Bowe Bergdahl and the Geopolitics of Ending a War

I’m in Washington D.C. this week, and good God will they not shut up about him.  Treason! cry the hardcore conservatives.  Hypocrites! cry their enemies.  All in all, it’s very annoying.  But beyond the headlines of dummy-wandering-off-base-and-getting-captured-for-five-years-and-does-that-make-him-a-bad-person lies the real tale of the U.S. trying to pull as much it can from the unsolvable war in Afghanistan.

Issue #1 – Afghanistan is a geographically fractured country with a variety of potential nations within it

Historically, Afghanistan has been the edge of an empire rather than the center of it.  That’s because the high mountains, harsh deserts, and difficulties in moving stuff from A to B have led a lot of would-be kings set themselves up outside of some emperor’s or world conqueror’s reach.  An army might move into the country, defeat the myriad tribes there, and declare a province, territory, or occupation zone, but the difficulty then becomes that Afghans have the ability to easily organize guerrilla wars – which have now become something of a national pastime.

Issue #2 – The process of building Afghanistan into a modern nation-state can take no less than generations

Human capital inside the country is rotten.  That means the vast majority of people have no idea how to function in anything but a tribal setting, and so they can’t wrap their heads around the idea that a national police, army, or government is a good thing that they should wholly support.  Rather, they will distrust these institutions of strangers because that’s what a tribesman does.

To break this mentality requires two things: a government that can accomplish things well and an economy that can pay for said government.  Afghanistan has huge hurdles to getting either.

They haven’t even agreed on what a regulation beard should look like.

Issue #3 – American policymakers in 2001 assumed a weak state like Afghanistan could be easily transformed

After World War II, America helped rebuild war-torn Europe through billions in loans that prevented Soviet-inspired communists from getting the breathing space they needed to overthrow what remained of Europe’s democracies.  It worked – stunningly.  But it worked for one very key reason: Europe’s human capital was up to the task.  Germans, French, Italians, and British did not need to be taught how to run a factory effectively or build a bridge; they just needed the goods to do so.

In 2001-02, American leaders thought they could copy the same model and apply it to Afghanistan.  But give a tribesman a billion dollars and he will remain equally ignorant of how to build a hydroelectric dam.  Training him properly will take up to a decade – that is, if he finishes such schooling at all and you haven’t made a huge error letting him into your dam building school.

What Americans assumed – and were wrong about – is that changing Afghanistan’s cultures would be as simple as writing a check.  Culture is immune to bribery; it changes only when the environment dictates it should, and only when such dictation is repeated.  The barrel of a gun can be a part of that, but never the heart of it.  Economics and human geography must change.

Fast forward to Obama’s failed surge, which just proved the point

After the 2010-11 surge did not break the back of the Taliban, it became obvious that the only solution left for Afghanistan was a more-or-less permanent occupation as the necessary cultural changes occurred at a pace set by the locals.  Hence the treaty that leaves U.S. soldiers in the country, but not actively fighting.  Such a force can keep a government in power in Kabul, but little else.  That’s about the best one can do in such a fractured place that still lacks basic roads.

But why the sudden rush to tie up the Bergdahl loose end?

Much of this has to do with the internal geopolitics of the United States.  As a large, diverse country, the U.S. is run as a federal system with several centers of power intentionally divided against themselves.  The U.S. has been centralizing a great deal since World War II, but D.C. hardly has the power of say London or Paris in deciding policy for the whole country.

In an Information Age democracy, government scandals move at the speed of light.  These scandals are, in the current political culture, virtually the only way for factions to achieve more power – general elections routinely return the same candidates again and again and have diminished in importance.  And so a president who wishes to tie his legacy to ending wars can leave no threads by which opponents can grab hold.  Freeing Bergdahl made political sense in a system like the United States’.

At the same time, attacking the swap makes sense for Obama’s opponents.  From a geopolitical standpoint, the five Taliban now in Qatar are not terribly dangerous – as the Taliban itself is not a very formidable opponent, merely an annoying guerrilla force that will die out only once the culture it thrives in disappears.   But the scandal they are now part of is incredibly useful for the Republican Party, who can use it to try to achieve what power is now achievable in America’s dysfunctional political culture.

Irrelevant gents, but boy it doesn’t help that they genuinely look like they’re plotting in their mug shots.

The war is ending; let the blame game begin

America’s political culture is not ready to accept that nobody could have won Afghanistan; that, in fact, the goals were over the top, and a better strategy would have hinged on local, but deeply undemocratic, strongmen who could have overseen the cultural change and economic development that Afghanistan needs to enter the 21st century.  And so inconsequential things like Bergdahl will get headlines; they will be the talk of the town for a news cycle or two.  And then we’ll move on to the next scandal.


Hamad Karzai Apparently Wants To Get Shot In A Public Square

After thirteen long years, the Afghan War – or at least America’s part in it – seems to be coming to a close.  Whatever forces are left will not be in it to change Afghanistan from one of the world’s most undeveloped nations to a shining beacon of democracy and liberty.  It’s been a hard lesson for Americans, but they seem to have learned it.

But don’t take that to mean America has totally failed there.  Two roads are ahead, well traveled by other world conquerors, that let us know just what the odds are of Hamad Karzai getting strung up in Kabul and stabbed a few times.

Afghan geography makes it super hard to control the whole area 

Afghanistan is divided by high mountains, sweltering deserts, frigid wintry landscapes, and, worst of all, lack much in natural resources to make it appealing as a place to set up shop. (Only recently have massive mineral discoveries been found that could change that calculation).  It’s miserable to move from point A to point B in most parts of the country and this has created cultural, linguistic, and religious divisions.  And because there’s not much of value there, Afghanistan has historically been a part of some far-flung empire but never central to it, all of whom have left behind cultures, languages, or whatever else was the flavor of their day.

Afghanistan does ok when it’s left alone, but really churns up the region when upset

Afghanistan is that backwards, uncouth neighbor in your hometown that, if left alone, is mostly harmless.  Interactions with it, however, are neither pleasant nor productive.  Afghanistan is rarely the seat of imperial ambitions (and the one time it was, Kabul served as a staging post rather than as the center of power).

In the 18th century, the Durrani Empire came about as one Afghan warlord managed to overcome the rest of the region.  By that time, Iran and India had formed into their more or less modern borders and powers centered in Tehran and Delhi saw no purpose in attempting to annex or control Afghanistan.  Remember that governments make security decisions based on trade offs – is bombing or attacking this area going to get the locals there to shut the hell up?  The answer with Afghanistan was and is no.

Afghanistan keeps trying to pull itself out of tribalism, but keeps getting shoved back into it

Tribalism is awful.  I just don’t feel like I can say that enough.  But it does provide basic security in places where no other security exists.  From 1747 until 1979, Afghanistan was unified by central governments based out of Kabul.  “Unified” was still a loose term – a variety of tribes and regions did not listen to Kabul when they felt like it.  Over time, Afghan leaders, when left alone, marshaled enough resources to slowly but surely put together the basics of a kingdom.  It was during periods of foreign intervention when the fragile and difficult process of state building was disrupted, setting Afghanistan back to zero.

Much like creating a sandcastle on the beach, you don’t finish grand things when some asshole kids who are bigger than you come by and keep kicking down your work.  Afghanistan is not all that far off; its status as regional victim has kept its sand castles firmly at beginning stages.

Afghanistan was getting so, so close to a modern-nation state – until the Soviets came

Many colors, many problems.

From the 1880s until 1979, Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful, left-alone place, especially after the Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 ended with the British realizing it was better to say “Fuck that” to controlling it.  From 1919 until 1979, the Afghan kings built the great ring road – the first attempt in Afghan history to unify the country by motorway – and set up dams, power plants, modern schools and universities, and other stuff that made the king feel like he was a swell guy.  Because Afghanistan was and is so poor, such projects happened at a snail’s pace and mostly because the Cold War brought cash in from the U.S. or Soviets who were jockeying for influence.  Even then, however, Afghanistan was no Egypt, and certainly not a West Germany, and so the funds, while helpful, didn’t jump-start Afghanistan into the 20th century.

Then the Soviets did what they did best and decided to invade.  The geopolitical reasons were plenty – in 1979, the Soviet Union thought it was winning the Cold War and sought to press home the advantage in the Middle East, grabbing a country that directly threatened America’s ally in Pakistan and could put pressure on Iran, which, in 1979, seemed like it could be up for grabs after its own revolution.  Afghanistan could serve as a staging point for further influence in Pakistan and India.

Alas, it was a terrible idea.  Outside of Kabul and a couple of other urban centers, Afghan society was not ready for state atheism or Marx’s little red book.  The Soviets tried to shoot their way to peace, but without mass colonization by Soviet citizens, were doomed to defeat.  With its shattered geography, Afghan tribes could and did hide from superior Soviet arms while simply grinding the Red Army down.

From then on, modernization slipped into memory

Virtually all of Afghanistan’s development projects were either destroyed or came to a halt during this period.  When the Soviets left in 1989, they had shattered the fragile king’s peace and replaced it with the pre-Durrani empire state of affairs – a tribal mosaic of strict traditions and rules that weren’t going to go quietly into the night.  Their client-president was just a tribal warlord who was better armed than his rivals.  When the Soviet Union collapsed and he ran out of Scud missiles, it wasn’t long before he lost power and was murdered.

The Taliban were one of the many answers to the problem of Afghan disunity.  The Soviets had tried socialism and atheism in an attempt to rapidly wipe out tribal identities.  (“You’re all equally worthless, comrades, whether you speak Pushtu, Farsi, etc.”) The Taliban sought the same thing – a modern-nation state free of tribalism.  So they did something that made a whole lot more sense given Afghanistan’s identity – universal Sunni Islam. (“You’re all equally worthless, Brother Muslims, whether you speak Pushtu, Farsi, etc.”)

The Taliban did not seek a modern national economy or liberal society, but they did seek a modern nation-state that could run Afghanistan as they chose.  They nearly got there.  Their ideology worked in most places, and its harsh but relatively predictable justice system started to even out cultural identities by forcing people into what approached national uniforms.  (See: The How-To of Decolonization)

America’s invasion of 2001 made the same mistakes as the Soviets

Remember when Ellen made all those Taliban jokes?  Not only were Americans busy mocking the Taliban’s ideology, they believed that Afghan society was ripe for modernization, failing to understand that tribal mores don’t just go away.  Few tribes ever will themselves out of existence.  But the U.S. thought, with enough money and guns, they too could change Afghanistan into at least a tolerably decent place.

Failing full-on colonization, that was never going to happen.

Fuck you, World, but leave the money at reception.

Today the posturing for the post-American Afghanistan takes all kinds of seemingly dumb angles

Karzai has said again and again how much he doesn’t like what the U.S. and NATO do in his country – despite the fact that they’re paying him. A lot of this has to do with how Karzai as a leader thinks – less national and more tribal, more honor based and less justice based, more concerned with his own survival and less worried about the survival of his state, the antithesis of a modern leader.  Karzai got into his position because he was the least bad option among many bad options.  Afghanistan’s lethal brand of politics has long since weeded out any potential George Washingtons.

Without U.S. forces in the country, it’s likely Afghanistan will go back to its post-1989 situation, with rival factions controlling rival bits of territories.  So long as the U.S. keeps arming the government in Kabul, it will be able to hold the line for some years, as demonstrated by the post-Soviet government that defeated rebel forces at the battle of Jalalabad in 1989.   But should Karzai upset enough key American leaders, he will fall victim to the cycle of violence that will ensue without an outsider proving balance to the country’s political situation.

It’s not a great idea, but he seems bent on it

His best case scenario might be fleeing the country.  But those left behind can’t be counted on forgiving him.

Saddle Up – It’s Only Going to Get Worse in World Politics

Dominating American headlines is the government shutdown and the looming default.  The American public is not pleased; yet strong forces keep this otherwise pointless fight going.  Much of it concerns attitudes towards leadership, government, and the power of the state, and is well reflected in the predictions of generational theory.  Other parts, however, are about unalterable economics and the results of a superpower finding its hard limits.

‘Super’ does not mean the same as God

A common myth, both among Americans themselves and those abroad, is that America can do anything if it puts its mind to it.  Time and time again blame is heaped upon America for this massacre or that coup.  Americans themselves long liked to believe they’re just being indolent when it comes to world affairs, and that if they just tried really hard they’d make the world a better place.  The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have tempered this attitude a great deal; ungrateful tribes using IEDs and suicide bombers to target soldiers who often believed they were sent to liberate those very same people tend to do that.

It’s all dead wrong, of course.  While it is based on the factual truth that America really did remake Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II, it fails to take into account that the United States is still just a nation-state made up of people with limits that are now coming into sharp relief.

This government shutdown is just round one of America reconfiguring itself for a new reality

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Burning stuff down won’t solve anything, but damn will people be tempted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 2020s, Social Security, America’s public pension system, will increasingly grow insolvent.  Nobody really wants to talk about that now because the voting blocs of seniors will turn against them.  While there’s rampant evidence that no developed country can afford the promises made to people in the 1930s-60s, both citizens and politicians prefer to focus on panaceas, solutions to other, relatively minor problems that will distract from the real issue that gigantic sections of the workforce are about to retire and there’s not enough people to replace them.

Greece is a fine example of this ugly truth coming crashing down on a society that really didn’t want to add up the numbers until they had to.  Many of Greece’s problems are caused by their inclusion to the EU and their attachment to the Euro, but the core root of their crisis is that politicians promised more and more but were actually able to deliver less and less.  Much of the responsibility falls on an electorate that rewarded such people, but additionally the elites themselves were just as blind to the clear hazard of letting too many people retire in their 50s.

Compromise will be hard, ugly, and ultimately forced

As the 2020s begin, and as economies start to slow and feel the strain of their seniors, politicians who will have cut their teeth in these budget battles will fight for their narrow bases’ interests first.  Few of these bases will be interested in compromise.  They will fight tooth and nail to secure promises made to them when they were young.  But the resources just won’t be there.  They will either have to work longer or accept weaker pensions.  Their hopes that they could retire to a permanent vacation will largely be dashed.  Coming to the end of their long lives, they will feel cheated.  They won’t reward politicians who undercut them.

Estimated Funding Gaps in Medicare and Social ...

Hi!  I’m Math, and I’m going to fuck you up for not listening to me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This will cause all political systems in the developed world to grow unstable and chaotic.  More than a few political parties will die out and others will arise.  Each country will face down this problem in their own way.  But whether or not they succeed will depend on if they make the right choices.

And there are right choices and wrong ones

The wrong choices will involve sticking blindly to plans drawn up nearly fifty years ago, and will result in governments going bankrupt and economies flagging.  Some governments may choose to build narrow, specialized coalitions, wherein the reduced largess of the state is channeled to their supporters but no one else.  That too is a recipe for disaster and instability and perhaps even the collapse of democracy.

Others will make the right choices, which mostly involve cuts, working longer (even if such work is reduced), and technological innovation that will give greater productivity.  All societies will seek that latter, as it’s the closest to a ‘silver bullet’ as exists, but not all will understand that the research for such new technologies will take resources away from the promised pensions of seniors.  Some societies will be well informed enough to make that trade off; others will have demagogue politicians narrowly focused on the next election who will ignore or bury that information.

Where is America going?  Good damn question

Nobody wants to default, but the Republican coalition is still unwilling to accept that their Tea Party base has hurt their ability to be part of government.  It will be telling in the coming days how the House acts, as well as the American public at large.  This is largely a crisis of choice, and so it should be easy to resolve.  The actions of the American government will foreshadow how future politicians will act when a truly unchosen crisis is forced upon them in the 2020s and 2030s.

With party primaries growing increasingly important in deciding who is elected, and with gerrymandering having reduced the number of Congressional districts that require compromise, the current trajectory implies that the U.S. will divide against itself and butt heads again and again until a true disaster destroys the assumptions of the system and forces everyone to reevaluate their fundamental views on government and policy.  The last time such a thing happened was the Great Depression and World War II.  That crisis created a consensus that lasted until the 1980s, when Reagan took power and started a new, narrower and more fragile one.

Thankfully, democracy is as good of a system as any to handle this

Democracies do a pretty good job of channeling unrest into electoral politics rather than into civil wars.  No other system on Earth exists that handles these kinds of challenges as well as a democratic ones.  That’s not to say all will survive, or that all will do a good job.  But it’ll be better to face this down under a democracy than under an inflexible authoritarian regime that won’t give way.

Watch what happens in six days

If America avoids the default, but punts it further down the road, you’ll get the idea of where the country – and many other developed countries – are going.  And in the unlikely event a grand compromise does emerge, take heart.  It means that when the crisis of the 2020s and 2030s finally comes in full force, the world will be better prepared to deal with it.

The Imperial Presidency Takes a Step Back (Or, why America’s finally rolling back to life before 9/11)

President Obama has done the unthinkable – he’s asked Congress for permission.  Never mind that he didn’t much bother for Libya, or continues to not much bother for the extensive drone war in Yemen, or will he much bother any other time should America’s interests be threatened by some kind of hair-trigger, do-or-die crisis.  This is something of a moment.  Breath it in – it’s a sign the U.S. is starting to mature a bit.

Necessity was the mother of invention of America’s empire

Lincoln was a dedicated civil servant, of course, but what he did to win the Civil War was openly tyrannical.  Without a strong, single leader making swift decisions, without any of the wrangling that comes of group-think, the Union would have lost the war.  The Republic learned the lesson well; on military matters, power increasingly vested itself not in Congress’ power to raise troops, tax, or declare war, but in the presidency’s power to order soldiers about.

This was because, as America grew in stature, its military needs grew well beyond the need to defend the borders.  After World War II, once Britain began the steady process of decolonization, America became the prime guarantor of free trade for the West and Western-aligned countries.  There could be no mucking about with this.  The Soviets weren’t making decisions in committee and neither could the U.S.

So was born the presidency we now know and mostly resent

From World War II downwards, presidents have had massive leeway to start and end wars, largely because their decisions are made overseas where people can’t vote and where killing someone won’t cost you Ohio.  Domestically, since America’s not been invaded since 1812 (forget Pancho Villa’s raid in 1916), Americans have shown little interest in foreign affairs or in checking the power of the presidency to conduct them.

The imperial presidency, however, dragged the country into Vietnam and, worse than that, demanded conscripts for it.  This put a faraway war on the doorstep yet again, but for reasons unclear to most citizens.  Few could understand the Domino Theory, which was half wrong, half right, and even less wanted to.  All ordinary Americans knew is that they might be sent off to die in some God-forsaken country they hadn’t heard of.

So the presidency learned a lesson – conscripts don’t work.  This led to the all-professional, highly technical army that defeated Iraq’s legions in 1991, sorted the Balkans, and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

God, are Americans tired, though

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the specter of Vietnam kept presidents from committing to any war they couldn’t swiftly run away from.  Alas, 9/11 happened, and thus was born a new rule in American politics – Thou Shalt Kill Many Al Qaeda (Or at least people who sound like them).

But eleven years of war in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq wore down the public’s willingness to use force overseas – or, more accurately, their willingness to vote for “tough guy” politicians.  It’s no longer a winning formula to shout down Islamic extremism and hold up how many drones you voted for.  In fact, there’s evidence that doing so might cost one an election.  Hence Congress’ sudden lack of interest.

Now the emperor’s got no clothes

Until Iraq, most people believed presidents generally acted in the public interest overseas, thinking they’d learned from Vietnam.  But Iraq showed that that could be untrue; that no, despite all the history books and Oliver Stone films, Vietnam’s lessons could be forgotten.

It was always true that Congress could put a stop to any war simply be defunding it.  But no Congress has ever done that for fear of looking weak.  The flavor of the week, however, is not strength, but isolationism.  This forgotten great balancer kept America from fighting the brunt of World War I, arriving to save the day without suffering the same level of losses as France and Britain.

Alas, this isn’t a permanent change

America still retains premier military prowess.  If Americans can’t understand why bombing a regime that’s used chemical weapons is good policy, they do, at least, fear China, or something like it.  Should a bigger threat emerge than Assad, the U.S. will rise to it and empower whatever president there is to take the necessary steps.  America isn’t crawling back into a hole.  But the presidency is reaching a limit.  There’s only so much abuse an electorate can take.


Iran’s Strategic Imperatives (Or, How Iran Will Try To Avoid Being Gang-Raped By The International Community)

Dust storm over Iran, Iraq

Note how Iran is slightly less brown than Saudi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hot, then it’s cold, it’s yes, then it’s no, it’s in, then it’s out, etc.  Did you know Katy Perry was describing Iran?  Well, she wasn’t.  Nevertheless, Iran is a land of contrasts.  Let’s hear it for opposites!  And because there’s so much, this makes Iran more complicated.

Iran’s geography makes it a tough place to take over

Iran’s western borders are fortified by the Zagros Mountains, which are not so impassable to prevent conquest, but just enough to keep less-than-serious invaders out.  In ancient times, civilizations formed behind these barriers and benefited from the trade routes between China and India and Europe.

To the east is a massive fucking desert and the perpetual geopolitical nightmare that is Afghanistan.  Both of these are handy natural barriers against attack.

In the central highlands, the weather’s mild, the rain’s good, and it’s overall pretty pleasant.  Naturally, this is where most of Iran’s population lives.

Failure of either of these barriers means Iran collapses

A place as old as Iran has its fair share of conquests.  Anytime an invader bothered to put together a force tough enough to cross the eastern desert or the western mountains, Iran typically fell apart.  Thus, any civilization or government based out of Iran desperately seeks buffer zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to build a firewall against enemy forces.

Iran is rightfully paranoid that the outside world is out to get them

Read a basic book on Iran and you’ll see a hundred wars and numerous famous people who have, at different times, destroyed Iranian cities.  The last time this happened was in 1943, when, almost as an afterthought, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and established spheres of influence in the north and south of the country for the duration of World war II.

Iran’s got a sophisticated culture and people who remember these bad things

While Iran’s peoples are divided between different ethnic groups, the years since World War II have been pretty successful in nation-building.  Unlike Syria, despotic and corrupt, Iranians have a pretty good sense of themselves.  First the Shah started the process, then the Ayotollahs solidified it.  Iranian nationalism is quite self-aware and thus the country’s far less likely to split up the way Syria has.

Iran’s government is more complicated than at first glance

ayatullah khamenei

The Supreme Leader himself, but not nearly as supreme as his desk title implies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because it’s been a center of civilization for so long and because Iranian culture is deeply rooted, Iran is not a divided, unstable place like Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.  To reflect these complications, the power structure of the ruling government is divided between different interests – the religious, the military, the urban elite, etc.  While the ruling clergy technically has final say, they don’t want to push the issue too hard for fear of a counter-revolution toppling them.  Iranian society is far too well-educated by now – and has been taught the virtue of revolution as well – for a despot to just run the show on a whim.

So Iran must balance a few things

1). Keep the borders secure.  Friendly or at least neutral governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferably like-minded Shi’a, but, failing that, at least not assholes like Saudi Arabia.

2). Keep the rest of the world out.  Don’t give anyone an excuse to invade.  Iran’s government knows it will lose a one-to-one contest with a big power like the United States.  This is why, despite Saddam being so badly weakened after 1991, Iran did not invade Iraq to finish the job.  Had they done so, they’d have roused the U.S. to dispose of them.  This is also why they’re balancing the speed of their nuclear program.  To do it too fast could tip an intervention.  To not do it at all gives them less security.

3). Keep the people under control.  Iranian political culture is more than meets the eye.  The Supreme Leader has to balance the various forces underneath him.  2009’s Green Uprising must have been horrifying for him, as he’d failed to read the tea leaves correctly.  It may surprise some to hear Iran’s even got elections, assuming it’s another jack-booted dictatorship.  But Iranians won’t put up that anymore.  Even though the candidates are vetted, at least some of the people demand to be heard.

4). Push back against Saudi.  Saudi Arabia also claims to have the Most Super True Version of Islam.  They’re both oil giants, as well.  But while Saudi is a new country, Iran remembers a day when its ships once dominated the Persian Gulf (and it’s very much the Persian Gulf to the Iranians; fuck the guys who say otherwise).  The most immediate pressure points are in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi’s Eastern Provinces, all home to large Shi’a populations oppressed by Sunni governments.  Syria and Lebanon are further afield, but are still important fronts against Saudi Arabia.

And so, in future, they’ll try to hold Syria

The approximate distribution of Eastern Irania...

The ancient Iranian kingdom of Parthia.  These borders are just about the dream for modern Iran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Doing so gives them strategic depth and allows them to supply their allies in Lebanon.  But nothing about Syria is do-or-die.  To lose Syria would be bad news, but not a total disaster.

But losing Iraq would be

Most invasions of Iran have come out of Iraq.  Iran’s got a long memory.  They’re far safer with a friendly government in Iraq.  Any push against the government there will result in a far bigger Iranian intervention than the one currently underway in Syria.

And they don’t particularly want a hostile Afghanistan, either

Meaning they will attempt to push the Americans out as soon as they can.  That doesn’t mean they’re pro-Taliban, who are more Saudi-aligned.  Rather, they’ll prefer either some Shi’a group to take charge or would like to see perpetual chaos.  Afghan stability is just not in their interests.

Meanwhile, the nuclear card will remain a bargaining chip

Iran will continue to draw this thing out as long as possible.  Any permanent settlement must mean Iran’s security concerns are addressed, i.e., America cedes Iraq to them and backs off its support for Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.  Iran will be able to live with a lost Syria, even a failed Hezbollah, but it cannot allow Iraq to slip into enemy hands again.

But Iran won’t want to provoke a war.  There are many cooler heads in the government who know they’ll lose that fight.  Because of the multi-polar nature of their ruling system, those voices are being heard and, for now, being heeded.

The recent election gives them a way out

Iran can now negotiate with the West with a bit freer of a hand.  Whether or not they’ll take it is up for grabs.  Iran’s security needs aren’t being addressed by picking fights with the West, and their leaders are old enough not to be so emotional about the past.  But they will continue to hold out until they get the best deal possible.

So the options are simple: accommodate Iran’s security needs or smash up their ambitions

The most likely path, eventually, is for America to destroy Iran’s government one way or another.  Iran remains a threat to American interests and refuses to align itself with the new global order.  It has few friends, let alone powerful ones, who might protect it (the depth of Russia’s friendship is untested).  Iran as regional hegemon cannot be allowed.  So it must be either convinced to join the global system, or it must be made to.  The current trajectory implies the latter.

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