In proliferation, diplomacy has failed to prevent the last four members of the nuclear club from getting the bomb—North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel.

Now, this new agreement with Iran shows little promise that diplomacy will halt that country’s nuclear program.

Tehran

The main aim of this deal is to prevent Iran from creating a nuclear bomb.

This deal is being encoded into a new United Nations (UN) resolution that will make it an international legal arrangement. The arrangement gives veto welding powers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1). The ability of the UN to increase transparency regarding Iran’s nuclear program is entirely dependent on these 6 countries agreeing to let the UN do its work and not obstructing the UN through the use of a veto.

Is this a victory for diplomacy?

The question over granting UN nuclear inspectors access to Iranian military bases is a good illustration of what is wrong with this agreement.

This “deal” guarantees that there is no way to make sure that the Iranian government is not hiding nuclear related projects at one or more of its military locations.

Under this agreement, inspectors will be granted access to military sites inside Iran if and only if the Iranian regime allows it to. Proper policing of the Iranian regime will be impossible the way this deal is written.

The dispute mechanism negotiated within the deal works like this: if UN inspectors want to visit an Iranian military base, they send a request to Iran; however, the regime then has two weeks to reply. If Iran says no, the agency can force a vote on the issue with the P5+1, and that process can take as long as an additional 24 days. These 38 days give the Iranian regime the time necessary to scrub clean a site in order to avoid detection of any violations. Of course, that is assuming that Russia would ever vote to force Iran to allow inspectors within its military instillations.

The lack of transparency afforded by this deal is causing anxiety in the Middle East, and could potentially kick-off a nuclear arms race in that region. It is believed that Iran’s longtime adversary Saudi Arabia has already begun taking steps to create their own nuclear capabilities by working with Pakistan. Two more of Iran’s opponents, Egypt and Turkey, have also expressed renewed interest in getting the bomb.

Furthermore, there is the issue over the potential lifting of the United Nations arms embargo. This is an embargo on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles in and out of Iran. It was put in place in 2006 as part of a strategy to drive Iran to the bargaining table, but now that an agreement has been reached, Iran wants the embargo removed.

China and Russia wanted the embargo lifted immediately so they could sell arms to Iran. The United States and European states wanted to keep it on almost indefinitely.  A compromise was reached with a mix of five years on conventional arms, and eight for ballistic missiles.

Iran’s ability to once again buy and sell heavy conventional weapons threatens other Gulf leaders in the Middle East. A renewed conventional arms race has begun. The Gulf Cooperation Council is currently looking to increase its defense capabilities against ballistic missiles including an early warning system. An integrated defense system among the Gulf States will easily cost tens of billions of dollars.

Iran’s traditional adversaries, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, have begun increasing their land forces, their air forces, their surface to air forces, and their overall war fighting capability. These countries are not just worried about conflict with Iran. There is fear that Iran will once again freely give arms to its proxies.

Iran is 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 against Israel like it once did in the past; therefore, Hamas now depends more heavily on Iranian power.

The Lebanese Hezbollah has long operated as an instrument for Iran. The U.S. State Department now concedes that Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.

Finally, Iranian supplies to the Taliban and other groups within Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. 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.

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 has created a growing social split within the country.

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 due to conventional weapons proliferation.

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 was already supposed to declare everything that it was doing on the nuclear front with the United Nations, but Iran has never 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 United Nations at every turn, and there is no reason to believe that Iran will change its behavior with this new deal.

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Foreign ministers of the Arab League last week announced their agreement to form a Joint Arab Strike Force for rapid intervention in troubled hot spots.

This announcement constituted a formidable alliance to fend off Iranian influence in the region, and firmly established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. The regional coalition has been in the works for months, and is made up of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Sudan.

Under the auspices of this coalition, Saudi Arabia has launched operation Decisive Storm wherein precision airstrikes have been unleashed on its southern neighbor, Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is bombing Houthi rebels who have been taking over Yemen. This is the latest installment in a long simmering proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional power.

The Houthis, who are financed by Iran, are strongly anti-American as well as opponents of Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are dominated by a Shi’a Muslim sect, the Zaydis.

anti-hothi

Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been a tinderbox. The American-backed government in Yemen abruptly collapsed in January. The resignation of the president, prime minister, and cabinet took many by surprise and heightened the risks that Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, would become even more of a breeding ground for terrorism. It was in this vacuum that Iran hoped to expand its influence.

The launch of operation Decisive Storm has been in play since the accession of Salman Bin Abdul Aziz to Saudi Arabia’s throne. King Salman was crowned in January and has quickly moved to address Saudi public opinion which has been getting increasingly worried about Iranian power surrounding the kingdom and perceived Saudi impotence in opposing the Iranian threat.

The Iranian response has reportedly been one of shock. The Iranian defense council is said to have met at 3 a.m. Tehran time on Thursday morning after receiving news of the airstrikes. The Iranian intelligence services did not anticipate such airstrikes, because Iran miscalculated the regional response to its expansion.

To complicate matters for Iran, it and Yemen do not share a border. The Iranian government is worried how it will recover the missile systems, intelligence and surveillance systems it has placed there.

middle_east_map

Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons systems that can hit almost anywhere in Saudi Arabia including government buildings, landmarks, and infrastructure.

The airstrikes are designed to take out as much Iranian sponsored Houthi military equipment as possible.

Operation Decisive Storm has seven stages; first is the destruction of the Houthis air-power, then their air defense systems. This will be followed by flushing out any pockets of air resistance. The fourth stage is the establishment of air superiority to be followed by the establishment of complete control over the theater of operations. The sixth stage is the apprehension of key figureheads, and finally redeployment of Yemeni forces into the theater.

The land forces that will be deployed will be formed out of Yemeni special forces, tribes and factions loyal to former Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi while Saudi Arabia’s coalition forces will be ready to assist or intervene as well as providing air support for ground operations.

Saudi and Egyptian warships have been deployed to the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, a key trade and oil route separating the Arabian Peninsula from east Africa.

It will be important to redeploy the Yemeni special forces because neither the Saudis nor the Egyptians are likely to be able to match the Houthi and their allies in combat in mountainous terrains in which familiarity with the grounds will prove a major advantage.

The Saudi coalition is arguably one the most significant developments within the Middle East in decades, because it is a complete reversal of Saudi Arabia’s former policy of quiet disengagement with its neighbors. It also reflects the emergence of two young Saudi leaders: the Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and the Defense Minister and Royal Court chief Prince Muhammad bin Salman. This kind of proactive policy is not in traditional Saudi style and the credibility of these two men will be heavily impacted by the success or failure of this operation.

However, it is Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman who most threatens Iran’s dreams of expanding its power.

There is a danger that the longer this campaign continues, the more damage will be done to stability inside Yemen. Instability is a breeding ground for terrorist groups.

Another worry is that the Arab nations’ intervention in Yemen may cause them to lose interest in a different war – the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Most of the members of Saudi Arabia’s coalition are also members of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria that’s been waging an air campaign against ISIL.

As they begin to focus on the Yemen problem, the coalition’s resources will be used less in Syria.

Iraq in Crisis

July 27, 2014

Iraq is dealing with its worst crisis since American forces withdrew in 2011. Extremist Sunnis now calling themselves the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) have taken much of the North and West of the country. They vowed to march on Baghdad and the violence in the capital spiked again last week.

Police claim they found 18 bodies of security forces outside Baghdad. And this follows on a huge battle in the city of the Baqubah, which is just northeast of Baghdad, in which the Islamic State attacked a police station and police fended them off. Forty-four prisoners died in that process, but it is unclear how.

In the Kurdish north, calls for independence are growing, and relations between Baghdad and the region have soured since Sunni extremists overran much of northern and western Iraq. The Kurds used the opportunity to seize disputed territories they believe are part of a future independent state.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki angered Kurdish leaders when he accused them of harboring terrorists. World leaders are urging an inclusive government as violence escalates in the capital. Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum has been elected president of Iraq by the country’s parliament, another step in forming a new government after months of deadlock, as part of this inclusive strategy.

Al Maliki is a seriously divisive figure. He’s seen among the Sunni Arab community as corrupt and sectarian. He’s also seen as somebody who purposely put his cronies in top security forces positions to keep himself in power, the same security force that crumbled in the face of an Islamic State advance. And now he’s fired four of his top security officials in order to save face.

The Islamic State, who control the city of Mosul, announced they would enforce the compulsory veiling of women. Even more problematic, the Islamic State has introduced forced conscription. They’ve been going to the heads of families as well as tribes and saying, you have to give us one son from every family. And those young men are then taken to training camps.

IRAQ-UNREST

Iraqi, American, and Iranian drones are continuously searching Iraq for Islamic State fighters. The US is currently flying about 50 missions a day over Iraq. Additionally, the US government has sold Iraq 10 ScanEagle and 48 Raven class drones for their own missions. The Iranians are flying a small amount of surveillance drones from their operations center at Rasheed Air Base. The Iranians are trying to minimize the public knowledge of what they’re doing, but reports suggest that Iran is trying to gather all the intelligence it can on both the Islamic State and US operations and platforms as well.

The power that the Islamic State holds in Iraq is giving the organization an upper hand in their fight in Syria. The Islamic state scored a propaganda victory when it took much of Western and Northern Iraq.

To moderate Syrian rebels, the effect of seeing the Islamic State conquer so much territory has made this organization appear to be an irresistible force in Syria too. Now, the extremists control nearly all the towns along the Euphrates River that flows from Syria into Iraq. And moderate Western-backed rebels are giving up fighting.

Before their march on Iraq, the Islamic State rarely took on Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces directly, preferring to consolidate control of rebel-held areas. But this month, their fighters have confronted regime soldiers over a gas field and they have also surrounded an army base close to the city of Raqqa. The Islamic State claims that its flag flutters across “all the land,” between central Syria and Eastern Iraq. This isn’t true, but they’re getting stronger.

Why Iraq is Failing

June 17, 2014

On Sunday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed to have captured and slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim soldiers.

Mosul and Tikrit were taken in a matter of days by Islamic insurgents, and those insurgents are now moving toward Baghdad.

Baghdad 22

ISIS looks more like a well-organized army than your typical ragtag insurgent group. ISIS seized at least $500 million in Mosul alone by raiding banks. They’ve also done very well from the oil fields of eastern Syria. The conservative intelligence estimate is that this organization now has cash and resources of around about $1.2 billion.

ISIS is robust, it is organized, and it is very, very disciplined.

ISIS is attempting to press home its agenda, which is to enforce an Islamic caliphate and to oust the Shi’a power base in Iraq. It’s attempting to do this with a two-pronged approach—ruthless military force on one hand and quiet coercion on the other—as it attempts to establish itself among the Sunni communities.

Shi’ite Iran is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shi’a dominated government. Iran is deeply worried that ISIS could destabilize and weaken Shi’ite political influence.

That ISIS could so swiftly move on Mosul and Tikrit reveals the depths of Iraq’s sectarian divide. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city long alienated by the mostly Shi’ite government in Baghdad. ISIS rode that wave of Sunni anger, finding allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The national army didn’t put up a fight.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria spells out its motivations in its name and now controls a state-sized territory that spans from northern Syria to western Iraq. Two conflicts have been merged—the Syrian Civil War and a larger one looming in Iraq—erasing an international border.

Conflict in Iraq is currently being fought between non-state actors: between a Sunni insurgent group who cares very little about Western drawn and artificial nation-state borders, and Shi’a irregulars who were extremely active in the Iraqi sectarian war in 2006 and are now quickly reorganizing.

That Iraq has remained intact as a nation this long is nothing less than a miracle.

Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Arab world via a decentralized system of provinces (vilayets) along tribal, religious, and sectarian lines. These vilayets were subdivided into sub-provinces (sanjak) under a mütesarrif, then further divided into jurisdictions (kaza) under a kaimakam, and finally into communes. Constant regional conflicts made the Arab world a continuously volatile and unpredictable place, and the iron fist of Ottoman rule kept only an appearance of order. Any attempt of a more centralized system of government would have made the Ottoman Empire unmanageable.

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The majority of its non-Anatolian territory was divided up among the Allied powers as protectorates. The Western idea of nation building sought to give a modern agglutination to the Arab world by constructing new kingdoms of their own design. The aim was simple: create new royal families who would yield to Western strategic interests.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was divided into three vilayets: Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. After World War I, Britain imposed a Hāshimite monarchy over Iraq. Territorial boundaries were drawn without taking into account the tribal, religious, and sectarian politics that plagued the region. The establishment of Sunni domination in Iraq brutally suppressed the majority Shi’a population.

Kingdom of Iraq Arms

Iraq has been a turbulent place ever since. In 1936, the first military coup took place in the Kingdom of Iraq. Multiple coups followed, and Iraq has been characterized by political instability ever since.

The Ba’ath Party took power in 1963 after its leadership assassinated their political rivals. The Ba’ath government stagnated Kurdish insurrection, suppressed Shi’a communities, and disputed territory with Iran and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein, the final and most notorious leader of the Ba’ath Party, maintained power and suppressed Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions with massive and indiscriminate violence.

The Ba’ath Party was infamous for having a class orientation that marginalized millions in the poorest sections of Iraqi society. Southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad, populated mostly by Shi’a migrants from southern rural areas, have historically been home to the poorest people.

Iraq’s modern history has seen the most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions following the 2003 US-led occupation. There is plenty of collected anecdotal evidence that suggests that the elites of the Ba’ath Party were targeted by the poor and oppressed before the Ba’athist regime fell to US-led coalition forces. The US-led occupation then exacerbated conditions on the ground by promoting Iraqi organizations that were founded on ethnicity, religion, or sect rather than politics. These policies emphasized differences and divided coexisting communities.

Because the modern nation-state of Iraq is made up of territorial boundaries originally designed and imposed by the British, warring groups over tribal, religious, and sectarian lines have been condensed together. So far, authoritarian regimes have been the only systems of government that have had success at keeping the integrity of these boundaries intact.

Under the Ottoman Empire, territorial borders were changed constantly reflecting the emergence of new conflicts, the changing nature of older conflicts, and the rise of powerful threats. Subdivisional borders were porous and tribes traveled through them constantly giving extreme variability to population figures.

The idea of dividing Iraq into smaller states was floated by the US-led coalition that invaded and occupied the country. If the current success of ISIS in capturing a state-sized territory from northern Syria to western Iraq has shown us anything, it is that the Western idea of nation building is failing in that part of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire has been gone for less than 100 years, and that is a very short time to expect an entire region of varying peoples and communities to completely change their worldview, overcome their differences, and get along.

Instead, maybe the Western cognitive orientation of the Middle East, based on Western interests and state security, is what needs to be changed. At the very least, it needs to be reexamined. If conflict in Iraq breaks that nation-state back into smaller pieces, is that really such a bad thing? Is it really that important to keep artificial boundaries that were created by Western powers with little to no regard to what the citizens of that country wanted?

Whatever the outcome, the people of Iraq should decide their own fate.

The ISIS offensive has thus far been successful in Iraq, but it will most likely be stalled north of the Shi’a-dominated capital of Baghdad. This will potentially split Iraq along an ethno-religious-sectarian divide. This could lead to a prolonged and bloody standoff that could see the current borders of Iraq crumble.

The Syria Problem

September 3, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprising announcement Saturday that he would go to Congress for use-of-force authorization against Syria will require the president to extrapolate what a strike will accomplish and what contingency plans his administration has should the conflict spread.

A swift resolution is unlikely. Meaningful changes in Syria will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under any circumstances.

Syria6000

The real threat is the conflict spilling over. If the U.S. attacks Syria, expect Hezbollah to hit Israel from southern Lebanon and the Israelis to retaliate over a period of weeks.

Iran will rattle its sword, but any rhetoric about attacking Israel will be a bluff. If Tehran were to strike Israel, its nuclear facilities would immediately be a target; therefore, Iran will be happy to use Hezbollah as a proxy.

The threat of spreading conflict will drive up oil prices. Key oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into the strife and cardinal transit points for oil transport like the Persian Gulf and Egypt may be jeopardized.

I think it is safe to expect oil prices to hit $120 to $125 a barrel, up from about $107 now. The impact on American drivers will be about a 15 cent a gallon increase.

Even if Assad is ultimately removed from power, broader unrest in the Middle East will continue for decades and any rebel faction that takes over Syria will be anti-American while al Qaeda (an important contingent of the opposition) will be well positioned to gain power and influence.

In reality, war between the U.S. and Syria has already commenced.

The pro Assad Syrian Electronic Army hacked the U.S. Marine Corps website over the weekend. The electronic attack was aimed at discouraging U.S. entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels. The hackers left a message stating that Mr. Obama is “a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents,” according to the New York Post.

The hackers then urged the Marines to rebel against their commander-in-chief and to join the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

Many people are asking themselves, if the U.S. attacked Syria, how would we define winning and losing the conflict? While Mr. Obama has yet to define to the world what he would consider to be a win, members of his administration have voiced how the U.S. could lose.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been resolute that the consequences of inaction in Syria would be dire.  Mr. Kerry has said that if the U.S. doesn’t act, it would send a signal to Iran and North Korea that it is okay to advance their nuclear programs and to move ahead in proliferation of their weapons. Kerry said that it is important to show that if a red line is crossed, the U.S. is prepared to back it up.

No matter the outcome, the U.S.’ standing in the Muslim world will continue to erode.

Jihadi Cool

July 24, 2013

Al Qaeda’s dissemination of jihad ideology has become more sophisticated over the last decade. Al Qaeda invested large amounts of capital into creating books, magazines, and music videos that are designed to appeal to Muslims under 30 years of age. Language and graphics are designed with a specific local audience in mind so that al Qaeda can properly target young Muslims in a desired region. Al Qaeda is paying close attention to what material their targeted demographics respond to and connect with.

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

Al Qaeda’s reach in Cyberspace is multifaceted. The network has a variety of different messages available on the internet that are designed to resonate with different groups. Al Qaeda’s franchises and affiliates, like the one in Iraq that I posted about yesterday, tend to focus on local issues that affect a particular local population. However, the traditional centralized body of al Qaeda tends to disseminate messages that are more global in scope.

Jihadi Cool is a term that was originally coined by Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA operations officer, to encapsulate the phenomenon of al Qaeda’s influence within Cyberspace. Jihadi Cool describes rogue vigilantism by politically disenfranchised Muslim youths. Jihadi Cool appeals to those radicalized youths who are often described as “wannabe thugs.”

Has the new front for the War on Terror become the internet? Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and all electronic social networking media have become problematic, because al Qaeda operatives can operate behind electronic aliases and disseminate Jihadi propaganda. This propaganda then plays on Muslim youth’s politics of despair, in that these youths have a worldview where they perceive the Muslim world’s (Dar al-Islam) hegemonic power as being stripped away. Then there are the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, the political strife in Egypt, and the constant battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will be the voice of the Middle East. Western popular culture and secular political forces are no longer the only targets of al Qaeda. The Sunni organization is increasingly getting into sectarian conflicts with Shi’ites. 

Al Qaeda essentially uses electronic social networking media to encourage random disgruntled youths into acts of violence against the West, Shi’a institutions, and the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. By hiding their propaganda in forms of popular media, such as rap videos available in various languages, al Qaeda can provide a cultural counterweight to Shi’a popular influences which both excites and provokes impressionable youth into becoming soldiers for al Qaeda’s distinctive version of discord which often includes suicide bombers and large body counts. 

Two audacious and carefully coordinated jailbreaks that occurred in Baghdad over the weekend and which killed at least twenty security guards have now been claimed by the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda franchise has been emboldened in recent months and these latest efforts have freed hundreds of Islamic militants including many senior al Qaeda officers. 

Prison guards in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib

The main target of the jailbreaks was the infamous Abu Ghraib prison which became famous in 2004 when American military prison guards were exposed for abusing its prisoners.

Until the attack, Abu Ghraib was one of Iraq’s most secure locations, and this is yet another example of security all over the country disintegrating.

More than 2,500 people have been killed in Iraq in the past three months alone while over 90,000 people have been killed next door in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. 

There is a real danger that many of these freed militant fighters will cross the border into Syria to join the ongoing sectarian war. Al Qaeda’s Sunni fighters have been heavily involved with trying to bring down the Shi’ite Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.

The Syrian civil war has become ground zero for the Middle East’s sectarian conflict, and the violence is drawing in fighters (both Sunnis and Shi’ites from other countries) into Syria to join the battle. The resulting sectarian violence is then leaking over the Syrian border back into Iraq as well as into Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. This means Iraq could revert to being devoured by sectarian conflict as it was a decade ago, but the even bigger fear is that other countries could follow. 

Decentralized Terrorism

July 23, 2013

Is the rise of Islamic extremism the great issue of our age?

The effects of Islamic terrorism are not just felt in the Middle East but around the world. A Pew Research survey about religious extremism published in late April found high levels of concern among Americans, Russians, and Central Asian Countries. And other national public opinion surveys find most Americans remain concerned in general about terrorism. In Europe, the newspaper Austria Today reported an upswing of concern regarding “Salafist extremist teenagers” among the Austrian population, and Germany has recently banned three ultra-conservative Islamic sects including Salafism.

Salafi Woman

Al Qaeda has become more decentralized with most terrorist activity being currently conducted by local franchises. The U.S. State Department’s latest annual country report on terrorism has acknowledged that local al Qaeda affiliates “seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base.” However, al Qaeda is not the only problem.

Iran is sending its own terrorist operatives in Hezbollah to demoralize and intimidate Western countries.

The U.S. State Department now concedes that Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.

In March a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island, and  Hezbollah has been implicated in terrorist attack in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. 

The Iranian-backed organization plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011. It has since sent its members to bolster Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault on rebel-held areas.

As Hezbollah’s hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that has sparked gun battles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shi’ites generally back Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus.

Many more international extremists are connected to Pakistan, a state rocked on a daily basis by attacks from the Taliban and other jihadist extremists on schools, government officials, and others. Yet the United States government has given Pakistan $23 billion in aid since 2002, because the American government relies on Pakistan for its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

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. 

Israel Strikes Back

November 15, 2012

Even though the US Congress is well into its Lame Duck session, I’ve decided to take a moment to comment on the heaviest fighting to happen inside the Palestinian territories in years.

Earlier this morning, Israel resumed its assault within the Gaza Strip against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel is acting in self defense against Hamas which has been increasing its rocket attacks that have long been terrorizing Israeli citizens.

The timing for Israel’s actions appear to be very calculated.

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