Iranian elections are scheduled to take place this spring, and elections inside Iran have the ability to trigger political instability and upheaval. These elections could change the political calculus and the national conversation around Iran’s nuclear issue. Possibly sensing this, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, announced in a speech last week that he may be interested in reopening political channels with Israel and the United States to negotiate Iran’s nuclear program. 

The upcoming Iranian elections (and any instability that results) could complicate the strategic political decision the Iranian regime makes whether to actually build a weapon. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in their latest report that the Iranian effort to develop a capacity to produce nuclear weapons persists. The enrichment process continues in an effort to reach bomb grade levels at 20 percent, the number of centrifuges at the Fordow facility, which is the Iranian facility that intelligence agencies are worried about.

Last September Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at the United Nations where he held up an image of a cartoon time bomb and said that Israel could no longer tolerate Iran’s uranium enrichment after this summer, because that would be the time when Iran would reach a point of no return. Mr. Netanyahu warned that Israel would have to forcefully intercede before this happens. Israel sees a strike on Iran as a war of necessity, because Israel believes a nuclear Iran is a threat to its security. 

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Consequently, Iran is facing both national elections and an Israeli deadline for war. 

Were Israel to bomb Iran, there is the very real possibility that it might set off a regional war. I say this because both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories would come to Iran’s defense. 

The Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. Iran is seen as the de facto leader of the alliance between Shi’ite Muslim states, because the biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo

Syria has long been an important mechanism for arming pro-Palestinian militant groups to fight Israel inside Gaza. With the civil war in Syria refusing to abate, Hamas currently lacks the ability to re-arm itself like it once did in the past; therefore, Hamas now depends more heavily on Iranian power. 

Furthermore, the United States is in the process of drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. The Iranians will do everything possible to turn up the heat on American forces in Afghanistan if Israel attacks Iran. 

Iranian supplies to the Taliban and to other groups within Afghanistan cannot be trivialized. Insurgents have long moved freely across the border Iran shares with Afghanistan, and Iran has been a safe haven for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others hiding from Western intelligence. 

Sunni governments in the Middle East are also afraid of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments. An empowered and emboldened Iran would complicate the fragility of the region. 

The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000). 

Shi’ites currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite. 

Back to Iran, the south eastern region of country is volatile due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working there.

Jundullah (Army of God) is a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shi’a led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003, and it is believed that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda: the group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran. 

The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s regional influence has spread, and Jundullah has used suicide bombers, a hallmark of the al-Qaeda playbook, in it’s attacks against Iran. This indicates that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al-Qaeda (possibly within Pakistan’s borders), and one can only speculate how al-Qaeda would seek to take advantage of Iran turning into a war zone. 

We’ve already seen al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq to promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population.  Al-Qaeda wants to change that, and it would love nothing better than to also install a Sunni government inside Iran. 

As I said in my previous post, much of the Middle East remains politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. Cobbled-together states (a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population or vice versa) highlight the artificiality and fragility of the Middle East and Muslim politics. 

Iran is populated primarily by Shi’ites, and it remains a security (mukhabarat) state whose rulers focus on retaining their power and privilege by focusing on military and security forces at the cost of societal modernization. Islamic revivalism has stunted Iran’s march toward “Western” modernization, and is a prime example of what I was speaking of in my previous post when I said “a trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split.” 

Iran’s official language of Persian (Farsi) helps to keep Iran culturally isolated from much of the Middle East where Arabic is the dominant language. While Persian and Arabic share an alphabet, they are completely different languages with completely different pronunciations. This causes difficulties with Iran sharing in cultural products such as news, entertainment, and religious services with the majority of the Middle Eastern region. This fact is especially important to remember when we consider Iran’s communications (or lack thereof) with other countries in the Middle East. A lack of clear communication could complicate and escalate any conflict brewing in the region. 

Iran, under the shah, wanted 22 nuclear reactors for energy, and at the time the United States supported this position. Iran only ever built one, but it has plans, it says, for others, but it’s taken a very long time to get to the point where it can build them. The question is, is Iran’s current regime also moving toward a weapon. Iran is supposed to declare everything that it’s doing on the nuclear front with the IAEA, but it has not cooperated with the international community in terms of giving it access to its scientists or in providing information on what it has been doing. Iran has blocked the IAEA at every turn, and it is currently in violation of the international agreements it has signed. 

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Six months ago yesterday, an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

Six months ago today, the U.S. government started oversight analysis on the attack. Officials from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, and the State Department began trying to piece together the events of the attack. Since that time, countless people have spent hundreds of hours going through thousands of documents. 

Reuters Image

The events of that night are no longer in dispute.

There were a series of security mechanisms at the U.S. Consulate. The first barrier consisted of local police officers sitting in a vehicle outside the Consulate. The two officers had only one gun between them, which is not uncommon in Libya, and the police fled when the initial attack began.

The local Libyan guard force within the Consulate as well as the U.S. Marines stationed there fought courageously to repel the attack to the best of their abilities.

Marines stationed in Portugal were then dispatched to help fight off the attack; however, the air assets that they needed to travel to Benghazi were located in Germany. This delayed the Marine’s arrival.

All of the Americans with the exception of the Ambassador eventually evacuated to the Consulate annex. It is believed that at this point the Ambassador was already dead, and after the evacuation, the looting of the Consulate began. Three more Americans then lost their lives at the annex.

After the attack was over, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was then tasked with evidence collection and intelligence gathering. Because the FBI did not have a presence in Libya prior to the attack, there was a serious time lag between the attack and the FBI arriving to investigate the scene. During this period, looters and reporters accessed the Consulate and tainted evidence. 

This attack was not a strategic intelligence failure. The U.S. government has assessed that the attack on the Consulate was an opportunistic but coordinated attack that was planned only a few hours in advance. The Consulate was a soft target, it was the anniversary of 9/11, and there may have been hope among the militants that regional fury over an internet video purporting to attack Islam could give incentive for other groups to join in once the initial militants instigated the attack.

If there was a failure, one could argue that it existed at the Executive level where there was a lack of a comprehensive national security policy for American interests within Libya. I say this because, after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Obama administration did nothing to either dismantle the Libyan militias that had popped up in Gaddafi’s absence, or to build a reliable security force that American interests could depend on. I’m not talking about anything as drastic as nation building here. I’m simply pointing out that the Obama administration took a hands off approach to security in Libya.

Those of us who work for principals in government are debating various issues going forward: How can we improve information sharing? How do we improve our national security policy? How can we improve our military posture in responding to such attacks? How can we improve our intelligence investigations?

First, I think it is fair to say that the United States has limits to its military power, because with a smaller budget, military assets that are already stretched thin will be expected to do even more with less. Second, the Obama administration has shifted the Department of Defense’s focus to Asia at the expense of security concerns in the Middle East and Africa. This reallocation of concern could allow militant organizations within those regions to rebuild their terrorist networks. Third, in order to address the gaps in the military’s threat response, the United State’s military is going to have to take a second look at their European presence. Marines stationed in Portugal should be tethered to air assets if they are expected to be first responders to terrorist activity.

The Obama administration’s insistence on using the FBI as the main mechanism for evidence collection and intelligence gathering instead of military assets had its own complications. Because the FBI had no prior presence in Libya, FBI agents had to go through official channels to make arrangements to enter that country. The FBI first had to get permission from the Libyan government, then they had to get visas, and then they had to acquire adequate security to guard them as they did their jobs. All of this took precious time.

Many Members of Congress and some in the press have taken issue with the talking points that were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. All I will say on this issue is that the talking points were not written for her specifically, but she used them anyway and they turned out to be inaccurate. If this teaches us anything, junior intelligence analysts should not be making talking points for senior level administration officials.

In any event, the U.S. State Department is going to have to have a fundamental rethink on what it means to have a diplomatic presence in another country. There needs to be a balance between keeping State Department employees protected and their desire to take risks and properly explore a country.

The political spectrum of the Middle East and Africa are changing rapidly, and trying to understand these changes is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary foreign policy and security analysis.

Chris Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and was the first U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance, which overthrew Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. He was the ambassador to Libya for less than a year. He was 52 years-old.

Finally, I apologize for my absence over the past month, but between my work on Capitol Hill and my ongoing attempt at writing a book, I’ve had little time to update this blog properly. I promise to be more prolific in the future. 

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