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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

Iran nuclear talks

Yesterday negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China finished hammering out a tentative deal with Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program.

There are a lot of opinions about the deal, some positive, some definitely negative and quite a few like mine a wait and see attitude. Now I am hopeful that the deal is a positive first step in assuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. In fact I pray that it does.

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The fact is that we have to try, even if some allies for their own reasons disagree. The Israelis are understandably concerned, especially since the last President of Iran, most of the Mullahs that actually run that country and the Revolutionary Guard have expressed their belief that Israel should not exist. Thus for the Israelis this can be seen as an existential matter. If Iran were to get operational nuclear weapons and use them against Israel that state would suffer greatly. Likewise the Saudis are distrustful of the Iranians, but for different reasons. For the Saudis this is the great conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, a conflict that appears to be gaining steam in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is  conflict that has the potential to be the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years war, that great bloodletting between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Iran and the Saudis are the leaders of the respective factions of Islam, they are mortal enemies.

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We have to be cognizant of both the Israeli and Saudi concerns. They are legitimate and because they are allies we must take them into account. That being said the most important security needs to be addressed by the United States are those of the United States. Sometimes those are not always the same of allies, even allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That is something that has to be weighed in this case.

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The cold fact of the matter is that for many years we in the United States have become accustomed to resorting to military force first and neglecting the other aspects of national and international power that could be brought to bear to in achieving our national security and foreign policy goals. Those other aspects include economic power, information and diplomacy which unfortunately have been neglected. Presidents and our Congress have, even in spite of the misgivings of military leaders pursued the military option first.

After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Bush Administration with the authorization of Congress pursued an almost single minded military solution to those attacks. That response was not only against the Al Qaeda terrorists but against their Afghan Taliban hosts and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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Those campaigns have worn our military down. The resources spent in those countries, the lives lost, the money spent and the wear and tear on equipment have harmed our national security. But even above that in terms of strategy we eliminated the one natural enemy of Iran which helped hold them in check. We invaded Iraq and left it in a condition that it could no longer be the western bulwark against Iran. We turned down Iranian offers of help after September 11th and in doing so lost opportunities which might have led us and Iran down a different path. Instead President Bush declared Iran and Iraq both parts of an “Axis of Evil.”

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It was a declaration that the Iranians rightly understood as a declaration of war. Legally it may not have been, but the stated strategy enunciated by men like John Bolton and those we call the “Neocons” inside the Bush Administration and in associated think tanks could only be understood by the Iranians in that light. That end state envisioned by Bolton then and even now was regime change in not only Iraq, but also Iran. We have to ask ourselves this question: If another nation did this to us, how would we respond? I dare say that we, like the Iranians would dig in our heels and seek to develop military capacities that could defeat them, or if not defeat them make their “success” so costly that our enemies would not press us.

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Now because of those choices we are faced with a situation where Iran is estimated to be reasonably close to developing a nuclear weapon capacity. It is something that if it happens will result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis already have that capability and the Saudis are reportedly pursuing that capability. Thus it cannot be allowed to happen.

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That being said there are ways to ensure that does not happen. One advocated by those opposed to the deal is a hard line approach including pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, which not only would bring about a regional war but at best delay Iran a few years in procuring nuclear weapons.

The other is the course that has been pursued by the Obama Administration over the course of the past few years. That is the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy. As I said at the beginning this has not been our default policy over the past 12 years. But it is necessary. We are not in a good position to add yet another war, a war with world wide security and economic implications to our plate.

The fact is that due to the wars of the past 12 years as well as budget cuts including the sequestration cuts we are not in a good position to wage another war. We are stretched thin. Readiness thanks to sequestration is declining. The Chief of Staff of the Army stated that only two combat brigades are immediately deployable for combat operations. Could we launch another military campaign? Yes we could. But war, if we believe Clausewitz war is an extension of politics and policy. But we have to ask if would it achieve our overall policy goals? That I am not sure.  Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

In fact even if we delivered punishing strikes to Iran the costs could be great, and not just the economic costs.  Our campaign would have to be an air campaign to destroy hardened targets many of which we do not know the exact locations. Our record in such air campaigns is mixed. We spent over 70 days pounding Serbia with little to show for it in actual damage to their military. Likewise Iran is not Iraq, our targets will not be exposed in the open desert. Additionally Iranian A2/D2 (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities pose great risks for US and Allied Warships as well as bases in the Arabian Gulf. If an Iranian Kilo Class submarine were to sink an American Aircraft Carrier it would not be a tactical setback, it would be a major loss of American strategic capability not just in the Middle East but world wide.

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Likewise as I mentioned before we took out the one natural opponent of Iran when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. In doing so we destroyed every bit of infrastructure, military power and civil government structures that any new Iraqi government would need to maintain any sense of a balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.

All that being said do I trust the Iranians? I cannot say that I do. I am a realist. I enlisted in 1981 in large part because of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis. They remain a dictatorial regime which persecutes religious minorities including Christians. They restrict their people from open access to the internet and persecute political opponents. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful organization in Iran has actively worked to destabilize other countries in the region. Their influence is great especially in regards to Lebanon’s Hezbollah which has launched missile campaigns against Israel and been active on the side of Syria dictator Bashir Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

However the path of diplomacy must be given a reasonable chance to succeed. In the early 1970s President Nixon started a process of detente with the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was not embraced by hawks. President Ford, Carter and Reagan continued those policies to one degree or another with the final result being the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and overthrow of Communism.

This deal is a start. It is not perfect at all. I see issues in it. but it is based on the politics and art of the possible. It has the potential to be a game changer in a region wracked by war and revolution, a region led for the most part by despots in which terrorists often operate freely. I don’t know if it will work, but I hope it does.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Danger in the Arabian Gulf: The Fires of Protest Spread to Bahrain

Protesters attacked in Bahrain (AP Photo)

It is weird when you see a place that you have been many times explode into massive protests, violence and potential revolution. That I have been to Bahrain many times and it is strange to see what is going on there. My first couple of times I was assigned to a ship, the cruiser USS HUE CITY on port calls while deployed in the Arabian Gulf. Later I would make frequent trips there as chaplain for the Marine Security Forces.

In the days following the downfall of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak the flames of revolution have spread across the Middle East. Protests have taken place in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain and the situations have become violent as security forces attempted to put down the protests. Even Iran is beginning to boil over as protestors who feel cheated by the results of the contested 2009 elections rise up against the Iranian regime. However, the situation in Bahrain is the most troubling if one looks at the potential impact on US strategy in the Arabian Gulf and always tense situation with Iran.

Bahraini Shia women with black flags. The Black flag is commonly flown in Shia neighborhoods and villages in Bahrain (AP Photo)

As I said before I have been to Bahrain many times. It is one of the most socially progressive countries in the Middle East and unlike most other Arab nation’s alcohol can be purchased in stores and not just upscale hotels that cater to foreigners, businessmen, military personnel and diplomats. It is a wealthy nation which though not prosperous as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain has managed to diversify its economy with a per capita income of $25,420.  It is a frequent vacation destination of many well off Saudis and has over 230,000 expats from other countries who call Bahrain home. According to a United Nations report Bahrain has 807,000 residents including the expats.

One thing that I remember about Bahrain is that the wealth is not very evenly divided. For the most part the Shia population is incredibly poor and their villages stand in stark contrast to the wealth of the Sunni. This is one of the biggest causes of the tensions which have brought about the protest movement which was ignited by the success of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain Army units deployed in Manama (AP Photo)

The population of Bahrain is divided between the Sunni ruling class which comprises approximately 30% of the population and a less well off Shia population. The Khalifah family has ruled the country since driving out the Persians in 1783. It became a British protectorate in 1861 and the Kingdom attained its independence in 1971 and became a constitutional Monarchy in 2002 with some elected representatives.  The current King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah is a graduate of Cambridge University and the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. He has reigned since March of 1999 when his father died.

Iran considers Bahrain a rebel province and is viewed as a threat by Bahrain has sought over the years to foment dissent in Shia community which believes that it is discriminated against by the Sunni rulers.

NAVCENT Headquarters in Bahrain (Navy Times Photo)

Bahrain is a vital part of the U.S. strategic presence in the region as a counter to the Iranian threat. It hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT). It is a frequent port of call for U.S. and Allied Navy ships that operate in the Arabian Gulf.  As such the current instability and violence is a matter of grave concern for the United States and its Allies in the Gulf.

As I said I have been to Bahrain numerous times in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. I would stay in hotels with the best security which happened to be the 5 Star locations and dine at various Irish, British or Arab restaurants mostly with fellow Marine or Navy Officers or expats.  The difference between that world and the Shia villages and neighborhoods is amazing the contrast between the vast wealth of some and the absolute poverty of the other troubled me because I could see that it was a ticking time bomb. The Shia population also has limited political rights and is often targeted by the police.  They are certainly infiltrated by Iranian agents who I would guess are helping to stir things up.

The violence that has overtaken Bahrain does not surprise me. The Bahraini military is primarily composed of Sunnis from other Arab countries and has little love for the Shia. They are basically a mercenary force absolutely loyal to the government. There will be no Egyptian style coup in Bahrain. Since the population is small and the Army, police and other security forces wedded to the government I expect that the protests will be put down and that the regime will survive.  It will not be pretty and could well have an impact on U.S. Forces in Bahrain.

Back after 9/11 military dependents were sent home and force protection increased. A couple of years ago dependants were allowed back in but I think that we will see them extracted again. The security forces at the base are robust and work closely with the Bahraini security forces. I would expect that whatever Marine Expeditionary Unit is in theater will be on alert and that additional Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams could be flown in to reinforce the base.

The broader ramifications of a continued violent crackdown on the protestors will be felt throughout the region. With the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts people in many parts of the Arab World are now boiling over as protests and revolts against the old authoritarian regimes spread. As the situation continues to build I expect the probability of more regimes being overthrown with very unpredictable consequences. What may be true for Egypt may not be true anywhere else. What is for sure is that the Middle East that existed in December will look far different by the end of this year and that could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on just how it all shakes out and the possible impact on American and NATO operations in the region as well as impact on American overseas counter-terrorism operations especially in Yemen.

We can only wait and see and hopefully influence peaceful and democratic change in the area, but revolutions in countries that repress their populations tend not to be peaceful.  Egypt so far is an exception to that. If you believe in prayer I recommend that we pray hard my friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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