Intimidating Iran: Better to Be Lucky than Good?
posted at 3:33 pm on June 26, 2010 by J.E. Dyer
As Michael Ledeen points out at Pajamas today, Iran has decided not to send to Gaza the flotilla I wrote about here. Ledeen predicted, back on 6 June, that the Iranians would never make good on the flotilla threat, and his reasoning was sound. I agree that the Iranian asymmetric M.O. doesn’t involve Iranians courting martyrdom in foreign lands. Iranians will fight to the death for their own territory, but they are not the suicide martyrs, on call for a bloodthirsty Allah on a global basis, that Arabs and Pakistanis have routinely committed themselves to be over the last few decades. Iran is Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ patron, not their recruiting base.
That said, I don’t think Iran has backed down solely because of that dynamic, or because of generic fear of either Israeli or US toughness. Iran had a cohort to bolster her courage, in Turkey and Lebanon. Israel has never looked so diplomatically isolated; the US has uncharacteristically sided with Israel’s enemies at the UN on more than one occasion in the last few months, and has been non-committal at best about Israel’s rights of sovereignty in the diplomatic row over the flotilla incident. The fact that Turkey’s Erdogan felt emboldened to foment an asymmetric confrontation with Israel is one of the clearest signals yet that Obama’s America is increasingly seen as a non-factor for those who aspire to transform and realign the Middle East. Now – right now – is in fact the time to expect new patterns to emerge.
I suspect that what put the kibosh on Iran’s flotilla flyer was not endemic unwillingness to court risk, but the mullahs’ growing and very specific fear, which has ramped up just in the last week, that Israel and the US are putting forces in place to attack Iran.
The fear has already driven Iran, according to national press, to declare martial law in the northwest provinces and beef up defensive preparations there. The mullahs’ fears are reportedly centered on three sets of events. One is the Suez Canal transit of the USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) Carrier Strike Group on the 18th. I will revisit my previous comments on that in a moment, because I assess that Iran is overreacting to this particular development.
The second set of events is what Iran reports as a major build-up of US and Israeli forces in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran in her northwest corner and shares coastline on the Caspian Sea.
The third set of events involves reports that Israel sent cargo aircraft to an air base in northern Saudi Arabia, also around the 18th and 19th of June.
To address each of these factors in turn: first, the Suez Canal transit. A great deal has been made of this in Middle Eastern media because of the number of ships that transited the Canal together. However, viewed in full context, the only thing that’s unusual is that the ships did all transit together. The way strike group deployments have developed in the last decade, it would have been more typical for the ships to mostly disperse to different tasks once they passed through the central Mediterranean, and for the carrier to transit the Canal in the company of one or two escort combatants (cruiser, destroyer). The other ships would have gone separately to any number of missions: NATO exercises in the Mediterranean or Black Sea, joint operations with partners in Africa under Africa Command’s aegis, antipiracy operations off Somalia.
It was the joint transit of all the ships at the same time that made this particular Canal passage different. Besides that, it may be noticeably peculiar that so many escort ships left the Med at the same time. However, the unusual security precautions taken for the transit, which apparently were prompted by unrest and threats from groups in Egypt, look to be the reason for that.
Truman is in the Persian Gulf now, and if USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) heads home in the next week, this will have been a routine relief on station of the carrier presence in CENTCOM. Every four or five months there are two carriers in or near the Persian Gulf, as this swap-out occurs. Pat Buchanan has made a career of suspecting we are about to attack Iran each time the carriers are swapping out, but the nature of the current swap-out shows nothing out of the ordinary.
That the carrier group transit occurred coincidentally with a joint US-Azeri military exercise seems to have given both events an outsize significance in Iranian minds. America’s renewal of ties with Azerbaijan has indeed been marked this month: after the Azeris announced in April that they were cancelling the military exercise with us, because of a perceived tilt on our part toward Armenia, Defense Secretary Bob Gates visited Baku on 6 June – the first such visit since 2005. Hillary Clinton is now scheduled to visit Azerbaijan in July. The military exercise was put back on the schedule, and it unfolded in stages from 19 to 25 June. The Azeris’ Armed Forces Day is today (26 June), which has given the joint exercise ushering it in a particular prominence in national attention.
But there are several points to make about this exercise. First, by US standards, it appears to have been quite small. Reporting is sketchy, but the exercise, previously scheduled to begin with, was part of US European Command’s military-to-military program and seems to have conformed to the typical parameters of such drills. Any live action probably took place in small groups, at training facilities. If the inflow of US troops had been larger than that (my estimate: fewer than 100), someone besides Iran would be reporting it: it couldn’t be hidden.
Second, the US has been funneling military cargo through Azerbaijan for years. It’s a major hub for NATO logistics in Afghanistan, hosting the throughput of about 25% of the materiel used by ISAF. The unrest in Kyrgyzstan and the prospect of our access being compromised to the Manas air base elevates the importance of access to Azeri airfields. It’s possible that one of the principal reasons for restoring good relations with Azerbaijan is unrelated to Iran.
But even the Iran-related reason for the renewal of ties isn’t necessarily the planning of an attack. The other big thing being undertaken by the Obama administration right now is the tightened sanctions on Iran. One look at a map will clarify why we would want to be able to conduct surveillance from Azerbaijan in support of that effort. The Persian Gulf is actually easier to monitor than Iran’s other borders; and Azerbaijan lies between the routes to northern Iran from the two nations most likely to send her prohibited goods, Turkey and Russia. The country is also situated to make an excellent base for broader surveillance of the relatively small Caspian Sea and its entire coastline.
This isn’t a prediction that sanctions enforcement will work like a charm here – it won’t – but only that this is what we would do if we were serious about enforcing the sanctions. A sanctions-enforcement package would be much, much smaller and less capable than an attack force; if we are increasing our footprint in Azerbaijan, it’s probably to that level and for that purpose.
As to whether Israel is building up forces in Azerbaijan, it’s neither impossible nor unlikely – but what is unlikely is that Iran would have direct knowledge of it. Israel would be looking for operational waypoints to Iran in the north, relations with Turkey having soured so much in recent months. There has been speculation all along that Israel might get access to Georgia for this purpose. The speculation has shifted to Azerbaijan, and has accelerated in the last week because of Iranian media reports.
But Israel’s needs in Azerbaijan would be too minimal to be readily visible from typical levels of surveillance: an entry point for special forces, and just enough of an advance team to put airfield arrangements in place. If Iran had a deep source in the Azeri government, I seriously doubt the Iranians would compromise that source by trumpeting its information in the national media.
The least likely thing of all is that an Israeli footprint in Azerbaijan would be detectable, as implied in the Iranian news reporting, through any apparent association with joint US-Azeri military operations. This doesn’t ring true at all.
The real data point the Iranians appear to have is the third one: the report of Israeli cargo aircraft landing in northern Saudi Arabia. That, I think, makes everything else look very particular to them. It’s probably causing them to overinterpret both the US Navy activity of the last week and whatever ambiguous indicators they most likely have about what’s going on in Azerbaijan.
Could the Israelis have actually done this? Certainly; and now doesn’t seem too early, given the erosion of the status quo evident in Turkey’s recent choices. Israel has always had to think preemptively, and her perspective today has to take into account the near-certainty of a combined attack on her, through means asymmetric and symmetric, as events careen towards a climax with Iran. She can’t wait, sitting on her hands, and let a combination of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon get the drop on her.
I think Turkey’s collusion in the 31 May flotilla was a wake-up call for Israel’s strategic planners – the event that adjusted their thinking about what the threat to preempt really is here. In most Western minds, the threat is Iran successfully assembling a usable nuclear weapon. In a few, it has been Iran installing an S-300 air defense system, which would make it impossible for Israel to conduct an air attack at an effective level. But in June 2010, it has become obvious that the baseline threat is Iran, Turkey, and Syria combining forces. Six months ago, few observers would have predicted Turkey would actually participate in a combined-force, asymmetric assault on Israel. Today, Israel has to acknowledge it as a possibility real enough to factor into her planning.
To clarify, this doesn’t mean Turkey would use overt, conventional military force against Israel. But Turkish support to unconventional forces – Hezbollah, Hamas – even executed through Syria as an intermediary, would have an adequately devastating effect. If Turkey isn’t going to ride out a confrontation in effective neutrality, then Israel can’t just sit around and wait for her strategic position to deteriorate.
In making this analysis, I take two key factors into account. One is Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a statesman who likes to assume positions of strength and negotiate from them, rather than negotiate from anxiety while his position erodes. Netanyahu is a tiebreaker in any analysis of ambiguous signals about Israel. The “strong hand” conclusion is more likely to be accurate because he heads the government.
The other factor is Barack Obama. Nothing in his record of activity to date would lead us to conclude that the US carrier movements and our actions in Azerbaijan have a more imminently bellicose import than, on sober reflection, they seem to. We have no reason to suspect Obama of secretly assembling a force to attack Iran with. I regard that as a good thing; conducting a sneak attack on Iran in such a manner is the last thing we want to do. If it were to come to a US attack on Iran, the right way to handle it would be with a straightforward ramp up and a schedule of warnings designed to discourage Iran, if possible, and turn her course before we had to make good on the threat.
But I assess that Obama is just keeping the carrier force in place, on its regular profile, and keeping our options open in Azerbaijan for the operations everyone knows about: logistic support to Afghanistan, and the new sanctions on Iran. We’re probably also looking to be positioned to contain a backlash from Iran if Israel does attack, while trying to avert that with diplomacy.
Fortunately for the (partial) aversion of the flotilla Intifada, the mullahs have interpreted all that as the US preparing to attack. The wicked do, after all, flee when none pursueth. Iran’s fear has, for the moment, undermined the strategic solidarity of the potential anti-Israel alliance; now Turkey and Lebanon are left deciding if they really want to press the flotilla issue at the moment, with Iran spooked and preoccupied. That’s all to the good – but in terms of what the US did about any of it, it appears to have been mostly luck. I’ll take it when I can get it.
Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.