Monday, March 9, 2015

Domestic Politics Drive US-Israel-Iran Strategic Monologues

Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the US Congress this month stirred up the usual posturing from American politicians.  Their equivalents in Israel and Iran, the other two audiences for Mr. Netanyahu's speech, will eventually be heard.  Third Eye OSINT judges that recent noises from leaders of the US, Israel, and Iran have more to do with moving public opinion in those countries than with reaching any diplomatic agreements.

All perspectives on US/Iran/Israel relations are of interest.  CFR's description of Iran's nuclear program raises enough concerns about the program's intent to warrant continuing IAEA monitoring and verification in Iran.  There is no reason for any of the P5+1 parties to pursue side deals with Iran outside this negotiating framework given its legitimacy in the eyes of the UN.  The US's own estimate is that Iran is years away from weaponizing its nuclear program.  The CFR's description of a 2007 NIE describes the difficulty Iran has in producing sufficient weapons-grade material.  The Stuxnet virus' attack on Iran's facilities pushed the weaponization date even further into the future.  Talk of crossing red lines is premature.

All of the recent public actions by both Israel's and Iran's leaders are fodder for internal audiences.  Mr. Netanyahu gains politically by frightening his people with an external threat.  His Likud party still polls strongly but he cannot ignore the growing chorus of former Israeli national security figures who have come out publicly against Israeli policies.  Anti-Iran rhetoric shores up his electoral base.

Iran's mullahs want their people to think the Iranian nuclear program is more dangerous than it is to keep the reformers sidelined.  Strategic feints are an old practice in history.  Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq went to great lengths to convince its own battlefield commanders that WMDs were an option, believing that mention of such programs would deter Iran or even the US from striking the regime.  Iran's hardened facilities and uranium enrichment technology obviously have military potential.  Whether Israel is the eventual target of an Iranian nuclear strike is open to debate.  Tehran has little to gain from a strike on Israel that would almost certainly bring US retaliation.  It has more to gain by rattling a nuclear saber against nearby rivals, specifically Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Even US politicians feel the impulse to contribute rhetoric fit for their domestic base.  Republican Congresspeople sent a letter to Iran with vague warnings about the validity of US-Iran diplomatic agreements.  Once again, domestic audiences matter, and positioning for the 2016 election cycle means putting tough rhetoric on the record.  Iran responded with an understanding of legal precedents that surpassed that of the GOP letter's authors.  An American legal scholar from the George W. Bush administration took the GOP to task on the Lawfare blog for their lack of understanding.  Israeli and Iranian leaders have yet to reveal whether their understanding of their own legal systems needs remedial attention.  They may surprise us yet.

Both Israel and Iran also have something to gain externally by going through these motions in public.  Iran wants a bigger bargaining chip to terminate sanctions, so making its nuclear program seem dangerous is a diplomatic gamble.  Israel has obviously won a major diplomatic breakthrough with Saudi Arabia if the Saudis quietly approve of Israel's stance against Iran.  American diplomacy is always at work and could probably have forged a P5+1 agreement sooner if not for some clumsiness.  Media exposure of President Obama's Nov. 2014 letter to Tehran about ISIS was an embarrassment.  Predictably, Iran's response was noncommittal once the entire US negotiating position was laid bare.  Trading nuclear concessions for acquiescence to a more active Iranian ground campaign is a deal best done in back channels.  US fumbling invites Israel and Iran to air their frustrations in public rather than behind closed doors.

The most explosive conflict in the Middle East isn't even Israel vs. Iran.  The intensifying Sunni vs. Shia civil war within Islam is the main threat to regional stability.  The leading Sunni states (Saudi Arabia first, Turkey second) are unwilling to directly confront Iran for leadership of the Islamic world, so they cynically allow Israel to do their heavy lifting for them.  They won't be able to postpone the open civil war for long; ISIS is just the latest explosion of Sunni anger against Shiite proxies (Syria first, rump Iraq second).

Public speeches on geopolitics are always the tips of icebergs.  They are monologues intended for multiple audiences.  The primary audience is usually domestic.  Hidden diplomatic initiatives rarely take their cues from public statements, except in states like North Korea where a megalomaniac leader personifies the state.  The US has yet to demonstrate its ability to competently navigate both the public diplomacy and back channel communication that can set the framework for a successful P5+1 agreement.  Rhetoric about leading from behind and "strategic patience" are no substitute for competence.  Dialogue suffers and the world is left with monologues.