Iran and the Syria Conference

Paul Pillar

A perpetual, and perpetually misguided, American notion about international negotiations is that sitting down to talk constitutes some sort of reward for the party on the other side of the table—a reward to be bestowed only in return for good behavior. This notion may be involved, even if only indirectly, in the curious U.S. resistance to participation by Iran in the prospective international conference about the conflict in Syria. Perhaps the resistance has more recently lessened; on Tuesday the deputy Iranian foreign minister commented in Moscow that Iran had received a “verbal invitation” to attend the conference, without specifying who had extended the invitation. We should hope that the verbal invitation will turn out to be a firm one.

The United States has been joined in its resistance by France. Maybe Paris's posture has been rooted somehow in old French hang-ups about the Levant. The reason for the similar posture by the Obama administration, notwithstanding its leadership role along with Russia in arranging the conference in the first place, is unclear. If the administration itself does not subscribe to the talking-as-reward school of thought, possibly the policy has been just one more manifestation of an environment in Washington in which anything that could be construed as a positive gesture toward Iran is considered bad politics and the opposite is always good politics.

From the standpoint of trying to ameliorate the situation in Syria, there is no way that exclusion of Iran can help, no matter how negative and nefarious a role the Iranians are assumed to be playing. The general principle involved is that the only peace talks that are ever meaningful are ones with adversaries, not with just friends and allies. In the Syrian case, anyone playing any significant role in the conflict, positive or negative, ipso facto belongs at the table.

If the Iranians have reason to do things regarding the Syrian conflict now, with no peace talks, that we consider unhelpful, they would have no less reason to do similar things if they are excluded from any talks that do take place. There would be more possibility of change with the dialogue and deal-making at a conference. Exclusion would only increase Iran's incentive to find other ways to make its weight felt.

Perhaps some of the thinking has been that no encouragement should be given to Iran playing any significant regional role, not just on Syria. But players in the region are not going to take instructions from Paris and Washington regarding how they should regard other regional players and whom they should deal with. Besides, anything that leads the Iranians to feel more of a stake in regional stability is on balance good. Exactly what that should mean in terms of Iranian behavior is something worth talking to them about.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Danish Interpretation Systems. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsRogue States RegionsIranFranceUnited StatesSyria

Iran Declares Victory

The Buzz

In the days after the joint Syrian Army–Lebanese Hezbollah victory over the rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr, the Assad regime has been positively giddy, announcing plans for a major offensive to retake the northern city of Aleppo. Assad’s key backer, Iran, has also been gloating. A victory speech of sorts, reported by hardline outlet Fars News and translated by the American Enterprise Institute’s Iran Tracker, offers a broad insight into how one of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest advisers sees the Islamic Republic’s standing in the region, and how the Syrian conflict figures in Iranian strategy. It’s a vision that sharply conflicts with how we’d expect Tehran to see itself—and accordingly, one that should be closely examined as the United States attempts to compel Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program.

The speaker, general Yahya Rahim-Safavi, is Khamenei’s top military aide, a role that he took up after a decade heading the politically powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He’s an influential player—notably, he backed the infamous head of the IRGC’s covert Quds Force, general Qassim Suleimani, whom the New York Times branded “Iran’s Master of Chaos.” And if his position and background didn’t already give it away, Rahim-Safavi is known as a resolute hardliner.

In Rahim-Safavi’s eyes, Iran’s strategic position is strong and getting stronger, and two men are responsible—Ali Khamenei and George W. Bush.

In 2003, the Americans pursued a war in Iraq to bring to power a secular government hostile to Iran. With the alert [Iraqi] clergy, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the jihadi Iraqi people, and the Iraqi intellectuals and revolutionaries they were unable to [do this]. [Instead] a good constitution and parliament, and a good, popular, Muslim government was established in Iraq that has good relations with Iran.... By God’s grace now two great enemies of Iran, the Taliban and Saddam, have been removed, and the effects of victory in Syria are apparent.

Of course, this is a tendentious reading of the Iraq conflict. Sistani, for example, has never been a figure of antigovernment or anti-American resistance, and is more a rival to Iranian influence and Iranian ideology than a friend of it. The “jihadi Iraqi people,” meanwhile, were more concerned with thwarting rival sects than with setting Iraq’s foreign policy. Yet the general is spot-on in his assessment that the United States inadvertently knocked down the barricades on Iran’s eastern and western frontiers. Tehran has influence in places it didn’t before, and its neighbors are less of a threat, allowing it to dream bigger.

Syria, for Rahim-Safavi, is the next phase of Iran’s advance. The conflict he sees is layered,

a confrontation between the strategic policies of the world’s great powers and regional powers. For the world powers, the US is on one side and Russia and China are on the other. Iran is a regional power placed against the money and mercenaries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

He also lumps in Turkey and Israel—pardon, the “Zionist regime”—with the Saudi-Qatari-American side. The goal, he suggests, is to create a “substitute Islamic Awakening in Syria”—in other words, to create a rival model to the Arab Spring, presumably in order to prevent its spread to U.S. allies. In Iranian eyes, the Arab Spring/”Islamic Awakening” represents a popular rejection of secular, nondemocratic, not-virulently-anti-American governments in favor of a model more like the Islamic Republic’s; accordingly, America, Israel, and its allies are determined to resist by any means necessary. In Syria, says Rahim-Safavi, this has even included “40,000 mercenary forces” and “violence by Al Qaeda terrorists.” Yet, he says, such an extraordinary and well-resourced conspiracy hasn’t been able to stand up to Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, and is producing blowback:

America’s and the Zionist regime’s policies and the billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and Qatar have failed in Syria, and now the Turkish government is facing protests in almost all of the country’s provinces. This shows that Turkey's policies toward its neighbor have been a mistake.

Again, a prejudicial reading—Turkey’s protests are only tangentially related to the Syrian conflict, the United States has confined itself to cheering the rebels on from the sidelines, and Israel isn’t even sure who it wants to win. But Syria is most definitely a proxy war over Iran’s role in the region, and Rahim-Safavi smells victory in the pyres of Qusayr.

The general is clear on who he thinks can claim credit:

The Supreme Leader’s strategic policies related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are the reason that Iran has become a regional power in Western Asia.

And he takes the geopolitical rhetoric one alarming step further:

Heretofore Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times; one time during the era of Cyrus along with the liberation of Jerusalem, another time was during the era of Xerxes and the crossing of the Bosporus Strait and the Greek campaign. The third time is in the present period, during which the power of Lebanese Hezbollah, the long arm of Iranian defensive power, is placed at the head of the Zionist regime and has been formed as the strategic defensive power of Iran.

Rahim-Safavi thus puts ersatz ayatollah Ali Khamenei among the greatest conquerors in five millennia of Persian civilization. It’s a shocking claim, one that demands balancing. Under Khamenei, Iran has been utterly alienated from the major powers of the West and kept at arms length, at their behest, by the major powers of the East. It is loathed by many of its neighbors and gains influence only when they are weakened. Its allies are odious—Bashar al-Assad may even be using the chemical weapons Iran purports to detest. Its economy has been seriously damaged, and a regime founded on claims of revolutionary justice and fairness has fallen into the hands of smugglers and back-room power brokers.

Yet Rahim-Safavi’s narrative still has power. For all its failings, Iran has made itself a regional force, and has done so against heavy resistance. Its proxies in Lebanon and Syria mean that no major shifts can occur in either without Khamenei’s acquiescence. It can play spoiler in Palestine and Iraq, and maybe Bahrain, too. Its nuclear advances eventually could render it much less vulnerable to external regime-change efforts. The world has tried to ignore Iran. Iran is trying to force the world to pay attention.

TopicsRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

The Pendulum of Opinion on Security and Privacy

Paul Pillar

Sixteen years ago I participated in the annual summer study of the Defense Science Board, a panel of senior experts and executives from the private sector created in the 1950s to advise the Department of Defense on scientific and technical matters. The summer study is the board's biggest project each year, for which it assembles a large ad hoc task force going well beyond the board's own membership. The topic of the study performed in 1997 was DoD Responses to Transnational Threats. I worked with a science and technology subgroup that made its principal focus the use of modern information technology to collect and exploit data pertinent to terrorist threats.

The resulting report recommended aggressive exploitation of the then-new World Wide Web and data-handling technology available in the private sector to perform such collection and exploitation. The report talked about the importance of exploiting “meta-information” on use of the Internet as well as substantive information possibly pertinent to terrorist threats. The term “data mining” was used, not as a dirty word but instead as a descriptor of the kind of technology that the government ought to employ more extensively. Perhaps as a reflection of the fact that it was mainly scientists and engineers and not lawyers who wrote this part of the report, there was no mention of drawing fine lines or indeed any lines between collection abroad and within the United States.

The report was another indication, ignored by or unbeknownst to the many people who believe serious U.S. counterterrorism didn't begin until September 2001, that much serious attention was being given to the subject, and to better ways of doing counterterrorism, well before that. My own participation in the Defense Science Board study—at the time I was a government official with counterterrorist responsibilities in the intelligence community—was an indication of that. The public reaction to 9/11 would give a big boost, of course, both to the resources devoted to all kinds of countereterrorist activities and to the aggressiveness with which something like large-scale exploitation of data and meta-data could be pursued. Much of the kind of information management that the 1997 report discussed corresponded to the “connect the dots” activity that is a familiar demand after any perceived failure by the government agencies involved. Actually a better metaphor is finding needles in haystacks, or better yet, finding the few needles that matter in a stack of other needles that don't.

But the mood and thus the priorities of the public, as reflected in the press and Congress, shift over time on any subject on which security conflicts with something like privacy, depending on how long it has been since the last thing that upset the public and what the nature of the upset was. Aggressive exploitation of data that once was not only accepted but expected later becomes a matter of objection and controversy. Thus government agencies that are the target of recriminations at one time for not doing enough of something later are the target of recriminations for doing too much of the same thing. The latest hubbub about exploitation of Internet or telephonic communications should be viewed as the latest swing in the ever-swinging pendulum of the public mood about such things.

Meanwhile the hubbub provides little or no perspective to the government activity in question with regard to such things as comparing the implications of government possession of a piece of information with the far more extensive holdings of the same kind of information by private sector organizations. For all that gets said about whether the multiple controls and checks in the judicial and legislative branches are sufficient for what the government does, nothing gets said about the implications of a corporation collecting and holding such data with no checks or controls at all, save for possible eventual sanction by an often highly imperfect marketplace if something were to go badly and embarrassingly wrong.

When leaks are involved, as they are once again in the latest instance, there again is scant attention in the public discussion to the damage done by the leaks. In this case the principal damage is to cooperation and trust between government agencies and the relevant Internet and telecommunications companies. There also is undeserved direct damage to the companies themselves. The ones that have cooperated should be applauded for performing a duty in accordance with the law and with the interests of national security. Instead, because of leaks, they have been handed a major public relations headache. Their businesses have been hit with an undetermined but undeniable cost. The incentive for future cooperation has just gone down.

We also are again hearing nonsense about how a leak is somehow critical for obtaining public accountability or a public debate. Any other members of Congress who listened to Ron Wyden or Mark Udall could have joined their cause if they were so inclined and there would have been the debate. But evidently other members, including the leaderships of both parties, were not so inclined.

This is yet another instance of how what gets the attention of the public, the Congress, and the media is less a function of the intrinsic importance of the topic—even when some members of relevant Congressional committees diligently do their jobs—but instead of what becomes a flap, especially if it is sexed up by something like pilfered PowerPoint slides.

Image: Jon Hopkins, CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCongressMediaPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Never Say Never Again

Paul Pillar

The president's appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power certainly have caused a stir, as reflected in commentary right here at The National Interest. Without adding to the pile of overall judgments about these choices, something more can be said about how these appointments raise an issue concerning the correct and incorrect ways to draw lessons from history. Both appointees are identified with ex post facto anguish over the international response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and a determination not to let a similar event happen again. Rice is quoted by Power, in the latter's later writing about this event, as saying that “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

The extraction of lessons from salient (and especially unpleasant) historical episodes should go beyond a simple determination that a piece of policy was good or bad and instead examine in detail exactly why and how a policy didn't work or an initiative went sour. Such a careful approach recognizes that: most policies are not entirely good or entirely bad; some aspects of an initiative can be executed well while other aspects of the same initiative are executed poorly; the right policy may be pursued for the wrong reasons, or the wrong policy for noble reasons; and multiple national interests are typically at stake, some of which are better served by a particular policy than are others.

Extraction of lessons, for example, from the Iraq War—one of the most salient, unpleasant and costly episodes in recent American history—should take this kind of careful, fine-grained form. It should not be a simple matter of declaring that the war stank and this means the United States should not intervene militarily again in the Middle East. The latter, simplistic approach is what some advocates of intervention in Syria depict as the frame of mind that they are battling against, warning Americans that they should not be afraid of intervening in Syria just because they got traumatized in Iraq. No doubt some Americans do have that frame of mind, as reflected in what is usually described as war weariness of the American public. But as far as serious debate among policy elites is concerned, the depicted frame of mind is a straw man.

Many important lessons can be, and have been, drawn from the Iraq War and the decision to launch it, lessons that should be applied to possible interventions elsewhere, Syria included. Substantively, for example, there are lessons about foreign perceptions of U.S. troop involvement, the importance of ethnic and sectarian rivalries, and the inability to inject a liberal democratic culture through the barrel of a gun. The procedural lessons are just as important, including ones about failing to plan sufficiently for later phases of an occupation, rejecting expert judgment about the challenges likely to be encountered in those phases, and failing to have any policy process leading to the decision to undertake such a major expedition.

A contrast to such careful lesson-drawing is the never-again, I'll-go-down-in-flames way of reacting to a past episode. If we are to take Rice and Power at their word, this approach is not a straw man. And it is a really bad way to apply history to current policy issues. It ignores or discounts the aforementioned complexities about mixtures of good and bad and the trade-offs among different interests. It overstates the similarity between the historical episode that has had the searing effect and whatever is the policy problem of today. Swearing in advance to take a particular side in a future policy debate without knowing the details of the problem that will be debated is a very bad way to make policy. To the extent that emotion and guilt over some past horror come into play, this gets even farther away from careful examination of policy options and makes bad policy even more likely.

This approach already has damaged U.S. interests. Excessive and simplistic application of the grandaddy of all international policy wonks' guilt trips—the response to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s—has been a major factor in such damage, including that resulting from the U.S. decision to intervene in Vietnam in the 1960s. As for the Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz was especially fond of telling us that Saddam Hussein was a latter-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler.

The no-more-Rwandas version of this approach also has caused damage, less severe than that of the wars in either Vietnam or Iraq but harm that is still in the process of being incurred and tallied. Of particular note in this regard is the intervention in Libya two years ago, an action that Rice and Power reportedly supported strongly. The notion that this intervention was wise appears to rest on the idea that the target was a dictator nobody particularly liked and that in the civil war that was then ongoing people were getting hurt, as is always the case in civil wars. The notion also rested on the myth, unsupported by evidence to this day, that Qadhafi was planning some sort of genocidal bloodbath in eastern Libya and that failure to intervene would mean Rwanda all over again. The dictator was swept aside with U.S. and Western help, at minimal material cost to the United States, and so the episode gets casually put in the win column.

The actual balance sheet on Libya is far more extensive than that. The disliked dictator had already, through an enforceable agreement with the United States and Britain, given up his unconventional weapons programs and gotten out of international terrorism. He was still a quixotically inconvenient and sometimes disagreeable cuss, but he was not a threat. What we have had since he was ousted is extremist-infested disorder in Libya that has given rise to a flow of arms to radicals in the Sahel and incidents like the fatal encounter at a U.S. compound in Benghazi. (If Rice were being nominated for a position requiring Senate confirmation, this is the aspect of the Benghazi incident she ought to be grilled about, not some manufactured silliness about talking points.) We also have sent a very unhelpful message to the likes of the Iranians and North Koreans and have perversely affected their motivations regarding the possibility of reaching their own agreements with the United States.

It is remarkable that the Libyan intervention is so often considered a success. Let us hope that in the future when lessons are drawn from this episode—by either advocates or opponents of some future intervention—they will be drawn carefully, rather than in the simplistic manner that seems to have become respectable even among presidential appointees.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Adam Jones, Ph.D. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyHuman RightsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesTerrorismWMD RegionsIranIraqLibyaUnited StatesNorth KoreaSyriaVietnam

Obama's Second-Term Team: Divided by Design?

The Buzz

The big news today is that Susan Rice is slated to replace Tom Donilon as the national-security adviser to President Obama. Meanwhile, Samantha Power will be nominated to take Rice’s place as ambassador to the United Nations. Here at TNI, Jacob Heilbrunn calls this the “return of the liberal hawks.” Heilbrunn notes that after having chosen the more realist or pragmatic Chuck Hagel and John Kerry as secretary of defense and state, respectively, Obama appears to be “balancing his foreign policy team” and “attempting to create competing power centers in his administration.”

With this in mind, it’s worth revisiting a brief passage from David Remnick’s biography of the president, The Bridge. Remnick describes how, during his brief stint in the Senate, Obama occasionally met to discuss ideas with prominent journalists like Fareed Zakaria, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. He writes:

He could talk Reagan and Burke with Brooks and foreign policy with Zakaria and Friedman, all with the politician’s gift of making his guest feel that he agrees with him. They were all struck by his charm and lack of neediness, his intelligence and what one called “his gargantuan self-confidence”—a freshman senator who was convinced he could get in a room with foreign-policy realists and idealists and somehow transcend the battle and reconcile the two sides. [Emphasis added.]

This attribute—Obama’s long-held desire to draw from both the realist and liberal-internationalist camps and synthesize them in some way—has been present throughout his time in the White House. Indeed, you can paint two entirely different pictures of his foreign policy depending on which events you choose to emphasize. On one hand, he’s the president who led a humanitarian military intervention in Libya and expanded the Afghan war in 2009. On the other, he has since drawn down two major wars and shown a deep reluctance to get involved in the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria. The truth would seem to be that as Remnick suggests, he doesn’t identify wholly with either camp and is committed to trying to “reconcile” the divide.

Obama’s choice of Rice and Power, then, along with his attempt to “balance” his team (if that is in fact the true aim), is fully consistent with both the mentality that Remnick describes and this record from his first term. The strongest argument for this approach is that it allows one to draw from the best insights of multiple points of view. But, as Paul Saunders points out, the converse risk is that it can result in a sort of incoherent, split-the-difference policy in situations that demand a larger strategic vision.

TopicsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States