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Why this, Why now? The Attacks on Tankers in the Gulf of Oman

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few weeks I have been watching the situation building in the Persian Gulf, between Iran and its allies, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the various Gulf States, and Israel.

The situation has grown more tense through the threats of the Trump Administration, its increasingly punishing sanctions on Iran, and its deployment of additional Naval and Air Force units. Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse, and over the past few weeks there have been attacks on tankers in the waters in the Gulf of Oman, which lays just outside the Straits of Hormuz, the vital passage through which passes much of the oil produced in the Middle East for the world markets, especially Asian markets.

I am a naturally suspicious person. When things like this happen I ask “why this, why these people, and why now?” Or in the cases when someone is telling me a story, “why this, why me, why now?” People lie to preachers and priests all,the time, nations and leaders of nations lie all the time. All the characters involved in this drama spin events and intelligence to shape the narrative they want others to believe. That includes the Mullahs of Iran, the Saudi Royal Family, the leaders of the Gulf States, Benjamin Netanyahu Of Israel, and President Trump, and his often conflicted and contradictory administration.

The United States has accused Iran of the attacks on these tankers, there is some evidence that points that way. The Iranians are protesting that their Gulf rivals are conducting these operations in order to frame them. Either, or both explanations are possible. The first two attacks involved very small explosive charges which did minor damage to the first two tankers, most likely placed by divers on the hills of the ships while at anchor. The second set of attacks did significant damage to two tankers. The United States Central Command produced a video of what might be an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Naval Corps boat removing something from one of the recently attacked ships.

But the theory offered by the United States, that these two ships were approached by Iranian craft which placed limpet mines on them, without reporting close encounters with Iranian craft. That would be highly unusual. The explanation by CENTCOM that the craft on the video was removing an unexplored limpet mine from the ship also seems unlikely. The Iranians knew that U.S. warships, equipped with helicopters were near the ships, such a move would be unusual for the Iranians, even the Revolutionary Guards, especially since one of the ships was Japanese owned and the head of the shipping line that owned the ship said that the crew reported an object flying at it. That could have been a rocket, missile, or even an armed drone.

Of course the Iranians could have done any of those things, as could have the Saudis, the Gulf States, the Israelis, or even the Americans.

The rapidity that Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump labeled the Iranians as the attackers under such opaque circumstances has inadvertently backed the United States into a corner. We now have to prove our allegations. Regardless of who actually conducted the attacks, the refusal of the United States to wait for more forensic evidence of who committed the attack, the quick finger pointing at Iran was unwise. The release of a video which cannot actually identify what was removed from the tanker further obfuscates the situation.

The fact is that in the current situation, it is better to wait for conclusive evidence rather than further ratcheting up the tensions with yet unprovable allegations. There are other parties quite willing to drag the United States and Iran into war to suit their strategic aims.

When I see something like this I think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which led to a massive escalation of the United States military involvement in Vietnam. But my question is, who is behind it?

I cannot answer that question, however, I can predict that this situation will escalate with very unpredictable and probably tragic consequences. I do hope that I am wrong, but on thing that I know from history, is that leaders in trouble at home, frequently instigate crisis abroad to divert attention from their domestic problems. If that is the case all of the possible subjects, with the possible exception of the Iranians have something to gain from this.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the Iranians couldn’t be behind these attacks, but they would be low on my motivational index, unless the Revolutionary Guard has chosen to act independently of the Iranian government.

Right now I see more questions than answers, and a war brewing that shouldn’t happen. A war that will bring many changes to our world, and very likely to the life we now know in the United States.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Musing on Potential War With Iran

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am a veteran of Iraq, and have participated in maritime operations in the Arabian/Persian Gulf.

I am not comfortable with the steps the administration is taking with Iran, not that I am any fan of the Ayatollahs and their aggressive theocratic-religious-military-dictatorship. While I had always dreamed of a military career it was the failure of the attempt to rescue the hostages taken by the Iranians in April 1980, Operation Eagle Claw that was the tipping point for me to explore my options about joining the military. 1980 was the year I transferred to California State University, albeit to study history, but mostly because Judy, my girlfriend was going there. Once I got there I started checking out the various ROTC programs and enlisted as a simultaneous membership program between Army ROTC and the California Army National Guard in 1981.

I thought back then at sometime we would go to war with Iran but as years passed I thought that maybe both sides would find a way to peacefully co-exist, at least within limits, especially after my experiences in the Gulf where the regular Iranian Navy chased Iraqi Oil Smugglers into our hands. Of course there was the time some Revolutionary Guard patrol boats harassed our squadron Flagship, an Australian Special Forces Support ship and we sped to her assistance at full speed with guns and missiles armed and ready to go to war. They withdrew and nothing came out of it, but for about an hour it appeared that we would be the first U.S. Navy ship to engage the Iranians since the Tanker Wars Of the late 1980s. The fact is that the Revolutionary Guard Naval Corps operates in a different world from the regular Iranian Navy.

If we go to war, now I know two things about the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the Iranians have built up a formidable asymmetric naval and capability. A large number small submarines, not high tech, but in large numbers hard to kill. Likewise, would deploy large numbers of fast attack boats and craft armed with a variety of missiles and guns for swarm attacks on otherwise better armed and more capable warships. We prepared for those back in 2002, but the lethality of the Iranians has increased, as has their number of anti-ship missile batteries his increased exponentially, as has their number of short and medium range ballistic missiles. While their AirPower is antiquated by American standards they have better and more advanced air defense systems, supplied by Russia. They are also supported by Shia Muslim militants in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and even in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet.

The Iranians have the capability of shutting down the Straits of Hormuz, and their allies in Yemen have showed the capability to attack shipping in the Bab El Mendeb, the Southern entrance to the Red Sea and a vital shipping lane in its own right.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has severely weakened our ties with key allies that routinely contribute Naval and air forces to the security of the Gulf.

Over the past few weeks an otherwise routine deployment to the region by the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, was sped up, B-52 bombers were deployed, and a proposal to send 120,000 troops to the Gulf was revealed. Four merchant ships were allegedly damaged by saboteurs, but no hard evidence points to Iran, and the damage to all the ships was minimal. The embassy staff in Baghdad was reduced over alleged threat increases that the American Commander in Iraq denies. The threats were reported by Israeli sources, much like the evidence that led us into war with Iraq in 2003.

I cannot put my finger finger on it, but something is not right about this situation. We are in no way ready for a major war with Iran, not with the possibility a potential war with North Korea, a trade war with China, and Russian threats to NATO allies or friendly nations in Eastern Europe.

This does not feel right to me. I’ve been around and seen and know too much. Maybe it’s my education military history, and high level Joint Operations education. Maybe it is my nearly 38 years serving in both the Army and Navy, including about 7 years with the Marines. Maybe it’s my long experience working with allies. I don’t know. All I know is that when domestic troubles embroil a national leader, the solution is often found in war. War allows leaders to do things impossible under peacetime constraints.

I can only speculate what is going on, but my hermeneutic os suspicion says to ask “why this administration, why Iran, why now?”

I wish I had the answer, but something doesn’t seem right, and I am worried for the many friends I have serving in the Gulf.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” The Writing is On the Wall: Trump and Iran

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to break the word of the United States in regard to the Iran Nuclear deal I have done a lot of reading and reflecting. His decision seems to be bereft of any real strategy or strengthening of the overall United States position not just concerning Iran but which will have repercussions around the world; perhaps most importantly with the coming summit with North Korea. The President  made his decision to withdraw from the accord despite opposition from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department and it appears that there is no real plan for what happens next.

The deal was a flawed instrument but it was the only thing keeping Iran from moving forward on its nuclear program. Inspectors on the ground and the constant monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities were the best way of ensuring that Iran could not restart its nuclear program. Did the deal keep Iran from playing a part in Syria or Yemen? Of course not, but absent it the Iranians might already be nuclear capable.

The President went against are oldest and most reliable allies and gave the Iranians, as well as the Russians an edge to exploit. The Iranians have already moved to exploit this by pledging to remain in compliance. Whether they meant it or not it gave them the rare opportunity to make themselves look more reasonable than the United States. Likewise it inserted the United States directly into the Iranian – Saudi/ Shia – Sunni divide and emboldened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to launch attacks on Syria military and Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions in Syria under the premise of preventive strike by the Iranians on Israel.

The players in this deadly game of brinksmanship are so numerous that you can’t keep track of them without a scorecard. There are the major players; the Iranians, Saudis, the United States, Russia, Israel, the EU, and NATO, as well as the lesser but also important players; Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the war ravaged Yemen, the fragile Iraqi state, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Palestinians, various Syrian rebel groups, ISIL, Al Qaida, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and possibly even Egypt, Pakistan and India.

All of these players have their own agenda and capabilities to throw a monkey wrench into anything that the President is attempting to do and both the Pakistanis and Israelis have nukes that they can deliver. Many of these nations or groups have well tested short and intermediate ballistic missile systems as well as well as vast asymmetrical warfare capabilities.

As far as new sanctions the Iranians who have the support of both the Russians and Chinese have many ways to circumvent them.  The President’s strategy, if you can call it that appears to be more about reinforcing his base in American domestic politics by playing fast and loose with the truth while moving towards war.

Let me be fair, I hope against hope that whatever the President is trying to do actually works to deescalate the tensions in the region and maybe even free the people of Iran from the Mullahs. But I really do not think that peace is his intention, not that I trust the Iranians as far as I can throw one, and I certainly believe that Vladimir Putin is doing his damnedest to split the Western alliance and NATO and that President Trump is playing right into his hand.

Do I know what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months? Not really, but I can read the writing on the wall. “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” It is something that I think that the President should take seriously because he is steering the nation and the world towards a disaster. I don’t want that but I can see it coming with the Four Horsemen, and the President will be the man most responsible when everything comes crashing down. The President lives in a world of self-deception and fantasy and as much as I hope that he gets this right I know in my heart that he will not because he is unwilling to have his beliefs checked by facts. Facts are his enemy.

Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The March of Folly: 

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

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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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Padre Steve’s 2013 Down and Dirty Primer on the Muddle East

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“When you are up to your arse in alligators it is hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp.” Old British Colonial Saying

Note: This is an update to my 2011 Primer on the Muddle East

During the dark days of World War Two when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was making fools of a series of British commanders in North Africa people including senior British military and government leaders sometimes referred to the theater of operations as “the Muddle East.” Some things never seem to change. The Muddle East today is quite frankly speaking in a real muddled state if there ever was one with world leaders and regional leaders muddling about as if they were the New York Mets.

A large part of the muddle goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War when the victorious Allied Powers redrew the map of the Middle East and made alliances with various local tribal sheiks who many times were crowned king over other tribes who didn’t necessarily want them as king. This along with heavy handed European military actions such as the British using poison gas dropped from aircraft in Iraq and a real lack of effort to better the lives of the newly “liberated” peoples of the region was just the start. Add to the cesspool a bunch of oil presided over by major oil companies, the anti-colonial movements that flourished in the years after World War Two when the French, British and Italians had to divest themselves of their Middle Eastern holdings. The French had to fight a real war in Algeria but finally withdrew leaving Algeria’s new rulers to goof up the country and oppress their people for decades to come.  In the coming years many of these newly independent nations found that life still sucked so in a number of countries military officers overthrew the despised monarchs promising reforms but oppressing their people while blaming all their problems on the Israelis.  They got their asses kicked by the Israelis in a series of wars which did a number of things that made the Middle East Muddle even worse.

First it ensured that Palestinian Arabs ended up under Israeli rule and were used with great aplomb by the Middle Eastern despots to prop up support for their regimes while doing nothing to help the Palestinians other than to put them in camps in Lebanon.  Even when the Egyptians made a peace deal with Israel most of the Arab World ostracized them.  Then in 1979 the Shah of Iran was sent packing by a bunch of Mullahs and in 1981 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran in one of the bloodier wars of the late 20th Century which finally ended in 1988. Of course the United States was pissed at the Mullahs so Saddam became our favorite Arab despot for a while.  Add to the mix the Soviet Union and the United States arming their favorite Arab dictators who were given carte blanche to continue oppressing their people so long as it didn’t interfere with their support of either party or the oil supply. Finally the Soviets went Tango Uniform in 1989 not long after being forced out of Afghanistan by the U.S. supplied, Pakistani supported and Saudi Arabian fundamentalist financed Mujahideen.

With the Soviets “Tango Uniform” and the Warsaw Pact nations trying to get into NATO the United States was now the uncontested Numero Uno country in the world Saddam presumed upon his late supporters and invaded Kuwait, albeit after thinking that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said that we wouldn’t mind.

Well he was wrong we did mind and got a lot of countries from NATO and including a bunch of Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to get on board on a mission to get Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait. It was a kick ass mission and since the United Nations didn’t authorize removing Saddam and because President George H.W. Bush was smart enough to not to drive on Baghdad to kick him out preferring the despot we knew to a quagmire Saddam was left in power.

So we stationed ground and air forces around the Gulf to keep Saddam and Iran in check and even put them in Saudi Arabia which a large number of radicals such as Osama Bin Laden equated to letting the Devil play in Allah’s Holy Sandbox.  So Osama went and set up a base with the Medieval bunch of Pashtun known as the Taliban in Afghanistan stirred up a bunch of shit killing Americans and blowing up stuff including the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers barracks complex in 1996, the USS Cole in 2000 and then 2001 another attack on the World Trade Center which took down the towers with hijacked aircraft and also struck the Pentagon triggered an American response against Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.  The United States then invaded in Iraq in 2003 and succeeded in taking out Saddam but also succeeded in alienating a good many Iraqis who greeted us with open arms because we goofed up the occupation and pissed a lot of them off by dissolving the Army, Police and Civil Service and letting thugs and opportunists take over. Unfortunately since we didn’t go in with enough troops to secure all the Iraqi bases, their weapons depots and actually take control of surrendering Iraqi units these newly unemployed and dishonored people launched an insurgency bolstered by Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters even as Sunni and Shi’a Moslems began to settle scores with each other. Insurgency and civil war, two great tastes that go great together, but what the heck right?

Of course it took years to get control of the situation on the ground and thankfully the United States forces in Iraq were helped when the Sunni Moslems in Al Anbar Province realized that these foreign fighters were a worse enemy than the United States and switched sides. This turned the tables in Iraq and the insurgency was brought under control and an elected government managed to start to get their stuff together and allow us to begin withdrawing from Iraq. Of course the focus on Iraq gave the Taliban a chance to regroup as the Afghani Government proved itself corrupt, incompetent and not to give a shit about the Afghani people. So the Taliban who had been hated made a comeback and made our lives much harder so that now almost 10 years into the fight we are having a really hard time.  Well enough about us there was plenty more going on in the Muddle East besides the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Let’s see….there was the law of unintended consequences in that by taking Saddam Down and weakening Iraq we took away Iran’s natural enemy and the key to the balance of power in the region. Iran was strengthened and began a nuclear program that everyone with half a brain knows in intended for military use and expanded its influence in Lebanon where the Iranian backed Hezbollah took power.  Now Hezbollah which actually has an experienced military force and probably owns 40,000 or so rockets and missiles a good number of which can hit deep in Israel seems to be ready for war especially because they fought the Israelis to a stalemate in 2008, the first time an Arab military ever did that. Not only did they take on the Israelis but they are also helping Syrian dictator Bashir Assad turn the tide against the polyglot Syrian rebel forces which are being assisted by Sunni foreign fighters from all over the Middle East and the ever present Al Qaida presence.

Then was the effect that the wars in those countries made things harder for us in many other friendly Arab nations.  Of course there is the problem of a nuclear armed Pakistan which is about as stable as a Japanese nuclear reactor after getting hit by a tsunami and plays both sides of the street in the war on terror.  The Palestinians and Israelis continued their love affair and since Fatah which ran Palestinian Authority was so corrupt and gooned up a more militant group, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip. Hamas is a pretty bloodthirsty lot too but not the same level of threat as Hezbollah to the Israelis.  Of course the Israelis have done little to help the situation by their often heavy handed treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

The witches’ cauldron of the Muddle East is getting even more muddled on a daily basis as young Arabs throughout the Muddle East are rising up against their despotic rulers and it doesn’t seem that any are safe, those allied with the United States and the West as well as those that have been a thorn in the side of the United States and the West. It just seems that despots and tyrants are no longer in vogue. The uprisings began in Iran after a disputed election where reformers were cheated of power and the revolt crushed by the Revolutionary Guard and other thugs of the Iranian regime. However with the election of “moderate” whatever that means cleric Hasan Rowhani as President hopes are that Iran, despite the machinations of many other clerics and the Revolutionary Guard might be brought to the negotiating table. That being said Iran is reportedly sending about 4000 troops to go help Assad in Syria so go figure.

Elsewhere in the Middle East things continue to boil. In December 2010 the people of Tunisia rose up and overthrew their President for Life Ben Ali in a peaceful uprising followed shortly after by the Egyptians who tossed out long term President and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia a “moderate Islamist” regime has been attempting to maintain control of radicals and keep some semblance of balance in that country while in Egypt the Islamic Brotherhood was able to get majorities elected in the Parliament and elect Mohammed Morsi as President. Needless to say both countries are still in turmoil.

In Iraq the Sunni Shi’a divide is as wide as ever and that country is threatening to become engulfed in yet another civil war as sectarian violence increases and the Kurds make more moves toward independence.

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Turkey, the heart of the old Ottoman Empire is now beginning to erupt as secularist elements in the society are protesting the policies of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading to repeated clashes over the past two weeks between protestors and police.

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Afghanistan though technically not part of the Middle East continues to be a problem for US and NATO consuming intelligence, economic diplomatic and military resources that could be put to play with better effect elsewhere.  What T.E. Lawrence said of the British occupation of a restive Mesopotamia  in 1920:

“We realise the burden the army in Mesopotamia is to the Imperial Exchequer, but we do not see as clearly the burden it is to Mesopotamia. It has to be fed, and all its animals have to be fed. The fighting forces are now eighty-three thousand strong, but the ration strength is three hundred thousand. There are three labourers to every soldier, to supply and serve him.” ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

In Libya the Arab Spring claimed the long time pain in the ass Moammar Gaddafi. That conflict center of the action in 2011 until Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered. Since then Libya has remained in turmoil despite elections, militias run amok and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on the US Consulate and CIA base in Benghazi on September 11th 2012.

Yemen and Bahrain, Algeria, and Jordan have or are experiencing demonstrations which look to be revolts in the making and even Saudi Arabia is trying to head off a potential popular uprising.

However the real problem now, the problem that threatens to send the region into a regional war is the revolt in Syria which began with peaceful protests by reformers against the Assad regime. However the hard line response of that regime to the protests spawned a civil war which now threatens to overflow the borders of Syria. France, Britain and the US have stated that they believe that there is evidence that the Syria government has used chemical weapons, in particular Sarin nerve agents against the rebels. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 people with hundreds of thousands more now living as refugees.

The conflict in Syria epitomizes one of the greatest challenges in the Middle East that many in the West are just beginning to recognize, the Sunni Shi’a divide. That divide is becoming more serious with every passing day as Iran continues to lead and assist Shi’a elements in predominantly Sunni Arab countries, as well as in Iraq where the Arab Shi’a are in the majority. The conflict in Syria is predominantly Sunni versus Shi’a though in that patchwork nation of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite Shi’a tribe of the Assad clan, various Christian and Druse groups. Lebanon which borders Syria is as divided as its larger neighbor and Hezbollah holds tremendous power in that country.

Yes my friends this is a mess and almost everybody that is anybody in the military and economic power houses of the world doesn’t have their handprints all over at least some part of this mess. All of these own some of the blame for what is going on, both the rulers of the nations in the region as well as world powers who all try to influence the nations and peoples for their own diplomatic, intelligence, military or economic gain. Almost no one is unsoiled by their involvement in the Muddle East over the past 90 years or so and so in a way all of great world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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The region is more volatile than at any time in recent history and events there could easily ignite a regional war with worldwide implications.  That is why the region has been called the Muddle East for decades.  We all hope and pray for the best and that somehow all of this that the promise of a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” will become a reality, but there are better than even odds that things get way worse before they get better. There are just too many wild cards in this deck and the swamp is full of hungry alligators.

With the announcement this week that the US would provide military aid and training to the Syrian rebels and that US forces will remain in Jordan even as US and NATO Patriot missile batteries stand ready in Turkey there is a really good chance that the conflict in Syria will not stay in Syria.

Of course there is always the wild card if what Israel may do in what it perceives to be its security interests against outward foes such as Iran and Syria but also inside its borders and occupied territories, especially if it is attacked or provoked by Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

May God help us all and bring about peaceful change, or as my Iraqi friends simply say “Inshallah, God willing.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Gathering Storm: Shades of 1914 as War Threatens in the Middle East

Israeli Navy Dolphin Class Submarine

“The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Benjamin Netanyahu 

The question is not if but when. The tensions between Iran and Israel continue to boil over even as the rest of the Middle East begins to melt down.

Last week on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks Al Qaeda backed forces attack the US Consulate in Benghazi Libya killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. Militants in Egypt laid siege to the US Embassy while newly elected Egyptian President and Moslem Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi dithered torn between his party ideology and the pragmatic reality of the dependency of Egypt on the United States for military and economic assistance. Throughout the region from Tunisia to Indonesia protests, some marked by violence broke out at United States and other Western nations diplomatic outposts.

Shahab III Missile Ranges

The Iranians and their Hezbollah allies have repeatedly threatened Israel with destruction and have improved their missile forces significantly ever the past number of years even without nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding the United States and the west set “Red Lines” regarding the Iranian nuclear program that would trigger an automatic attack on Iran by the United States.

Like the First World War the tensions, provocations and rhetoric increase even as military forces mobilize and gather in the region. Iran is preparing for massive military exercises involving land, air defense and ballistic missile units from the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards to begin in October.  Iran admitted this weekend that forces from their Revolutionary Guards are currently operating in Syria placing them in position to directly engage Israeli forces in the event of conflict.

By October the United States will have three Carrier Strike Groups, the USS Enterprise, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS John C Stennis and an Expeditionary Strike Group with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit in the region. Additionally warships from more than 25 countries are gathering for exercises designed to counter any blockade of the strategic Straits of Hormuz by Iran. Other ships, including the French Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle battle group and the British HMS Illustrious  “Response Task Forces Group” are in the Eastern Mediterranean and could be in the region within a week. US Navy submarines, both attack and ballistic missile are never far from a threatened area. US Air Force  Fighter Squadrons have been reinforced and it is certain that strategic air force units of B-2, B-52 and B-1 bombers are certainly deployed where they can respond as needed. The build up by all sides is unprecedented.

The countries of the region are on hair trigger alert. Any act, intentional or unintentional by any party could trigger a war that would most certainly bring great destruction to the region but would likely sink the global economy and spread around the world through acts of terror and revolutionary violence.

Numerous reports and Israel government official statements indicate that Israel is ready, to strike Iran, if need be alone to prevent what they believe is an existential threat to Israel. While some believe that any Israeli attack on Iran would be precision strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and ballistic missiles sites. However, most experts believe that an Israeli strike would at best set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program a couple of years and trigger a regional war with very unpredictable outcomes. If the Israeli strike is conventional in nature the Iranians will strike back against Israel, as well as US targets in the region. The US would certainly respond but any war would affect the region and the world economy as oil prices would rise exponentially.

With that in mind it is possible that the Israelis fearing the existential threat of Iranian nukes might use their nuclear forces in a first strike role.

Most experts believe that the Israelis would only use nuclear weapons in a retaliatory “second strike” capacity. The reasoning is that the first use of nuclear weapons by Israel would be against their national interests. That is logical but history is replete with times that nations have acted in ways contrary to logic because the action is deemed “necessary.” It is the same logic that said that the Germans would not violate Belgian neutrality in 1914 knowing that such an action would trigger British intervention on the side of France and Russia. It was believed by most that “the Germans are dangerous but they are not maniacs….” The Germans faced war on more than one front and felt that they had to deliver a swift blow to knock France out of the war in order to defeat Russia. It was a risk that they were willing to take and one which helped lose them the war and set about a series of events that made the 20th Century the bloodiest in human history.

In the current situation many in Israeli leadership may view the use of nuclear weapons to stop an existential threat as a legitimate use of the weapons. Israel does face real threats and those threats are increasing as Iran increases in strength and no longer has traditional rival Iraq to worry about. Likewise the instability of Egypt and the anti-Israeli animus of the Moslem Brotherhood which now leads Egypt has increased the real and perceived threat from that country. An Egypt openly hostile to Israel armed to the teeth with advanced American weapons is a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel. Israel’s leaders may be willing to suffer international condemnation in order eliminate what they consider an existential Iranian threat to ensure their survival and ability to defend against Egypt as well as conventional and unconventional Hizbollah forces operating out of Lebanon and those of Hamas in Gaza.

If they were to use nuclear weapons the primary delivery system in such a strike would most likely be Dolphin Class submarines armed with nuclear capable Popeye cruise missiles. These missiles have a 1500 km range and while the missiles could be used in a conventional strike their utility would be limited to precision strikes against unfortified headquarters buildings housing Iranian leadership, or command and control facilities. The numbers of Popeye missiles the Dolphins carry is limited since the majority of Iranian nuclear sites are hardened facilities or deep underground their use against them in a conventional manner would be a waste.

The threat to United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan is great if a broader war erupts. US and NATO forces, already fighting an increasing Taliban insurgency are for all practical purposes surrounded if a war spreads and Pakistan shuts down the southern supply route. Even this week Taliban insurgents scored a victory successfully attacking the strongly fortified joint US Marine and British base Camp Leatherneck-Camp Bastion destroying 6 AV-8B Harrier jets on the ground, damaging more aircraft, valuable hangers and support facilities while killing 2 Marines. A war with Iran would threaten to turn Afghanistan into a trap for nearly 100,000 US and NATO coalition troops.

It could as Barbara Tuchman said of the the Germans of 1914 that the Israelis have “staked everything on decisive battle in the image of Hannibal….” but that the ghost of Hannibal might have reminded the Germans and the Israelis that though Hannibal and “Carthage won at Cannae, Rome won the war.” In mid May and early June of 1914 even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand Field Marshal Von Molkte and others felt that the scales were tipping against them. He told his Austrian counterpart Field Marshal Conrad Von Hotzendorf that “from now on ‘any adjournment will have the effect of diminishing our chances of success.’” On June 1st Von Molkte said to Baron Eckhardstein,“We are ready, and the sooner the better for us.”

The storm clouds of war are thickening and darkness hovers as the storm gathers. In 1914 the politicians, diplomats and soldiers that realized war would be disastrous were a minority in their respective governments and their warnings went unheeded. In 1914 “war pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use….” As the sun set and the lamps of London were lit on August 4th 1914 Sir Edward Grey said to a friend “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” It is as if we are watching the same drama play out in the Middle East now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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The Question is When, Where and How?…not If…. The Inevitability of War with Iran

“War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”  Barbara W. Tuchman

I do not think that there is a sane person in the world that sees any benefit of a war between the United States, Israel and the West and Iran.  But then sane people seem to be in the minority of all those involved in the current escalation of tension regarding Iran,  Israel, the United States, the West and the Arab World.

That being said I don’t think that anyone really wants to go to war even as all of countries involved move military units around the region, stockpile more weapons and issue ever more strident threats against one another.

When the war between Iran and those that oppose it occurs it will be because one of parties involved makes a fatal miscalculation that leads to a regional war with unimaginable consequences.

The immediate parties involved, the Iranians, the Israelis and the Americans have all hardened their military, political and economic stances in the past few months. The Iranians in particular have escalated military tensions by threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, moving naval units to Syria even as that country devolves into civil war and making attempts or threats on the lives of Israeli diplomats in various countries including the United States.

Israel is reacting in kind to what many Israelis view as an existential threat from Iran in regard to the possibility of Iran producing nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could threaten Israel.  Reports seem to indicate that the Israelis could conduct a pre-emptive strike against Iran any time between the spring and the November elections in the United States.

The United States and much of Europe have imposed an increasing number of economic sanctions on Iran that are taking a toll on Iran’s economy.  Iran is increasing pressure on its own citizens who want more freedom. The Iranian military and the Revolutionary Guards are conducting exercises which are becoming increasingly bellicose including sending warships into the Mediterranean Sea to Syria.  Whether they want war or do not their actions could accidentally trigger a war with terrible consequences to the region as well as the global economy.

At this point I do not see any easy way out of a war which everyone knows is coming but cannot or will not avert.  The question is no longer if? It is when, how and where? Will it be a naval action at the Straits of Hormuz? Will it be the assassination of an Israeli, Iranian or perhaps a Saudi diplomat or leader? Will it be a terrorist attack against Israel by an Iranian ally such as Hezbollah which triggers an Israeli response?  Who really knows? There are so many possibilities that could trigger a regional war that it it boggles the mind.

The media with its 24 hour news cycle which demands fresh news raises the tenor of emotions and passions of the people and nations involved with each passing day.  The fear of war is driving people to the brink of it.  Back in the late 1890s it was called “Yellow Journalism.”

Adlai Stevenson said that “In matters of national security emotion is no substitute for intelligence, nor rigidity for prudence. To act coolly, intelligently and prudently in perilous circumstances is the test of a man, and also a nation.”  But this is not always the case. It is very possible that Israel, Iran or the United States may conduct a “preventative” strike against its opponents.  Otto von Bismarck commented that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

One can only hope that leaders and nations will see the truth of Stevenson and Bismarck’s words before the someone makes that one fatal miscalculation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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