The Distance to Tehran

In one of my previous jobs, I was tasked with revising a severely outdated briefing on Iran, to serve as the intelligence estimate for a planners’ training course. I did a good job but found the whole exercise a bit of a waste, given that we were clearly pivoting towards Asia and Great Power conflict – or at the very least trying not to get bogged down in wars with relatively second-tier states whom we could safely engage in diplomatic or deterrent relationships.

I hate that everything I learned from updating the intel estimate is useful. I hate that I know a bunch about the government, military, and security services of a country that, frankly, ought to be a strategic partner in a generation. And I hate that now planners might actually use that knowledge not as an exemplar to be deployed against meaningful adversaries, but as the actual basis for operational planning – again, targeting a country whose status as an adversary isn’t terribly older than I am.

I think enough has been said at this point about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani (read Evan Osnos and Adam Entous’s New Yorker piece for more) that I don’t need to go into any great detail here. But there are two aspects of this that signal frustrating trends in foreign policy thinking, beyond the mere mental gymnastics and reality distortions needed simply to try and understand what Donald Trump is even saying, much less what he means. As far as that goes, Adam Elkus has written the definitive essay on the pandemonium of epistomological modernity in the age of Trump.

It is immensely frustrating that we even have to keep discussing Iran as some sort of permanent enemy or center of gravity for the United States. The animosity between the two is real but constantly stoked despite the absence of any true ideological clash between Tehran and Washington. As numerous articles have pointed out, in the months after 9/11, Iranian and US forces partnered together in Afghanistan and Iran played an important and constructive role in the Bonn Conference that established a post-Taliban government.  This isn’t to say that Iran is a benign actor, but rather that there have been opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation that we, to put it bluntly, used to be better at taking advantage of. It helps if you aren’t implacably hostile, which leads to diplomatic possibilities like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which this administration has, unsurprisingly, withdrawn (indeed, John Bolton recently listed that and the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty as his proudest accomplishments). And much of animosity on both sides is generational – the weird MEK fanboys of Bolton’s generation won’t be in power forever (inshallah) and neither will the Iran-Iraq War veterans currently populating the upper ranks of the IRGC and Artesh.

Given a generation of change, it’s likely we could see a wholly new type of relationship. As recently as 2012, a majority of Iranians had favorable opinions of Americans. Young Iranians don’t share the animosity of older policymakers in either country (at least, they didn’t before the Soleimani strike). This, to me, is the greatest tragedy of the neocon obsession with Iran. It’s obliterated any chance at reconciliation or a “normal” relationship, finding venues of cooperation where interests overlap while accepting the fundamental legitimacy of the other (not unlike the cycles of competition and cooperation that have marked the U.S.-Russian relationship). I’m not exactly a fan of the Iranian theocracy, but it also represents neither an existential threat nor a hugely valuable prize to be won: it is a country with which we could have a productive relationship if we desired. But we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Counterterrorism cooperation was at an all-time high with Tehran before David Frum wrote George W. Bush’s speech placing Iran in the “Axis of Evil” and that was that; Washington was now implacably opposed to the Islamic Republic’s very existence. The prospects of peace have never seemed dimmer.

And so Iran seems to be – aside from the cascading consequences of the Iraq War – our main raison d’etre in the Middle East. The mistake is both specific and generic. Iran is  not of national interest to the United States. And Martin Indyk – an old Middle East hand – has now made the case in the Wall Street Journal that the region is one of no pressing strategic interest to the United States and that we should seek to disengage, that “the Middle East isn’t worth it anymore.” He’s right. Every deployment, every operation conducted in the region seems to just serve as self-justification. We’re there because we’re there. We’re staying because we’re there. We have to protect our forces there because that’s where they are.

But what if they weren’t? What if we could finally exricate ourselves from a decades-long quagmire and acknowledge that, to put it bluntly, the Middle East does not matter to our interests or our security, and that stoking tensions while propping up theocratic monarchies does much more harm than good, all while draining attention and valuable resources?

Iran shouldn’t matter. And the Middle East needs far less attention than its been receiving.

Argo Fuck Yourself

So Kevin B. Lee decided to publish a total #slatepitch of an article on the terribleness of Argo. It doesn’t really need to be argued with, but I already wrote most of this, so here we go.

Kevin Lee has completely missed the point. Argo is not a film about the Iranian Revolution, nor is it a film about Operation Eagle Claw, nor is it an attempt to explore the rule of the Shah or the CIA’s complicity in it. It’s essentially a heist movie, with a historical backdrop, “inspired” by a real event. And it’s truly only about one event: those US embassy personnel who fled to the Canadian ambassador’s residence and the clever deception operation through which they were later exfiltrated.

All these other movies that Kevin Lee talks about? None of them are the film that Affleck sought to make. None of them are the film that he made. If someone else wants to make those, fine (and they probably should be made). But I absolutely hate it when filmmakers get criticized for not telling “the whole story” when the entire *point* of finding a small story in a much larger one is to make for a more compelling narrative.

You can make a World War II movie without addressing the Holocaust. Gladiator never directly confronted Roman slavery. Charlie Wilson’s War ends on a downer but without elaborating on subsequent events in Afghanistan (some of which remain pretty important) Black Hawk Down is a fine film without exploring the complete collapse of Somali central government. Air Force One certainly didn’t need to delve into the machinations of Serbian genocide and pan-Slav sentiment to be entertaining.

Sometimes history is fun, and makes for an enjoyable movie, regardless of surrounding events. Sometimes history is terrible, and we get Schindler’s List – a very good film unto itself. But not every film set in 2012 needs the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop, and Argo certainly doesn’t distance itself from the Revolution.

As one of my compatriots put it so succinctly, the tl;dr of Lee’s argument is “I wanted someone to adapt one of Chomsky’s books into a film! Now I’m going to have a temper tantrum because it wasn’t Ben Affleck!”

Oh, side note: Argo is a ton of fun, and you should see it.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Last week, Russian defense firm Concern Morinformsystem-Agat announced it had designed a clever new launch system for cruise missiles: the Club-K. Designed in the form of a standard shipping container, the missiles can then be launched from essentially anywhere: on a train, from a ship, from a tractor-trailer in the middle of nowhere. They use satellite guidance systems. And in case this seemed like yet another cute idea the Russians had, the system makes use of the 3M-54TE, 3M-54TE1, and the 3M-14TE missiles – all of which are tested and proven. The missiles come in two flavors: anti-ship and anti-ground.

This is naturally troubling on a number of levels, though actually not quite so many as one might imagine at first glance. The most immediate concern is that this particular style of camouflage allows a merchant ship to carry enough firepower to knock out an aircraft carrier – a continuation of asymmetric warfare at sea that Robert Gates has been acknowledging quite a bit recently. Asymmetric threats in general stand to gain the most from this weapon; the sheer banality that the missiles are hidden behind (the container looks so normal) is a clever disguise. Watching that video definitely provokes one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Iran and Venezuela are already lining up to purchase the Club-K, and others will soon follow suit. Of course, Venezuela is a highly overrated security problem, but the threat posed by the Club-K is not existential; but one of harassment and annoyance. Iran, on the other hand, poses a clearer danger both itself and through intermediaries. And as Al Sahwa points out:

While it is true that al Qaeda won’t buy this weapon system from CM-AGAT out right, I think we have to recognize that nations like Iran have no qualms in providing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weapons. The primary limiting factor for a terror organization utilizing this system is most likely the satellite navigation system. A non-Nation State organization would probably need access to a Nation State’s satellite infrastructure, although this is strictly a personal assumption.

However, seeing as some of the weakest links in American border security are the ports, we’re at huge risk there. Is it just me or does the Club-K look like it could also be a toy for eccentric billionaires?

22 Bahman as COIN

Crossposted at Secure Nation.

So in addition to using their Chinese-made riot trucks and gas attacks on the protesters, the Iranian security forces were able to quell much of the 22 Bahman uprising by simply relying on the weakness of the movement’s organizational structure. Letting the enemy defeat itself; very Art of War. The very lack of hierarchy in the green movement was both a blessing and a curse. From Foreign Policy:

Like many of the green movement activists, Sadeghi’s belief in the protests seems related to their “horizontal organization,” the fact that they were structured without hierarchies. This was supposed to be the great strength of the movement, but it is also an abiding weakness. A horizontal organization can’t clearly delineate different roles to different people according to their strengths; it can’t reward those who participate, or sanction those who hesitate. Facebook enabled many young Iranians to forget these points.

Now obviously the Taliban is not organizing via Facebook, but the principle of decentralization is the same. Avoid having a center of gravity, put together your demonstrations (attacks) at the last possible minute; coordinate, execute, and then melt away into the night. But if the Iranian green movement using the same principles was successfully put down, does this offer us a rubric for approaching insurgencies?

Mir Hossein Mousavi's Facebook page.

The short answer is probably not. The Taliban is not planning its operations through Facebook or tweets. But the reason the Revolutionary Guard so effectively shut down the protests was by blocking access to means of communications; that is to say the internet. No Gmail, no Facebook, no twitter meant that there was no coordination between demonstrators, nor was there a way to quickly spread the word of crackdowns in a particular area. The networks used by the Taliban for communication are more dispersed, making a system-wide shutdown more difficult. Walkie-talkies and satellite phones are the order of the day, and while we can intercept calls, we cannot easily end them. Even if we did, human couriers would merely proliferate further.

Also worth keeping in mind is the psychological element. The pushback given by the Iranian regime was demoralizing and a clear setback for the movement, slowing momentum and further progress. Presumably more than one green movement adherent changed his colors, or at least plans to lay low thanks to the IRG. But when ISAF and the United States attempt to stop the movement (the Taliban), it disperses them without costing the Taliban anything. Most of the Iranian protesters were relatively concentrated – do we need to herd Taliban fighters into a single killing zone? And is the Battle for Marjah a step in that direction?

Iran and the SCO

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may soon expand to include Pakistan, and more importantly Iran. Iran is already an observer nation, but full-fledged membership would definitely have a big impact on the region, as well as any future role for the SCO. Larison disagrees:

Granting Iran membership would be seen in the West as a provocative move, but a good question is why anyone should be provoked by it. The SCO is not a full-fledged military alliance or defensive pact, and it has existed primarly as a mechanism to consolidate Russian and Chinese political and economic influence in Central Asia. At the moment, it is a limited security and economic structure.

This is all true – the SCO isn’t even on par with the CIS or other limited regional IGOs. But seeing as one of the main purposes of the organization is to provide China and Russia a multilateral forum for pressuring much of Central Asia, this only increases their ability to do so. I think the way to look at this isn’t so much as Iran gaining influence and legitimacy, but rather another big country on the periphery of Central Asia able to provide additional leverage for Russia and China. A shrinking of Central Asian security.

But the most interesting wrinkle might be that for Iran it can’t be about oil, unless they know something about their reserves we don’t. Larison’s observation that it’s Russia pushing for Iranian membership with the Chinese more reluctant points to some interesting energy politics. Could Russia be looking at Iran as their Kazakhstan?