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Each member of the U.S. president’s cabinet serves at the pleasure of the president and the same is true in the case of the United States Secretary of Defense which position is in the top tier of the Executive Office serving the country’s leader. The other two top tier cabinet positions are, of course, the Secretary of State and the Chief of Staff. All of whom serve at the president’s discretion.
That said, General Jim Mattis has done an excellent job as the U.S. Defense Secretary and there are questions as to why such a capable individual should find it necessary to retire from a position to which he was obviously well-suited. Also, the question exists whether the president influenced that decision or whether General Mattis was fired and the term “retiring” was used to convey proper respect to a long-serving military member who earned every honour he ever received.
Obviously, the president and the secretary had a difference on policy, that goes without saying. But under the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. president can pursue any foreign or domestic policy he chooses and he or she doesn’t need the approval of his cabinet.
(Of course, it’s better if they do approve)
U.S. cabinet officers serve the president, not the other way around. Therefore, in case of a difference of opinion the president wins, every time, and it must always be that way.
Even such notable soldiers as General Douglas MacArthur who tried to bully U.S. president Harry S. Truman into militarily attacking China — thereby dramatically enlarging the Korean War — was finally forced to step down famously saying, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” find themselves subject to the U.S. president’s discretion by virtue of the laws of the United States and its Constitution.
Still, it could be instructive in some way to examine the reasons behind such events to ascertain whether a systemic problem exists that must be dealt with, or to find whether these events occurred due to some other reason.
Let’s look at the Syrian situation in the context of American military involvement, because in the case of president Trump and secretary Mattis it’s almost surely the issue that divided them:
- Syria has been involved in a civil war since 2011 and was the last country in the region to feel the effects of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
- No country is allowed under international law to intervene militarily in another country’s civil war without being invited by the lawful government of that country. Countries can’t unilaterally insert themselves into the midst of civil wars. That’s black letter international law. It’s 100% non-negotiable.
- Which the Americans did. As did their allies (some European countries).
- Russia and Iran on the other hand were invited by the lawful government of Syria and that invitation was made publicly. It’s a matter of public record.
- The legal exception to involvement by non-invited parties occurs if the UN Security Council approves military actions; Where the UN Security Council votes to apply sanctions or approve military force, military intervention becomes legal under international law. However, the UN Security Council didn’t approve military force by the U.S. and its allies against Syrian government forces or non-government forces (terrorists). Yet, the U.S. and its allies militarily attacked targets in Syria without the proper and legal authorizations required by international law.
- Though such actions clearly broke international law, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad didn’t seem to mind. Yes, he did complain at first, but as soon as the Americans and their European allies lessened their attacks on terrorist targets in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad suddenly stopped complaining. To many people (and it might even hold up in international court if it ever comes to that) this clearly registered as tacit approval for America and her allies to conduct military operations against ISIS inside Syria for the duration of the Syrian civil war.
With me so far? Few people would dispute points 1 through 6 above.
No doubt that U.S. president Trump and U.S. secretary of defense Mattis were 100% aligned in regards to U.S. policy in Syria since the confirmation of General Jim Mattis on January 20, 2017.
Any difference of opinion between the two is therefore recent and easy to discern.
American Involvement in Syria: Part II
Since about November of 2018 it appears that the battle against ISIS is largely won in Syria.
From now on, it’s going to be a mopping-up operation with exponentially increasing chances for American and Russian forces to clash (accidentally or otherwise) in the ever-smaller areas formerly controlled by terrorist groups.
Not only American and Russian of course, many countries operate inside Syria fighting terrorists and thereby assist the Syrian government (even if assisting the Syrian regime isn’t one of their objectives) and some terrorists might decide to meddle with the foreign forces fighting them.
Any individual who feels they have something against America or Europe who happens to have access to a rifle, a rocket launcher, or other weapons system may feel entitled under Jihadi rules to shoot down an American fighter or bomber jet, helicopter, or perhaps take out a number of U.S. soldiers who may be sleeping in a tent or non-hardened building.
For a terrorist, the opportunity to create a war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Europe (however unlikely that may, or may not be) might prove too tempting and numbers of them on multiple occasions might soon decide to employ themselves on suicide missions to accomplish that objective.
‘Targets of Opportunity’ are what every American and European military person will now represent to Jihadis at this stage — whereas prior to November 2018 they were too busy trying to stay alive to get involved in planning traps so that (nominal allies, in Syria, at least) America and Russia might find themselves in a ground or air fight against the other. Such danger that represents!
American Involvement in Syria: Part III
Even after the American troops (numbering only 2000 personnel) leave Syria there are still a number of ways to influence events in that country.
a) Soft Power
b) Hard Power
Soft power is the application of diplomacy. The UN is the most likely place for this to happen and America has a strong presence at the United Nations. At this point in the Syrian civil war, America’s best option is UN-backed diplomacy and its 2nd-best option remains direct diplomacy between the nations that are in some way involved with Syria.
Hard power is the application of military force. The U.S. military is the most powerful on Earth but that doesn’t mean the United States should be bombing just for the sake of bombing.
If there are better options than that, those should take precedence over military actions that could result in the unwanted and unnecessary problems of military conflict happening by accident between the U.S. and Russia, or between the U.S. and Iran (or between the U.S. and any other countries operating in Syria) or between the Americans and the Syrians.
None of that is going to help bring peace in Syria.
A final thought about U.S. Hard Power being applied in Syria following the pullout of America’s 2000-strong ground and air force is that the US Navy can deliver as many missiles as the president chooses to targets in Syria from the Mediterranean Sea, anytime the president wants. This has been done in the past with regards to purported chemical attacks that occurred in Syria and is something the Navy trains for every day of the year. Likewise with the U.S. Air Force, which can deliver as many bombs or missiles to terrorist targets inside Syria as the president chooses.
And none of them are going to accidentally bomb Russian or Syrian government positions due to the prior notification protocols common among the world’s major military forces that operate in conflict zones.
Conducting military operations inside Syria is still against international law (therefore I’m not advocating for such operations!) unless Bashir Al-Assad approves of it in advance (and it’s possible he might need help if he gets surrounded by terrorists again) and it’s still in America’s interests to have the democratically elected Bashir Al-Assad government in charge of Syria vs. any number of shady terrorist groups — but at least the lives of 2000 American troops won’t be unnecessarily at risk.
They don’t mind necessary risk, but they hate unnecessary risk. Wouldn’t you?
“Two Men Look Out Through the Same Bars – One Sees Mud, the Other, Stars”
In the final stage of the Syrian Civil War, U.S. president Trump likely sees a case of diminishing returns in Syria, with a growing threat of accidental conflict with America’s nominal allies (Russia, Syria and even Iran — as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned) He sees the potential for a sudden Jihadi attack comparable to the Marine barracks attack in Beirut (1983) that killed 241 U.S. Marines that could undo the good work done by U.S forces in the country especially if a large number of U.S. troops were to be killed in such an attack whether by design or accident; He sees that Syria’s allies are poised and able to complete the task at their cost in both lives and treasure, and he sees that America isn’t going to gain anything further by staying.
ISIS will be defeated in Syria due in large part due to American involvement and no matter how long America stays it isn’t likely to get more recognition for its work fighting terrorism there than it’s already gotten.
In short, for all the right reasons, president Trump decided that U.S. forces should leave Syria — and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers or U.S. Air Force bombers could still deliver a message to terrorist groups operating inside Syria at a moment’s notice.
And from the perspective of Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, he has resigned for all the right reasons. If you can’t agree on policy (and it is the job of the president to decide policy, not the SecDef) then it’s right to leave. No doubt that General Mattis felt there was more good that American forces could still do inside Syria (even though they weren’t invited and aren’t there legally) and that having U.S. forces on the ground was a stabilizing force in the country. It was that for certain.
But now that Bashar Al-Assad’s tacit approval of unasked-for American ‘assistance’ is almost certainly about to come to an end president Trump has made the right policy move on Syria.
And the president still retains the option of US Navy or Air Force attacks on terrorist targets inside Syria — while removing only the increasingly imperilled ground force option.
‘Timing is everything’ they say.
- A look back at the deadly 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut (abc.com)
It’s always helpful to look at a country’s actions over the past 200 years to help understand what its intentions may be here and now, and in the future.
The burgeoning but relatively isolated country of Iran hasn’t militarily attacked another country for over 200 years, and it was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that militarily attacked Iran in September 1980 — a conflict that finally ended in August 1988 with 1 million casualties and an economic cost of $680 million to $1 trillion dollars — with no clear winner and no benefit to either country.
After all that blood and treasure, no benefit to either country(!) although via the UN-sponsored peace accord and as a penalty to Iraq for starting the war, Iran gained access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway which runs into the Persian Gulf.
Since 2000, Iran has purportedly financed organizations (some listed as terrorist organizations, and others not) throughout the Middle East and most recently in Syria, Iraq, and perhaps Lebanon, in an attempt to exert some control on the various forces operating around their region. (Every country uses various methods to control what happens in its own region, so no news there)
But nothing captures the world’s attention like the Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. President Donald Trump says the deal is a bad one for the West and shouldn’t have been signed and wants to walk away from the deal, reserving the right to act unilaterally if he feels the country is a danger to the U.S.A. or its Middle East allies.
Last week, France’s President Emmanuel Macron flew to Washington to meet with the U.S. President to convince him to stay in the deal or to embrace a ‘third way’ which means renegotiating some of the agreement to better suit U.S. concerns.
Iran barely signed the previous agreement… so it will be interesting to see how the U.S. can get everything it wants from a renegotiated deal while still obtaining Iran’s signature to a new agreement. A deal isn’t a deal unless both sides sign on the dotted line.
Why Would the U.S. Care About Iran? (and Syria, for that matter)
From a strategic perspective, there isn’t a country in the world that could be less important to the security of the United States than Iran, and the same goes for Syria.
Neither country has the kind of military that could threaten America, nor could they project their power anywhere near the North American continent.
Unless the United States is actively working for Israel — a country which has an irrational fear of Iran (again, Iran hasn’t invaded any other country for over 200 years) and is willing to spend billions or even another trillion dollars to wage another Iraq War-style conflict against Iran, there’s no reason for the U.S. to have any dealings with Iran whatsoever.
Iran is a regional power at best, and will remain so for approximately the next 30-years as it hasn’t the capacity to be anything else.
If the United States is actively working for Saudi Arabia — a country that views Iran as an unwelcome competitor in the race to dominate the region, the same advice applies. Why should the U.S. spend multi-billions and sacrifice thousands of young soldiers to satisfy the Saudi ambition to be the local hegemon?
It’s not like Iran is withholding oil deliveries. On the contrary, Iranian oil is easily obtainable with a phone call — the country is highly motivated to sell every drop of oil due to high spending on social programmes by the Iranian government that are funded by oil revenue.
And Iran’s crude oil is rated either #2 (sweet) or #3 (semi-sweet) which means it’s in high demand around the world. Global oil producers have already pumped all of their #2 sweet crude out of the ground years ago; only Iran and Venezuela have significant reserves of sweet crude in the 21st-century.
As for oil refineries, they need Iran’s (or Venezuela’s) #2 sweet crude oil to blend with the oil supplied by their producers which is almost always #4 (sour) or #4.75 (very sour) like the Canadian oil sands product.
Most refineries won’t accept sour crude oil unless there is plenty of #2 or #3 sweet crude blended into the sour crude. It’s just too toxic to refine ‘sour’ as it requires a much more stringent maintenance protocol, meaning the refinery needs to shut down and go into ‘maintenance mode’ more often. That downtime represents a significant loss of revenue for oil refineries.
Therefore, as long as Iran continues to ship huge quantities of sweet crude, the United States should be facilitating that oil business instead of trying to curtail it.
The EU View of Iran is a Mature View
Say what you want about the Europeans, but they don’t allow themselves to be used by countries like Israel that have an irrational fear of Iran and want to use the United States and the EU to keep the Iranians ‘down’ and in their ‘proper’ place and thereby become the regional superpower, or countries like Saudi Arabia that want to use the United States and the EU to keep the Iranians ‘down’ and in their ‘proper’ place and thereby become the regional superpower.
To oversimplify the EU view; As long as Iran’s sweet crude continues to flow (it is) and as long as Iran isn’t actively invading any other country (it isn’t) then there’s no reason to use some imagined breach of the Iranian nuclear deal to launch another trillion dollar war in the Middle East. And, as always, the EU continues to refuse to allow itself to be used by regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In the final analysis, the EU’s position on the Iranian nuclear deal is the most enlightened of all and it is the view the United States should support.
by John Brian Shannon | December 1, 2014
Whether Iran has, or doesn’t have, the capability to build a nuclear bomb is almost irrelevant to our world. No country in it’s right mind is ever going to use ‘the bomb’ unless it is first attacked with WMD weapons.
By making such a big deal about it, the West (with significant cheerleading by Israel) implies that Iran’s leaders are not in their right mind. Or that future Iranian leaders won’t be in their right mind.
Which neatly puts Iran, and by extension that region of the world and the entire religion of Islam, on the defensive
Maybe that’s the whole goal, right there.
Putting Iran on the defensive and by ramping-up the pressure (almost always leads even the best political leaders to some sort of gaffe or misstep) which can then, retroactively, be used to justify whatever we later do to Iran and/or the region.
Which could entail the West becoming involved in a risky regime change, stealing their oil, and changing their culture to a adopt a more Western outlook — all of which could conceivably occur — but at great military and security cost to the West. We have the power to make it happen. The question is, should we? The payoff for the West would represent $20 trillion dollars of increased economic activity over the next 50 years, but only if we survive it. A risky bit of business, to say the least.
Maybe all of that and more is on the books for that region of the world
If so, it is thinly-disguised racism which reads like this: “Let’s prevent the Muslims from getting too advanced, there’s already 1.5 billion of them, let’s keep them in the iron age.” (My employing the term “iron age” in this context, means working to keep the Muslim nations in a permanent state of non-value-added resource extraction, and never letting them advance past that stage. By force, if necessary)
I doubt that I’m blowing any secret agenda
It’s pretty obvious to anyone with an interest in geopolitics that someone, somewhere, is driving this agenda and is pushing the West towards this potentially catastrophic and apocalyptic conclusion.
Unless it’s about regime change and stealing the oil/gas. Then it’s no longer primarily about racism, it’s about interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation and theft of resources.
Either of which read like a B-movie script from the 1960’s.
Good international relations (which are everything, as we only have one planet to live on) are of prime importance. Racism, or regime change/resource theft, must rank much further down the scale. Our survival depends on good international relations, it does not and cannot depend on racism or theft. Nor even regime change.
If we are the diplomats we think we are, then let’s prove it!
(No problem is too big for us to handle, because eventually and profoundly, it can’t be. Otherwise we cease to exist)
Surely we must delegate racism and theft to the bottom of the priority scale, to continue our civilization on this planet.
I thought all of this was agreed to at the end of WWII and again at the end of the Cold War
Why are some people now ‘cheap-shotting’ Iran and trying to unlearn what we have learned in past decades?
Rather than allow the ‘tail to wag the dog’ by defaulting to some 1960’s B-move script, diplomats must work with Iran (and the other nations of Islam) to build a paradigm of win-win success and move forward, past the present potentially apocalyptic temptation.
We are either the diplomats that we think we are — or we are racist, regime-changing, resource-pirates
By definition, we can’t be both at once.
Who are we?
As I have faith in human nature (ultimately, but with an asterisk) I hope that by empowering our diplomats towards sustainable outcomes, we will become the people that we should become — and not be a people who revert to the thinking of a bygone century. Feudalism brought us two World Wars and the Cold War we can now admit.
Why play for marbles in Iran (and Ukraine, for that matter) when we could be playing for gold bars in the Pacific Rim nations? Why spend America’s prestige and effort on mere marbles? Especially when there are boatloads of gold bars to be had with less effort and far less risk.
Part of our maturing as a civilization can be seen in the forward-thinking APEC, TPP and FTAAP, which I hope is a foreshadowing of things to come for the nations of the Pacific rim. If we allow that to become all that it can and should be, all of us will be the richer for it.
In addition to the existing economic engines of the U.S.A., EU, and BRICS, we could add depth and strength to our global economy by creating a new, interdependent economic engine, the Pacific Rim bloc, which could represent $111 trillion dollars of increased trade activity over the next 50 years. Each nation of the bloc would make its own valid contribution to a greater whole, instead of continuing with the until recently, largely unguided economics of the present pan-Pacific totality.
The pivot to Asia combined with a wealth-generating Pan Pacific multi-layered partnership could and should result in changing the entire geopolitical conversation to a grand and positive one — instead of one where everything is about sniping at Iran (the bomb) and Russia (eastern Ukraine).
It’s all how you look at things
Two men look out through the same bars
One sees mud. The other, stars!
- November’s Diplomatic Harvest (Project Syndicate)