Iran's Redefined Strategy
By George Friedman
The Iranians have broken the International Atomic Energy Agency seals on some of their nuclear facilities. They did this very deliberately and publicly to make certain that everyone knew that Tehran was proceeding with its nuclear program. Prior to this, and in parallel, the Iranians began to -- among other things -- systematically bait the Israelis, threatening to wipe them from the face of the earth.
The question, of course, is what exactly the Iranians are up to. They do not yet have nuclear weapons. The Israelis do. The Iranians have now hinted that (a) they plan to build nuclear weapons and have implied, as clearly as possible without saying it, that (b) they plan to use them against Israel. On the surface, these statements appear to be begging for a pre-emptive strike by Israel. There are many things one might hope for, but a surprise visit from the Israeli air force is not usually one of them. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the Iranians seem to be doing, so we need to sort this out.
There are four possibilities:
1. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, is insane and wants to be attacked because of a bad childhood.
2. The Iranians are engaged in a complex diplomatic maneuver, and this is part of it.
3. The Iranians think they can get nuclear weapons -- and a deterrent to Israel -- before the Israelis attack.
4. The Iranians, actually and rationally, would welcome an Israeli -- or for that matter, American -- air strike.
Let's begin with the insanity issue, just to get it out of the way. One of the ways to avoid thinking seriously about foreign policy is to dismiss as a nutcase anyone who does not behave as you yourself would. As such, he is unpredictable and, while scary, cannot be controlled. You are therefore relieved of the burden of doing anything about him. In foreign policy, it is sometimes useful to appear to be insane, as it is in poker: The less predictable you are, the more power you have -- and insanity is a great tool of unpredictability. Some leaders cultivate an aura of insanity.
However, people who climb to the leadership of nations containing many millions of people must be highly disciplined, with insight into others and the ability to plan carefully. Lunatics rarely have those characteristics. Certainly, there have been sociopaths -- like Hitler -- but at the same time, he was a very able, insightful, meticulous man. He might have been crazy, but dismissing him because he was crazy -- as many did -- was a massive mistake. Moreover, leaders do not rise alone. They are surrounded by other ambitious people. In the case of Ahmadinejad, he is answerable to others above him (in this case, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), alongside him and below him. He did not get to where he is by being nuts -- and even if we think what he says is insane, it clearly doesn't strike the rest of his audience as insane. Thinking of him as insane is neither helpful nor clarifying.
The Three-Player Game
So what is happening?
First, the Iranians obviously are responding to the Americans. Tehran's position in Iraq is not what the Iranians had hoped it would be. U.S. maneuvers with the Sunnis in Iraq and the behavior of Iraqi Shiite leaders clearly have created a situation in which the outcome will not be the creation of an Iranian satellite state. At best, Iraq will be influenced by Iran or neutral. At worst, it will drift back into opposition to Iran -- which has been Iraq's traditional geopolitical position. This is not satisfactory. Iran's Iraq policy has not failed, but it is not the outcome Tehran dreamt of in 2003.
There is a much larger issue. The United States has managed its position in Iraq -- to the extent that it has been managed -- by manipulating the Sunni-Shiite fault line in the Muslim world. In the same way that Richard Nixon manipulated the Sino-Soviet split, the fundamental fault line in the Communist world, to keep the Soviets contained and off-balance late in the Vietnam War, so the Bush administration has used the primordial fault line in the Islamic world, the Sunni-Shiite split, to manipulate the situation in Iraq.
Washington did this on a broader scale as well. Having enticed Iran with new opportunities -- both for Iran as a nation and as the leading Shiite power in a post-Saddam world -- the administration turned to Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and enticed them into accommodation with the United States by allowing them to consider the consequences of an ascended Iran under canopy of a relationship with the United States. Washington used that vision of Iran to gain leverage in Saudi Arabia. The United States has been moving back and forth between Sunnis and Shia since the invasion of Afghanistan, when it obtained Iranian support for operations in Afghanistan's Shiite regions. Each side was using the other. The United States, however, attained the strategic goal of any three-player game: It became the swing player between Sunnis and Shia.
This was not what the Iranians had hoped for.