region is already nuclear armed, with both Israel and Pakistan – the Sunni bomb – possessing nukes in contravention of the non-proliferation treaty of which they are not signatories). But even if Iran was intent on creating the Shia bomb, the doctrine and reality of the ownership of nuclear weapons are that it is defensive, not aggressive (with the single exception of the two US bombs dropped on Japan in 1945). Just as Israel has not used its nukes to obliterate its opponents, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs interlocutors to whom I have spoken accept that the Iranian Government is highly unlikely to launch a nuclear attack, recognising that to do so would be to sign their own death sentence. But “Why should we take the risk?”, they then ask.

And here is one of the cultural challenges of the region – an Israeli aversion to risk that is understandable given its history but unsustainable as a guide to foreign and security policy. Israel’s risk-aversion sits uneasily with the dominant risk-management tradition of international diplomacy.

A more interesting question is whether the region would calm down if Iran was accepted as having no nuclear-weapon ambitions. I suspect that little would change. Israel would still feel threatened by Iran as the sponsor of opposition to Israel from Syria and Hezbollah, while the Sunni Gulf states would still feel threatened by the Shia minorities (or majorities, in the case of Bahrain) in their midst, which they see as being provoked and encouraged by Iran. From this perspective, it would not be surprising if both Israel and Saudi Arabia see the Iranian nuclear issue as a useful tool for keeping the US and the West engaged on an anti-Iran ticket that goes far beyond the nuclear issue itself. For them, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be hugely advantageous, quite beyond any short-term effect on the nuclear facilities. For to counter the Iranian threat of retaliation by blocking the Straits of Hormuz, the US would have to devastate Iranian conventional capability, particularly in the coastal region. This would have the potential drastically to adjust the military balance of capability in the region, to the advantage of Israel and the Gulf states.

One of the mysteries of the UK’s current posture is its apparent pursuit of policies that are at odds with its security threat analysis. Throughout my time in the UK’s defence-planning milieu, the direct threats to the UK came from extreme Sunni groups; I cannot recall a single Shia threat to the UK mainland.

While we may sympathise with the domestic threats faced by Israel and the Sunnis, it is hard to see why they should override our own domestic interests or priority given to countering Sunni extremism, which receives its ideological and financial foundation from sources in Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Qatar. It is this that makes our current policy in Syria so inexplicable. Not only is it uncertain that intervention would make things better, but it is clear that the leading force within the opposition are a group who have openly committed themselves to the cause of al-Qaeda. It is far from clear to me – and, it would appear, to many MPs – why we intend to support a group allied to our greatest threat.

We need to face facts. Iran’s position in the Middle East resembles Germany’s in Europe: too large to sit comfortably in the neighbourhood, but not large enough to demand inevitable dominance. It was only after appalling conflicts in Europe that we reached the accommodations enshrined in the EU that bound Germany into stable relationships. If we are to avoid similar bloodletting in the Middle East, we should recognise that Iran has valid concerns – and not seek to threaten and marginalise it.

The liberation of the US from dependence on Gulf oil should give it the courage to take a detached view of the region and withdraw its unquestioning support for Israel and Saudi Arabia on this issue. Denied US military muscle to achieve their aims, they might then be forced to accept Iran as a legitimate state in the region and to begin the creation of trust, without which the world is doomed to perpetual conflict.

In recent elections, the electorates of both Israel and Iran have rejected some of the more bellicose candidates for office. Perhaps this is a propitious time for the international community to look afresh at the legitimate aspirations of all in the region before an unchallenged conviction that Iran is by definition “the enemy” leads us over the abyss into a war that is certainly not in the interests of the UK.

[Major General Jonathan Shaw was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Global issues) and served as General Officer Commanding Multi-National Division (South East), Iraq, 2007.]

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