Commentary Magazine

The Persian Triangle

On November 24, 2013, a “Joint Plan of Action” was concluded in Geneva by Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China—as well as Germany. “We have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program,” President Obama exulted. This agreement, added Secretary of State John Kerry, will ensure that Iran “cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Their confidence was not universally shared. “This deal appears to provide the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with billions of dollars in exchange for cosmetic concessions that neither fully freeze nor significantly roll back its nuclear infrastructure,” said Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois. “Furthermore, the deal ignores Iran’s continued sponsorship of terrorism, its testing of long-range ballistic missiles, and its abuse of human rights.”

“A fairer agreement,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, “would have coupled a reduction in sanctions with a proportionate reduction in Iranian nuclear capability.”

Key to the 1,500-word agreement is this pledge: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” That seems reassuring: Tough economic sanctions, President Obama’s warnings that “all options remain on the table,” and the diplomatic initiative led by Secretary of State Kerry were intended to produce exactly that commitment.

But the word reaffirms may give the game away. Iran’s rulers have made similar statements about neither seeking nor developing nuclear weapons in the past. We know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that they were lying; they have been developing secret nuclear-weapons facilities and programs for a decade or more. The discovery of those facilities and programs led to six UN Security Council resolutions condemning them and imposing sanctions in response—all of which they have flouted. So what is it the Iranians are reaffirming? It would seem, given the context, that they are promising more of the same.

Putting that concern aside might be possible if the agreement spelled out strict measures to enforce Iranian compliance. It does not. The agreement is mostly about confidence-building measures—actions the West and Iran will take to make it possible to get down to the brass tacks in six months or a year.

During the Geneva talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was all smiles, fluent English, and bonhomie. The photos of him and Catherine Ashton, the former British Labor Party politician and now the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, sharing toothy laughs are striking. She seemed unaware that, back in Tehran, Iran’s dictator, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had not toned down his fire-and-brimstone sermons and speeches at all. Addressing members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at the Grand Mosque the day the Geneva nuclear negotiations began, the supreme leader declared that in the “military, political, and economic wars, in every arena where there is a test of strength, you, the believer, must stand firm against the enemy [the United States], your will must overcome the determination of the enemy.” Khamenei added that there was a need for “heroic flexibility”—a concept, he made clear, that does not imply “abandoning the ideals and aims of the Islamic regime.” What it means instead: “clever, artful maneuvering that allows for the believer to achieve his goals.”

Ample evidence and years of experience lead to the conclusion that those goals include the development of a nuclear-weapons capability, if not weapons themselves, and that Iran’s rulers seek that capability in order to (1) establish hegemony in the Middle East, (2) protect the terrorists they sponsor abroad, (3) entrench their oppressive rule at home, (4) diminish American power globally, and (5) continue to incite and threaten genocide against Israel.

Asked about the supreme leader’s remarks, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, defaulted to diplomatic understatement.  “Comments like these are not helpful,” she said. She then added: “But we still believe that both sides are negotiating in good faith.”

More likely, Iran’s self-proclaimed Islamist revolutionaries see negotiations as did Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Communist leader, when he offered a revolutionary twist on Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum about politics: “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” Or as Iranian parliamentarian Ali Motahari recently phrased it: “Negotiations do not require concessions. Negotiations are a tool for us to receive concessions.” About a day after the conclusion of the Geneva talks, the semi-official Fars News Agency published a cartoon showing Zarif in a tractor operating a huge microphone as a wrecking ball, smashing a castle, atop which is a black flag with the word sanctions in Farsi.

The Pentagon conducts “post-action reviews” to learn from its mistakes. The same is apparently not true of Foggy Bottom, which often spins battles lost as missions accomplished. Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, American diplomats spent years attempting to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear ambitions of the despotic regime that rules North Korea. Concessions were made, aid was provided, agreements were signed, and steady progress was announced. And here is what all that time, money, and effort achieved: In 2006, the North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon for the first time. A second nuclear test was conducted three years later. The United States strongly objected, vowing that North Korea would “pay a price for its actions.” North Korea paid no price, and on February 12, 2013, it conducted a third nuclear test. Today, Pyongyang continues developing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to those regarded as enemies. In these and other matters, it cooperates closely with Tehran.

The late Christopher Hitchens, an intellectual of the left (also, untypically, a critic of the left) spoke of “the liberal softness on totalitarianism.” When it comes to Iranian totalitarianism, that softness takes the form of a delusion: The Islamic Republic is seen as a “normal” nation, seeking stability in its region and interested in nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes or, at most, because of security concerns. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote that while he does not “like the clerical dictators in Tehran one bit, I can understand how they might feel threatened by Israel and the West.” 

Gelb’s dislike is well earned, for the “clerical dictators” ordered the suicide bombing that killed 299 American and French servicemen in Beirut in 1983; were involved in the slaughter of American military personnel at Khobar Towers in 1996; masterminded Hezbollah’s attacks in Argentina in the 1990s; assisted a failed plot to bomb JFK Airport in New York City in 2007; have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; and recently flubbed an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by blowing up a Georgetown restaurant in which he was to be dining. Yet it is they, in Gelb’s analysis, who might feel “threatened by Israel and the West”—and, in his view, understandably so.

Many of Gelb’s cohort in the media, think tanks, and the Department of State (three institutions in which he has worked at high levels) choose not to believe that Iran’s rulers, “hardliners” and “moderates” alike, subscribe to a coherent and seriously bellicose ideology—a Shia version of the radical Sunni belief system that drives al-Qaeda and its many affiliates. Both systems center on the imperative of Islamic supremacy and, eventually, global domination, the conviction that Muslims have, quite literally, a God-given right to rule over “unbelievers.”

Now, it is important to note that the vast majority of Shia Muslims in Iran almost certainly do not embrace this doctrine. It should be remembered that, in 1979, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a political revolution they wanted—which he then transformed into a religious revolution against which Iranians have been chafing for more than three decades. Khomeini and his acolytes replaced not just the shah but also the “quietist” Shia tradition that had maintained a respectable distance between mosque and state. In its place, Khomeini proclaimed the doctrine of velayat-e faqih—the “guardianship” of religious “jurists,” a dictatorship that melds religious and political power.

Similarly, most Sunni Muslims do not subscribe to Salafism—the emulation of Muhammad and his companions in all ways—or Salafi Jihadism, the even more extremist belief that waging war against infidels, as did early generations of Muslims, is the central pillar of the faith.

Militants among the Sunni and Shia are not enemies: They can and do cooperate against common foes. But there is a serious rivalry between them, most bloodily expressed right now in the Syrian civil war. And many if not most Sunnis, especially in the countries neighboring Iran, fear and dread the possibility that the Islamic Republic will, with American complicity, soon stride the Middle East like a colossus. “We have concerns about what sort of concessions the Americans will give,” Mustafa Alani, the Dubai-based director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center, told a reporter. “Will they anoint Iran as a regional superpower? The idea of Iran having hegemonic power is an absolute red line for all the Arab states.”

We can and should hope that President Obama, his diplomats, and those applauding them, are right—that the plan of action leads, within the six-month time frame specified, to a comprehensive agreement that prevents Iran’s rulers from getting their fingers on nuclear triggers. Even better would be what Washington Post columnist David Ignatius claims to see on the horizon: “an American rapprochement” with Iran, which will then become a member-in-good-standing of the “international community.” Obama would go to Iran—much as Nixon went to China. A new day would dawn.

But it is prudent to consider and prepare for less rosy scenarios, in particular the possibility that the interim agreement—made when economic pressure was most intense and so, therefore, was U.S. leverage—will come to be seen as the pinnacle of the diplomatic process and not its promising beginning. If sanctions do lose their bite over the weeks and months ahead, the expectation must be that Iran’s rulers will concede less, exploit ambiguities in the Joint Plan of Action, and hide as much of their nuclear-weapons activity from international inspectors as possible.

If that’s the case, subsequent negotiations will not bring about what Obama and Kerry announced in November. Instead, as the sanctions unravel, Iran will continue its drive to become a nuclear-armed state or at least a threshold nuclear-weapons state. In other words, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism will pause just a few months or even weeks from having the world’s worst weapons and, very possibly, the means to deliver them.

We should be able to imagine, anticipate, and plan for probable contingencies. For example, we can be sure that a strengthened Iran will continue efforts to exert influence over Iraq, from which American troops have been withdrawn. The same would be true for Afghanistan once most Americans depart from that troubled land. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s satrap, looks increasingly likely to survive, thanks in no small measure to the elite Iranian forces that have been on the ground fighting for him. Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist foreign legion, also has been winning battles for Assad in Syria. Victory in that theater can only help it consolidate its control of Lebanon. Hamas leaders, who had fallen out with Iran because they could not support an Alawite dictator brutally suppressing a rebellion by Syria’s Sunni majority, should be expected to reconcile with Tehran, especially now that there is no longer a friendly Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.

But those are not the most serious consequences likely to unfold if there is a nuclear Iran, no longer hobbled by sanctions. Other states in the region will come under enormous pressure to bend to the Islamic Republic and the supreme leader. Azerbaijan, sometimes described by Iranians as a lost province, could be particularly at risk. It has a coast on the Caspian Sea where there are trillions of dollars in oil resources. In the past, both Iran and Russia have regarded the Caspian as a lake whose riches are to be divided as they see fit.

Most significant, however, Iran’s rulers will attempt to exercise effective control over the Persian Gulf. Mark Langfan, a New York–based geo-spatial topographer, has mapped out a triangle over the Gulf and its shores: Its apex is in Iraqi Kurdistan. One leg extends south through Iraq and the Shia-inhabited “Eastern province” of Saudi Arabia. The second leg passes through western Iran. The third leg takes in the northern shores of the United Arab Emirates, as well as Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. Fifty-six percent of the world’s known oil and gas reserves are found within this triangle. Control, even implicit control, of this area would give Iran tremendous leverage over the global price of petroleum.

Also within this “Persian Triangle” is the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes about 20 percent of the world’s petroleum, and more than a third of the petroleum traded by sea. In 2008, Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, threatened to seal off the strait if Iran were attacked by Israel or the U.S. On several occasions, U.S. ships in the strait have been harassed by Iranian vessels. All that was done while Iran was weak, both militarily and economically. A nuclear-armed or nuclear-threshold Iran asserting its “right” to what it might claim as “territorial waters” (much as China has been claiming airspace above disputed islands in the East China Sea) will pose tough choices.

Would the U.S. respond by saying, as in the past, that closing the strait would represent a red line that cannot be crossed without serious consequences? If the U.S did, would that still be credible? Or would the risk of a nuclear exchange be seen as too high a price to pay—an unacceptable tradeoff of “blood for oil”? If the latter, Iran’s economic clout, especially over Europe, would increase enormously over the years ahead.

Iranian ambitions might next focus on the Saudis, seen as usurpers with no legitimate claim to serve as custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and enjoying enormous wealth only because they have deprived their Shia tribes of the black gold that lies beneath their territories. It is widely rumored that as soon as the Saudis see a nuclear Iran as inevitable, they will seek an equalizer. Others in the region may, too, perhaps setting off a nuclear-weapons “cascade” that will increase the odds of loose nukes, sooner or later, falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

And of course, Iran’s rulers may decide that their top priority is to challenge, defeat, and destroy Israel, which they have called a “cancer” that “should be cut off.” As for what Israel might do about that and when, those who know are not talking and those who are talking probably don’t know.

In the 20th century, dictators driven by utopian ideologies rooted in atheism caused enormous bloodshed. Decisions being made today by the White House and Congress may determine whether, in the 21st century, as much carnage will be caused by dictators driven by utopian ideologies proclaimed to be ordained by God.

About the Author

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security. In 1979, he covered the Iranian revolution for Bill Moyers’s Journal/International Report, Hearst newspapers, and CBS Radio.

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