Coming Catastrophe: Four Mysteries of America and Iran

As March winds blow, there are specific warnings of an imminent catastrophe in the confrontation between America and Iran.  There is strong indication of this direction in several recent diplomatic surprises and reversals, and assembled below are four mysteries that illustrate the scale of the threat.

  1. Why did the Bush Administration announce suddenly, and contrary to previous policy, that it would participate in upcoming meetings in Iraq with the unrepentant adversarial states of Iran and Syria? Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice did not provide an answer when she declared, "We are recommitting ourselves to the security and stability of the Gulf region."
  2. Why did the Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia suddenly announce a visit by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to Riyadh for a conference on the region with King Abdullah?  Ahmadinejad, following his audience with the House of Saud, did not provide an answer when he declared, "Iran and Saudi Arabia oppose the dominance of enemies over the region and their conspiracies. During this trip, we tried to devise some measures to prevent the enemies from harming the Muslim world and to foil their plots."
  3. Why did the Taliban military commander in Afghanistan, Mullah Dadulah, suddenly announce in a European TV interview that the neo-Taliban was launching a spring offensive against NATO forces supporting the Afghan government?  Dadulah did not provide an answer to this question when he argued, "The Americans have sown a seed. They will reap the crop for quite a long time," and, "We will get our revenge on them, whether in Afghanistan or outside."
  4. Why has America suddenly decided to move toward bilateral talks with North Korea over nuclear proliferation and also to unfreeze North Korean funds associated with illicit money laundering and to remove North Korea from the American terrorism list?  China’s chief envoy, Wu Dawei, did not provide an answer when he declared the deal was "favorable for the peace process in northeast Asia and for the improvement of ties between relevant countries."

It is possible that there are no answers to these mysteries, and that this is the diplomatic cacophony of a stalemate that sounds significant only because it breaks with past assumptions.  Then again, my information from trusted sources is that there are time-specific explanations.  More, the answers collectively speak to the fact that all these players realize that America and Iran are on the brink of a battle that will be a catastrophe for themselves, for the region, for the East and the West.

What will the catastrophe look like?  It will look like a vortex, a planetary vortex, that churns the Middle East and Central Asia, that redraws the map, that pulls in major powers from East Asia, from Western Europe, from North and South America and Africa. There is no fixed timetable, though the general understanding is that it is many months away, not many weeks, especially since the warmer months favor the operational capabilities of the various incendiary factions from Kashmir to the Mediterranean.  The timing of the confrontation is informed generally by Iran’s belief, based on its revolution’s successes in 1979-80, that America is most vulnerable, and most incoherent, in the presidential election cycle over the next six to eighteen months.

The best historical comparison for this limbo before the storm is the spring of 1914, long before Archduke Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo, when there was widespread anxiety among the military powers that the major alliances, the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, were on a collision course, yet no one could see what factors would trigger a general mobilization.   Everyone knew the peril, yet no one knew the solution.  It is astonishing to find in the London Times of March 1914 a report from Berlin that the pan German press was widely demanding Germany not "shrink from the test" about its claims against Russian power in Asia Minor, and insisting Germany be "ready to risk war against Russia and France as well as England."   This was known then as the "Russophobe Chorus" and was a surprising and confounding mystery to professional observers.

It was difficult, though not impossible, to read this report at the time and then to sound a war warning that pointed to the immediate future. It was possible to argue in the spring of 1914 that the brutal decisions that would send Europe to war in the summer were already in rehearsal, were certainly not condemned, by the major powers.  A few analysts did look ahead and did pass on their grim interpretations; and yet the worst-case scenario of continental bloodshed and national collapse came on in any event.

It is also difficult to read the four reports above from March 2007 and to peer into the future as close as this summer if not as far away as next summer.  However, it is not impossible to look ahead, if first there is an explanation of the background of the crisis from the point of view of the potentially warring major powers, America, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda, all of whom along with their allies are preparing for and not loudly condemning a threatening global tragedy.

From America’s point of view, the attack on September 11, 2001, loosed a cascade of American offensive operations throughout the Middle East that are no nearer to completion today than when they began, and which have drawn America into briar patches that have no simple exits.  The chief threat to America at this moment is the briar patch of Iraq,
because Iraq was — and may again become — the chief threat to Iran.   At first, America’s attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq benefited Iran, by removing two of Tehran’s major enemies in the region, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. However, once America was camped in Baghdad, the Islamic Republic of Iran saw that an American success to create a secular, capitalist democracy would be a mortal blow to the radical, apocalyptic Iranian revolution.

From Iran’s point of view, America must be defeated not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also across the region.  Tehran is in the hands of a non-rational cadre that is committed to an apocalyptic vision that includes creating chaos in order to bring about, according to the Shia sect known as the Twelvers, the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, who vanished twelve centuries ago in Iraq.  This unique, opaque vision propels the strategic decisions of the Tehran regime.

Tehran sees its future in absolutes.  Either it defeats America in the region, and establishes its hegemony over the region’s oil reserves, and enforces a Persian Empire for the first time in 2500 years, or else it loses everything.  Tehran will not seek settlement.  If America does not attack pre-emptively, then Tehran will find a way to provoke the attack.  The current wrestling at the United Nations Security Council over Iran’s refusal to cease its nuclear enrichment program can be understood as a ploy by Iran to draw in America to a military confrontation.

Tehran will not bend before words, sanctions, threats or an attack. Tehran believes that it can answer an American attack with strikes on American forces in Iraq, on the Persian Gulf oil structure and, through its proxies, on the state of Israel.  Tehran’s radical cadre believes that it will survive the American attack in its bunkers.  In the meantime, Tehran can close the Gulf and starve the West for oil. The day a ceasefire is imposed by exhausted powers, Tehran emerges as the regional hegemon.

From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the coming catastrophe will threaten its oil fields, its money, its existence.  Reports over the past weeks identify the House of Saud’s national security adviser Prince Bandar in constant strained conversation with Tehran’s national security adviser Ali Larijani in order to find an accommodation between two regimes that share nothing in beliefs or goals.  When the violence begins, the Saudi princes will flee to well-prepared residences in Switzerland and Morocco.  Critically, Saudi Arabia’s maneuvering is clouded by the fact that it cannot solve the future only by negotiating with Tehran.  Saudi Arabia knows that it is targeted for destruction by the extremists whom we know as Al Qaeda but who are better understood under the broader title used by the best analysts, the "Islamist-jihadists."

From the Islamist-jihadists’s point of view, the mission is to destroy the superpower of America and to replace it with a global caliphate. The first phase of this is described in the Al Qaeda master plan entitled "Working Strategy Lasting Until 2020," which calls for the consolidation of the historical regions of Islam stretching from Iraq to Gibraltar.  In this plan, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other secular Arab states vanish.

Tehran has sheltered the Islamist-jihadists’s leadership for years, because it makes common cause with the jihadist goal to destroy American power.  In Iraq, Al Qaeda throws its resources against America in order to drain American political resolve and to construct a terrorist state within a failed state.  Anbar and Baghdad provinces are foundations to launch operations to degrade Saudi Arabia and to take possession of the two profound mosques at Mecca and Medina; and to degrade Jordan and Israel in order to take possession of the third profound mosque at Jerusalem. For Tehran, the Islamist-jihadists are a useful weapon to fragment the Sunni majority that has abused the Shia for a millennium.   For all powers, the Islamist-jihadists known as Al Qaeda are truly an unpredictable and sinister threat.

Later this week: Coming Catastrophe Part 2: Four Solutions of America and Iran