Tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, what other realistic options does the US have?
This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
The United States apparently has reached the point where it must
either accept that Iran will develop nuclear weapons at some point if
it wishes, or take military action to prevent this. There is a third
strategy, however: Washington can seek to redefine the Iranian
As we have no idea what leaders on either side are thinking,
exploring this represents an exercise in geopolitical theory. Let’s
begin with the two apparent stark choices.
Diplomacy vs. the Military Option
The diplomatic approach consists of creating a broad coalition
prepared to impose what have been called crippling sanctions on Iran.
Effective sanctions must be so painful that they compel the target to
change its behavior. In Tehran’s case, this could only consist of blocking Iran’s imports of gasoline.
Iran imports 35 percent of the gasoline it consumes. It is not clear
that a gasoline embargo would be crippling, but it is the only embargo
that might work. All other forms of sanctions against Iran would be
mere gestures designed to give the impression that something is being
The Chinese will not participate in any gasoline embargo. Beijing
gets 11 percent of its oil from Iran, and it has made it clear it will
continue to deliver gasoline to Iran.
Moscow’s position is that Russia might consider sanctions down the
road, but it hasn’t specified when, and it hasn’t specified what. The
Russians are more than content seeing the U.S. bogged down in the
Middle East and so are not inclined to solve American problems in the
region. With the Chinese and Russians unlikely to embargo gasoline,
these sanctions won’t create significant pain for Iran. Since all other
sanctions are gestures, the diplomatic approach is therefore unlikely
The military option has its own risks. First, its success depends on the quality of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities
and on the degree of hardening of those targets. Second, it requires
successful air attacks. Third, it requires battle damage assessments
that tell the attacker whether the strike succeeded. Fourth, it
requires follow-on raids to destroy facilities that remain functional.
And fifth, attacks must do more than simply set back Iran’s program a
few months or even years: If the risk of a nuclear Iran is great enough
to justify the risks of war, the outcome must be decisive.
Each point in this process is a potential failure point. Given the
multiplicity of these points — which includes others not mentioned —
failure may not be an option, but it is certainly possible.
But even if the attacks succeed, the question of what would happen
the day after the attacks remains. Iran has its own counters. It has a superbly effective terrorist organization, Hezbollah,
at its disposal. It has sufficient influence in Iraq to destabilize
that country and force the United States to keep forces in Iraq badly
needed elsewhere. And it has the ability to use mines and missiles to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz
and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes for some period — driving global
oil prices through the roof while the global economy is struggling to
stabilize itself. Iran’s position on its nuclear program is rooted in
the awareness that while it might not have assured options in the event
of a military strike, it has counters that create complex and
unacceptable risks. Iran therefore does not believe the United States
will strike or permit Israel to strike, as the consequences would be
To recap, the United States
either can accept a nuclear Iran or risk an attack that might fail
outright, impose only a minor delay on Iran’s nuclear program or
trigger extremely painful responses even if it succeeds. When neither
choice is acceptable, it is necessary to find a third choice.
Redefining the Iranian Problem
As long as the problem of Iran is defined in terms of its nuclear
program, the United States is in an impossible place. Therefore, the
Iranian problem must be redefined. One attempt at redefinition involves
hope for an uprising against the current regime. We will not repeat our views on this
in depth, but in short, we do not regard these demonstrations to be a
serious threat to the regime. Tehran has handily crushed them, and even
if they did succeed, we do not believe they would produce a regime any
more accommodating toward the United States. The idea of waiting for a
revolution is more useful as a justification for inaction — and
accepting a nuclear Iran — than it is as a strategic alternative.
At this moment, Iran is the most powerful regional military force in
the Persian Gulf. Unless the United States permanently stations
substantial military forces in the region, there is no military force
able to block Iran. Turkey is more powerful than Iran, but it is far
from the Persian Gulf and focused on other matters at the moment, and
it doesn’t want to take on Iran militarily — at least not for a very
long time. At the very least, this means the United States cannot withdraw from Iraq. Baghdad is too weak to block Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, and the Iraqi government has elements friendly toward Iran.
Historically, regional stability depended on the Iraqi-Iranian
balance of power. When it tottered in 1990, the result was the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait. The United States did not push into Iraq in 1991
because it did not want to upset the regional balance of power by
creating a vacuum in Iraq. Rather, U.S. strategy was to re-establish
the Iranian-Iraqi balance of power to the greatest extent possible, as
the alternative was basing large numbers of U.S. troops in the region.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 assumed that once the Baathist
regime was destroyed the United States would rapidly create a strong
Iraqi government that would balance Iran. The core mistake in this
thinking lay in failing to recognize that the new Iraqi government
would be filled with Shiites, many of whom regarded Iran as a friendly
power. Rather than balancing Iran, Iraq could well become an Iranian
satellite. The Iranians strongly encouraged the American invasion
precisely because they wanted to create a situation where Iraq moved
toward Iran’s orbit. When this in fact began happening, the Americans
had no choice but an extended occupation of Iraq, a trap both the Bush
and Obama administrations have sought to escape.
It is difficult to define Iran’s influence in Iraq at this point.
But at a minimum, while Iran may not be able to impose a pro-Iranian
state on Iraq, it has sufficient influence to block the creation of any
strong Iraqi government either through direct influence in the
government or by creating destabilizing violence in Iraq. In other
words, Iran can prevent Iraq from emerging as a counterweight to Iran,
and Iran has every reason to do this. Indeed, it is doing just this.
The Fundamental U.S.-Iranian Issue
Iraq, not nuclear weapons, is the fundamental issue between Iran and the United States. Iran wants to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq
so Iran can assume its place as the dominant military power in the
Persian Gulf. The United States wants to withdraw from Iraq because it faces challenges in Afghanistan
— where it will also need Iranian cooperation — and elsewhere.
Committing forces to Iraq for an extended period of time while fighting
in Afghanistan leaves the United States exposed globally. Events
involving China or Russia — such as the 2008 war in Georgia — would see
the United States without a counter. The alternative would be a
withdrawal from Afghanistan or a massive increase in U.S. armed forces.
The former is not going to happen any time soon, and the latter is an
Therefore, the United States must find a way to counterbalance Iran
without an open-ended deployment in Iraq and without expecting the
re-emergence of Iraqi power, because Iran is not going to allow the
latter to happen. The nuclear issue is simply an element of this
broader geopolitical problem, as it adds another element to the Iranian
tool kit. It is not a stand-alone issue.
The United States has an interesting strategy in redefining problems
that involves creating extraordinarily alliances with mortal
ideological and geopolitical enemies to achieve strategic U.S. goals.
First consider Franklin Roosevelt’s alliance with Stalinist Russia to
block Nazi Germany. He pursued this alliance despite massive political
outrage not only from isolationists but also from institutions like the
Roman Catholic Church that regarded the Soviets as the epitome of evil.
Now consider Richard Nixon’s decision to align with China at a time
when the Chinese were supplying weapons to North Vietnam that were
killing American troops. Moreover, Mao — who had said he did not fear
nuclear war as China could absorb a few hundred million deaths — was
considered, with reason, quite mad. Nevertheless, Nixon, as
anti-Communist and anti-Chinese a figure as existed in American
politics, understood that an alliance (and despite the lack of a formal
treaty, alliance it was) with China was essential to counterbalance the
Soviet Union at a time when American power was still being sapped in
Roosevelt and Nixon both faced impossible strategic situations
unless they were prepared to redefine the strategic equation
dramatically and accept the need for alliance with countries that had
previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats. American
history is filled with opportunistic alliances designed to solve
impossible strategic dilemmas. The Stalin and Mao cases represent
stunning alliances with prior enemies designed to block a third power
seen as more dangerous.
It is said that Ahmadinejad is crazy. It was also said that Mao and
Stalin were crazy, in both cases with much justification. Ahmadinejad
has said many strange things and issued numerous threats. But when
Roosevelt ignored what Stalin said and Nixon ignored what Mao said,
they each discovered that Stalin’s and Mao’s actions were far more
rational and predictable than their rhetoric. Similarly, what the
Iranians say and what they do are quite different.
U.S. vs. Iranian Interests
Consider the American interest. First, it must maintain the flow of
oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States cannot tolerate
interruptions, and that limits the risks it can take. Second, it must
try to keep any one power from controlling all of the oil in the
Persian Gulf, as that would give such a country too much long-term
power within the global system. Third, while the United States is
involved in a war with elements of the Sunni Muslim world, it must
reduce the forces devoted to that war. Fourth, it must deal with the
Iranian problem directly. Europe will go as far as sanctions
but no further, while the Russians and Chinese won’t even go that far
yet. Fifth, it must prevent an Israeli strike on Iran for the same
reasons it must avoid a strike itself, as the day after any Israeli
strike will be left to the United States to manage.
Now consider the Iranian interest. First, it must guarantee regime
survival. It sees the United States as dangerous and unpredictable. In
less than 10 years, it has found itself with American troops on both
its eastern and western borders. Second, it must guarantee that Iraq will never again be a threat to Iran.
Third, it must increase its authority within the Muslim world against
Sunni Muslims, whom it regards as rivals and sometimes as threats.
Now consider the overlaps. The United States is in a war against
some (not all) Sunnis. These are Iran’s enemies, too. Iran does not
want U.S. troops along its eastern and western borders. In point of
fact, the United States does not want this either. The United States
does not want any interruption of oil flow through Hormuz. Iran much
prefers profiting from those flows to interrupting them. Finally, the
Iranians understand that it is the United States alone that is Iran’s
existential threat. If Iran can solve the American problem its regime
survival is assured. The United States understands, or should, that
resurrecting the Iraqi counterweight to Iran is not an option: It is
either U.S. forces in Iraq or accepting Iran’s unconstrained role.
Therefore, as an exercise in geopolitical theory, consider the
following. Washington’s current options are unacceptable. By redefining
the issue in terms of dealing with the consequences of the 2003
invasion of Iraq, there are three areas of mutual interest. First, both
powers have serious quarrels with Sunni Islam. Second, both powers want
to see a reduction in U.S. forces in the region. Third, both countries
have an interest in assuring the flow of oil, one to use the oil, the
other to profit from it to increase its regional power.
The strategic problem is, of course, Iranian power in the Persian
Gulf. The Chinese model is worth considering here. China issued
bellicose rhetoric before and after Nixon’s and Kissinger’s visits. But
whatever it did internally, it was not a major risk-taker in its
foreign policy. China’s relationship with the United States was of
critical importance to China. Beijing fully understood the value of
this relationship, and while it might continue to rail about
imperialism, it was exceedingly careful not to undermine this core
The major risk of the third strategy is that Iran will overstep its
bounds and seek to occupy the oil-producing countries of the Persian
Gulf. Certainly, this would be tempting, but it would bring a rapid
American intervention. The United States would not block indirect
Iranian influence, however, from financial participation in regional
projects to more significant roles for the Shia in Arabian states.
Washington’s limits for Iranian power are readily defined and enforced
The great losers in the third strategy, of course, would be the
Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula. But Iraq aside, they are incapable of
defending themselves, and the United States has no long-term interest
in their economic and political relations. So long as the oil flows,
and no single power directly controls the entire region, the United
States does not have a stake in this issue.
Israel would also be enraged. It sees ongoing American-Iranian
hostility as a given. And it wants the United States to eliminate the
Iranian nuclear threat. But eliminating this threat is not an option
given the risks, so the choice is a nuclear Iran outside some
structured relationship with the United States or within it. The choice
that Israel might want, a U.S.-Iranian conflict, is unlikely. Israel
can no more drive American strategy than can Saudi Arabia.
From the American standpoint, an understanding with Iran would have
the advantage of solving an increasingly knotty problem. In the long
run, it would also have the advantage of being a self-containing
relationship. Turkey is much more powerful than Iran and is emerging
from its century-long shell. Its relations with the United States are
delicate. The United States would infuriate the Turks by doing this
deal, forcing them to become more active faster. They would thus emerge
in Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. But Turkey’s anger at the United
States would serve U.S. interests. The Iranian position in Iraq would
be temporary, and the United States would not have to break its word as
Turkey eventually would eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq.
Ultimately, the greatest shock of such a maneuver on both sides
would be political. The U.S.-Soviet agreement shocked Americans deeply,
the Soviets less so because Stalin’s pact with Hitler had already
stunned them. The Nixon-Mao entente shocked all sides. It was utterly
unthinkable at the time, but once people on both sides thought about
it, it was manageable.
Such a maneuver would be particularly difficult for U.S. President
Barack Obama, as it would be widely interpreted as another example of
weakness rather than as a ruthless and cunning move. A military strike
would enhance his political standing, while an apparently cynical deal
would undermine it. Ahmadinejad could sell such a deal domestically
much more easily. In any event, the choices now are a nuclear Iran,
extended airstrikes with all their attendant consequences, or something
else. This is what something else might look like and how it would fit
in with American strategic tradition.