Friday, December 29, 2006

Can We Wait Out Iran?

A form of Cold War is being played out in the Middle East today. Arrayed on one side are Israel, the West and various Sunni Arab states. Facing them are Iran and the Shia Muslim movement as well as Iran's proxies: Hezbollah and Hamas.

There are three reasons to fear Iran. One is its open hatred of Israel, at least among Iran's leaders. Another is Iran's persistent drive to acquire the ability to enrich uranium, a precursor to development of nuclear weapons. The third is Iran's drive to extend Shiite influence throughout the region, not only into Iraq but even into Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan. This Pan-Shiite expansion is often manifested in conflicts that destabilize areas of Sunni influence. Iran's approach isn't solely aggressive. It also pours massive amounts of money into reconstruction and development projects in regions it seeks to influence, if not dominate.

As David Rhode writes in The New York Times, Iran is running a mini-Marshall plan in neighbouring Afghanistan:

"Two years ago, foreign engineers built a highway through the desert of western Afghanistan, past this ancient trading post and on to the outside world. Nearby, they strung a high-voltage power line and laid a fibre-optic cable, marked with red posts, that provides telephone and Internet access to the region.

"The modernization comes with a message. Every 10 to 15 kilometres or so, road signs offer quotations from the Qur'an. "Forgive us, God," declares one. "God is clear to everyone," says another. A graceful mosque rises roadside, with a green glass dome and Qur'anic inscriptions in blue tile.

"The style is unmistakably Iranian.

"All of this is fruit of Iran's drive to become a bigger player in Afghanistan as it exploits opportunities to spread its influence and ideas farther across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah, with Iran's support, has demonstrated Tehran's sway in Lebanon, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein has allowed it to expand its influence in Iraq.

"Iran has been making inroads into Afghanistan, as well. During the tumultuous 1980s and '90s, Iran shipped money and arms to groups fighting first the Soviet occupation and later the Taliban government. But since the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban in 2001, Iran has taken advantage of the central government's weakness to pursue a more nuanced strategy: part reconstruction, part education and part propaganda."

Iran's Ambassador, Muhammad Reza Brahimi, claims Iran has no grand objectives in Afghanistan: "Our strategy in Afghanistan is based on security, stability and developing a strong central government. It not only benefits the Afghan people, it's in our national interest."

"Still, there are indications of other motives. Iranian radio stations broadcast anti-American propaganda into Afghanistan. Moderate Shiite leaders in Afghanistan say Tehran is funnelling money to conservative Shiite religious schools and former warlords with longstanding ties to Iranian intelligence agencies.

"And as the dispute over Iran's nuclear program has escalated, leading the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the country just days ago, U.S. and Afghan officials claim Iranian intelligence activity has increased across Afghanistan.

"Iranian officials cast themselves as a counterweight to the U.S., which they say has mishandled opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq.

"'U.S. policies, particularly under the current administration, have created a huge amount of resentment around the world,' said a senior Iranian official, who requested anonymity.

"'I'm not saying Iran is gaining power all over the world. I'm saying the U.S. is losing it fast.'

"Afghanistan, a fragile mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, has long been susceptible to intervention from more powerful neighbours. As the world's largest predominantly Shiite country, Iran is the traditional foreign backer of Afghanistan's Shiites, roughly 20 per cent of the country's population.

"During the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, Iranian Revolutionary Guards financed and trained fundamentalist Shiite militias as well as Sunni fighters. In the civil war after the Russian withdrawal in 1989, Iran became a patron of the Northern Alliance, while Pakistan supported the ultimately victorious Taliban."

When the US conquered Iraq it had Iran sandwiched between US forces in Afghanistan to Iran's west and in Iraq to Iran's east. Now with Iraq perhaps hopelessly destabilized and Afghanistan very much in doubt, Iran has slipped these restraints.

What to do? Can the west afford another Middle East adventure? Probably not. The political will for it doesn't exist among Western constituencies. Voters in Western nations have lost confidence in their leaders' judgment and in their ability to win these sorts of wars.

There is another option and that's to simply contain Iran and wait it out. Some months ago the Asia Times ran an article claiming that Iran's oil reserves are fast running out. I checked that against sources such as the CIA Fact Book which seemed to openly dispute that conclusion. Recently, however, the story resurfaced via the Associated Press:

"Iran is suffering a staggering decline in revenue from its oil exports, and if the trend continues, its oil income could virtually disappear by 2015.

"That is according to an analysis published Monday in a journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Iran’s economic woes could make the country unstable and vulnerable, with its oil industry crippled, said Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Johns Hopkins University, the report’s author.

The key to outwaiting Iran almost certainly lies in containment and there lies the rub. Containing Iran would almost certainly depend on the existence of a unified, stable Iraq, an increasingly doubtful prospect.

"Iran earns about $50 billion a year in oil exports. The decline is projected at 10 percent to 12 percent annually. In less than five years, exports could be halved and then disappear by 2015, Stern predicted.

"The report said the country could be destabilized by declining oil exports, hostility to foreign investment to develop new oil resources and poor state planning, Stern said.

"Iran produces about 3.7 million barrels a day, about 300,000 barrels below the quota set for Iran by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"The shortfall represents a loss of about $5.5 billion a year, Stern said.

“'What they are doing to themselves is much worse than anything we could do,' he said.

“'The one thing that would unite the country right now is to bomb them,' Stern said. 'Here is one problem that might solve itself.'”

No comments: