For those of you that regularly read items on Iranian.com looking for some real insight into the U.S. – Iran relationship, let me state once and for all – the U.S. really doesn’t really care about Iran per se. It cares primarily about Russia and China. But, what happens in Iran is tied to these primary interests - as a result Iran matters – only indirectly.
Furthermore it is pretty clear now that U.S. really screwed up in its calculations in the Middle East – and especially Iran - to the extent that it has actually emboldened China. This blog explores this premise in detail.
But, before I begin this exploration, I want to state for the record that I have no patience for Monday morning quarter backs that are so smart after the game. I hate those should of, could of specialists. Very often decisions are made with the facts in hand, and risks have to be taken – because to not act is sometimes the lesser of two evils.
But there is value in ‘game reviews’ for players. In the British Premier (soccer) League these days there are 8 cameras recording every move. PhD statisticians are on major team payrolls and a lot of postgame analysis occurs in order to avoid future mistakes and improve performance. When winning can cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars, it is worth doing everything to get it right. In the case of the ‘great game’ going on in Central Asia and the Middle East, I would argue every effort should be made to get it right. My intentions in writing this are to help this analytical process.
Let’s start by rolling back to 2001. George W. Bush (Dubya) gets elected and coming from an Oil family dynasty with a Vice President who resigned from the Presidency of a major Oil Services firm (Haliburton) they had oil and energy policy at the forefront of their minds in applying America’s strategic imperatives.
Not unreasonably, America’s key strategic challenge since the seventies (and still today) has been dealing with dual issue of managing the Russian Bear and taming the Chinese tiger. In many ways, US-China relations is more important than US-Russian relations – because, it has been argued peeling China away from Russia is an effective means of dealing and containing Russian power.
With a roaring economy poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2020 (yes, 8 years away), China sits at the precipice of becoming the world’s most powerful “super-power” (which comes with wealth accumulation). The Chinese government is already America’s and Europe’s largest lender (i.e. buyer of treasury bills) and retains a massive trade surplus with everyone. How does the U.S. avoid a loan call from its master lender? Or to put it the way Dubya thinks: “They have our balls in their hands, and how do we stop them from squeezing?”
With China being a huge net energy importer, Dubya bought into the strategy of taking over all the world’s oil and gas fields and using these resources as leverage to “tame the Chinese tiger”. With the entire world’s energy in Dubya’s hands, America too had Chinese balls in its hands and the Chinese would be pleading for America NOT to squeeze (he figured).
It all sounded good. But as with all strategic thinking in the end it comes down to execution. The best strategies poorly executed turn out horribly. The big flaw, in my opinion has been the systematic execution of this strategy.
First of all, China needed to become a major energy importer. Economic growth alone – does not directly mean addiction to Oil and Gas. Look at France, 80%+ of its electricity is generated by Nuclear Power Plants. And if you travelled to China 20 years ago, you would notice droves of Bicycles everywhere. To implement this strategy, the Chinese needed to migrate to cars, and build fossil fuel power plants. GM, Ford, Daimler Benz, Volkswagen, etc. built major auto plants in China, and a whole host of suppliers set up shop in China to support the emerging Chinese Automotive industry. Go to China today, and you’ll get stuck in a traffic jam. China is also, at the same time, commissioning one world-class multi-MW power plant every week!
Step two, was capturing the oil fields. Russia was broken up, the newly independent ‘stans’ were set up for oil exploration in the Caspian Sea (the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves),
The Shah of Iran had declared in 1978 that he would not be renewing the oil and gas concessions to a group of western oil companies. These new fields in the Caspian Sea surely could not be trusted in his hands. Thus, it was argued that Iran had to be isolated and impeded from making any territorial claims. This analysis added more fuel to the fire and provided one more reason for toppling the Shah and imposing a religious government that would retard Iran and render it impotent in claiming any significant part of the Caspian Sea.
Recognizing this dynamic, the Chinese bid on one of the key players in the Caspian Sea – Unocal. And this bid was quickly squashed by the U.S. government. So as a backup strategy, the Chinese began investing in Iraq – with the world’s second largest oil and gas reserves. And the Russians too signed a 40 year contract with Saddam Hussein to exploit Iraqi oil fields.
And it has been argued that this situation in Iraq left the U.S. with no option, but to invade Iraq to control the fields and keep the Russians and the Chinese (and by the way the French too) off the loot.
Dubya was not sophisticated enough to see ‘clever’ indirect routes for capturing Iraq’s oil reserves. There were many options that Dubya simply did not or would not consider. And this, precisely, was Dubya’s huge strategic miscalculation.
Before I explore all the other options Dubya had, let’s consider why he was pre-disposed to a direct attack option: 1) Saddam Hussein had planned the murder of his father – and invading Iraq was not only considered to be in the interests of the U.S.; but would ultimately result in Hussein’s death.2) He was told it would be easy - a piece of cake - and that Iraqi’s would be lining the streets with flowers – thanking American soldiers for their liberation3) He thought he had a slam dunk reason for invading (weapons of mass destruction) – which would give him legal standing4) The U.S. had already had one major battle with Hussein (in Kuwait) and it was widely believed that the ‘job was left unfinished’
All these reasons appeared compelling. But the U.S. did have other options that now in retrospect may have been better suited to achieving the goal.
You have to remember that the march to war was started on the back of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. And, that the primary response to these attacks was the invasion of Afghanistan.
Whether or not the attacks were staged to support America’s march to war, it is clear now that capturing Afghanistan played well into the “Taming the Chinese Tiger” strategy. The U.S. could (and is currently) building a pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan; AND, control of Afghanistan provides a barrier to Western Chinese access to the warm water ports on the Arabian Sea.
But what U.S. planners did not foresee was that this “dual war” plan was and still is a huge burden on the U.S. and that there were smarter – by proxy ways of accomplishing the same goals without committing U.S. blood or treasure.
Whatever the benefits of these strategic moves, if the cost of execution becomes too high, the costs will (in the end) outweigh the benefits. The brilliance of the current Obama-Clinton Arab Spring strategy has been their incredible capacity to accomplish strategic goals by proxy at minimal cost to the U.S.. Almost all the ‘revolutions’ have occurred with indirect U.S. support and involvement. US has freed something like 150 Million Arabs (that is 10 times the population of Iraq) at a cost not even1% of the cost of the Iraq war.
George W. Bush seemed to think the U.S. pockets were lined with unlimited cash. And like a cowboy he just crashed in, without really thinking about the consequences. And may I add that while he did In fact conquer Afghanistan and Iraq, by not dealing with Iran (then) he has left a major gap in America’s calculations that could undermine the whole strategy. Without dealing with Iran – both Afghanistan and Iraq’s wins are at risk.
It may be true that Dubya never really wanted to deal with Iran anyway. But, NOT dealing with Iran (whether intentional or not) was a strategic miscalculation.
First of all, there were really much lower cost options to execute the war – which Bush did not even consider. The most efficient way to conduct these wars was to get (a transformed and allied) Iran to carry them out for the U.S. In some ways – this did happen when Iran turned over Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance (long financed and supported by Iran) to the CIA to assist in the Afghan campaign. And by all accounts, this resulted in an extremely successful campaign with Kabul being conquered very quickly and cheaply. The issue, of course, is that the U.S. could not ‘handle’ the post invasion phase. And actually, the Iranians have shown themselves to be excellent at doing precisely that – managing the post invasion phase. Iranians are building schools, clinics, roads in Western Afghanistan and we are told this is the most stable part of the country. Iranians after all speak the language and know the customs. Iran too, could have taken over Baghdad in a heartbeat. Without Western support Saddam Hussein would have been impotent. And with the Majority of Iraq being Shia Muslim, again the post invasion phase would have been much easier for Iran.
Secondly, as it turns out, the combined wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) have cost the U.S. tax payer in excess of one trillion dollars and counting. This is so embarrassing for the U.S. that it is very difficult to get a consensus on the true ‘direct’ costs of the war. There is also the ‘indirect’ cost of the war – which is the current dire economic situation in U.S. – the real estate debacle, the banking crisis, the global crisis – ALL really stem from policies designed to hide the true effects of the war. Dubya tried to keep the economy humming while he carried out the war – so he could maintain popular support for his policies. The impact of this downturn will have huge – MASSIVE – long-term effects on U.S. leadership. The U.S. has had to borrow 6 Trillion dollars just to stay afloat, and is now further in debt to its ‘master’ china….to the tune of almost 2 Trillion dollars.
And thirdly, it could be argued that the U.S. does NOT have a long-term sustainable position in either country, and that in fact Iranian influence is very high and rising in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. has basically handed these nations to Iran. Iran now is both Iraq and Afghanistan’s most significant trading partner – despite increasing U.S. sanctions vis-à-vis Iran.
So in essence, a decision was made that cost the U.S. a hell of a lot of money, and deferred the handling of Iran to a later stage (if at all) and in fact Iran’s position has been enhanced NOT weakened by U.S. actions. This in a nutshell was Bush’s serious mistake.
Iran today, has excellent relations with China, and has become a major source of Chinese oil imports. During this period of sanctions on Iranian oil exports, Iran’s real exports to China have doubled.
On the one hand, we have Israel pushing for an attack on Iran and the ‘break-up’ of Iran into a number of sub-ethnic states. On the other hand, there is this underhanded effort by the Europeans to maintain Iran – but contain it as a regional bully – helping drive arms sales, and the arms industry globally.
And the U.S. is somehow caught between these two arguments – paralyzed like a deer in headlights. There is no clear goal in sight. Iran policy has been a strategic disaster. And soon, Iran will be fully nuclear capable, and there will be no opportunity to do anything at all.
If Iran’s alliance with both China and Russia rise to a different level, they could seriously undermine U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And like so many Empires before them, America might have to put its tail between its legs and walk away …after having spent hundreds of billions of dollars there. The Europeans really don’t care – but the U.S. should.
I would argue that the U.S. should follow its own independent policy vis-à-vis Iran and realize that it has completely different strategic interests to the Europeans or the Israelis when it comes to Iran. In fact, a transformed Iran – would be an excellent U.S. ally and provide a counter balance to the Chinese and help protect and maintain U.S. control of the region. Iran can become a proxy keeper of U.S. interests in the region and help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan.
10 years ago the U.S. should have invaded Iran first and then had Iran’s army do the dirty work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, it is the exact opposite, the U.S. should find a sweet way to ‘transform’ Iran and turn it into its ally to preserve its regional interests. There was a huge miscalculation then, and there is a big miscalculation now.
The U.S. has allowed its policies to be dictated by Jerusalem or Whitehall – but never really analyzed its own strategic interests and established its own goals. Iran and Iranians especially have been victims of this policy failure. Iraqis and Afghans too have been victims of this failure – because there is still a lot of bloodshed in those countries. The U.S. has NOT established a sustainable path to implement its regional policy and in turn ‘tame the Chinese Tiger’. The Chinese and Russians are sitting there laughing at America’s cowboy – hick driven- attitude. There has been NO sophistication in Washington.
The Mullahs too have played a good hand and preserved themselves for over 30 years. It is possible that much of this American paralysis has been driven by the Mullahs too. After all they negotiated the Algiers accord in 1981 which essentially meant that the U.S. could do nothing to Iran (modeled on the Cuba Agreement).
Bottom line, the costs of empire keep ratcheting up. And America is carrying the ‘full load’ – and the Israelis and Europeans are sitting on the American tax payer like a donkey – using American blood and treasure to further their own private strategies and goals. BP now is the largest oil company in the Caspian region, and BP too controls the pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey. Israel knows full well that if they attack Iran, the U.S. will have to come in and protect their behind…regardless of the costs.
America is pregnant. America is obligated. But America no longer has a sugar-daddy of 300 million tax payers that can afford these obligations. And the Chinese know it. The current policy U.S. is following in the region has already brought the U.S. down, and will continue to do so – unless there is a major change.
America can no longer operate unilaterally. If America is to preserve its dominance, it must do so with good strong allies. I would argue that a transformed Iran is the very best Ally the U.S. could want. To isolate, contain and ultimate lock up Iranians within a theocratic black hole – does not ultimately serve U.S. interests. It may serve the Europeans interests; it may serve Saudi Arabia’s interests; it may serve Chinese Interests, it may serve Russian interests – but NOT the U.S.
This is a major strategic miscalculation - and will utimately cost U.S. global dominance ...like so many empires before it.
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