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  • Stratfor on Iran

    Posted by Jonathan on January 20th, 2006 (All posts by )

    Strategic Forecasting, Inc. has published a report on Iran by George Friedman that is well worth reading. I am posting the entire content of the report below. (Stratfor permits republishing with attribution.)

    UPDATE: In posting the Stratfor piece I did not make my own position clear and some readers may have misinterpreted it. I think that Iran is a serious threat and that we should treat Iran’s apparent impending acquisition of nuclear weapons very seriously. Indeed I have argued on this blog in favor, essentially, of preventive war.

    I posted the Stratfor report not because I agree with all of its premises and conclusions (in particular, I think Friedman is unwise to assume that Iran cannot soon acquire nuclear weapons), and not because I do not take Ahmadinejad’s threats at face value (I do), but because the report seems to explain well the geopolitical dynamics underlying Iran’s recent foreign policy. While the situation looks bad and I share the concerns expressed by many bloggers about apocalyptic scenarios, I also suspect that like most frightening situations the Iran problem will become more tractable as it becomes better understood. The Stratfor analysis seems like a step in the right direction.


    Stratfor: Geopolitical Intelligence Report – January 17,

    Iran’s Redefined Strategy

    By George Friedman

    Iranians have broken the International Atomic Energy Agency seals
    on some of
    their nuclear facilities. They did this very deliberately
    and publicly to
    make certain that everyone knew that Tehran was
    proceeding with its nuclear
    program. Prior to this, and in parallel,
    the Iranians began to — among other
    things — systematically bait the
    Israelis, threatening to wipe them from the
    face of the earth.

    The question, of course, is what exactly the Iranians
    are up to. They
    do not yet have nuclear weapons. The Israelis do. The
    Iranians have
    now hinted that (a) they plan to build nuclear weapons and
    implied, as clearly as possible without saying it, that (b) they
    to use them against Israel. On the surface, these statements appear
    be begging for a pre-emptive strike by Israel. There are many
    one might hope for, but a surprise visit from the Israeli air force
    not usually one of them. Nevertheless, that is exactly what
    Iranians seem to be doing, so we need to sort this out.

    There are
    four possibilities:

    1. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, is
    insane and wants to
    be attacked because of a bad childhood.
    2. The
    Iranians are engaged in a complex diplomatic maneuver, and this
    is part of
    3. The Iranians think they can get nuclear weapons — and a
    to Israel — before the Israelis attack.
    4. The Iranians,
    actually and rationally, would welcome an Israeli —
    or for that matter,
    American — air strike.

    Let’s begin with the insanity issue, just to get
    it out of the way.
    One of the ways to avoid thinking seriously about foreign
    policy is to
    dismiss as a nutcase anyone who does not behave as you yourself
    As such, he is unpredictable and, while scary, cannot be
    You are therefore relieved of the burden of doing anything about
    In foreign policy, it is sometimes useful to appear to be insane,
    it is in poker: The less predictable you are, the more power you
    — and insanity is a great tool of unpredictability. Some
    cultivate an aura of insanity.

    However, people who climb to
    the leadership of nations containing many
    millions of people must be highly
    disciplined, with insight into
    others and the ability to plan carefully.
    Lunatics rarely have those
    characteristics. Certainly, there have been
    sociopaths — like Hitler
    — but at the same time, he was a very able,
    insightful, meticulous
    man. He might have been crazy, but dismissing him
    because he was crazy
    — as many did — was a massive mistake. Moreover,
    leaders do not rise
    alone. They are surrounded by other ambitious people. In
    the case of
    Ahmadinejad, he is answerable to others above him (in this
    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), alongside him and below him. He did not
    to where he is by being nuts — and even if we think what he says
    insane, it clearly doesn’t strike the rest of his audience as
    Thinking of him as insane is neither helpful nor

    The Three-Player Game

    So what is happening?

    First, the Iranians obviously are responding to the
    Tehran’s position in Iraq is not what the Iranians had hoped it
    be. U.S. maneuvers with the Sunnis in Iraq and the behavior of
    Shiite leaders clearly have created a situation in which the
    will not be the creation of an Iranian satellite state. At best,
    will be influenced by Iran or neutral. At worst, it will drift
    into opposition to Iran — which has been Iraq’s
    geopolitical position. This is not satisfactory. Iran’s Iraq
    has not failed, but it is not the outcome Tehran dreamt of in

    There is a much larger issue. The United States has managed
    position in Iraq — to the extent that it has been managed —
    manipulating the Sunni-Shiite fault line in the Muslim world. In
    same way that Richard Nixon manipulated the Sino-Soviet split,
    fundamental fault line in the Communist world, to keep the
    contained and off-balance late in the Vietnam War, so the
    administration has used the primordial fault line in the
    world, the Sunni-Shiite split, to manipulate the situation in

    Washington did this on a broader scale as well. Having enticed
    with new opportunities — both for Iran as a nation and as the
    Shiite power in a post-Saddam world — the administration turned
    Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and enticed them into
    with the United States by allowing them to consider the
    of an ascended Iran under canopy of a relationship with the
    States. Washington used that vision of Iran to gain leverage in
    Arabia. The United States has been moving back and forth
    Sunnis and Shia since the invasion of Afghanistan, when it
    Iranian support for operations in Afghanistan’s Shiite regions.
    side was using the other. The United States, however, attained
    strategic goal of any three-player game: It became the swing
    between Sunnis and Shia.

    This was not what the Iranians had
    hoped for.

    Reclaiming the Banner

    There is yet another dimension
    to this. In 1979, when the Ayatollah
    Ruholla Khomeini deposed the Shah of
    Iran, Iran was the center of
    revolutionary Islamism. It both stood against
    the United States and
    positioned itself as the standard-bearer for radical
    Islamist youth.
    It was Iran, through its creation, Hezbollah, that pioneered
    bombings. It championed the principle of revolutionary
    against both collaborationist states like Saudi Arabia and
    revolutionaries like Yasser Arafat. It positioned Shi’ism as
    protector of the faith and the hope of the future.

    In having to
    defend against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, and
    the resulting
    containment battle, Iran became ensnared in a range of
    necessary but
    compromising relationships. Recall, if you will, that
    the Iran-Contra affair
    revealed not only that the United States used
    Israel to send weapons to Iran,
    but also that Iran accepted weapons
    from Israel. Iran did what it had to in
    order to survive, but the
    complexity of its operations led to serious
    compromises. By the late
    1990s, Iran had lost any pretense of revolutionary
    primacy in the
    Islamic world. It had been flanked by the Sunni Wahhabi
    movement, al

    The Iranians always saw al Qaeda as an outgrowth
    of Saudi Arabia and
    Pakistan and therefore, through Shiite and Iranian eyes,
    never trusted
    it. Iran certainly didn’t want al Qaeda to usurp the position
    primary challenger to the West. Under any circumstances, it did
    want al Qaeda to flourish. It was caught in a challenge. First, it
    to reduce al Qaeda’s influence, or concede that the Sunnis had
    the banner from Khomeini’s revolution. Second, Iran had to reclaim
    place. Third, it had to do this without undermining its

    Tehran spent the time from 2003 through 2005
    maximizing what it could
    from the Iraq situation. It also quietly
    participated in the reduction
    of al Qaeda’s network and global reach. In
    doing so, it appeared to
    much of the Islamic world as clever and capable, but
    not particularly
    principled. Tehran’s clear willingness to collaborate on
    some level
    with the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the war on
    Qaeda made it appear as collaborationist as it had accused the
    or Saudis of being in the past. By the end of 2005, Iran had
    secured its
    western frontier as well as it could, had achieved what
    influence it could in
    Baghdad, had seen al Qaeda weakened. It was time
    for the next phase. It had
    to reclaim its position as the leader of
    the Islamic revolutionary movement
    for itself and for Shi’ism.

    Thus, the selection of the new president was,
    in retrospect, carefully
    engineered. After President Mohammed Khatami’s term,
    all moderates
    were excluded from the electoral process by decree, and the
    came down to a struggle between former President Ali Akbar
    Rafsanjani — an heir to Khomeini’s tradition, but also an heir to
    tactical pragmatism of the 1980s and 1990s — and Ahmadinejad,
    clearest descendent of the Khomeini revolution that there was in
    and someone who in many ways had avoided the worst taints

    Ahmadinejad was set loose to reclaim Iran’s position in
    the Muslim
    world. Since Iran had collaborated with Israel during the 1980s,
    since Iranian money in Lebanon had mingled with Israeli money,
    first thing he had to do was to reassert Iran’s
    credentials. He did that by threatening Israel’s existence and
    the Holocaust. Whether he believed what he was saying is
    Ahmadinejad used the Holocaust issue to do two things: First,
    established himself as intellectually both anti-Israeli
    anti-Jewish, taking the far flank among Islamic leaders; and
    he signaled a massive breach with Khatami’s approach.

    was focused on splitting the Western world by dividing the
    Americans from the
    Europeans. In carrying out this policy, he had to
    manipulate the Europeans.
    The Europeans were always open to the claim
    that the Americans were being
    rigid and were delighted to serve the
    role of sophisticated mediator. Khatami
    used the Europeans’ vanity
    brilliantly, sucking them into endless discussions
    and turning the
    Iran situation into a problem the Europeans were having with
    United States.

    But Tehran paid a price for this in the Muslim
    world. In drawing close
    to the Europeans, the Iranians simply appeared to be
    up to their old
    game of unprincipled realpolitik with people — Europeans —
    who were
    no better than the Americans. The Europeans were simply Americans
    were weaker. Ahmadinejad could not carry out his strategy of
    the Wahhabis and still continue the minuet with Europe. So he
    Khatami’s game with a bang, with a massive diatribe on the
    and by arguing that if there had been one, the Europeans bore
    blame. That froze Germany out of any further dealings with Tehran,
    even the French had to back off. Iran’s stock in the Islamic
    started to rise.

    The Nuclear Gambit

    The second phase was
    for Iran to very publicly resume — or very
    publicly claim to be resuming —
    development of a nuclear weapon. This
    signaled three things:

    1. Iran’s
    policy of accommodation with the West was over.
    2. Iran intended to get a
    nuclear weapon in order to become the only
    real challenge to Israel and, not
    incidentally, a regional power that
    Sunni states would have to deal
    3. Iran was prepared to take risks that no other Muslim actor
    prepared to take. Al Qaeda was a piker.

    The fundamental fact is
    that Ahmadinejad knows that, except in the
    case of extreme luck, Iran will
    not be able to get nuclear weapons.
    First, building a nuclear device is not
    the same thing as building a
    nuclear weapon. A nuclear weapon must be
    sufficiently small, robust
    and reliable to deliver to a target. A nuclear
    device has to sit there
    and go boom. The key technologies here are not the
    ones that build a
    device but the ones that turn a device into a weapon — and
    then there
    is the delivery system to worry about: range, reliability,
    accuracy. Iran has a way to go.

    A lot of countries don’t want
    an Iranian bomb. Israel is one. The
    United States is another. Throw Saudi
    Arabia, Turkey, and most of the
    ‘Stans into this, and there are not a lot of
    supporters for an Iranian
    bomb. However, there are only two countries that
    can do something
    about it. The Israelis don’t want to get the grief, but they
    are the
    ones who cannot avoid action because they are the most vulnerable
    Iran should develop a weapon. The United States doesn’t want Israel
    strike at Iran, as that would massively complicate the U.S.
    in the region, but it doesn’t want to carry out the strike

    This, by the way, is a good place to pause and explain
    to readers who
    will write in wondering why the United States will tolerate an
    nuclear force but not an Iranian one. The answer is simple.
    will probably not blow up New York. That’s why the United
    doesn’t mind Israel having nukes and does mind Iran having them.
    that fair? This is power politics, not sharing time in preschool.
    of digression.

    Intra-Islamic Diplomacy

    If the Iranians are
    seen as getting too close to a weapon, either the
    United States or Israel
    will take them out, and there is an outside
    chance that the facilities could
    not be taken out with a high degree
    of assurance unless nukes are used. In
    the past, our view was that the
    Iranians would move carefully in using the
    nukes to gain leverage
    against the United States. That is no longer clear.
    Their focus now
    seems to be not on their traditional diplomacy, but on a more
    intra-Islamic diplomacy. That means that they might welcome
    (survivable) attack by Israel or the United States. It would
    Iran’s credentials as the true martyr and fighter of Islam.

    Meanwhile, the Iranians appear to be reaching out to the Sunnis on
    number of levels. Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of a radical Shiite
    in Iraq with ties to Iran, visited Saudi Arabia recently. There
    are contacts
    between radical Shia and Sunnis in Lebanon as well. The
    Iranians appear to be
    engaged in an attempt to create the kind of
    coalition in the Muslim world
    that al Qaeda failed to create. From
    Tehran’s point of view, if they get a
    deliverable nuclear device,
    that’s great — but if they are attacked by
    Israel or the United
    States, that’s not a bad outcome either.

    short, the diplomacy that Iran practiced from the beginning of the
    war until after the U.S. invasion of Iraq appears to be
    ended. Iran is making
    a play for ownership of revolutionary Islamism
    on behalf of itself and the
    Shia. Thus, Tehran will continue to make
    provocative moves, while hoping to
    avoid counterstrikes. On the other
    hand, if there are counterstrikes, the
    Iranians will probably be able
    to live with that as well.

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    13 Responses to “Stratfor on Iran”

    1. TM Lutas Says:

      It is asserted but not demonstrated that only Israel and the US could do this sort of strike. At least one other power comes to mind, Turkey. They’re neighbors to Iran, historical rivals, and seem to have the air power necessary. The US could put up an air wall to draw away Iranian fighters and only cross into Iran far enough to ensure that Iran splits its forces.

      So why not Turkey? Are the Iranians such better flyers?

    2. Joe Katzman Says:

      As noted in the comments to my Winds’ article “Our Darkening Sky: Iran and the War” … actually, the Saudis have 96 Tornado IDS long-range strike fighters on their east coast at Dhahran, just across the Gulf. Would they use them? Probably not.

      Still, an Iranian bomb implicitly threatens the Saudis as much as it threatens Israel. Past Winds of Change.NET articles have noted Saudi small steps toward a nuclear capability of their own, and involvement in Pakistan’s program. Indeed, the Saudis would be likely to be one of the first “secondary proliferations” to spin out of an Iranian bomb. If so, this would have 2 consequences:

      [1] Neatly occupy the pole position slot in one of Belmont’s “3 conjectures” scenarios re: intra-Islamic nuclear war.

      [2] Given the deep instability of the Saudi regime, and the high level of sympathy with al-Qaeda in the kingdom, a Saudi regime with the bomb could justifiably be painted as al Qaeda owned nukes just waiting to happen.

      And the clattering train rolls on…

      “Who’s in charge of the clattering train?
      The axles creak and the couplings strain
      And the pace is hot and the points are near
      And Sleep has deadened the driver’s ear
      And the signals flash through the night in vain
      For Death is in charge of the clattering train”

    3. shannon Love Says:

      Perhaps Iran knows that it cannot make an actual deployable nuclear weapon and they are looking for a face saving means of hiding that fact. Perhaps they are seeking to goad the US or Israel into making an attack that they will then blame for their inability to complete the weapons.

      As a bonus, they might also expect a rally around the flag effect.

    4. mgd Says:

      Can someone explain how Iran’s recovering of “its position as the leader of the Islamic revolutionary movement for itself and for Shi’ism” would be worth alienating just about everyone else on the planet? What do they really stand to gain?

    5. Karl Gallagher Says:

      If you want to blue-sky options, we could arrange for the Security Council to declare Iran a Russian “protectorate.” The Russians have the firepower, don’t mind casualities, could use the money, and are already an oil-exporting nuclear power so the strategic balance wouldn’t change.

    6. JeremyR Says:

      Hrrrrmph. Stratfor is about as accurate as Debka, but at least Debka is entertaining in a National Enquirer sort of way.

    7. ForNow Says:

      I suspect that there is, in Iranian culture, a streak of flaky extremism. It’s not the whole story, but it seems to be there.

      I would not rule out too easily that Iran’s current leadership has at least somewhat crazy plans in store.

    8. Jonathan Says:


      It’s not what Iranians as a whole stand to gain — obviously they are going to get screwed if their country is involved in any serious warfare, and they are already being abused by their leaders. What this is really about is what those leaders stand to gain by ginning up external threats. Seems to me that the leadership is following a classic dictatorial pattern for increasing its power.

    9. Jay Manifold Says:

      I found the StratFor piece to be a frustrating mix of the obvious and the erroneous, and am therefore motivated to come up with something of my own that I hope to post here soon … for now, I will say only that the article’s avoidance of mention of Ahmadinejad’s eschatological motivation is a critical flaw.

      That said, I thank Jonathan for posting it, because the more people who are paying attention to this situat, the better; it has the unfortunate potential to dominate the decade in a way that utterly eclipses 9/11.

    10. Rocket's Brain Trust Says:

      The Case for Invading Iran

      HT Winds of Change and Stratfro via Chicago Boyz

      Here are four essays from the last several days re the case for a premptive strike or other actions against Iran.

      The Case for Invading Iran
      by Guest Author …

    11. MarketWizard Says:

      The wild card is of course a “counter proliferation” weapon that the United States has been developing since the early days of “star wars”. This is not the “missile defense shield”, but rather a technology that can use planetary occurences as weapons by controling “energy” and its conduits in very interesting ways (think Tesla). One CIA spinout is a company called Phazar (Nasdaq: ANTP) and Ionotron (Nasdaq: IOTN)

      We have a “new weapon” and it comes just in time.

    12. mgd Says:

      I’ve heard that Iran is making war cries to keep US troops in Iraq to keep the new Shia dominated government in power. Makes sense to me.

    13. bc Says:

      You know, the young in Iran hate the leadership. Not a little. A lot. Iran is running the oldest play in the book. How to rally the people round your admittedly stinky flag? Start trouble. Preferably provoke the first punch. Even Iran’s disgruntled young moderns will have no choice but to defend the homeland once the chips are down. And Islam is nothing if not a culture based on riteously indignant counterpunching. The question is, are we stupid enough to take the bait?