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Will the Sunni world welcome Israeli Strike on Shia Iran?

In Iran Talks, Who Has Leverage?

By Melik Kaylan, 10.02.09


This week, negotiations to disarm Iran's rogue nuclear program get under way in Geneva. How much real pressure can the West apply as the posturing fades and each side reveals its raw leverage? A lot depends on third party players, not just the potential sanction busters such as China and Russia, but also the other countries that enter into the equation, such as Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Let us conduct a brief tour d'horizon of the forces at play and see how things might go.

The Iranians have already conveyed their mood by publicly boasting of a hitherto secret nuclear installation in mountains near the holy city of Qom. A gratuitous act of insouciance. They have followed up with gratuitous acts of transparency: an invitation to inspectors to visit the new site, an offer to send uranium to Russia for processing and quantifying. Tehran is not afraid of what the West knows because we cannot do anything about it anyway. Iran cannot be intimidated. But Iranians will do the right thing of their own volition. That's the message to us.

If the past record is anything to go by, Tehran has no intention of ending its nuclear ambitions. For the moment though, grand Obamaesque gestures of diplomacy fulfill a purpose. They give international fence-sitters an excuse to relax the pressure. But equally for Tehran the entire saga of these talks serves a domestic purpose: as a theater of defiance for Iranian consumption – Iran poised at the pivot of history with the world's great powers dancing attendance. Iran standing tall thanks to the regime. As it is, the nuclear program is pretty much the only populist weapon left in the regime's depleted political arsenal at home. With Ahmadinejad loyalists conducting the drama in Geneva, the government gains enormous stature, bids to reunite the country's fractured populace, and puts into the shade secondary figures such as Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mir Hossein Mousavi who disputed the election results.

In a process comparable to the talks with North Korea, the U.S. has deliberately fashioned a multilateral table inviting Russia, China, the E.U., the U.K., France and Germany to participate. The approach didn't yield success in Asia so why would it in Geneva? Perhaps Bush-era gestures of multilateralism didn't seem convincing, whereas President Obama appears authentically committed to cooperation with other powers. Whether that will make a difference remains to be seen. How far will Russia and China play along? Why would they?

Moscow has no interest in resolving the problem of Iranian nukes quickly. But ultimately a nuclear-armed Iran at its southern extremity poses a more direct threat to Russia than to any of the other players at the table. Moscow will wring maximum concessions from the U.S. while it can. Ukraine is increasingly up for grabs. Moldova, Belarus and Georgia all hang in the balance, an entire swath of Eastern Europe. The U.S. can look the other way for now or NATO can threaten to install a new generation of missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, while moving warships again into the Black Sea to provide "humanitarian" aid to Georgia. Meanwhile, Chechnya and nearby Daghestan can easily destabilize anew.

China, at first glance, would appear a reluctant helpmate. Beijing has a lot to gain from sanctions busting in the form of a sweetheart bilateral oil deal with Iran. Nor is Iran's potential nuclear missile capability a direct threat to China. So what carrots and sticks can the U.S. deploy to get China's cooperation? New weapons for Taiwan? No doubt. But there are also a great many observers abroad who rather conspiratorially link the U.S. to the sudden spike of unrest among China's Uighurs in Xinjiang some months ago. China had begun, they say, to moot the idea of an alternative reserve currency to the dollar when the incidents erupted--at which point China seemed to go quiet on the idea. Beijing itself officially blamed a leading Uighur exile in Washington for stoking the unrest. All of which may sound pretty implausible--I know of no evidence indicating a U.S. hand in the affair--but it may be enough that China believes one to exist for China to cooperate in the talks.

The biggest incentive for Beijing to go along with U.S. pressure on Iran becomes clear when you play out the moves to the point of conflict. In the event of a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. or Israel, if Iran takes the next step of planting mines in the Straits of Hormuz, thereby interrupting oil shipments around the world and causing global economic chaos, China would suffer acutely. The Chinese regime depends, for its own survival, on China's exports to keep growing in a healthy global economy. A downtick or collapse in the Chinese economy equals instant unrest in the provinces. Beijing would prefer to resolve the Iran matter well short of a shooting war.

What of the immediate regional pressures--how do the nearby countries' interests feed into the equation? One hears the usual talk that a military strike against Iran's nukes would cause a severe anti-U.S.-and-Israel backlash in the Muslim world. But in reality the Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt would welcome such a move, perhaps even abet the proceedings. Nothing scares the Sunni world more than a powerful Iran, not even Israel, because Tehran has the ability to undermine other nations from within wherever substantial Shiite populations exist or even where they don't--simply by appealing to Islamist, anti-Crusader and anti-Zionist sentiment on the street. An allied attack on Iran's nukes would spontaneously ignite just such instability with Islamic street sentiment running high in favor of Iran. But for the Sunni states, the price may be worth paying in the short term to weaken Iran over the long run.

This presents the U.S. with yet another problem in Afghanistan as the country's stable regions tend to be largely non-Sunni or pro-Iranian or pro-warlord. The U.S. in the Obama era may ultimately decide that the threat of Iran outranks the concerns over Afghanistan's future--that is, Afghanistan's future as a stable, unified, democratic entity. If the Shia threat looms dark enough over Sunni Islam, we may find that Wahhabi and Deobandi sentiment against the U.S. gets redirected against Iran. An Afghan civil war bubbling along Shia-Sunni lines with no side triumphing conclusively may offer the U.S. its only exit strategy. In Iraq the allies stayed long enough to create a semblance of order. They may not do that in Afghanistan, for the simple reason that Central Asia matters less, strategically, than the Middle East.

Turkey is potentially a pivotal player owing to its geographical position and membership in NATO--but Ankara will likely try to stay as close to neutral as possible. A nuclear Iran clearly terrifies the Turks as much as anyone, as it must. But they are more terrified by the recent slaughter in Iraq and by the rising U.S.-sponsored power of the Kurds. The U.S. may have intended to use the Kurds primarily against Iran and Syria, which also house restive Kurdish subgroups, but the Turks got spooked in the process. U.S. threats in the Bush era to fragment Iran ethnically would have gained traction with Ankara's help--almost a third of Iranians speak Turkish--but the Turks refused to get on board. They feared that wider regional fragmentation would bleed into their own ethnic regions.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policy of making friends with all neighbors, including the Armenians, the Greeks and the Syrians, is an attempt by Turks to keep the regional map stable as the Great Powers maneuver around them. It's interesting to note that Iran's post-election uprising roused no sympathetic public demonstrations among Turkey's populace. With the Russians in Georgia and the U.S. in Kurdish Iraq breathing down their necks, the Turks seem paralyzed on the matter of Iran.

That is how the landscape looks to this particular observer. If I were forced to bet on outcomes, I would marginally settle on the following scenario: an eventual strike by Israel on Iran, but possibly not in the current U.S. presidential term as Iran slows down its program without shutting it off. Meanwhile, one or two moments of crisis may erupt in countries such as Russia and China to concentrate the minds of the nuclear negotiators. The Sunni-Shia split in the Islamic geosphere will surely intensify as the Saudis face off against Iranian power in places like Lebanon, Pakistan, Yemen and perhaps even Iraq. Whatever happens in the Geneva talks--and partly because of the talks, because Tehran seems determined to push the limits--we are in for a rough ride in the coming years, along with the rest of the world.

Melik Kaylan, a writer based in New York, writes a weekly column for Forbes. His story "Georgia in the Time of Misha" is featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2008.