As the Trump administration joins with Middle Eastern states like Israel and Saudi Arabia to more widely “confront” Iran, a key question has arisen: How might Iran and its allies respond?
This is, of course, not a minor matter. Iran is a key player in the security architecture of much of Western Asia, with extensive natural resources, formidable military powers, influential allies and a history of conflict (though often low intensity) with other states. It has also consistently brought to bear a political-military approach that has arguably been among the most successful - and aggressive - in a region where fault lines and potential conflict points are both multifarious and deep. Ratcheting up the pressure, as is contemplated now, either by design or misstep, could result in a major conflict (or conflicts) in a part of the world that simply cannot bear any more. Additionally, any conflict involving Iran has the potential for global reverberations, either through energy market disruption, refugee flows or even possibly Great Power confrontations involving Russia and the US.
Unfortunately, as has so often been the case over the years, much of the external analysis on this crucial subject leaves out a key actor for adequately understanding the costs of such a sudden turn back to the old strategy of “changing Iranian behavior” or outright “regime change”: Iranians themselves.
One example of this deficiency was recently illustrated in The Boston Globe by Thanassis Cambanis — although there are many other similar pieces to which one might point.
Writing as an expert analyst with the New York-based Century Foundation, Cambanis, who does not speak Farsi and lives Beirut, warned in no uncertain terms that Iran’s intentions are clear: “They seek unimpeded military access to proxies, influence with governments, and access to markets — all goals easily achieved in a context of fraying state authority.”
Although the goals, at least, do not sound radically different from US goals in the region since the end of World War II, Cambanis goes one step further and claims that after the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s (Hussein’s initial, illegal invasion of Iran was, of course, backed by the US and several Gulf Countries), “Iran’s leaders concluded that their best bet was to cultivate unstable, fragmented, and squabbling neighbors who couldn’t pose such a threat.”
The thesis sounds plausible enough and may even be true (N.B. I am not qualified to analyse Iranian intentions and have no formal experience or training when it comes to Iranian foreign policy) .
Indeed, it has long been fashionable in the US and beyond to argue just this, including among analysts like Cambanis who say they actually oppose a military approach against Iran.
A quick perusal of the thousands of translated Farsi language articles that our organization Mideastwire.com has compiled since 2005, or even those from the Israeli-backed MEMRI.org, would lead one to conclude, however, that there has been a robust, oftentimes open debate among important Iranian leaders, activists, and analysts about what Iranian goals should be in their near abroad and how best to achieve them. [Some of the best English-language analysis that regularly cites the diversity of Iranian thinking in their reports is provided by the International Crisis Group]
Beyond even a cursory treatment of the Iranian discourse, however, looking at the country’s covert and overt actions over the decades suggests that Iranian foreign policy has sometimes had the effect of de-stabilizing neighbors but, as some scholars have argued, it has also sometimes had the opposite effect: Helping to forge opposition-government power-sharing agreements, such as in Central Asia, mediate armed conflicts and prevent state fragmentation, for example, following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Indeed, as one such scholar (of many) has pointed out, “During the Bonn conference in late 2001, it was Iran that broke a stalemate over the composition of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government. James Dobbins, the U.S. representative at Bonn, has recounted how the Iranian representative, current foreign minister Javad Zarif, had a brief whispered conversation with the Northern Alliance representative, Younis Qanooni, in the corner of the negotiating room. A minute later, Qanooni returned to the table and a deal was reached.”
From Cambanis though, one only gets the monolithic, all-knowing view of Iran, a perspective that has all too often led to complacency and bad policymaking when it comes to understanding and then dealing with perceived enemies out in the world. That such analyses should appear at the same time as we seem on the verge of a re-run of the pre-2003 Iraq invasion period is especially troubling, however. At these moments, as we should have learned by now, it is crucial for journalists and analysts alike (not to mention politicians and their publics) to complicate the narratives that push towards war, not only because the interventions of the past period in the Middle East have been so evidently disastrous — with multifarious unintended consequences — but also because war usually entails irreversible death and destruction for so many.
A significant public debate, for example, and moments of publicly aired argument among different currents in Iran when it comes to their foreign policy is surely one important element to grasp for outsiders of all stripes - and especially the policymaking consumers of analysis - since these discourses signal cleavages that might call for an array of non-violent tools to be brought to bear instead of military ones in order to reach a more effective outcome.
Either way, even if one believes in the crude assertion of many neo-conservatives that manifest differences in the Iranian body politic don’t practically matter, the fact remains that one cannot say Iranian leaders as a whole invariably want “unstable,” “squabbling” neighbors. In some cases, this may very well be true, although Iran, of course, would not be the first actor to have pursued such an approach with its neighbors. Just look at the Saudi-led effort to destabilize and fragment Lebanon happening right now through the forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
In other cases, most notably when it comes to Iranian diplomacy with NATO member Turkey or the status of Iraqi Kurdistan in relation to Iraq itself, some Iranian leaders have publicly advocated for and pushed through the opposite course, attempting to reverse regional division, confrontation and even institutional-state weakness.
Moreover, as Iranians from different political perspectives and interests have widely noted over the last 16 years, the “unstable, fragmented and squabbling neighbors” - i.e. those state structures Cambanis claims Iran’s leaders unambiguously prefer - have oftentimes (though certainly not exclusively) been the result of US-led invasions, US, European and Gulf-backed insurgencies against previously stable states or a radically expanded, almost unbounded counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency footprint of violence.
Such complications to the Iran-Only-Wants-Instability mantra are wholly cast aside by Cambanis, however, which leads him and quite a few other analysts - perhaps unwittingly - not only down the proverbial slippery slope to war (after all, if Iranian leaders only want instability then it is easy to believe they can only be whipped into shape or shipped out) but also down the corollary chute of predicting a relatively soft response to what might very well be perceived by Tehran as an existential threat.
“A direct strike would engulf Iran in a direct war with the United States in which it would be at a great disadvantage,” Cambanis writes. “History suggests that Iran’s leadership prefers indirect conflict, with all the advantages of asymmetric warfare and plausible deniability.”
Once again, instead of directly referencing Iranians, Cambanis expands his argument by citing “Iran watchers,” (a term that can be said to have wholly lost its meaning by now), explaining that, “A quick perusal of Iran’s reach and alliances lends credence to what longtime Iran watchers argued: Iran does best in a regional proxy war.”
Cambanis therefore states: “As we’re likely to see over the coming year, Iran has cultivated its own options to throw nails and bomblets in the path of any presumptive American juggernaut.”
Rather than leaving matters at this point, however, Cambanis suddenly injects the only oblique reference to what actual Iranians seem to have said, but with the unintended effect of undermining his core claim that Iran would merely throw “nails and bomblets” (don’t worry about the full fledged “bombs”) against the American “juggernaut”:
“The Karbala raid suggests what Iran is capable of. In recent statements, commanders of the IRGC have warned that American installations could be targeted anywhere within 1,250 miles of Iran’s borders — the range of Tehran’s conventional missiles.”
Of course, the Karbala raid that Cambanis references (which led to the capturing and killing of five American soldiers in January, 2007 in Iraq, likely at the behest of Iranians) in fact doesn’t suggest what Iran is “capable of” since a capture/kill operation targeting a few US troops is radically different from an Iranian missile attack on the dozens of US bases that have long been encircling the country. The commanders’ warning is precisely that, in certain circumstances of threat, Iran could readily pursue a path of open war rather than a mere “bomblets” strategy.
Recognizing the distinction is crucial. In the first year of the Syria War, I was repeatedly told by a wave of analysts, journalists and external officials that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a “paper tiger” and that Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would not view his fall as an existential threat - and that they would not act forcefully in response to efforts to diplomatically and militarily precipitate his collapse.
In retrospect one reason for this particular misjudgment, which continues to have disastrous consequences, is that many external “watchers” and actors didn’t listen to what their objects of analysis and action were actually saying. Had they have done so, they would have heard some exaggerations, dissimulation and bravado, surely. But they also could have connected a range of other discourses, together with historical and contemporary analyses, to arrive at the conclusion that any effort to bring down Assad would likely lead to a strong and effective, though at numerous points morally abhorrent, response.
Now, with Iranian voices - in Farsi, sometimes in English and also in several other languages - debating and directly threatening any renewed confrontational push against Iran and its allies in the region, all of us might do well to actually listen and ponder whether the possible counter-force brought to bear might go well beyond “bomblets” and entail even more devastating consequences than the hellish Syria War has over the last six and a half years.
Where does this leave foreign analysts of Middle Eastern countries, such as myself? Perhaps it is time to finally develop and debate some guidelines that might help promote a better understanding at home of complicated, potentially violent countries which are not our own. Provisionally:
1. Avoid claiming deep knowledge, especially of elusive “intentions,” when you haven’t lived and worked extensively in the foreign society you are analyzing. Certainly approach such an endeavor with great restraint and humbleness if you also have little or no access to what is being said in the native language;
2. Academic or specialized study on the foreign country being analyzed is especially important. As but one example, because it is literally a life or death matter, avoid proffering military solutions for problems if you have no military training or experience. Likewise, if your only training has come in military affairs, tactics and strategy, avoid pontificating on socio-political policies that might seem, on paper, a perfect complement to a “kinetic” approach.
3. When writing about a foreign country and what people think and how they may act or react, it is always best to start by directly referencing and then contextualizing what people who live in the country say - or don’t say, publicly.
These initial guidelines will certainly not solve the problem of analysis that has especially plagued the Middle East over the decades. They might, however, offer a way to sharpen our profession and, hopefully, prevent the kinds of mistakes and mis-appropriation that continue to haunt us all.