Iran Continues to Change the Balance of Power in Middle East

by MAJ. GEN. PAUL E. VALLELY, US ARMY (RET) July 20, 2011
 
The Chessboard Series - Middle East Update
 
Something extraordinary is happening in the Persian Gulf region as we predicted in our first series of the global Chessboard in 2010. The United States is still lacking a clear forward, coherent strategy to deal with Iran and seemingly too distracted with domestic events and issues to develop one. The White House and State Department and certain DOD members are struggling on how to move forward with Iraq’s ambiguous political landscape. The influence from Iran must be considered in a US search of a deal that would allow Washington to keep a meaningful military presence (10,000 troops) in the country beyond 2011 deadline that was stipulated by the current Status of Forces Agreement. From my perspective I would not place 10,000 of our precious troops in harm’s in Iraq as the Iraqis cannot be trusted in their actions vis-à-vis Iran.
 
Iran clearly stands to gain from this dynamic in the short and long term as it seeks to reshape the balance of power in the world’s most active energy arteries and be the master chessboard player for the region. But Iranian power is neither deep nor absolute and they are having internal political problems but still are able to carry out their hegemonic plans worldwide. Turkey’s ability to influence the area is growing in stature. Much hinges on the development in Syria with Hassad losing control and power each day and linked events in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
 
Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi spoke at Iran’s first Strategic Naval Conference in Tehran on July 13. Vahidi said the United States is “making endeavors to drive a wedge between regional countries with the aim of preventing the establishment of an indigenized security arrangement in the region, but those attempts are rooted in misanalyses and will not succeed.” The effect Vahidi spoke of refers to Iran’s ideal world that ultimately would transform the political, business, military and religious affairs of the Gulf States to favor the Shia and their patrons in Iran and Iraq.
 
Ironically, Iran owes its thanks for this historic opportunity to its two main adversaries; one are the Wahhabi Sunnis of al Qaeda infamy who carried out the 9/11 attacks and the other “Great Satan” that brought down Saddam Hussein. I will predict that Iran will succeed in filling a major power void in Iraq unless stopped this year by Israel. Iran is a country that touches six Middle Eastern powers and demographically favors the Shia, Iran would theoretically have its western flank secured as well as an oil-rich outlet with which to further project its influence.
 
So far, Iran’s plan is on track. Unless the United States and Israel takes action, Iran replaces the United States as the most powerful military force in the Persian Gulf region. In particular, Iran has the military ability to threaten the Strait of Hormuz and has a clandestine network of operatives spread across the globe (as far as Venezuela). Through its deep penetration of the Iraqi government, Iran is also in the best position to influence Iraqi decision-making. Washington’s obvious struggle in trying to negotiate an extension of the U.S. deployment in Iraq is perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of Iranian resolve to secure its flanks. The Iranian nuclear issue if actually achieved would certainly enhance Iranian security, but the most immediate imperative for Iran is to consolidate its position in Iraq. And as this weekend’s Iranian incursion into northern Iraq — ostensibly to fight Kurdish militants — shows, Iran is willing to make measured, periodic shows of force to convey that message.
 
While Iran already is well on its way to accomplishing its goals in Iraq, it needs two other key pieces to complete Tehran’s picture of a regional “indigenized security arrangement” that Vahidi spoke of. The first is an understanding with its main military challenger in the region, the United States. Such an understanding would entail everything from ensuring Iraqi Sunni military impotence to expanding Iranian energy rights beyond its borders to placing limits on U.S. military activity in the region, all in return for the guaranteed flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and an Iranian pledge to stay clear of Saudi oil fields.
 
The second piece is an understanding with its main regional adversary, Saudi Arabia. Iran’s reshaping of Persian Gulf politics entails convincing its Sunni neighbors that resisting Iran is not worth the cost, especially when the United States does not seem to have the time or the resources to come to their aid. No matter how much money the Saudis throw at Western defense contractors, any military threat by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council states against Iran will be hollow without other active Arab military commitment. Iran’s goal, therefore, is to coerce the major Sunni powers into recognizing an expanded Iranian sphere of influence at a time when U.S. security guarantees in the region are starting to erode. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, dubious of U.S. capabilities and intentions toward Iran, appears to be inching reluctantly toward an accommodation with its Persian adversary and away from the United States. It appears that the Saudis have had enough of Obama and Hillary Clinton plus a bevy of Middle East envoys who travel and talk a lot but never experience any forward or constructive action.
 
Of course, there is always a gap between intent and capability, especially in the Iranian case. Both negotiating tracks are charged with distrust, and meaningful progress is by no means guaranteed. That said, a number of signals have surfaced in recent weeks leading us to examine the potential for a Saudi-Iranian accommodation, however brief that may be. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is greatly unnerved by the political evolution in Iraq. The Saudis increasingly will rely on regional powers such as Turkey in trying to maintain a Sunni bulwark against Iran in Iraq, but Riyadh has largely resigned itself to the idea that Iraq, for now, is in Tehran’s hands. This is an uncomfortable reality for the Saudi leaders to cope with, but what is amplifying Saudi Arabia’s concerns in the region right now — and apparently nudging Riyadh toward the negotiating table with Tehran — is the current situation in Bahrain.
 
When Shiite-led protests erupted in Bahrain in the spring, we did not view the demonstrations simply as a natural outgrowth of the so-called Arab Spring. There were certainly overlapping factors, but there was little hiding the fact that Iran had seized an opportunity to pose a nightmare scenario for the Saudis: an Iranian-backed Shiite uprising spreading from Bahrain to the Shiite-concentrated, oil-rich Eastern Province of the Saudi kingdom.
 
This explains Saudi Arabia’s hasty response to the Bahraini unrest, during which it led a rare military intervention of GCC forces in Bahrain at the invitation of Manama to stymie a broader Iranian destabilization campaign. The demonstrations in Bahrain are far calmer now than they were in  mid-March at the peak of the crisis, but the concerns of the GCC states have not subsided, and for good reason. Halfhearted attempts at national dialogues aside, Shiite dissent in this part of the region is likely to endure, and this is a reality that Iran can exploit in the long term through its developing covert capabilities.
 
When we saw in late June that Saudi Arabia was willingly drawing down its military presence in Bahrain at the same time the Iranians were putting out feelers in the local press on an almost daily basis regarding negotiations with Riyadh, we discovered through our sources that the pieces were beginning to fall into place for Saudi-Iranian negotiations. To understand why, we have to examine the Saudi perception of the current U.S. position in the region. The Saudis cannot fully trust U.S. intentions at this point. The United States has three basic interests: to maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, to reduce drastically the number of forces it has devoted to fighting wars with Sunni Islamist militants (who are also by definition at war with Iran), and to try to reconstruct a balance of power in the region that ultimately prevents any one state — whether Arab or Persian — from controlling all the oil in the Persian Gulf.
 
More immediately, we must take into account how inherently vulnerable a U.S. military presence in Iraq (not to mention the remaining diplomatic presence) is to Iranian conventional and unconventional means.
 
The threat of a double-cross is a real one for all sides to this conflict. Iran cannot trust that the United States, once freed up, will not engage in military action against Iran down the line. The Americans cannot trust that the Iranians will not make a bid for Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth (though the military logistics required for such a move are likely beyond Iran’s capabilities at this point). Finally, the Saudis can’t trust that the United States will defend it in a time of need
 
Iran can thus be expected to make a variety of demands, all revolving around the idea of Sunni recognition of an expanded Iranian sphere of influence — a very difficult idea for Saudi Arabia to swallow. The Iranian defense minister Vahidi is seeking to convey to fellow Iranians and trying to convince the Sunni Arab powers that a U.S. security guarantee in the region does not hold as much weight as it used to, and that with Iran now filling the void, the United States will face a difficult time trying to maintain its existing military installations.
 
The question that naturally arises from Vahidi’s statement is the future status of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, and whether Iran can instill just the right amount of fear in the minds of its Arab neighbors to shake the foundations of the U.S. military presence in the region. For now, Iran does not appear to have the military clout to threaten the GCC states to the point of forcing them to negotiate away their U.S. security guarantees in exchange for Iranian restraint. This is a threat, however, that Iran will continue to let slip and even one that Saudi Arabia quietly could use to capture Washington’s attention in the hopes of reinforcing U.S. support for the Sunni Arabs against Iran.
 
The current dynamic places Iran in a prime position. Its political investment is paying off in Iraq, and it is positioning itself for negotiation with both the Saudis and the Americans that it hopes will fill out the contours of Iran’s regional sphere of influence. But Iranian power is not that durable in the long term.
 
Iran is well endowed with energy resources, but it is populous and mountainous. The cost of internal development means that while Iran can get by economically, it cannot prosper like many of its Arab competitors. Add to that a troubling demographic profile in which ethnic Persians constitute only a little more than half of the country’s population and developing challenges to the clerical establishment, and Iran clearly has a great deal going on internally distracting it from opportunities abroad.
 
The long-term regional picture also is not in Iran’s favor. Unlike Iran, Turkey is an ascendant country with the deep military, economic and political power to influence events in the Middle East — all under a Sunni banner that fits more naturally with the region’s religious landscape. Turkey also is the historical, indigenous check on Persian power. Though it will take time for Turkey to return to this role, strong hints of this dynamic already are coming to light.
 
In Iraq, Turkish influence can be felt across the political, business, security and cultural spheres as  Ankara is working quietly and fastidiously to maintain a Sunni bulwark in the country and steep Turkish influence in the Arab world. And in Syria, though the Alawite regime led by Hassad is not at a breakpoint, there is no doubt a confrontation building between Iran and Turkey over the future of the Syrian state. Turkey has an interest in building up a viable Sunni political force in Syria that can eventually displace the Alawites, while Iran has every interest in preserving the current regime so as to maintain a strategic foothold in the Levant. For now, the Turks are not looking for a confrontation with Iran, nor are they necessarily ready for one. Regional forces are accelerating Turkey’s rise, but it will take experience and additional pressures for Turkey to translate rhetoric into action when it comes to meaningful power projection. Within that time, we should expect Turkey to come into its own and assume its role as the region’s natural counterbalance to Iran.
 
Striking about the Chessboard moves by Iran and the current crises in the Middle East (ME), especially in Libya and Syria, is that the efforts to resolve it enable Iran to continue to stir the pot unmolested.  Iran does not hesitate to state publicly that its vision of the future of the ME is Shiite domination and Iran the dominant hegemonic power. There is a shift of power and the United States is not a part of it. Draw your own conclusions!
 
For Iran, Hezbollah serves as a live and successful model for revolutions, one which is reflected in other organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terror organizations, as well as extreme Shiite organizations in Iraq trained by Lebanese Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is nourished by the growing strength and power of Iran and draws upon its successes. The Iranians (unlike the United States) are very clever at using proxies to do their dirty work. 
 
It appears that our State Department and White House still remain asleep at the switch while the Iranians are very busy and fastidious in the continued resetting of the chessboard in the Middle East to their liking.
 
Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs seem to achieve some victory on every front weekly in orchestrating the activities in Libya, Bahrain, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria not to mention their support of Hamas, Iraqi Shiites, and the Taliban (and, oh, let us not forget Al Qaeda).  Iran has planned a larger, bolder strategy for the demise of Israel and the controlling power.
 
Russia and China (and their proxy North Korea), somewhat remaining in the background, supply sophisticated technology and military systems to Iran and languishes in the diminution of the United States influence in the Middle East.
 
Iran has been planning major preemptive actions against Israel from southern Lebanon for many years now and they are now capable of implementing multiple strikes on major Israeli commercial and military airports, facilities/installations, cities, and towns. These strikes will not be the feeble ones of 2006, but far more lethal.Hezbollah and Iran have effectively set much in place, specifically, a plan that now appears ready for launch. Israel must take preemptive action before it is too late and the US must support Israel more than ever.
 
Iran, the puppet master has set the chessboard of the Middle East in such a manner that they control almost all of the attack points, and a feckless west is doing nothing thus appearing to have no power to change the tide. The pawns are strong and their ability to move has been changed. The Israelis have been effectively set into a corner, and the west is not a friend anymore. Feeble talks have been nothing less than the usual failure they have always been. The change in the pieces on the Chess Board is virtually complete and the puppet master is winning because of the weakness of the UN and the pathetic, inept leadership of the current White House and State Department.
 
The chessboard has been set by Iran that now forces Israel to fight a multiple front war with little help expected from the west. If the air attack plan against Iran is launched, then the Israelis must simultaneously fight the Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon as well as other attacks emanating from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel understands this is the new chessboard; US authorities do not seem to understand.
 
Let us bring all the diverse Iranian opposition groups together with a real new breakthrough strategy. We must begin to focus U.S. policy toward Iran in a way that better promotes our national security interests and strengthens our resolve to face this growing threat.
 
A shaky transition is taking place in Afghanistan. Violence spiked Monday after leadership of the Afghan war effort formally transferred from Gen. David Petraeus to Gen. John Allen; seven policemen were poisoned and killed by suspected Taliban militants in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, militants beheaded two kidnapped civilians in Farah province, and a roadside bomb killed the police chief for Registan province and three other policemen in the southern province of Kandahar.  General Allen warned of "tough days ahead" as analysts looked at the mixed results from Petraeus' year in Afghanistan, as well as the possible changes in strategy heralded by the leadership shift and continued withdrawal of foreign forces from the country

Militants attacked the capital of Laghman province, which was transferred to Afghan control Tuesday, while Lashkar Gah is set to be transferred Wednesday, after a weekend sweep of its surrounding areas by U.S., British, and Afghan forces. The BBC looks at the property bubble in Lashkar Gah, where increased security has helped some properties sell for as high as $1 million but corruption remains endemic.

Mortars fired from Afghanistan killed four Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan Tuesday; as Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari is due to arrive in Kabul for talks. And Afghan parliamentarians lashed out at Pakistan's Intelligence Directorate (ISI) Monday during a discussion of the killings of former Uruzgan governor Jan Mohammed Khan and parliamentarian Mohammad Hasham Watanwal. Interior minister General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi also testified that the attackers received calls from Pakistan and Afghanistan prior to the attack. Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that according to U.S. officials, al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri may shift its emphasis to targeting American or Western interests abroad, rather than in the West.
 
So the chessboard is set by Iran. They have the puppet strings on all the chess pieces in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, Libya, Lebanon; all while Russia, the USA, China, and western nations posture. Iran is an adept Puppet Master now and the Chess Master (and we and others have allowed it to happen!).
 
Next move…. CHECKMATE!
 
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Paul E. Vallely, Major General (USA/Ret.) is an author, military strategist and Chairman of Stand Up America and Save Our Democracy Projects. 
 

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