What does the United State want in Iran? Does it wish to salt Tehran as Rome did with Carthage, deleting from the planisphere a geopolitical subject with geopolitical traditions dating back over more than two millennia? Does it want to reduce the Islamic Republic to an American protectorate? A rough copy of the nominally sovereign Persia of the Qajars, effectively divided up between the Russians and the British?
Install a friendly government through a coup d’état, a more advanced version of the overthrowing of Mossadeq, the charismatic premier guilty of oil nationalism? Or perhaps the pressure sparked by the unilateral condemnation of the agreement concerning the Iranian nuclear issue and the consequent exacerbation of sanctions, accompanied by aggressive propaganda aimed at the “terrorist” and “mafioso” regime, is only yet another brutal start to negotiations à la Trump.
Is all this in the name of negotiations that have no pre-established objectives or calculated tactical consequences, with the exception of a show of power for domestic purposes, a loud reassertion of American primacy in the world and, not least, a taste for obliterating his predecessors greatest diplomatic success? If put to the dozen decision-makers who ultimately determine American geopolitics, this question would probably result in as many different answers. In simple terms, America has no strategy as far as Iran is concerned.
All this unless one considers as strategy “President Donald J. Trump’s New Strategy on Iran”, the official document that promises to neutralize “the Government of Iran’s destabilizing influence” and “constraining its aggression” (without specifying against whom), “to revitalize our traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion” so as to “restore a more stable balance of power in the region.” (1) Replace “Iran” with “Soviet Union” and “region” – the Gulf, if not the Greater Middle East – with “world” and one has a perfect replica of anti-Soviet rhetoric, confirming that the so-called end of the Cold War has not erased strategic reflexes, categories and slang in Washington. It is the geopolitical version of Phantom Limb Syndrome, used in neurology to explain the feeling one still has an amputated limb and can feel pain there. In this specific case, considering the failed attempts to take back the Afghan province of Herat (1837-8 and 1856), Iran has never invaded another country and, excluding any abuse of psychotropic substances by the authors of the “new strategy”, what is stimulating the perception of this undefined “aggression” is a convergence of two powerful depictions, one geo-psychological and the other geopolitical. Both essentialist and unshakeable by events. “The decree is absolute, irrevocable under the Mede and Persian law” as stated in Daniel’s prophecy (6, 13).
The first is a profound American persuasion that Persians are false. “Deception is part of Iranian DNA” was the sentence passed by Wendy Sherman, President Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs before the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee on October 3rd, 2013, albeit defending (sic) the need to reach an agreement with Iran. (2) This is a thesis written in the stone of American government agencies ever since the traumatic occupation of the United States Embassy in Tehran (1979-81). Of course the excommunication inflicted by Ruhollah Khomeini on America the “Great Satan”, later confirmed by his less authoritative successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has contributed to the institutionalisation of public opinion and the American establishment’s mistrust of the Islamic Republic. What could possibly be the intentions of those negotiating with the Devil?
Since such mistrust is reflected in the interests of the hierarchies and, to a lesser extent, in the Islamic Republic’s public opinion, the result is that prejudicial mistrust is the only certainty in relations between these two countries. John Limbert, a hostage of revolutionary students for 444 days in his own embassy in Tehran and later Obama’s advisor on Iranian matters and a desperate supporter of dialogue, learned five iron rules, specularly shared on both fronts, preventing a lasting agreement between the U.S. and Iran.
First, if a door opens it is best not to enter, it will lead you into the unknown. Second, never say yes to the proposals of others, as it will make you look weak. Third, the opposing camp is radically hostile and wants to destabilise you. Fourth, anything your interlocutor may say is aimed at cheating you. Fifth, every time you believe you have made progress, rest assured that something or someone will sabotage this. (3) This last point is confirmed by the fate of the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue with which Obama, together with the French, the Germans, the British, the Russians and the Chinese, believed he had started to re-contain the greatest power in the “axis of Evil” within the context of normal international circuits.
The second and more refined portrayal drummed into Washington by the Saudis and welcomed enthusiastically by the current administration, is the equation Islamic Republic = Persian Empire (coloured map 1). With the appendix that Iran, like any empire worthy of that name, is intrinsically expansionist. Due to its evil nature, the Persian Empire 2.0 cannot be contained, only destroyed. No to containment, yes to a roll back, to remain within the clichés of anti-Sovietism. “Cut off the snake’s head” (Persian), begged Saudi King Abdullah II in April 2008 speaking to the American Ambassador Ryan Crocker. (4) An imperative for his de facto successor, the young and rather adventurous Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who, together with the ambitious leader of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu, incited Trump to carry out the beheading sentence.
Is it in the best interests of the United States to act as the executioner? There are some who have doubts, both in Congress and in the executive branch, starting with Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who when asked what the three main threats to national security were, did however answer, “Iran, Iran, Iran”. (5) What is up for discussion according to the former United States Marine Corps General is not an opinion on the regime in Tehran, but rather the human, financial and geopolitical cost of going to war against Iran. It would be a colossal operation pinning down most of the national operational forces in the Middle Eastern theatre for an unspecified period of time (6).
This would also violate Obama’s Secretary of Defence’s “Gates’ Law”, according to which any president deploying a massive expeditionary corps towards those treacherous shores would require psychiatric treatment considering the results (the non-results) of adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq that are still ongoing. And even if the Stars and Stripes were to fly over Tehran, this would mark the beginning and not the end of the conflict, fought by the Iranian resistance according to the irregular rules of guerrilla warfare, drawing on the well-established panoply of unconventional tactics. This is a thesis that some of the Pentagon’s planners corroborate, restudying the seven-century-long Roman-Persian Wars (from the Parthians to the Sasanians) that ended with both sides defeated to the respective advantage of the Ottomans and the Arabs.
Emphasis is placed on the defeat suffered by Marcus Licinius Crassus at Carrhae (53 B.C.), a model of asymmetry, when over forty thousand legionnaires, three quarters of whom were foot soldiers burdened by their armour, were weakened and then overrun and humiliated by nine thousand Parthian horsemen, all very mobile and able archers.
These are technical-military objections, matching an alternative and markedly minority geopolitical interpretation of Iran, whose noble author is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Codified in 1995, still embraced by the heretical branches of intelligence, by realist political science and the free agents of Washington’s strategic aristocracy, this interpretation is based on historical narration that is the opposite of the prevailing one.
This interpretation reminds one that until Operation Ajax against Mossadegh, the Americans were well-liked by the Iranians, were it only because they were neither Russian nor British. It emphasises the legendary ultimatum issued by Truman, who in 1946 obliged Stalin to withdraw from territories occupied in Persia’s Azeri north, remembered gratefully, albeit silently, in Tehran. One must not forget that the Iranian nuclear programme they now wish to annihilate forever was started precisely by the United States from the Fifties until the last Shah fled. Geopolitical continuity prevails over political contingencies and hence the characteristics of regimes: America and Iran share fundamental geopolitical interests. In my opinion the current antagonistic phase is only temporary (…) It is a mistake to try and crush Iran. I do not believe that such a policy is justified. Brzezinski dixit. (7)
According to this school of thought, at the end of the day the best possible outcome for the Middle East remains the one founded on the balance of power among the main regional powers, Iran, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (with the expensive Egyptian appendix), thereby guaranteeing global trade and energy routes as well as the security of the Jewish State. All this under dominant American supervision. Were Iran eliminated, the parallelogram of powers would be unbalanced.
This would mean eliminating the bulwark separating the Levant-in-flames from an eternally unstable Afghanistan and the central-Asian regions locked between Russia and China (and beyond, considering Beijing’s precarious control over Xinjiang/Eastern Turkestan and Tibet) where we would encounter an uninterrupted chain of conflict and chaos. The geopolitical void left by Iran would certainly have to be filled by someone. Would the Americans be prepared to do this and, if so, how? If not, could they tolerate other not very reliable powers (Turkey) or openly adversarial ones (Russia and China) filling the void? Above all, an empire wishing to be global cannot allow its regional geopolitics to be dictated by the interests of local players even if they currently appear to coincide with its own.
On paper even Trump’s “new strategy” aims for a balance of power. It does not explicitly mention regime change. Nor does the current president seem sensitive to the nature of the regimes of others, to be treated or ill-treated on the basis of the America First paradigm, which is sufficiently vast to allow rhapsodical or even contradictory interpretations. At the same time, Washington demands Teheran’s capitulation.
One cannot interpret in any other way the catalogue proposed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Iran as the basis for a feasible treaty in the future – a peace treaty albeit one destined to prevent war instead of ending one. Such an international treaty would, however, by constitution (article II, section 2) require the consensus of at least two-thirds of the U.S. senators. This would imply extraordinarily cogent conditions considering the American political class’s bipartisan hostility regards to the Islamic Republic, made worse by its reputation for incurable duplicity. Hence the 12 points set out by Pompeo on May 21st following some refinement and corroborated by powerful sanctions, demand that Tehran should not only definitively and verifiable renounce a military nuclear programme, which according to Washington the Iranians are allegedly continuing to pursue, but also the elimination of ballistic missiles, the abandoning of all space projects and withdrawal from Syria.
Demands include the cessation of all support provided to the Houthis in Yemen and to the Taleban in Afghanistan, breaking off relations with regional clients – from Hezbollah to Hamas, from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to Shiite militias in Iraq or elsewhere – the end of threats to Israel and other matters. This would mean unconditional surrender of the kind imposed on William II’s Germany or imperial Japan. But that came after world wars. It is unthinkable that any government, Iranian or not, would sign a similar treaty before its country had been annihilated. Let us return to where we started; should the United States risk declaring war on the “Persian Empire”? This depends to a great extent on how one assesses it.
2. In 2004 King Abdullah II of Jordan exposed the threat of “the Shiite Crescent”. The Hashemite sovereign was riding the wave of rhetoric surrounding the clash between Sunnis and Shiites, the geopolitical cipher of the Greater Middle East in the West’s version and not only there (coloured map 2). The “crescent” preceded the “new Persian Empire”, the now current portrayal among all Iran’s opponents and many critics. These are words that are a reminder of the imperial series started by the Achaemenid prototype, of which the Islamic Republic is artfully promoted to being the diminished but still threatening epigone. Centred on Tehran, this dominion outlines the stated Iranian-Shiite hegemonic encampment from the Levant to Central Asia, along the Beirut-Herat axis via Damascus and Baghdad.
It is thus, that what materialises, to Arab-Sunni eyes suitably trained by the Gulf’s petro-monarchies, is an imperial corridor that goes from Lebanon to Afghanistan. All this with offshoots in the Arabian peninsula, from Bahrain to Yemen, plus fifth columns in the Saudi Eastern Province, a wealthy oil area, in the gas superpower of Qatar, and in the financial stronghold of Dubai. If analysed in-depth, the Persian neo-empire amounts to a sphere of influence with variable intensity, without territorial continuity. It is an archipelago of islands variously linked to Tehran, surrounded or infiltrated by enemy powers as well as having their own interests that do not always coincide with those of the Iranians.
As happens to the leaders of any network of clients, the Islamic Republic cannot dictate its wishes to a Hezbollah that commands Lebanon, nor to the regime in Damascus in hybris as a re-galvanised dying entity, while in Baghdad pro-Iranian currents and militias appear to be experiencing some problems. All centre-periphery relations, although unbalanced in favour of the first, establish a dialogue with a mechanism of exchanges and subtle extortion. It is usually the metropolis that tolerates the greatest obligations in order to bind the provinces to itself. Confirming this rule, Tehran is paying for armed intervention in Iraq and in Syria with Pasdaran blood and conspicuous donations of money, without, however, establishing real external dominion.
Iran’s strength and damnation both consist in the historical depth of its national, cultural and territorial roots, in a sea of recent but already crumbling clan-based Arab organisations. Private properties in public form. Showcase states in the backrooms of which oil is sold in exchange for weapons, they are reasonably wealthy, run with an iron fist by hyper-billionaire Bedouins protected by Western or Russian mercenaries. Buildings with no foundations, in which uncertainty surrounding the day after tomorrow can no longer by concealed by structurally decreasing oil revenue.
In this Arabian constellation there are four gigantic regional stars, of which three are not Arab; Israel, Turkey and Iran. The fourth leading player, Saudi Arabia, is the heritage of a quarrelsome family experiencing a permanent identity crisis, destined to intensify in the near future in spite of its leader’s many efforts – or perhaps because of them. The three queens are all explicit or barely masked (Turkey) enemies of Iran and together – leaving aside Erdoğan’s neo-caliph-like desires – allied with the “Great Satan”, which, in any event, maintains a preponderant military deterrent in the area. Among the Saudis, hostility borders on paranoia (coloured maps 3 and 4).
They believe that the diabolical Persian Empire is an existential threat. Among the thousands of examples it is worth remembering the dark legend about the “Safavid watermelons”, as al-Saud’s subjects baptised a batch of pesticide-filled watermelons imported in 2015 from Iran. Real evidence that the bite of the Persian snake is poisonous.
To complicate matters further, there is the return of Russia, now Iran’s cumbersome partner in Syria, but also Persia’s unforgotten enemy. Then there is an increasingly low-profile China that draws from this region, a platform for the new silk roads, decisive quotas of its energy needs. As far as the Europeans are concerned, on whom the Iranians amazingly rely upon to mitigate America’s inclination for war, dawdle like children playing with kites.
The French and the British set-off to pursue para-colonial mirages in former Levantine and Middle Eastern dependencies while haunting their significant arms and energy markets. The Germans, as established, are fixed on trade and we Italians (self)report for various military missions – ranging from the Israeli-Lebanese border to Iraq and Afghanistan, all around Iran and its clients – the residual token fees of Atlantic loyalty (coloured map 5).
The infamous Persian Empire, if it exists, therefore stands alone. And it feels alone and in a great deal of trouble.
3. When Hasan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, he was already perfectly aware of this. He warned that if the Americans blocked oil exports, the Iranian economy would collapse. The Islamic Republic would implode. (8) In view of the total embargo established by the United States for November 5th, which induced Khamenei to form an economic war room with very autarchic characteristics, Rouhani’s nightmare seems current again. There is an economic depression not ascribable only to sanctions: real inflation is well over 100% on a yearly basis with a continuous devaluation of the rial.
Companies and capital are fleeing the country with the banking system in survival mode. There is endemic corruption of which the managers and officials of the foundations (bonyad) take advantage, the highest possible concentrations of financial and political power, the epicentre of the “economic mafia” (mafya-ye eqtesadi). There has been an acute and long lasting drought affecting 95% of the country with a consequent lack of drinking water, as well as for irrigation, in addition to a reduction of hydroelectric power. All this is enough to exacerbate tensions on the streets and in the bazaars, inciting power battles between political, military and religious factions, undermining the legitimacy of institutions.
Rouhani, father of the agreement reached with Obama, has been obliged to draw closer to the principialist ultra-conservatives (osulgaryan) and the Pasdaran, led by the commander of the Quds Brigade, the quite popular General Qasem Soleimani. The Guardians of the Revolution had expressed scepticism regards to the agreement entered with Obama, since sanctions aimed at undermining economic revenue and political influence still remained. Many of them have labelled it the “new Turkmančaij” – an unbalanced treaty on the basis of which Russia finished taking from Persia its main Caucasian possessions in 1828. Washington’s offensive now makes them feel that their opinions were correct.
Simultaneously, the president and the entire establishment are facing the anger of protesters opposing the costly campaigns of the Pasdaran and militias entrusted with protecting the Shiite-Persian sphere of influence: “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life for Iran”, “leave Syria alone and take care of us” and “Iran before anything else”. At times they even blame the mullahs, Khamenei included.
Lets us move from politics to geopolitics, the real marker of what is at stake. The Iranians take sides for or against the expensive maintenance of their sphere of influence, hence of the Persian Empire denounced by its enemies. A classic overexposure crisis, with extroversion justified by the national defence doctrine founded on strategic intensity. Hence it is founded on penetration of the Levant to fight enemies outside and not inside the republic’s perimeter. This is done using extra-conventional tactics and means (map 1).
It is a shame that seen from the perspective of regional opponents and the United States, this dynamic defence posture, added to the country’s missile capacity and cyber warfare, seems rather offensive. This is true to a certain extent if one considers the orographic profile of this vast country – more than five times larger than Italy (1,648,000 square kilometres) with the same number of inhabitants as Germany (80 million), just all far younger (average age is 30).
The central plateau that extends for 700 kilometres along the north-south axis is protected to the west and to the south by the Zagros Mountains, to the east and to the north by the Kopet Dag and Alborz Mountain Ranges, with two hundred peaks rising to over 4,000 metres and Mount Damavand at 5,609 metres (coloured map 6). It is a natural fortress that does not encourage aggressors but is very promising for guerrilla fighters. Why adventure into and scatter in Mesopotamia and the Levant when one can entrench oneself on one’s native soil? It is no surprise that the Iranian advanced defence strategy looks like the new Persian Empire’s plan of attack to its enemies.
A paradox within the paradox, the West’s projection of the Islamic Republic is also the result of two unintentional and poisoned American gifts: the liquidation of Saddam in 2003 followed by a hasty withdrawal that opened the Mesopotamian plains with their energy resources to Iran, and then Obama’s refusal in 2011, reiterated throughout his mandate, to fully support anti-Assad rebels, seen by the Pasdaran as an invitation to move into Syria alongside Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
All this to then discover that credit for being the country most responsible for preserving the regime in Damascus was taken (with reason) by Russia: every Persian patriot’s ancestral nemesis, on equal footing with Great Britain. In any case, these are fragile and not very desirable spoils, unstructured by a continuous series of wars and guerrilla warfare, travelled by rebels and jihadists of every sort, bankrolled or tolerated by Arab petro-monarchies and by Westerners.
As always, however, the empire’s destiny is gambled at the centre.
4. Measuring the Islamic Republic’s temperature while alarm sirens herald war, perhaps not just an economic war, echo there, implies exploring its three dimensions: its identity and institutional solidity, hence how robust the internal front is; its military capacity as well as the availability and quality of its real allies. Let us see.
Ten years ago, Henry Kissinger, who adores playing Pythia, invited Iran to decide whether it was “a nation or a cause” (9). The correct answer is both. This, incidentally, also applies to the United States.
Iranian identity is founded on three pillars. These are the Aryan-Persian legacy (Iranyat), the glorious civilisation that preceded Arab-Muslim penetration in the 7th century, which endows the Islamic Republic with two millennia and a half of historical insight; the Islam of the very particular Shiite Twelver version that does not exclude its inbred universalist vocation (Islamiyat); statehood, conventionally originating in 1501 with the advent of the Turkish speaking Safavid dynasty that merged Iranyat and Islamiyat, drawing on the memory and imperial right to the title – “king of kings” (shahanshah) – in order to ennoble nationalism and assimilate the non-Persian populations (Azeri, Kurds, Baluchs, Arabs etc).
National pride inspired the political-social movements from the tobacco revolution (1891) to the 1978-79 revolution, from the “green wave” of 2009 to recent protests. It influences or invests dynasties and modern regimes, from the Ghajars to the Pahlavis to the Khomeinist theo-democracy. It concerns a perceived similarity with Europeans, especially the French, whose paradigms have influenced Persia’s 20th century modernisation through imitation, with the Arabs and the Indians as a cultural and racial counter-model. And it is due to this inflection of the national spirit, in which a sense of superiority and insecurity compensate and interact with each other, that, as far as the agreement on the nuclear issue was concerned, the Iranians were of course interested in the substance, but extremely interested in the form.
Seeing the six most powerful nations in the world seated at the table opposite a solitary but proud Islamic Republic of Iran was per se gratifying. Hence the Iranian delegation immediately proposed that negotiations should be held in English and without interpreters. This was the language in which Foreign Minister Javad Zarif addressed his European counterpart Federica Mogherini – who on the homestretch of the negotiations dared threaten to leave – with the famous “never threaten an Iranian!”, a hyper-viral hashtag among his compatriots.
The imperial-Persian factor is legitimising, the Islamic factor is normative and the national factor is operative. When norms and operability clash, the choice falls on the second factor. One of the many examples of this pragmatism was Imam Khomeini’s suffered decision to “drink the bitter chalice” of the ceasefire with Iraq (1988) to save his country, bled dry by eight years of war, from further unbearable devastation. There are innumerable occasions on which Khomeini, Khamenei or the Pasdaran have paid homage to the “noble Iranian nation”.
Nor has the clergy in power dared abolish Persian festivities of pre-Islamic origin, especially Zoroastrian ones, starting with New Year’s Eve (Nowruz), which dates back at least three millennia. And while the revolutionary authorities have revoked the imperial calendar imposed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, they decided to reinstate the Iranian solar one, reserving the Islamic lunar calendar only to religious festivities.
The current Leader is also obsessed with the pureness of farsi, the Persian language elevated to being the supreme expression of national identity (map 2). If even the Azeri – see Turkish – Ayatollah Khamenei has appointed himself the expert defender of the Persian language, this strengthens the thesis of the great scholar of Iran and Islam, Alessandro Bausani, concerning the “assimilating genius” of the Persians (10).
This leads one back to the unfinished debate concerning Iran’s multiethnic characteristics (coloured map 7). Translated into strategy, does this mean that anyone wishing to attack the Islamic Republic can play the minorities against the Persian majority, perhaps not even an absolute one seeing that very approximate estimates assign more or less half of the population to this majority? In particular, can the ethnic groups divided by borders with neighbours – the Azeri/Turks from Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Kurds from Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, the Arabs concentrated in Khuzestan – be helped to rise up against Tehran? The cultural, linguistic and religious distance from Shiite Persians is not at all decisive in fuelling separatist inclinations. If anything the opposite is true.
Historically, the most active secessionists are the Kurds, related to the Persians as well as to many Shiites due to their idioms and ethnic roots. The Azeri instead, mainly Shiite Turkish-speakers centred in Tabriz, although numerous (a fifth of the population and perhaps more) and restless, are considered as part of the Persian nation and not a cultural minority. In any event, so as to be doubly insured against Baku’s pan-Azeri ambitions, the pragmatic governors of the Islamic Republic have at length searched for and found support in an extremely Christian and Russophile Armenia, now attracted by the American siren. As far as Arabs in Khuzestan (Arabistan) are concerned, Saddam Hussein experienced their moderate loyalty to the Iranian homeland during the 1980-88 war. Finally, the Sunni Baluchs who have settled in Iran’s poorest and most backward province, traditionally not very inclined towards separatism, are nowadays involved in matches linked to the new silk roads that see the Chinese, Pakistanis and Indians dealing with terrorist groups of various kinds.
Iran’s assimilative talent, the ideal type imperial trademark, seems to prevail over separatist tendencies, cultivated over the centuries by Turkish, Russian, British, American and Israeli enemies. According to the French geographer Bernard Hourcade, in this sense instead the Islamic Republic has done better than the shahs, not thanks to ideological or religious means, but thanks to a combination of urbanisation – which has socialised and nationalised peripheral tribal and rural groups – and democracy.
In Iran one is allowed to vote, albeit with the restrictions imposed by clerical supervision that selects candidates for senior positions and at times resorts to significant electoral fraud. Hence, in order to win an election, the president of the republic needs to unite with the majority of the Persian-Shiite electorate the consensus of those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, including the Turks and the Sunnis. (11) In spite of this, ultimately an abundant three quarters of civilian, military and religious managers of the state are Persians, with half coming from Tehran, the centre of all power and of various opposition groups (12).
5. The internal front therefore appears more compact than would suit strategists in Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem. Should the regime fall, it might be replaced by a more nationalist one. Those among Iran’s enemies hoping to set up a friendly government need to know that to do this they would need to destroy the state and not just the regime. Should this occur it is unlikely that Tehran will escape the fate of Carthage. What remains to be seen is whether someone really aspires to dig yet another, this time gigantic, black hole between the Gulf and Central Asia.
Or perhaps they will end up creating one without being fully aware of it as has already happened to Washington in its never-ending “War on Terror”. Or if instead, as for sometime suggested by the more daring neo-conservative ideologues represented in the Trump administration by his National Security Advisor John Bolton, by annihilating Iran they intend to redraw ex novo the map of the Greater Middle East, having expunged all factors of power with the exception of Israel and Turkey, leaving dozens of mini- or pseudo-statelets at the mercy of the global American hegemonic leader and its regional twin, the Jewish state (coloured map 8).
In the event of open war against the United States, presumably supported by Israel, with at least logistical support provide by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran would counter its opponent’s overpowering deployment with the asymmetrical tactics elaborated by its military apparatuses. It would try and mobilise, to the highest possible degree, the resources of its few and not very reliable regional partners, only to discover that some of its alleged proxies are not prepared to die for Tehran.
The Iranian military apparatus has its spearhead in the Pasdaran (120,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen), specialists in advanced operations – experimented in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Sudan – as well as in internal guerrilla warfare. They are accompanied by a galaxy of voluntary domestic militias (among them the basiji stand out) as well as external ones recruited all over Asia as well as in Africa.
The regular Armed Forces (Artesh, about 300,000 soldiers) are not excessively efficient nor are they totally devoted to the Leader. Persian arts are far more refined in the field of cyber warfare – America’s relative Achilles’ Heel – with which Iran is already inflicting damage on its enemy without being instantly visible. In the event of an “all out” war the Iranian strategists have calculated that they could save from an initial air and naval attack 15% of their medium range missiles. This would allow them to react, hitting strategic Israeli cities and structures as well as American bases and perhaps ships belonging to the Fifth Fleet. Closing the Straits of Hormuz, an essential bottleneck for global trade through which 20% of all the oil traded in the world transits, would be technically possible, for a while. But this would amount to suicide. The enemy superpower would feel legitimised to take action to annihilate Iran, without excluding the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Finally, the Islamic Republic would observe that its exorbitantly expensive clients, for whom it has squandered blood and money to the extent of risking domestic destabilisation, do not intend to reciprocate. At best they would, or pretend to in their own way. Hezbollah has an amazing arsenal of missiles, superior to the combined ones of their supposed Iranian “master” and their hated Israeli enemy.
Dominant in Lebanon, why on earth should the followers of Nasrallah commit suicide by launching thousands of missiles on Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas to then be pulverised by Israeli-American reprisals? Shiite pragmatism does not only apply to the Persians.
As far as al-Asad is concerned, in theory he should attack the American contingent encamped in his North-West to cut off the imperial corridor between Beirut, Baghdad and Tehran. He will not do it, because he does not have the means, currently concentrated on “clearing” residual strategic areas of rebels and Islamic State jihadists still capable of murderous sorties. And also because he knows that seven years of blood and tears would be annulled on the eve of victory by America’s final reprisal.
Furthermore, the Damascus regime is neither Persian nor Shiite. Its relationship with Tehran is instrumental. The Syrian deep state is in the old cadres trained by the Soviets and among the younger ones by the Russians (one of Putin’s most brilliant and least analysed operations has been the re-activation of the network of Soviet “friendships”, in some cases dating back to the tsars). Syrian youngsters able to attend school were equipped this year with freshly printed manuals in which Syria’s secular and pan-Arabic gene transcends all religious nuances – except for hatred for the Jews. Russia is depicted as a loyal friend and a secular superpower; “The greatest state in the world.”
Not that much greater than Syria, however, as indicated by a chart establishing the percentage of land occupied by the various political entities. After the Russian Federation (11%), comes the “Arabian Homeland”, hence Syria extending from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia as the nucleus of its claimed ethno-cultural ecumene (10%). Russian is the language most in demand and taught in Syrian schools. There is no sign at all of farsi. Iranian history is presented in a negative light with Persian emperors marked as occupiers and no reference to Iranian cultural heritage. Islam is evoked without great consideration and exclusively as Sunni.
The few concessions made to the Khomeinist regime’s revolutionary characteristics and its shared antagonism as far as the West and the “Zionist entity” are concerned, are as far as empathy for the Islamic Republic goes. Iran is reminded, however, that Khuzestan and a number of islands in the Gulf belong to pan-Arabian Syria. Hezbollah instead does not exist. (13) If this is an ally…
What is left is what remains of Iraq. In the Persian-Shiite imperial and religious perspective, Mesopotamia is far more than a friendly land. It has been a close relative since the dawn of history. This is an intimacy fuelled in the late 20th century by a passion for its oil fields. Tehran was the only capital in the world that,, in 2003 celebrated America’s triumph over Saddam Hussein, correctly convinced that Bush Jr. had reopened to the Islamic Republic the path to Baghdad and the other holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala.
It is towards these cities that 15 million pilgrims, mainly Iranians, walk every year, hosted and fraternally taken care of by local Arab followers of the same faith – Saddam considered them Persians – with an organisational talent unknown to the Mecca’s chaotic hajj. The imperial corridor needed to resupply the Pasdaran involved in Syria with weapons cannot disregard the Iraqi routes. The province of Diyala is one of these privileged areas, while new roads are built to bypass the still hot Mosul region to the south. But the networks of Saudi and UAE influence are incisively penetrating the Iraqi socio-political and economic context, so that the Iranian snake can see from close up the shimmering of the scimitar that will cut off its head.
6. The decisive asymmetry between the United States and Iran lies in the scale of their respective geopolitics. Washington considers itself the only global superpower and intends to remain in that position. Tehran feels it is a regional power surrounded by enemies and wants to survive. The Pentagon’s strategists attribute high priority to the Gulf, certainly not as crucial as challenging China in the Indo-Pacific. Even hostility to any agreement between Russia and Germany, inherited from the 20th century, is nowadays set within the anti-Chinese match in Washington so as to avoid an excessive Beijing-Moscow-Berlin alignment. In this context Tehran might perhaps be offered a jump seat. This applied to Obama and continues to apply for Trump, assuming that American geopolitics can be timed on the basis of presidential administrations.
The not unimportant novelty consists in the bewitching show of sounds and lights provided by the current exuberant inhabitant of the White House, who hypnotises television viewers, twitter maniacs but also serious political decision-makers all over the world.
These decision-makers struggle to decipher which messages are ascribable to choices made by the author, if and to what extent there are realistically implementable and which – that vast majority – are addressed at the electorate that in the November mid-term elections will, to a significant extent, decide the future of the messenger-in-chief.
If Trump’s intention was to make America less predictable in order to renegotiate the conditions of its supremacy, conditions neglected by his cynical predecessor, then his mission has been accomplished. If, however, the “creative chaos” multiplied by the media and reflected in the anything-but-compact American political and technocratic establishment, spreading a sense of uncertainty that is in conflict with the absence of existential threats, the risk is that between Congress, the White House and the Pentagon all sense of reality will be lost. Only the United States can destroy the United States.
The feeling that American decision-makers subconsciously tend to embrittle the solid foundations of the superpower dates back to the evening of September 11th, 2001, when they decided to overreact to the albeit sensational attack of clear Saudi origin, declaring a demented “War on Terror”.
They thereby revealed an unsuspected sensitivity to pain and ended up embracing the Iranophobic and anti-Shiite narrative of the attackers, just when Tehran had revealed itself to be cooperating in Afghanistan. Seventeen years later there is no evidence that American primacy has strengthened compared to the day of the attack on the Twin Towers.
Liquidating Iran would therefore be in line with the revolutionary hermeneutics of the Global War on Terror elaborated by the neo-conservatives and applied during the first six years of the Bush Jr. administration. The attack on Saddam had been devised by them as the prelude to the destabilisation of Iran. This was the opposite of Iran’s perception, that saw this as the premise for a race to the Mediterranean via Mesopotamia and the Levant.
7. It is generally agreed, among us Italians and other Europeans, that a total war between the United States and Iran would be a disaster. It would result in convulsions on the energy market and European-Asian trade, a probable spreading of the conflict between the Levant and Afghanistan, an additional exodus of refugees and movement of foreign fighters, terrorist attacks – the list of predicable damage is formidable, not to mention inevitable unforeseen events.
Over the past months, emissaries from Washington have toured European capitals, not to persuade us that they are right – that would have been a waste of time – but to remind us that we have nothing to say on this matter, “Do not try and get in our way.” American sanctions aimed at strangling Iran must be respected by everyone, European “allies” in primis (chart). Woe betide anyone buying a drop of Iranian oil or investing in the local economy.
The warning applies above all to the French, the Germans and the British, who considered the truce involving the Persian nuclear issue as a trade agreement, aimed at reopening their companies in a coveted market. That is also what we Italians believed as Iran’s traditional partners and not only in the energy sector. The Renzi government had prepared a package of industrial and infrastructural investments amounting to 5 billion Euros (a not even very disguised government-to-government operation).
All evaporated. Everything seems to be reduced to a pitiful show of complaints, rhetorical outbursts and pathetic threats aimed at obtaining a little ad hoc charity (waivers). It is a performance that is inclined to turn into de facto acquiescence, flavoured with a few minor skulduggeries. The more adventurous Europeans will venture into acrobatic triangulations with pirate countries.
In our pan-juridicism we cling to international law to challenge the United States’ right to inflict secondary sanctions that kill off the resumption of our deals with Iran. This is done almost as if the American empire, super-ordinate by self-definition, could renounce the extra-territorial application of its laws or bow to injunctions issued by some unlikely “international court”.
Threats of reprisal in the form of penalties on U.S. banks proposed no less than by London, result in good humour in Washington. Jean-Claude Juncker provided a spectacular roar, calling on the dispersed 28 members of the EU to activate the blocking statute invented by the European Council in 1996 so as to circumvent laws approved by Congress to restrict trade with Cuba, Libya and Iran, valid urbi et orbi. Should this statute ever be applied – a purely educational hypothesis – EU businesses could choose between being punished by the United States for having violated their laws, or by their own nations for having violated EU regulations.
Iran might receive some artful aid from countries less uncertain than the European Union, such as China, India, South Korea and Russia. The first three occupy the podium as the main importers of Iranian oil and do not intend to abdicate. Beijing might perhaps increase its quota as a challenge to the United States.
Moscow would in any case be the winner, at least over the short term. Were the price of a barrel of oil rise to over US$100 due to a deterioration of the Iranian crisis, it would compensate with interest the losses suffered due to the sanctions inflicted for the abduction of Crimea. None of Washington’s rivals see their vital interests put at risk in the event of America declaring war on Iran, unless nuclear weapons were to be used. Russia and China might even consider this as an American distraction, a temporary sleep therapy useful for sedating its incurable centuries-old anti-Russian obsession and more recent Sinophobia.
The only country that can influence America’s decision on whether or not it should attack Iran, is Israel. Common opinion establishes that the Jewish State and the Islamic Republic are eternal mortal enemies. This is not true. Without bothering Cyrus the Great, recent history reminds one that the Israeli “Little Satan” and the Iranian “terrorist state” are not as reciprocally hostile as they like to portray themselves in order to achieve reciprocal de-legitimisation in a region in which the creation of an Archenemy is the best investment for uniting their respective public opinions (and in the case of Jerusalem to obtain the best possible weapons from the Americans). Neither has ever intended to destroy the other.
Here are a few clues; both have fought against neighbouring Arabs while never attacking each other’s territory. The Shah’s Iran was the cutting edge of the periphery’s alliance created by David Ben-Gurion, then nurtured from 1957 to 1979 together with Turkey, supported by Ethiopia. This was also linked at military and intelligence levels in view of a shared (pre)judgement concerning the nature of the Arabs and in the name of the principle establishing that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
On the basis of the same axiom, and with Washington’s approval, between 1980 and 1986 Tsahal and Mossad moved spare parts for Khomeini’s air force and ammunition for the artillery, quite happy to used the double Satan to stop the Iraqi enemy already armed by the Americans. The Israeli Air Force has never bombed Iran’s nuclear sites, while in 1981 it hit and destroyed the Iraqi reactor in Osirak (manufactured in France) and in 2007 the Syrian one under construction in al-Kibar.
Anti-Semitism is rather weak among Persians, just as Israeli public opinion does not like to stigmatise Persians, while the Iranian and Jewish diasporas abroad at times establish excellent relations as in the case of California. The 25,000 Jews living in Iran have their religion recognised and also a member of parliament, albeit of symbolic use, while in the Israeli establishment there are a number of leaders of Iranian origin, among them the former President of the Republic Moshe Katzav, as well as former Tsahal Chief of Staff and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, the unforgotten hero of the Kippur War. Jewish Iranians often express positive opinions regards to the country of their birth, unlike Sephardic Jews. (14)
But Iranian penetration in Syria and the temptation experienced by Netanyahu, cornered by the judiciary, to save his prestige and his position by taking advantage of the ultra-Right – see the “law of the nation” with which Israel sanctions discrimination between Jewish and Arab citizens while consecrating settlements in Judea and Samaria – could violate the meditated reflex that in Jerusalem has so far held back the supporters of war against the Islamic Republic.
Among the military and the spies, the party that prevails is that of those wishing to avoid a full frontal clash with Iran. It is a thesis discussed and often shared in constant exchanges with their American homologues.
Perhaps war will be avoided. Or perhaps not. But one minute before deciding whether or not to dress-up as the commander-in-chief so as to hurl the most formidable army in the world against Iran, the only “foreign” leader whose voice Trump will want to hear will be Netanyahu.
He is now Israel’s prime minister and for twenty years was a proud citizen of the United States and is still influential in the Grand Old Party (15). Then suddenly the line will go dead and a deferential but firm voice will explain to the president what he must (not) do.
(translated by Francescas Simmons)
- “President Donald J. Trump’s New Strategy on Iran”, The White House, 13.10.2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov
- SHERMAN in “Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations – United States Senate – One Hundred Thirteenth Congress, First Session”, 3.10.2013, U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 9, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/
- J. LIMBERT, “Les États-Unis et l’Iran: de l’amitié à la rancœur”, Hérodote. Revue de Géographie et Géopolitique, n. 169, deuxième trimestre 2018, “Regards géopolitiques sur l’Iran”, pp. 68-69.
- Telegram (cable) 08RIYADH649_a, SECRET, “Saudi King Abdullah and Senior Princes on Saudi Policy Toward Iraq”, 20.4.2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08RIYADH649_a.html
- PERRY, “Mattis’s Last Stand is Iran”, Foreign Policy, 28.6.2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/28/mattiss-last-stand-is-iran/
- “U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World. Rethinking the U.S. Approach to Force Planning”, by D. OCHMANEK, P.A. WILSON, B. ALLEN, J.S. MEYERS, C.C. PRICE, Rand Corporation, 2017, pp. 61-75.
- BLAIR, “Geopolitically Speaking. Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski”, Azerbaijan International, Winter 1995 (3.4), pp. 20-22.
- F. KHAVAND, “Are We Witnessing The Dawn Of A New Persian Empire?”, Radio Farda, 14.9.2017, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-influence-in-middle-east-new-empire/28735042.html
- Interview given to S. GRAUBARD, “Lunch with the FT: Henry Kissinger”, Financial Times, 24-25.5.2008.
- BAUSANI, La letteratura neopersiana, Rome 2011, La Sapienza Orientale, p. 157. An anastatic copy of the book published together with Antonio Pagliaro, entitled Storia della Letteratura Persiana, Milan 1960, Nuova Accademia.
- HOURCADE, “Nationalism and the Islamic Republic of Iran”, in M. LITVAK (by), Constructing Nationalism in Iran. From the Qajars to the Islamic Republic, London-New York 2017, Routledge, pp. 218-228. Cfr. also ID., “Vers une nouvelle géographie politique de l’Iran?”, Hérodote, Revue de Géographie et Géopolitique, n. 169, deuxième trimestre 2018, pp. 99-116.
- “To What Ethnicity and Province do Majority of Iranian Officials Belong?”, Arabian Gulf Center for Iranian Studies, www.arabiangcis.org. Per la versione persiana, www.tebaren.org
- E. J. PARDO – M. JACOBI, “Syrian National Identity. Reformulating School Textbooks During The Civil War”, Jerusalem, Impact Se, July 2018, www.impact-se.org
- The thesis of Israel and Iran as “false enemies” or “the best enemies in the world” was recently argued by F. ENCEL, “Israël et Iran: les faux ennemis”, Hérodote, Revue de Géographie et Géopolitique, n. 169, deuxième trimestre 2018, pp. 49-53, and by P. RAZOUX, “Iran-Israël: les meilleurs ennemis du monde?”, Politique internationale, no. 158, hiver, pp. 193-208.
- M. TOALDO, “L’uomo che rifondò Israele”, Limes no. 5/2013, “Una certa idea di Israele”, p. 23.