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Iran’s Game

The evidence is far from conclusive, but on balance Iran probably is behind the attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf last month and two more last Thursday. Those attacks carefully avoided human casualties, so if they were Iranian, what was their goal?

If it was Iran, the answer is obvious. Iran would be reminding the United States that it may be utterly out-matched militarily, but it can do great damage to the tankers that carry one-third of the world’s internationally traded oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

After the US tightened its sanctions last month in an attempt to destroy all of Iran’s foreign trade, including the oil exports which are its economy’s lifeblood, Iran declared that if it could not export its oil, no other country (in the Gulf) would be allowed to export theirs. Other economies would be hurt too.

There’s history here. Back in the mid-1980s, when the United States tried to strangle Iran’s Islamic Revolution in its cradle by encouraging Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to invade Iran, 543 ships were sunk or damaged in three years as each side tried to stop the other side’s oil exports. Another tanker war would be no fun at all.

But maybe the current pinprick attacks on tankers are just a general warning not to push Iran too hard. They would still dangerous, because people could get killed and the situation could easily spin out of control. But the opposite hypothesis – that the attacks are a ‘false flag’ operation – is much more frightening, because it would mean somebody is really trying to start a war.

Who would be flying the ‘false flag’? The leading candidates are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab countries that are doing their best to push the United States into a war against Iran on their behalf. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would also love to see the US attack Iran, but one doubts that Israel’s de facto Arab allies would want Israeli special forces operating on their territory.

Which brings us to the weirder part of the story. All six tankers that have been attacked sailed from ports in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The attacks have all reportedly been carried out using limpet mines, which cling to ships’ hulls by magnetic force but have to be placed by hand. That means they were probably placed while the ships were in port.

It’s almost impossible to place a limpet mine once a ship is underway. Other boats cannot come close enough without being spotted, and swimmers (including scuba divers) cannot keep up. So is security in Saudi and UAE ports so lax, even after the first attacks in May, that foreign agents can plant limpet mines on tankers before they sail?

It’s very puzzling, and even the aerial video ‘evidence’ of a small Iranian boat allegedly removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers makes little sense. Limpet mines are generally fitted with ‘anti-handling devices’ (i.e. they explode when you try to remove them), and yet everybody on that boat crowded onto the bow as if to get as close to the explosion as possible.

But of course, if it’s an Iranian mine, maybe they knew that it had no anti-handling device. You can get dizzy trying to figure this stuff out, and be no closer to the truth at the end. But let us hope that Iran is the culprit, because we know that it, at least, does not want a war. It wouldn’t actually lose, but it would suffer grievous harm.

The United States is even harder to read. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t want a war. He just wanted to destroy the treaty, signed in 2016 by Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, that put Iran’s nuclear programs under strict international controls for the next fifteen years.

That’s only natural, because the treaty was Barack Obama’s greatest diplomatic achievement and Trump is dedicated to destroying his legacy. But beyond that, what did Trump want? Probably just a Kim-style ‘summit’ with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Having created the crisis, Trump could then triumphantly ‘resolve’ it and bask in what he imagines to be the world’s admiration and gratitude. He is a man of simple desires.

Unfortunately, his two chief representatives in the ground, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, probably do want a war with Iran. They would never say that, but they spin every bit of data in as anti-Iran a direction as possible. That includes, of course, their analysis of who is behind these attacks.

Nevertheless, we should hope that they are right and that Iran is behind the attacks, because that would be a stupid but quite genuine attempt to stave off a full-scale war. If it’s a Saudi and UAE false-flag operation, with or without the tacit collaboration of Bolton and Pompeo, then the region really is headed for war.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“There’s…all”; and “But of…harm”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States and its friends could certainly destroy all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities by ‘conventional’ bombing, including most of the underground facilities. (The Iranians, having lived with threats like this for a long time, have done a good deal of digging.)

The attackers could also destroy all the utilities like water, sewage and electrical power that make urban life possible, forcing millions of Iranian city-dwellers into refugee camps in rural areas. The Iranians might be able to shoot a few of the attacking planes and missiles down, but not many.

But none of this would force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf (which transport most of the oil burned in India, China and Japan). Iran’s sea-skimming missiles can be fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, and have the range to reach the other side at any point.

So in the end, if you’re serious, it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said. But the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88. And Iran is as large as France.

Would the Iranians volunteer in such numbers? Of course they would. Many Iranians don’t like the current regime, but they are patriots. They are as unlikely to welcome a US invasion as American liberals would be to welcome a foreign invasion promising to liberate them from Donald Trump.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

So don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. It really is the stupidest idea.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 14. (“It’s not…lose”; and “Would…Trump?”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Great Powers, Endless Wars

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” said Donald Trump in his State of the Union speech last February, but he was wrong. That’s exactly what they do. Great powers fight MORE wars than anybody else, even if, like the United States today, they have no hostile neighbours.

The original observations were made half a century ago by Quincy Wright, an American political scientist at the University of Chicago. During the entire history of ‘modern’ Europe from 1480 to 1940, he calculated, there have been about 2,600 important battles.

France, a leading military power for the whole period and the greatest power for most of it, participated in 47 percent of those battles – more than a thousand major battles. Russia, Britain and Germany (in the form of Prussia), which were all great European powers by 1700, fought in between 22 and 25 percent of them. And then the rate of participation falls off very steeply.

Spain was a great military power until the mid-1700s, but then dropped out of contention and can offer only a 12 percent attendance record for battles over the whole four-and-a-half centuries. The Netherlands and Sweden, which were great military powers only for brief periods, were present at only 8 and 4 percent of Europe’s battles respectively. Indeed, Sweden has not used its army in war for 190 years now.

By any other yardstick – the amount of time a given European country has spent at war, the number of wars it has taken part in, the proportion of its population that has been killed in wars – the result is the same.

There is a steep and consistent gradient of suffering, in which the most powerful nations fight most often and lose most heavily in lives and wealth. How can this be? Why doesn’t great power deter other countries from fighting you?

Well, it actually does, to some extent. However, great power also enables the country possessing it to acquire ‘interests’ everywhere, and tempts it to use its military power to protect or advance those interests. Only great powers fight ‘wars of choice’.

North Vietnam did not choose to fight the United States. Neither did Cuba, or Grenada, or Libya, or Panama, or Serbia, or Iraq. Nor, for that matter, did Canada (then British North America) in 1812, or Mexico in 1846, or Spain in 1898. Those were all ‘wars of choice’ for the United States, but not for the other side.

This is not to say that they were all wars of aggression. The first Gulf War was not, for example, nor was the Kosovo War. But they were all wars that the United States could have chosen NOT to fight without suffering grave harm to its own legitimate interests. It chose to fight them, often for relatively minor stakes, because it could.

The great-power mania infects everybody. Donald Trump, despite his well-founded conviction that America should bring its troops home from the Middle East, has now vetoed a bipartisan Congressional resolution that tried to force an end to American participation in the war in Yemen.

Never mind the lies that are told about the Houthi rebels who control most of Yemen being simply pawns of Iran, and about Iran being the reason the Middle East is so ‘unstable’.

Why would Trump, like several generations of American ‘statesmen’ before him, fall for the bizarre notion that deciding who rules in Lebanon or Egypt or Yemen is a ‘vital national interest’ of the United States?

The webs of spurious logic that support such nonsense are familiar. ‘Oil is our vital national interest, so Saudi Arabia is our indispensable ally.’ Why? Wouldn’t Arabia want to sell its oil to the US under any imaginable regime? And hasn’t fracking made the US virtually self-sufficient in oil anyway?

‘Since Saudi Arabia is our ally, we must support its war in Yemen, and support it against Iran too.’ Why? You managed to be closely allied with both Israel and Saudi Arabia back in the days when the Saudis still saw Israel as a mortal enemy. You don’t have to back either of them in everything they do.

‘Our credibility is at stake.’ This is the last-resort falsehood that can justify almost any otherwise indefensible military commitment. Don’t let them see you back down, no matter how stupid your position is. They won’t respect you if you bail out.

Or as Trump put it when he was still just a candidate for the Republican nomination: “Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” Power purely for the sake of power. Any country that remains a great power for long enough eventually becomes insane.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“By…same”; and “Never…unstable”)