Stuck on Stupid
“… Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place. … But the deal we’ll accept is — they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.” Presidential Candidate Barack Obama
“America will regret imposing sanctions on Iran… they’re already isolated in the world.” Hassan Rouhani
“I’m saying that ammunition comes with multiple options, and it’s not always military. Ammunition also comes with sanctions. Ammunition also comes with trade.” Nikki Haley
I am a bit perplexed this week as I write because there are so many global security catastrophes happening in the world right now, each one worthy of my time. There is the Turkish military incursion into northern Syria, the on-going and potentially catastrophic demonstrations in Hong Kong, the bloody riots in Iraq, the possible no-deal Brexit in the UK, the looming impeachment proceedings of a sitting US president and the persistent nuclear saber-rattling of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Last week I wrote about Iranian duplicity and the past 40 years of Iran’s “do and deny” strategy and how that strategy has gotten the Persian Gulf to its current place of destabilization. If you have been following my articles closely you will notice the pattern of behavior that has emerged from both the US and Iran. It’s like an interesting, yet dangerous game of “cat and mouse.” As always in my articles I want to hold out in front of you the prospect that there is much more happening than meets the eye.
There is a lot of information that is simply being ignored by many media outlets today because it does not fit neatly within the narrative that these sources have meticulously curated. People often believe what they want to hear, no matter the facts. Hence, this weeks title, “Stuck on Stupid.”
In 2005, immediately after Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré was dispatched by President George W. Bush to spearhead the recovery of the aftermath. On September 20, 2005, at a press conference with Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Hurricane Rita, Honoré made headlines nationwide when he told a reporter not to get “stuck on stupid” in reference to a question about the government response, or lack thereof, to Hurricane Katrina. In essence, what General Honoré was saying is that one should not allow the incompetent decisions made in the past to define the person or the event. One must move on and make better decisions. Sometimes, decisions being made by Iranian government officials appear to be stuck in the past. Their view of the world and their determination to re-emerge as a global (nuclear) power as in the days of Cyrus and Darius leave them looking a lot like they are “stuck on stupid.”
This week, I want to address some of the decisions made by the US particularly in regards to Iran over the past 20 years. I will assess their effectiveness, specifically concerning sanctions, then see if we can better understand how these decisions have either furthered or hindered the cause of stability in the Middle East. I hope this weeks discussion will clear up what is exactly happening and why.
President Trump has made it clear that the 2015 agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, between the P5+1 countries and Iran was a terrible agreement brokered by President Obama’s administration and that unless Iran was prepared to renegotiate the non-binding accord the US would pull itself from the agreement immediately, which President Trump did on May 18, 2018.
What does President Trump want from Iran? He wants Iran to:
- End Tehran’s nuclear enrichment
- Terminate its ballistic missile program
- Stop supporting proxy forces, such as Hamas and Hezbollah
President Trump has reinstated Economic and Financial sanctions against Iran until the Iranian government is prepared to re-negotiate in good faith the tenets of the JCPOA and re-instate itself as a responsible global player on the world stage.
I won’t go in-depth here as to why the JCPOA was a badly conceived agreement and how from its very beginning Tehran was never really in compliance. For a more thorough investigation of the JCPOA and its demise, click here to read an article published in May this year by Fred Fleitz from the Center for Security Policy.
What exactly is the US sanctioning? The first, coming into effect August 7, 2018 includes restrictions on:
- Iran’s purchase of US currency
- Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals
- The sale to Iran of auto parts, commercial passenger aircraft, and related parts and services.
The second set of sanctions, which comes back into force on November 4, 2018 restricts sales of oil and petrochemical products from Iran. In a nutshell, the sanctions are being enforced by the US Department of Treasury and the US State Department. The sanctions not only apply to Iran, but anybody doing business with Iran in the areas specifically mentioned above. Should an oil company decide to do business with Iran they will face serious fines and the inability to use the US banking system to transfer funds. When transferring millions of dollars for purchases, no other systems can guarantee payments like the US banking system.
Are the sanctions working?
By most indicators, the answer is yes. From my discussions with Iranians who are living in Europe, but have family members in Iran, they have indicated to me that this is the worst economic downturn that they have ever experienced. Inflation sits at at about 53.8%. That means that today if you bought a loaf of bread for a $1 in the US, next year that loaf of bread would be $1.53. At the same rate annually, by 2024 that same loaf of bread would cost $8.61. Indicators are that the sanctions are squeezing the Iranian economy very tightly.
What has it meant for the president’s goals? Nuclear programs are very expensive. Every dollar that is lost to oil purchase is one less dollar that it can spend on nuclear weapons development. The same rings true for its funding of proxy forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. In 2018, a US official estimated Iran’s support of Hezbollah at $700 million per year. In 2018, the Iranian government is reported to be supplying Hamas with as much as $30 million a month for military purposes. In Yemen, Iran funds the Houthi rebel militias at a rate of $10-15 million a year, Yemeni officials report.
These funds are quickly drying up. One Hezbollah leader lamented that the end was near since the Iranian funds are drying up. From a military standpoint, it appears that the sanctions are working. It also seems that the Iranian leadership is not buckling any time soon. They are fighting back like someone who is being backed into a corner. Indeed they are. They continue to accelerate their “do and deny” tactic hoping that the Western nations, Russian or China will come to their aid to relieve their pain. That assistance is not materializing very quickly and may not at all. This cat and mouse game will begin to take an insidious turn before it gets better. The Iranian people need to step in and insist that their government takes steps to return their country to the fold of civilized nations.
What other means are being used to deal with Iran?
Deterrence by denial- RAND researcher Michael Mazarr notes that classic studies of deterrence theories and historical practice suggest that “denial strategies are inherently more reliable than punishment strategies.” Moreover, denial strategies minimize the risks of escalation inherent in deterrence-by-punishment strategies whose credibility depends on delivering punishment when challenged. By bolstering the Saudi and Middle Eastern nation air defense systems to protect them from further Iranian backed drone and missile attacks, the US is deterring the effects of future incursions. There are multiple versions of deterrence that can be used. I believe that we have only seen the beginning of the kinds of systems that will be deployed against further Iranian aggression towards our allies as well as US forces in the region.
Cyber-Warfare- Western version of “do and deny” cyberattacks to degrade the computers, intelligence systems, and missiles that enable Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping. President Trump is considering similar cyberstrikes in response to the September 14th oil attacks — and as a way to restore US deterrence while avoiding the risks of further escalation inherent in kinetic strikes. Already serious measures have been taken to attack Iranian electronic infrastructures. These kinds of behind the scene attacks will become increasingly prevalent and both countries will engage in a “do and deny” tactic, not wanting to tip their hand in their methods.
I want to re-iterate the importance of citizens being aware of these critical events throughout the world. We simply cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand, ignoring the possible effects that these situations could have on our own homes and communities. The world is moving at an accelerated pace. There is anger, suspicion and intolerance at many levels globally.
We cannot address communally what we do not comprehend personally.
Misunderstanding can be worse than no knowledge at all. Gaining a clear understanding on our national foreign policy at even a surface level will unfold for us a host of tools for thriving within our communities. Ignorance will only leave us voiceless and the option remaining will be to mindlessly follow like sheep with no understanding of where we are going, even if it is to our own demise.
I want to suggest an idea that may seem anathema to many of you, but it is really not so outlandish. Run for public office. There is a need for more level headed citizens these days in our government. I think most of us fear becoming a politician. This is not what I am suggesting, rather that you become a concerned citizen, someone who gives to their community through public service. How about running for something like School Board, City Council or State Representative? You can make a difference. You can rise above what seems like an increasing public apathy and cynicism towards community service.
The Syrian situation appears to be rising back to the top of international interest. Turkey this week has begun an incursion into Northern Syria promising to create a safe-zone approximately 20 miles deep running across the entire Turkish-Syrian border, which is approximately 515 miles long. Turkey intends to re-patriate 3 million Syrians into this safe-zone which is on the south side of its 500 mile long 10 foot high concrete border-fence topped with concertina razor wire.
This incursion happens at the expense of the trusted US allies, the Kurdish people. The results of the movement this week could have staggering consequences as President Erdogan promises to re-open the flood-gates of refugees to Europe as well. An additional 1 to 2 million refugees added to the already teetering European economy could yield serious problems for all of us.
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org