My Interview on Middle East Geopolitics, Afghanistan and Iran & the Bomb with Marat Kunaev

I was recently interviewed on Middle East geopolitics and the Iran Question by Marat Kunaev, a blogger and translator at InoForum. I would like to thank him for the opportunity to express my views on the topic and providing a possible gateway into the geopolitical commentary on Runet. I’m reprinting the interview from here, with a few very minor edits; Marat made a Russian translation here.

What do you think about the situation in the Middle East?

The mainstream media likes to make generalizations about this very diverse region. Most of these are idiotic, simplistic tropes (oil, Islam, terrorists, etc). I don’t think this is productive, so instead I’ll highlight two things that get little traction in the Western mainstream media.

First, water scarcity is the root of many of the region’s problems. The Middle East is the world’s only major region perennially incapable of feeding itself, forcing it to import “virtual water” in the form of food. One of the main causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is over the unfair distribution of water, which is skewed towards Israel and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. On a bigger scale, water flows are almost as important to the region’s strategic balance as the distribution of oil deposits. Control of the headwaters of the Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, coupled with the biggest economic base in the region, gives Turkey immense strategic clout. To the contrary, Egypt’s food production deficits make it potentially vulnerable, as seen in the food riots of 2008 when global grain prices spiked. The urban poor who are hardest hit tend to resent their secular authoritarian rulers and support Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, making good with Israel and seeking US protection and subsidies makes perfect sense for the Egyptian political elites: resources can be freed up from military spending towards maintaining domestic stability.

Second, the “Islamic Resurgence” is rather simplistically portrayed as single-minded opposition to the West. The real situation is a lot more complex. The movement takes a variety of guises, from the moderate Islamism of Turkey’s AKP to Al-Qaeda’s franchise-based terrorist cells to the internal clan-based conflicts of Shi’ite Iran’s “Velayat-e faqih” system. It is inaccurate to treat them as a hostile monolith. And many of their grievances do sound genuine to ordinary Muslims. For instance, even Osama bin Laden doesn’t hate the US for its “freedom”, but for its support of Arab elites that he sees as corrupt, anti-democratic and hostile to Islam — e. g., the House of Saud’s acquiescence in stationing US troops in the holy lands of Mecca and Medina to protect the oil exports whose proceeds overwhelmingly benefit influential cliques. But arguing that this interpretation has some validity to it is a sure road to a wrecked career in American mainstream journalism.

Should we wait for radical change in Afghanistan?

No. Even Ronald Reagan and Rambo were pessimistic, back in the 1980’s! 🙂 Americans don’t want to stay in Afghanistan for much longer, and their finances won’t allow them to anyway. In a few years, the Afghan government will have to sink or swim without US ground forces to support it.

However, I doubt the Taleban will seize central control again. Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untapped mineral reserves, and regional giants China, India, Russia and Iran have no interest in fundamentalists blocking access to them — especially in our world of increasingly scarce, harder-to-get resources.

How real is the possibility of US or Israeli strikes on Iran?

It’s one of those things that everyone talks about all the time, but never happens: until a spark sets of the bonfire, the Big Thing happens, and acquires the tinge of inevitability as viewed in the rear-view mirror of our common history. Kind of like World War One…

I wrote about this in my post The US Strategic Dilemma and Persian Deadlock. The key players are the US, Russia and Iran (the “triangle”) and Israel (the “wildcard”). Each have diverging interests that are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.

The Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz.

Iran wants nuclear weapons to secure its mountain base, acquire the capability to project influence through its proxies (e. g. Hezbollah) with impunity and become the hegemon over the oil riches of the Gulf. Russia wants to keep the US occupied in the Middle East as it rebuilds its Eurasian sphere of influence, but all things considered, it would rather Iran not get the Bomb. The US is firmly against both Iranian hegemony in the Gulf and Russian hegemony in Eurasia: however, the tools at its disposal are insufficient to prevent both (it doesn’t have the hard power to contain Russian influence within its current borders, while a strike against Iran will have severe repercussions — up to and including a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, through which pass 40% of the world’s oil exports, the commodity underpinning America’s own global hegemony). As such, the US, Russia, and Iran are locked into an uneasy, but potentially sustainable, strategic “triangle”.

However, this “triangle” is broken by the “wildcard”, Israel. While the Israelis couldn’t care less what Russia gets up to, it sees an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an existential threat: not exclusively in a military sense — Israel has 200 nukes of its own (though Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic rantings aren’t reassuring) — but in a political and cultural one. If Iran gets the Bomb, a nuclear race will break out in the Middle East. A sense of doubt and uncertainty will seep into Israel. Hezbollah will grow bolder; the possible entrenchment of political Islam in Turkey or Egypt will create a strategic nightmare for Israel. Educated Jews will start leaving the Jewish homeland, undermining the tax base needed for increased military expenditures (e. g. on anti-ballistic missile systems), as well as the Jewish nature of the Israeli state itself. In short, a nuclearized Middle East will make Israel’s foothold in the Levant vulnerable, even untenable.

If Israel feels that the US is wavering in its commitment to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, then it will go it alone — perhaps with the covert agreement of states like Saudi Arabia, which aren’t much interested in seeing a hostile, nuclear-armed Shi’ite state on the other side of the Gulf either. The US will almost certainly be drawn into the fight in the aftermath — e. g. by an Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, or even false flag Israeli attacks on the US.

In my opinion, the dates of likely Israeli action are from early-2011 (when the US acquires its Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb capable of busting concrete bunkers 60m deep) to end-2012 (the date by which Iran is likely to have developed workable nuclear weapons). Otherwise, the stage is set for the eventual nuclearization of the Middle East.

Should we expect a further strengthening of sanctions against Iran?

President Medvedev said on 23 September, 2009, “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” What he means by this Aesopian language is that it is Russia that will be able to decide whether the results of strengthened sanctions are going to be “productive” (however you define that). Russia’s position is crucial because it is the only country with the spare refining capacity and secure trans-Caspian transport routes to successfully break any gasoline sanctions against Iran.

But even Russia’s participation will not dissuade Iran from working on the Bomb. To the contrary, it can even increase Iranian resolve if it creates the conditions for a “siege mentality” within the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, sanctions are in the interests of both the US (it would prefer accommodating with Iran to fighting it, if possible) and even Russia (to appease the US in exchange for concessions on other policy fronts). As such, sanctions are a very convenient pretext for delaying military action. But for understandable reasons, Israel is unlikely to be as patient.

What do you think are the real Russian, Indian and Chinese positions on Iran?

Though Russia might have a few more friends than just her Army and Navy, Iran certainly isn’t one of them. It’s just a lever to be used for extracting concessions from the US. At this time, supporting sanctions is good for Russia because the Americans are compromising on many spheres (e. g. on modernization, START, Georgia). However, a time may come when Russia performs volte face, e. g. if the US shows signs of reaching a reconciliation with Iran in order to refocus its energies on containing Russia, or ceases supporting Russia’s modernization drive.

China and India are both interested in cooperating with Iran to develop its hydrocarbons sector and lock in its oil and LNG exports. Both countries espouse non-Western values of “national sovereignty” and non-interference. Furthermore, India is interested in recruiting Iran as a western counterweight against its rival Pakistan. As a result, neither country has any interest whatsoever in stringently enforcing sanctions against Iran out of pure altruism.

What do you think are the positions of Georgia and Azerbaijan on military action against Iran and its aftermath?

Since Iran is in a “cold war” with Azerbaijan and supports its prime enemy Armenia, the Azeri elites would probably secretly welcome military action against Iran. Furthermore, there are twice as many Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan, and though they enjoy equal rights with Persians, it is Islam — or the system of Guardianship of the Islamic Jury — that really keeps Iran united (with help from the security apparatus). If Iran were to suffer military defeat, the regime may be discredited, and a liberal democratic one may even take its place.

map-iran-ethnicities

Map of Iran’s ethnicities.

In that case, centrifugal tendencies may become predominant — as in the last years of the Soviet Union — and maybe even a Greater Azerbaijan will emerge on both sides of the Caspian Sea in alliance with Turkey to the west. On the other hand, Azerbaijan can’t be too openly enthusiastic about undermining Iran because it borders Russia to the north, which is friendlier with Iran. That is why the Azeris categorically refuse to let Israeli planes fly over its airspace in a strike on Iran.

Georgia’s position is much harder to decipher, as it maintains fairly good relations with everyone except Russia — against which it is irrevocable opposed because of its liberation / occupation (cross out as you wish) of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia. Though in previous years they’d have supported Israel, their current interests aren’t clear, since the Israelis stopped delivering arms to Georgia in exchange for Russia not delivering the S-300 air defense system to Iran. I don’t think a strike against Iran by either Israel or the US will cardinally change Georgia’s situation.

What do you think about the situation in the Russian North Caucasus and the Caucasus region in general?

Russia’s North Caucasus remains bloody and unstable, but secure under Russian control. Kadyrov is the Kremlin’s vassal in Chechnya: should he turn renegade, they’ll find another baron to replace him easily enough.

I doubt there’ll be another Georgia-Russia war. Its clear that the Ossetians and Abkhazians prefer implicit Russian control to explicit Georgian rule, and Saakashvili has no chance of changing this reality by military force. On the other hand, he remains genuinely popular amongst Georgians and secure in his rule. The cold war between Russia and Georgia will continue, but it’s unlikely to turn hot again; not unless Saakashvili is a total loon and tries to replay 08/08/08.

Another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is also unlikely. Though Azeri military spending, bolstered by its oil wealth, now exceeds the entire Armenian state budget, the latter has had fifteen years to reinforce its positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Furthermore, direct Azeri attacks on Armenia proper will probably provoke a Russian military response through the mutual defense provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization). Aliyev is a rational, calculating leader and would much rather enjoy Azerbaijan’s oil bounty than run the risk of military defeat and popular uprisings against his regime.

How would you interpret the recent Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal in the context of multipolarity?

It’s an ideological statement: the voices of formerly peripheral countries rejecting the Western consensus on nuclear rights and proposing an alternative project amongst members of the “Rest”. As such, it is a very strong endorsement of the multi-polar ideal. But in real life, the actors playing the key roles are the countries with both interests in the issue and power projection capabilities in the region: Israel, the US, Iran, and Russia. West or Rest, it doesn’t matter: only power and the will to power.

I’d like to thank Marat Kunaev for this interview. I tried to make my answers as thought-provoking as his questions, and though I might have failed in that endevour, I hope the gap is not unbridgeable.

Interviewed by Marat Kunaev.

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