Iran in Latin America: Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

Senior Fellow Douglas Farah's analysis of the debate over the level of threat posed by Iran's expanding diplomatic, trade and military presence in Latin America, and its stated ambition to continue to broaden these more

Chinese Naval Modernization: Altering the Balance of Power

Richard Fisher details China's naval modernization program and the potential impacts on U.S. interests in the Western more

After Iraq Part 2

emailEmail this article
printPrint this article

by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on December 6th, 2006

The “After” in “After Iraq” seems to have drawn considerably closer in the three weeks since this column last addressed the issue. As American support for the war dwindles and even the administration seeks exits, the states in the region and beyond are taking America’s measure and positioning themselves for the post-American phase.

A “Saudi security analyst and government adviser” Nawaf Obaid is quoted in the press saying that “If the US left Iraq ‘one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian backed Shia militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis’” [See Financial Times 30 November 2006 p. 6].

As we predicted in our first column, then, at least some Saudis are unwilling to tolerate a rise by the Shi’ia to dominance and may use military force to prevent it. Whether the Saudis could actually succeed, however, is another question.

Saudi Arabia is of course immense—886,000 square miles, bigger by more than another France than Iran—but sparsely populated Iran’s population of about 66 million is roughly three times the estimated total of native Saudis (22 million—five million more residents are foreigners).

One may doubt, however, whether even if the Saudis threw their entire army (perhaps 200,000) into Iraq they would enjoy greater success than have the Americans. Or perhaps more to the point, any more success than the superbly trained and equipped Israeli Defense Force did against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where they were fought to a standstill.

Saudi intervention would almost certainly set in train a whole series of reactions. Iran would be displeased and could close the Strait of Hormuz, (21 miles wide at its narrowest) thus effectively ending oil exports from the Gulf.

Imagine the ensuing crisis: Saudi Arabia threatening to collapse and take Western (and Asian) industry with them, American allies clamoring impotently, while Washington explodes into a fireball of name calling, disagreement, and vitriol.

It is not clear that the United States could open the Strait or ensure oil transport.  Doing so would of course involve achieving sea control in the area—which would be costly. Iran possesses surface ships, submarines, aircraft, mines, and anti-ship missiles that could do serious damage to any American task force. One tactic now being discussed among analysts is the possible conversion of “obsolete” manned jet aircraft into kamikaze type unmanned anti-ship weapons.

Air strikes against Iran are often discussed, but would be useless.

How likely is the United States to use force under such conditions, however, at the same time that she is retreating from Iraq?

Furthermore, sea control would not ensure the flow of oil if the main oil loading facilities in the Gulf had been attacked and disabled, which would be well within the capability of Iranian or other forces. (Most Saudi oilfields and loading facilities are on the Gulf side).

Terrorism would most likely spread into Saudi Arabia proper and someone would close down oil exports.

In such a situation other countries would face a very difficult set of choices: to meet Iranian or Al Qaeda conditions, to attempt to control Iran (which would lead to war far larger and more dangerous than what we have seen so far) or come to terms with her and others at odds with the West, or to find some means of surviving without the oil.

As for Saudi Arabia, it is crisscrossed by internal tensions. War would exacerbate these and might well provide the opportunity for Al-Qaeda to attack the House of Saud, which has always been its primary target.

Preventing escalation and spread of war under such conditions would be difficult indeed. Saudi Arabia has some difficult neighbors to the West and South, Yemen among them. Iran borders (and long controlled) Afghanistan. By supplying to the Afghan insurgents the same sorts of technologies that enabled Hezbollah to stop the IDF, Teheran could doom the shaky NATO effort somehow to stabilize Afghanistan.

From Afghanistan, problems can propagate to Pakistan and (former Soviet) Central Asia.

To the West, of course, the question is what Lebanon, Syria and Jordan will do. We may pretty well assume that Lebanon will become Shi’ia as that is now its majority population. With the United States obviously lacking the stomach for the Middle East, Syria will be strengthened and Jordan disheartened.

Which brings us to the one near Great Power in the region, Turkey, which has just coldly dismissed the latest feeble EU diplomacy—the result of spoiling operations in Cyprus, now an EU member, designed to keep Ankara out. One senses that the Turks are intelligent and proud, and do not take kindly to being toyed with.

Ankara seems unlikely to feel any obligation to assist Europe under these circumstances and she has already refused once to allow American forces to use bases in Anatolia for Iraq operations. She seems likely to be the next Middle Eastern state to acquire nuclear capabilities.

Likely we will soon see, then, that the Turks are militarily strong as well. Order in the Arab world was kept, roughly from the sixteenth century to the period immediately after World War I, by the Ottoman empire. Still-Kemalist Ankara seems unlikely to attempt to extend her power to, say, Medina—the southern terminus (250 miles from Mecca) of the strategic Hejaz Railway—but she may well move into northern Iraq.

Some reports suggest Turkey is stirring up trouble in Kirkuk, to provide a pretext for intervention.

So as suggested in the first essay in this series, the US exit from Iraq is likely to see an increase rather than a decrease in violence. That violence will create refugees.

Where will the refugees go? Some are already entering Turkey. The land connection to Egypt from Arabia has been cut by the creation of Israel, so swelling already packed Cairo will be difficult. But a “humanitarian crisis” is likely, with large numbers fleeing to coastal areas of Lebanon and Syria. Thence they will likely reach Europe, one way or another.

In Europe, networks of fellow Muslims already exist which they can join.

Which brings us to our final point for this column. So far our European allies have done very little beyond condemning (with some exceptions) our mishandled war in Iraq, engaging in half-hearted efforts to work in Afghanistan, and attempting to conceal their pleasure at seeing the United States overstretched and discomfited in a small and not very strong Middle Eastern state. The universally excoriated Dubya has gotten his comeuppance.

But who is going to save them from a militarized Middle East, sinking into civil wars, and exporting its refugees—if not its violence?

Sadly, this is their problem, and Americans, no matter of what political persuasion, are likely to recognize that fact.

Will there be winners?

Iran looks set to emerge stronger, but she will be checked almost immediately by Turkey, her rival since early Ottoman times. No Arab state looks likely to emerge as superior in power to the others, but all will gain some strength.

The jihadists will be greatly encouraged, though success will bring difficult choices as they become more and more entangled in the briar patch of Arab nationalism, divided Islam, and so forth.

Finally, consider Russia and China. Both are actively seeking greater global influence. Both have actively opposed the United States, both have connections to Iran and other states in the region, and both have connections to terrorists.

They might be picked as winners were it not for two facts. One is that both of these countries have long frontiers with exactly the area where Islam will gain strength, and radical Islam seems likely to spread—which is to say Central Asia, and for China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, both states have large and unruly Muslim populations. If radicals become more able to operate within these populations, then both governments will face an intractable problem.

All of the above is speculation: it is scenario building, not prognostication, and it is only one scenario. But it is quite plausible. Others are equally discouraging and plausible, while those that are encouraging seem unlikely.

None of them really offers anything beneficial to anybody.

Nevertheless, their important implication is this: in the post-Iraq world, fissures and conflicts look set to spread and grow worse, over the medium term. The power that has traditionally dealt with such problems looks to be taking itself—rightly or wrongly—out of that role. Other powers may believe that this is their gain—but as Americans will testify, and some French and British and Italians (and even a handful of Turks) may remember—responsibility for the Middle East is a deadly poisoned chalice.

back to top ^

Powered by eResources