Stratfor on Iran

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 thoughts on “Stratfor on Iran”

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

  7. 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. mgd,

    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. 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. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

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