U.S. and Iran: Beneath the Roiled Surface
By George Friedman
We are in a pattern of escalating confrontation between Iran and the United
States and its allies. Two issues have surfaced. There is the question of
Iran's nuclear program. And there is the more urgent question of Iran's
capture of three British patrol boats along the Iraq-Iran frontier. Neither
of these surface issues is trivial, but the underlying issues are far more
significant. The fact that they have surfaced indicates how serious the
underlying questions are, and points to serious tensions between the Iranians
and the United States.
Iran has historically faced two threats. Russia has pressed it from the
north; during and after World War II, the Soviets occupied a substantial part
of Iran, as did the British. The other threat has come from the west -- from
Iraq, from its predecessor states or from states that have occupied Iraq,
including Britain. The collapse of the Soviet Union has gone a long way
toward securing Iran's northern frontier. In fact, the instability to Iran's
north has created opportunities for it to extend its influence in that
Iraq, however, has remained a threat. Iraq's defeat in Desert Storm decreased
the threat, with the weakening of Iraq's armed forces and constant patrolling
of Iraqi skies by U.S. and British warplanes. But what Iran wanted most to
see -- the collapse of the hated Saddam Hussein regime and its replacement by
a government at least neutral toward Iran and preferably under Iranian
influence -- did not materialize. One of the primary reasons the United
States did not advance to Baghdad in 1991 was the fear that an Iraqi collapse
would increase Iran's power and make it the dominant force in the Persian
Iran Develops a Strategy
Subsequently, Iran's goals were simple: First, Iraq should never pose a
threat to Iran; it never wanted to be invaded again by Iraq. Second, Iran
should be in a position to shape Iraqi behavior in order to guarantee that it
would not be a threat. Iran was not in a position to act on this goal itself.
What it needed was to induce outside powers -- the United States in
particular -- to act in a manner that furthered Iranian national interests.
Put somewhat differently, Iran expected the United States to invade Iraq or
topple Hussein by other means. It intended to position itself to achieve its
primary national security goals when that happened.
From the end of Desert Storm to the fall of Baghdad, Iran systematically and
patiently pursued its goal. Following Desert Storm, Iran began a program
designed both to covertly weaken Hussein's regime and to strengthen Iranian
influence in Iraq -- focusing on Iraq's Shiite population. If Hussein fell
under his own weight, if he were overthrown in a U.S.-sponsored coup or if
the United States invaded Iraq, Iran intended to be in a position to
neutralize the Iraqi threat.
There were three parts to the Iranian strategy:
1. Do nothing to discourage the United States from taking action against
Iraq. In other words: Mitigate threats from Iran so the United States would
not leave Hussein in place again because it feared the consequences of a
power vacuum that Iran could fill.
2. Create an information environment that would persuade the United States
topple Hussein. The Iranians understood the analytic methods of U.S. policy
makers and the intelligence processes of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Iran created a program designed to strengthen the position of those in the
United States who believed that Iraq was a primary threat, while providing
the United States with intelligence that maximized the perception of Hussein
as a threat. This program preceded the 2003 invasion and the Bush
administration as well. Desert Fox -- the air campaign launched by the
Clinton administration in December 1998 -- was shaped by the same information
environment as the 2003 invasion. The Iranians understood the nature of the
intelligence channels the United States used, and fed information through
those that intensified the American threat perception.
3. Prepare for the fall of Hussein by creating an alternative force in Iraq
whose primary loyalty was to Iran. The Shiite community -- long oppressed by
Hussein and sharing religious values with the Iranian government -- had many
of the same interests as Iran. Iranian intelligence services had conducted a
long, patient program to organize the Iraqi Shiite community and prepare the
Shia to be the dominant political force after the fall of Hussein.
As it became increasingly apparent in 2002 that the United States was
searching for a follow-on strategy after Afghanistan, the Iranians recognized
their opportunity. They knew they could not manipulate the United States into
invading Iraq -- or provide justification for it -- but they also knew they
could do two things. The first was to reduce the threat the United States
felt from Iran. The second was to increase, to the extent possible, the
intelligence available to those in the Bush administration who supported the
They accomplished the first with formal meetings in Geneva and back-channel
discussions around the world. The message they sent was that Iran would do
nothing to hinder a U.S. invasion, nor would it seek to take advantage of it
on a direct state basis. The second process was facilitated by filling the
channels between Iraqi Shiite exiles and the United States with apparently
solid information -- much of it true -- about conditions in Iraq. This is
where Ahmed Chalabi played a role.
In our opinion, Iranian intelligence knew two things that it left out of the
channels. The first was that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
programs had been abandoned ... The Iranians knew none would be found,
but were pleased that the United States would use this as a justification.
The second thing Iran kept from the United States was that Hussein and his
key aides did not expect to defeat the United States in a conventional war,
but had planned a guerrilla war to follow the fall of Baghdad.
The Iranians had a specific reason for leaving these things out. They knew
the Americans would win the conventional war. They did not want the United
States to have an easy time occupying Iraq. The failure to find WMD would
create a crisis in the United States. The failure to anticipate a Baathist
guerrilla war would create a crisis in Iraq. Iran wanted both to happen.
The worse the situation became in Iraq, the less the United States prepared
for the real postwar environment -- and the more the credibility of President
George W. Bush was questioned, the more eager the United States would be in
seeking allies in Iraq. The only ally available -- apart from the marginal
Kurds -- was the Shiite majority. As the situation deteriorated in the summer
and fall of 2003, the United States urgently needed an accommodation with
Iraq's Shia. The idea of a Shiite rising cutting lines of supply to Kuwait
while there was a Sunni rising drove all U.S. thinking. It also pushed the
United States toward an accommodation with the Shia -- and that meant an
accommodation with Iran.
Such an accommodation was reached in the fall of 2003. The United States
accepted that the government would be dominated by the Shia, and that the
government would have substantial Iranian influence. During the Ramadan
offensive, when the lid appeared to be flying off in Iraq, the United States
was prepared to accommodate almost any proposal. The Iranians agreed to
back-burner -- but not to shut down -- their nuclear proposal, and quiet
exchanges of prisoners were carried out. Iran swapped al Qaeda prisoners for
anti-Iranian prisoners held by the United States.
Things Fall Apart
Two things happened after the capture of Hussein in mid-December 2003. The
first was that the Iranians started to make clear that they -- not the
Americans -- were defining the depth of the relationship. When the United
States offered to send representatives to Iran after an earthquake later in
December, the Iranians rejected the offer, saying it was too early in the
relationship. On many levels, the Iranians believed they had the Americans
where they wanted them and slowly increased pressure for concessions.
Paradoxically, the United States started to suffer buyer's remorse on the
deal it made. As the guerrilla threat subsided in January and February, the
Americans realized that the deal did not make nearly as much sense in January
as it had in November. Rather than moving directly toward a Shiite
government, the United States began talking to the Sunni sheikhs and thinking
of an interim government in which Kurds or Sunnis would have veto power.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- who is an Iranian -- began to signal the
United States that trouble was brewing in Iraq. He staged major
demonstrations in January, calling for direct elections -- his code words for
a Shiite government. The United States, no longer pressured and growing
uneasy about the enormous power of the Iranians, did two things: They pressed
ahead with plans for the interim government, and started leaking that they
knew the game the Iranians were playing. The release of the news that Chalabi
was an Iranian agent was part of this process.
The Iranians and al-Sistani -- seeing the situation slipping out of control
-- tried to convince the Americans that they were willing to send Iraq up in
flames. During the Sunni rising in Al Fallujah, they permitted Muqtada
al-Sadr to rise as well. The United States went to al-Sistani for help, but
he refused to lift a finger for days. Al-Sistani figured the United States
would reverse its political plans and make concessions to buy Shiite support.
Just the opposite happened. The United States came to the conclusion that the
Shia and Iran were completely unreliable -- and that they were no longer
necessary. Rather than negotiate with the Shia, the Americans negotiated with
the Sunni guerrillas in Al Fallujah and reached an agreement with them. The
United States also pressed ahead with a political solution for the interim
government that left the Shia on the margins.
The breakdown in U.S.-Iranian relations dates to this moment. The United
States essentially moved to reverse alliances. In addition, it made clear to
al-Sistani and others that they could be included in the coalition -- in a
favored position. In other words, the United States reversed the process by
trying to drive a wedge between the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia. And it
appeared to be working, with al-Sistani and al-Sadr seeming to shift
positions so as not to be excluded.
Iran Roils the Surface
It was at that moment that the Iranians saw more than a decade of patient
strategy going out the window. They took two steps. First, they created a
crisis with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over nuclear
weapons that was certain to draw U.S. attention. Second, they seized the
British patrol boats. Their point? To let the United States know that it is
on the verge of a major crisis with Iran.
The United States knows this, of course. Military planners are updating plans
on Iran as we speak. The crisis is avoidable -- and we would expect it to wax
and wane. But the fundamental question is this: Are American and Iranian
national interests compatible and, if they are not, is either country in a
position at this moment to engage in a crisis or a war? Iran is calculating
that it can engage in a crisis more effectively than the United States. The
United States does not want a crisis with Iran before the elections -- and
certainly not over WMD.
But there is another problem. The Americans cannot let Iran get nuclear
weapons, and the Iranians know it. They assume that U.S. intelligence has a
clear picture of how far weapons development has gone. But following the U.S.
intelligence failure on WMD in Iraq -- ironically aided by Iran -- will any
policy maker trust the judgment of U.S. intelligence on how far Iran's
development has gone? Is the U.S. level of sensitivity much lower than Iran
thinks? And since Israel is in the game -- and it certainly cannot accept an
Iranian nuclear capability -- and threatens a pre-emptive strike with its own
nuclear weapons, will the United States be forced to act when it does not
Like other major crises in history, the situation is not really under
anyone's control. It can rapidly spin out of control and -- even if it is in
control -- it can become a very nasty crisis. This is not a minor
misunderstanding, but a clash of fundamental national interests that will not
be easy to reconcile.
(c) 2004 Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.