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Stratfor on Iran, Russia, and America Geostrategy

In comments downthread, I asseverated that the American foreign-policy establishment would like to shift gears - bearing in mind that such shifts of policy, particularly after momentous commitments such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - may require several years of unwinding and transition in order to effectuate. I advance the contention not as a certitude, but as an hypothesis, much as Stratfor's analysts are doing. Below are excerpted two essays published by that firm during the preceding two months.

From a Sept. 15 analysis of American geostrategy in Eurasia:

Russia is attempting to reforge its Cold War-era influence in its near abroad. This is not simply an issue of nostalgia, but a perfectly logical and predictable reaction to the Russian environment. Russia lacks easily definable, easily defendable borders. There is no redoubt to which the Russians can withdraw, and the only security they know comes from establishing buffers — buffers which tend to be lost in times of crisis. The alternative is for Russia to simply trust other states to leave it alone. Considering Russia’s history of occupations, from the Mongol horde to Napoleonic France to Hitler’s Germany, it is not difficult to surmise why the Russians tend to choose a more activist set of policies.

As such, the country tends to expand and contract like a beating heart — gobbling up nearby territories in times of strength, and then contracting and losing those territories in times of weakness. Rather than what Westerners think of as a traditional nation-state, Russia has always been a multiethnic empire, heavily stocked with non-Russian (and even non-Orthodox) minorities. Keeping those minorities from damaging central control requires a strong internal security and intelligence arm, and hence we get the Cheka, the KGB, and now the FSB.
Nature of the Budding Conflict

Combine a security policy thoroughly wedded to expansion with an internal stabilization policy that institutionalizes terror, and it is understandable why most of Russia’s neighbors do not like Moscow very much. A fair portion of Western history revolves around the formation and shifting of coalitions to manage Russian insecurities.

In the American case specifically, the issue is one of continental control. The United States is the only country in the world that effectively controls an entire continent. Mexico and Canada have been sufficiently intimidated so that they can operate independently only in a very limited sense. (Technically, Australia controls a continent, but with the some 85 percent of its territory unusable, it is more accurate in geopolitical terms to think of it as a small archipelago with some very long bridges.) This grants the United States not only a potentially massive internal market, but also the ability to project power without the fear of facing rearguard security threats. U.S. forces can be focused almost entirely on offensive operations, whereas potential competitors in Eurasia must constantly be on their guard about the neighbors.

The only thing that could threaten U.S. security would be the rise of a Eurasian continental hegemon. For the past 60 years, Russia (or the Soviet Union) has been the only entity that has had a chance of achieving that, largely due to its geographic reach. U.S. strategy for coping with this is simple: containment, or the creation of a network of allies to hedge in Russian political, economic and military expansion. NATO is the most obvious manifestation of this policy imperative, while the Sino-Soviet split is the most dramatic one.

Containment requires that United States counter Russian expansionism at every turn, crafting a new coalition wherever Russia attempts to break out of the strategic ring, and if necessary committing direct U.S. forces to the effort. The Korean and Vietnam wars — both traumatic periods in American history — were manifestations of this effort, as were the Berlin airlift and the backing of Islamist militants in Afghanistan (who incidentally went on to form al Qaeda).

The Georgian war in August was simply the first effort by a resurging Russia to pulse out, expand its security buffer and, ideally, in the Kremlin’s plans, break out of the post-Cold War noose that other powers have tied. The Americans (and others) will react as they did during the Cold War: by building coalitions to constrain Russian expansion. In Europe, the challenges will be to keep the Germans on board and to keep NATO cohesive. In the Caucasus, the United States will need to deftly manage its Turkish alliance and find a means of engaging Iran. (Emphasis mine.) In China and Japan, economic conflicts will undoubtedly take a backseat to security cooperation.

Russia and the United States will struggle in all of these areas, consisting as they do the Russian borderlands. Most of the locations will feel familiar, as Russia’s near abroad has been Russia’s near abroad for nearly 300 years. Those locations — the Baltics, Austria, Ukraine, Serbia, Turkey, Central Asia and Mongolia — that defined Russia’s conflicts in times gone by will surface again. Such is the tapestry of history: the major powers seeking advantage in the same places over and over again.

A Sept. 6 analysis of shifts in America rhetoric concerning Iran, as well as a major American concession to Iran in regards to the MeK:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting Libya, said on Thursday that Iran and North Korea should emulate Libya’s example. What she meant by that was, like Libya, they should reach an accommodation with the United States while abandoning policies that the United States opposes.

That seems like a fairly uninteresting statement, except for the fact that Iran was mentioned. We have heard nothing from the Bush administration on Iran since before the war in Georgia — although a State Department official told us on Thursday that the last official statement was issued by the U.S. Treasury on Aug. 12. Certainly, the constant barrage of comments by the Bush administration on the Iranian threat has decreased dramatically. Frankly, while there might have been passing mentions, the administration appears to have simply dropped the subject.

The silence is, of course, enormously significant. Prior to Aug. 8, the focus of the United States was on Iran. Washington was warning Iran that the deadline for delivering an answer on freezing nuclear development had passed, and the United States was now going to ask its partners in dealing with Iran — the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — to impose sanctions. Obviously, Russia was part of that group and, equally obviously, it was in no mood to work with the United States on placing sanctions. The Russians have said that they do not see sanctions in general as a desirable strategy. With the Russians out of the picture, the sanctions won’t work anyway. You can’t have a dam with a section missing.

That made the negotiations and the sanctions strategy moot. What strikes us as extraordinary is that the Bush administration has not returned to discussing Iran and posing new strategy or making new threats. The administration simply has acted as if a major confrontation with Iran had not been under way just prior to the Russo-Georgian war and, indeed, has acted as if Iran was not a major issue, which it obviously was and continues to be. The American media have not been particularly aggressive in demanding that the administration explain the relative silence on Iran, and the administration has not raised it.

All this becomes more interesting with confirmation that an anti-Iranian group — Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) — had been ordered by the Iraqi government to leave Iraq, amid accusations that it had been involved with al Qaeda. The MeK has been a major issue between Iran and the United States. The Iranian position has been that while the Americans demand that Iran pull its support for Hezbollah, the United States is itself supporting an anti-Iranian terrorist group. The reports appear to be true, since supporters of the MeK demonstrated in the United States on Thursday protesting the expulsion from Iraq.

It is unlikely that the Iraqis decided to take this action unilaterally; the United States had to have supported it. It is understandable why Washington would not want its fingerprints on this, since the MeK has been a longtime ally, and this change of policy would leave other longtime allies nervous. Still, it is happening. And that means that the Americans have given in to a long-standing demand of the Iranians.

There are rumors that the United States and Iran have signed a document concerning the MeK — which is something we find hard to believe, and the sources aren’t great. We have also received a report from a pretty good source who is in a position to know that a meeting is scheduled between U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and unnamed Iranian officials at Italy’s Lake Como later this week. We are not saying that we know that a meeting is taking place; we are saying only that we have heard rumors about this meeting. But there are many such rumors in the region at the moment. It should be noted that there are such rumors whenever a senior American and Iranian official are within 50 miles of each other.

Given that, we still note three things. First, the United States has gone silent on Iran for the first time in a very long time. Second, the United States engineered or did not prevent the expulsion of the MeK from Iraq — which is a substantial concession to Iran. Third, unlike Syria, Iran has not sent its leaders to Moscow since the end of the war with Georgia and has been fairly subdued on the matter.

As we have said, one geopolitical option for the United States now is a deal with Iran. We do not know whether one is in the works, but we know this: The rhetoric from Washington on Iran has quieted since the Russo-Georgian war and has stayed quiet. And the United States has made a major concession to Iran this week.

The media have lost interest in Iran, but it is hard to believe the Bush administration has.

Yet the rhetoric has shifted. We do not think the United States is on the brink of attacking Iran. If the Americans were planning an attack on Iran, the last thing they would do is pull the MeK back. So something is up.

American rhetoric has shifted, and diplomatic maneuvers are underway, well below the radar threshold of major media reporting. There are, even now, some indications that the United States is preparing a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan, in an attempt to replicate some of the successes of recent shifts in Iraq; in the Afghanistan theater, this will entail alliances with local militias - effectively, a reconciliation with factions of the Taliban, and an attempt to split that Taliban movement as a whole, while reconciling some parts thereof with the Karzai government. We no longer hear much about Iran, for a variety of reasons: stabilizing and drawing down the Iraqi theater will involve some sort of accommodation with Iran; moreover, the prospects for the imposition of international sanctions have dramatically deteriorated.

These shifts have seemed to people more knowledgeable than myself to coincide with the Russia-Georgia conflict in August; and, if this is the case, then that can only be because the United States is in the beginning phases of a reactivation of an older sort of geostrategic agenda, namely, the containment of any conceivable Eurasian hegemon. Curiously, in American thinking, as opposed to the thinking of some neoconservatives, who have been pounding the drums about the Chinese threat - which is genuine, on some levels, though in dimensions other than those enthusiasts of globalization are wont to concede - it is Russia that traditionally occupies this position of Eurasia hegemonic threat. Why anyone would entertain, for even a nanosecond, the notion that a Russia undergoing demographic implosion, reliant upon energy revenues for state financing (and for international leverage, although it should be noted that the energy weapon, given its association with Russian state finance, is, at best, a short-term weapon only, and of limited long-term viability), and contained by the rising powers of Asia, China and India - factors not present during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was perceived, quite rationally, as a prospective Eurasia hegemon - could be such a monumental geopolitical threat is quite mystifying. One cannot teach old dogs new geopolitical realities, I suppose.

In any event, there are the realities: American rhetoric, and strategy, with respect to present theaters, are gradually shifting, following the dramatic silences that greeted the Caucasian unpleasantness of August. One can say at least this much: that significant factions of the American establishment would like to reorient the American focus, and that this reorientation will require several years of patient effort, diplomatic, economic, and military. It may not happen. But some are, in fact, greatly desirous that it occur, and for reasons that cannot sustain the weight of the policies they are expected to bear.

Comments (3)

A very weak one plus one conclusion based on the 2 Stratfor pieces. Turning over Iraq to Iran would create an enormous amount of destabilizion and fear within the region and lead to world-wide revulsion at the likely spectacle of Shites violently purging Iraq of its Sunni population. The Saudis in particular would rush to China for protection. Leaving us where?

Iran and Russia are in the midst of an enormous pipeline partnership. If as you suggest our elites believe the latter poses the bigger threat and forge an "American-Islamic Shite" alliance as a bulwark, then we deserve dhimmitude. I'm hoping the above is either satire, or missing major aspects to what looks like at first blush, a suicidal strategy.

A very weak one plus one conclusion based on the 2 Stratfor pieces.

Sure, which is why the Stratfor analysts would say that they are attempting to read the tea leaves, and I say that this is merely an hypothesis. In reality, I'm not doing anything more than making explicit what they are hinting at, namely, the possibility of a gradual transition in the orientation of American foreign policy. Several administration figures, not to mention entire cadres of the usual suspects, spoke with a fair measure of bellicosity during the month of August, and, unless such rhetoric was intended solely for public consumption - a distinct possibility, but one which cannot be presupposed - they must assuredly be cognizant that the United States cannot accomplish both whatever it is our grand strategists imagine they are undertaking in the Middle East and the containment of Russia. Neither the fighting men and materiel, nor, most critically, perhaps, in light of the precipitous collapse of the credit markets, the state of the national finances will permit such an encompassing set of ambitions. Moreover, even were the United States inclined to attempt containment on a shoestring, by extending NATO membership, or even a lower-level sort of strategic partnership, to nations such as Georgia and the Ukraine, in effect daring Russia to respond, such a maneuver would not merely provoke, but virtually guarantee a Russian reaction to which the United States could not respond were its forces to remain committed substantially to Iraq and Afghanistan. If NATO partnership is extended to the Ukraine, for example, the Crimea will move to achieve either autonomy from the Ukraine, or reunion with Russia, and Russia will encourage, facilitate, and defend this exercise in regional revisionism.

The question, therefore, is whether American strategists and agitators - notably, some of the same august personages who agitated for Iraq, part II for the better part of a decade, and prevailed upon the Bush administration to implement the strategy they had prepared for that contingency - are serious, or merely talking into their hats.

Turning over Iraq to Iran would create an enormous amount of destabilizion and fear within the region and lead to world-wide revulsion at the likely spectacle of Shites violently purging Iraq of its Sunni population.

The possibility of such a calamitous civil war, escalating even to the involvement of additional regional powers, in the event of any settlement with Iran remains, which is one reason why such a settlement may not occur. On the other hand, American negotiators are already attempting to finesse this problem, as it has surely remained in the forefront of their awareness throughout recent diplomatic engagements; it is inconceivable that actually-existing Iraq could ever serve as a regional bulwark against the extension of Iranian influence, given the predominance of the Shia in Iraq and the fractious, ethnically and confessionally divided status of the 'polity', and any settlement with Iran would, of necessity, have to be both delicate and exceedingly complex, probably entailing commitments by other regional powers, so as to ensure stability and minimize the possibility of renewed sectarian strife. Once again, this may scuttle the best laid plans of American strategists, but thinking is running along these lines, and the United States will not toss Iraq to the wolves in order to liberate manpower and military assets for some other objective.

The Saudis in particular would rush to China for protection. Leaving us where?

The Saudis would not necessarily turn to the Chinese in the event of such a conflagration, and, if anything, our commitment to the stability of the House of Saud (which is quite disquieting, even if it can be explicated in terms of realpolitik) would preclude any settlement with Iran likely to issue in such outcomes. In reality, the Saudis would commit substantial percentages of their oil revenues to the funding the Sunnis, and would likely draw foreign fighters from around the wider region to buttress the resistance to Shia expansionism, but a turn to China seems improbable.

Iran and Russia are in the midst of an enormous pipeline partnership. If as you suggest our elites believe the latter poses the bigger threat and forge an "American-Islamic Shite" alliance as a bulwark, then we deserve dhimmitude.

I concur without reservation. The sentiment, apparently widespread, though not necessarily dominant, within the foreign-policy establishment, that Russia poses a threat of greater magnitude than Islam, is one that fairly petitions Allah for the imposition of dhimmitude. However, when one reflects upon the grotesque genuflections before the 'religion of peace', ranging from the fulsome public declarations to the obdurate refusal to revise immigration policy, and contrasts these with the fulminant rhetoric directed towards Russia, one can only conclude that the establishment believes Islam to be amenable to blandishment and reform, but considers any possible Russian state other than one as politically neuter as a member of the European Union to be an implacable and inveterate adversary. American foreign policy often satirizes itself in its own conduct.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. There are just too many missing tea leaves from the Stratfor hypothesis to take it too seriously;

Negotiations over Iraq
Our continuing presence there is based on moral and geo-political concerns. Iran won’t enter as long as we are there, and we can’t depart without securing a region-wide agreement that assures Iran’s nervous neighbors safety brakes are in place. The likelihood of such talks occurring without significant leaks seems far-fetched. The Jerusalem Post and George Friedman would be presumably amongst the first to know. So far, silence. Color me skeptical.

Israel’s Security
The scenario posited by Stratfor might be welcome by Shimon Peres, but the Likud Party? Israel has made military hardware shipments to Saakashvili in Georgia, suggesting we have no intention of receding from our current role in the Middle East and is instead acting as if we can straddle the entire globe and just adding more proxies to the mix.

Saudi Arabia’s Security
Should Iran wind-up with the oil fields of Iraq, the Mullahs would be the de facto Board of Directors for OPEC, controlling all access to the Gulf, while possessing a conventional war-machine far stronger than anything the House of Saud could drum up through Rent a Martyr. The Saudis would want and need an umbrella as big and as powerful as the one we held, but according to this speculation, put-down in order to cultivate the natural reserves of the Caucasus states. The Saudis would no longer trust us and the Russians are already with Iran. Who else could the Saudis turn to but the very thirsty and muscular Chinese?

“Since you guys are leaving, we’ve tied oil sales to the Yuan. Enjoy some mind-blowing inflation with your credit crunch. We’ll be coming over on a shopping spree next week.”

Neo-con dissent
There are limits to the malleability of group-think. I find it hard to believe such an abrupt and dramatic change in policy could be implemented without some serious and vocal resistance from those who see the Middle East as the epicenter of civilization’s great and defining drama.

In short, the Realpolitik teased out by Stratfor can’t be quietly crafted around a table some where. Nor, is there enough evidence our elites want, let alone are able to undertake such a radical departure in their strategic “thinking.” Russia will not be the number 1 priority for the overextended, utilitarian colossus, otherwise known as the U.S. foreign policy establishment. I hope is some way this puts you at ease, though we know our immodest ambitions assures more tragedy lies ahead. As Michael Bauman asks elsewhere; doesn’t anyone read Edmund Burke, anymore?

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