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Iran

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Syrian Sanctions

Last week the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria: a “sustained campaign of economic and political pressure” to end the nine-year war by forcing President Bashar al-Assad to UN-brokered peace talks where he would negotiate his departure from power. Assad’s wife was already cross about not being able to shop at Harrod’s or Bergdorf Goodman, so he should crumble any day now.

Other things are crumbling already. Ordinary people’s incomes are collapsing (down by three-quarters since the beginning of the year). The price of food in Syria has doubled. Lebanon next-door, already in financial meltdown, is now seeing its large trade with Syria vanish as well.

Even those Syrians who support the regime – around a third of the people who have not fled the country – will have a much harder time, but they won’t desert the regime. The more prosperous ones depend on Assad’s regime for their income, and the poorer ones are mostly minorities who fear they will be slaughtered if the jihadis win.

The US decision to raise the pressure on Assad is probably a random by-product of Donald Trump’s obsessive campaign against Iran (which has been helping the Syrian regime to stay afloat). If Trump even knows that the remaining rebel groups in Syria are by now all led by fanatical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, the group that organised the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he doesn’t care.

The Syrian tragedy is mainly due to endless foreign interventions. The Syrians who called for an end to Assad’s regime in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 were just like the young men and women who started demanding the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak at the same time. They were both genuinely popular movements, not fronts for jihadis.

The Egyptian protesters won, there was a free election – and then the army struck back in 2013, slaughtered several thousand people in the streets of Cairo, and put General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in power, where he remains to this day. Egypt is at peace, although hundreds more people have probably died in Sisi’s prisons since then, and thousands have been tortured.

The Syrian protesters didn’t get that far. They were driven from the streets – but then various foreign powers started organising the rebels and giving them arms. The war has lasted another eight years, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million Syrians have fled abroad, and another five million are displaced within Syria.

So here’s the question: would you prefer Egypt’s fate or Syria’s? Both countries are still tyrannies, but one is literally in ruins, with half the population out of their homes, and the other had a few thousand deaths. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

The Syrian power struggle would probably have ended in an Assad victory around the same time that General Sisi took over in Egypt if the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hadn’t begun sending the Syrian rebels arms and money. US motives were mixed, but the Turks and the Saudis, both led by different kinds of militant Muslims, just saw an opportunity to replace a secular regime with a hard-line Islamist one.

They would probably have succeeded if Russia had not intervened to save Assad in 2015, and Syria would probably be divided today between al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The groups linked to al-Qaeda absorbed or destroyed all the others, and today they rule over a single province in northwest Syria under Turkish protection. But still the war drags on.

If any of these outside players had been willing to put its own troops in the ground, the war would at least have ended years ago (though it might have ended badly). But none of them were willing to risk their own soldiers’ lives – not even the Russians, who stick to air strikes. And now the US is hitting Syria with even bigger sanctions.

When governments impose sanctions they usually explain that they had to “do something”, but the new sanctions will hurt ordinary Syrians very badly. They might be justified if there were a reasonable chance that more sanctions could bring Assad’s regime down, but there’s no chance of that, and everybody knows it.

In a famous paper in 1997, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago showed that out of 116 cases of international sanctions being imposed during the 20th century, in only six cases did the target government yield to the demands of the country imposing the sanctions. The success rate has not improved since.

It’s 70 years since the United States imposed sanctions on North Korea, and the Kim family is still in power. It’s 60 years since it put sanctions on Cuba, and the Communists still rule. It’s 40 years since Washington slapped sanctions on Iran, and the ayatollahs still rule. Not to mention Zimbabwe (sanctions since 2003), or Venezuela (2006), or Russia (2014).

‘Doing something’ feels good, but it doesn’t usually do much good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Even…win”; and “If any…sanctions”)

Soleimani Killing

If the Iranians played the game the same way that Donald Trump does, then their revenge for the American assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, would be a simple tit-for-tat. Just kill US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who actually organised the hit and then boasted about it.

If Pompeo was too hard to get at, the Iranians could get even by murdering any one or two of a hundred other senior US officials. Probably two, because the US drone that hit Soleimani’s car coming out of Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the most powerful pro-Iranian militia in Iraq. An eye for an eye, and so forth.

Tit-for-tat is clearly the game Trump thought he was playing. That’s why he warned late on Saturday on Twitter that the US has identified 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”, and warned they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND HARD” if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s murder.

But that’s not the game the Iranians are playing at all. It’s a much longer game than tit-for-tat, and their targets are political, not personal.

Tehran’s first response has been to announce that it will no longer respect any of the limits placed on its nuclear programmes by the 2015 nuclear treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Donald Trump pulled the United States out of that treaty in 2018, and Iran has given up hope that the other signatories (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany) would defy the United States and go on trading with Iran. It signed the deal in order to end the sanctions, but all the sanctions are effectively still in place

Tehran didn’t say that it is now going to start working on nuclear weapons, but it will resume producing enriched nuclear fuels in quantities that would make that possible. Iran knew that it was going to have to pull the plug on the JCPOA eventually, but Trump’s assassination of Soleimani lets it do so with the open or unspoken sympathy of almost every other country in the world

And there’s a second, less visible benefit for Iran from Soleimani’s murder. It greatly strengthens Iran’s political influence in Iraq, which has been deteriorating quite fast in recent months.

Ever since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been the scene for intense competition for influence between the United States, which dominated the country militarily, and Iran, whose state religion, the Shia version of Islam, is also the faith of the majority of Iraqis.

There are still about 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they are now vastly outnumbered by local pro-Iran Shia militias, who did the heavy lifting during the 2014-17 military campaign to crush Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. Lately, however, the pro-Iran faction has been losing ground.

When popular protests broke out in September against the huge corruption of Iraqi politicians and the impoverishment of the general population, the pro-Iran militias started killing the protesters. That was General Soleimani’s idea, and a very serious mistake on his part: the street protests began to target Iranian influence as well.

But Soleimani’s murder has largely erased that resentment: he is now yet another Shia martyr to the cause. The prime minister of Iraq showed up at his huge funeral procession in Baghdad on Saturday, and an extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday passed a resolution demanding the expulsion of US troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi political elite may or may not carry through on that policy, but there is genuine outrage that the United States, technically an ally, would make an airstrike just outside Baghdad airport without telling Iraq. All the worse when it kills an invited guest of the Iraq government who is the second most important person in Iraq’s other main ally, Iran. This is what contempt looks like, and it rankles.

In just one weekend Iran has had two big diplomatic wins thanks to Soleimani’s assassination. The Iranians will certainly go on making deniable, pin-prick attacks on US assets and allies in the Gulf in retaliation for the US sanctions that are strangling the country’s economy, but they may feel that they have already had their revenge for Soleimani.

Iran doesn’t want an all-out war with the United States. The US could not win that war (unless it just nuked the whole country), but neither could Iran, and it would suffer huge damage if there were a flat-out American bombing campaign using only conventional bombs and warheads.

Apocalyptic outcomes to this confrontation are possible, but they’re not very likely. The Iranians will probably just chug along as before, staying within the letter of the law most of the time, cultivating their allies in the Arab world, and waiting for Trump to make his next mistake in their favour. He’s reliable in that, if in nothing else.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“If Pompeo…murder”)

The Democratisation of Airpower

Big shifts in the military balance happen quietly over many years, and then leap suddenly into focus when the shooting starts.

It happened to classic blitzkrieg tactics in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, infantry-fired anti-tank missiles, in just three weeks. And it happened to ‘air superiority’, in the sense that it has been understood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Tanks ruled the battlefield from the German blitzkrieg of 1940 until 1973. Only more or better tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more sophisticated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more plentiful. There is no longer a single, simple equation for battlefield success.

Air superiority, the other main component of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of success. The powers that could afford to design and build the most advanced combat aircraft controlled not only the sky but the land beneath it, and could batter weaker states into submission (NATO against Serbia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few casualties of their own.

Fast forward to September 2019 in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom should be among the privileged, invulnerable few, for it has a very high-tech air force and the best air defences money can buy. It can also call on the immense power of the United States, which maintains military bases in a number of Gulf states and has promised to protect it. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise missiles that the Saudis didn’t even see coming. According to the Houthi rebels in Yemenis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least ten Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say eighteen drones hit the Abqaiq oil processing site) and an undisclosed number of Qasif K-2 cruise missiles (the Saudis say four cruise missiles struck the Khurais facility).

The Saudis didn’t see them because they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hidden from Saudi radars. They were launched from three different sites, but timed to reach their targets simultaneously from three different angles. They took out half the oil-processing capability of the world’s second-biggest producer for at least some weeks – and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two million dollars.

That’s assuming they were built in low-wage Yemen. They’d cost twice that to build in Iran, and at least ten times as much in the United States. But that’s still pretty cheap when you consider that a single F-35 fighter costs $122 million. You get a very capable airplane for your money, and a couple of them could do equal damage to those oil processing facilities – but they wouldn’t do a much better job.

They could also get shot down, which would be a very large amount of money (plus maybe the pilots’ lives) down the drain. The drones and cruise missiles can also be shot down, of course, but they’re cheap, they have no pilots, and if there are enough of them, some are likely to get through. If they don’t get through today, send more tomorrow.

The Saudis made it extra-easy for the Houthis (or the Iranians, if you believe the Saudi-American version of the story) by not having any short-range air defences for their most important economic assets, or at least none facing in the right direction. But this is because Saudi Arabia doesn’t plan to do its own fighting in any confrontation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s defence budget ($67.6 billion last year) goes mostly on buying very expensive military equipment from the United States, but what it is really buying is American military support. In return for all that money, the Kingdom expects Americans to do the actual fighting for it, just as it hires Sudanese and Pakistanis to do the ground combat in its war in Yemen.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Donald Trump knows nothing about foreign affairs or military strategy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a lifetime imposing on others. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t deliver the services.

The big question that is finally going to be asked, in countries rich and poor, is why the air forces insist on buying ultra-expensive manned aircraft instead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, disposable unmanned vehicles. The truth is that air forces are run by pilots, and they like to fly planes, but what happened in Saudi Arabia last week will finally give the civilian authorities arguments that the aviators cannot resist or ignore.

So the shift to primary reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for offensive action will get underway at last, and the result will be the democratisation of air power. Only rich countries with a mastery of high technology can own F-35s. Even the smallest, poorest country (and some non-state actors too) can afford to build or buy a few thousand drones and a couple of hundred basic cruise missiles.

Democratisation is a double-edged sword.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The Saudis…services”)

Whodunnit?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Houthi claim that the Yemeni rebel group had carried out Saturday’s strike on two huge Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities. There was “no evidence” that the drones belonged to the Houthis, he said. Instead, he blamed Iran.

No surprise there. The way things are at the moment, if an incoming asteroid were about to strike the Earth, the United States would blame Iran. But there’s ‘no evidence’ that the drones came from Iran either. Pompeo is simply trading on the assumption that Yemenis are too ignorant to manage that sort of technology, so it must be Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the alliance of other autocratic Arab States that have been bombing Yemen since 2015 push the same line all the time. It goes down fairly well in the Kingdom, where most people look down on Yemenis for being poor and less well educated, but it isn’t actually true.

Within a year of the war’s start, the Yemenis began launching a few small ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) back at Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis refused to believe they were doing it themselves. The Houthis, they implied, were too backward to upgrade the Yemeni air force’s old Soviet-made Scud missiles themselves. Iran must have helped them.

In fact, the Yemeni air force had Scud missiles for decades before the government collapsed in 2015, and technicians to service them. Some, maybe most of those technicians threw in their lot with the Houthis, and upgraded those Scuds by cutting them in half and inserting a larger fuel tank in the middle.

It changed their flight characteristic and made them very inaccurate, but it did extend their range enough to hit targets all over southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. And by mid-2017 the Houthis, who controlled most of Yemen, were making their own improved copies known as Burkan missiles.

The ‘Super-Scuds’ were more a morale booster than a war-winner for the Houthis, who live under a merciless daily bombardment from the air (7,290 documented civilian deaths so far). The current attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, if the Houthis’ claim is true, would just be another morale-booster, even though it has temporarily cut world oil production by around 5 percent.

But was it really the Houthis? At this point there is no clear evidence either way, but it could have been. They certainly have the motive, and they may have the technology. They have used small drones in previous air strikes, and there are bigger drones available commercially that could do the damage seen at the Saudi facilities.

The biggest currently available is the Guardian, a monster that can carry a payload of 200 kilos (more than 400 pounds). It’s made by Griff Aviation, a Norwegian company whose Lakeland factory in Florida is producing one Guardian a day and selling them to industrial, agricultural and military clients.

It would be quite a trick for the Houthis to acquire ten of them (which is how many drones they say they used in their attack), but stranger things have happened. Or maybe they did get their hands on some military drones, which would certainly be up to the job. Or maybe it was Iran, but nobody really knows yet.

One apparent flaw in the Houthi theory is that there are no civilian drones capable of flying the almost 800 km from Yemen to the Saudi targets, but that’s not really necessary. Most of the land around the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities is open desert, and launching the drones for 25-50 km away would escape detection unless the Saudis were actively anticipating such an attack.

Who would launch them? There are a million Yemenis resident in Saudi Arabia, plus 2-3 million Saudi citizens who suffer severe discrimination because they follow the Shia version of Islam. There are even Sunni Saudi citizens (mostly Islamists) who are sufficiently disaffected to attack the regime directly.

That’s a pretty large pool to fish in if you’re looking for local collaborators to smuggle the drones in and launch them – which is what the Houthis themselves say happened. In their statement claiming credit for the attacks, they express thanks for “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom.”

None of this proves that it was the Houthis, or that it wasn’t the Iranians. It does leave the identity of the attackers up in the air, where it will remain until conclusive proof emerges one way or another (if it ever does). Mike Pompeo’s confident attribution of blame to Iran, later echoed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is just politics, not proof.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday, “having failed at max pressure (anti-Iran trade sanctions), Sec Pompeo’s turning to max deceit.” Fair comment, really. And we should be grateful that Donald Trump, for all his faults, is the grown-up in the house this time.

On Sunday Trump tweeted: “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Trump doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 9. (“Within…them”; “It changed…missiles”; and “The biggest…clients”)