Red October: Russia, Iran and Iraq
The course of the war in Iraq appears to be set for the next year. Of the four options we laid out a few weeks ago, the Bush administration essentially has selected a course between the first and second options -- maintaining the current mission and force level or retaining the mission but gradually reducing the force. The mission -- creating a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad that can assume the role of ensuring security -- remains intact. The strategy is to use the maximum available force to provide security until the Iraqis can assume the burden. The force will be reduced by the 30,000 troops who were surged into Iraq, though because that level of force will be unavailable by spring, the reduction is not really a matter of choice. The remaining force is the maximum available, and it will be reduced as circumstances permit.
Top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and others have made two broad arguments. First, while prior strategy indeed failed to make progress, a new strategy that combines aggressive security operations with recruiting political leaders on the subnational level -- the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province, for example -- has had a positive impact, and could achieve the mission, given more time. Therefore, having spent treasure and blood to this point, it would be foolish for the United States not to pursue it for another year or two.
The second argument addresses the consequence of withdrawal. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed it up in an interview with NBC News. "And I would note that President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad said if the United States leaves Iraq, Iran is prepared to fill the vacuum. That is what is at stake here," she said. We had suggested that the best way to contain Iran would be to cede Iraq and defend the Arabian Peninsula. One reason is that it would release troops for operations elsewhere in the world, if needed. The administration has chosen to try to keep Iraq -- any part of it -- out of Iranian hands. If successful, this obviously benefits the United States. If it fails, the United States can always choose a different option.
Within the region, this seems a reasonable choice, assuming the political foundations in Washington can be maintained, foundations that so far appear to be holding. The Achilles' heel of the strategy is the fact that it includes the window of vulnerability that we discussed a few weeks ago. The strategy and mission outlined by Petraeus commits virtually all U.S. ground forces to Iraq, with Afghanistan and South Korea soaking up the rest. It leaves air and naval power available, but it does not allow the United States to deal with any other crisis that involves the significant threat of ground intervention. This has consequences.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended a meeting of the Iranian-Russian Joint Economic Commission in Moscow over the weekend. While in the Russian capital, Mottaki also met with Russian Atomic Energy Chief Sergei Kiriyenko to discuss Russian assistance in completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant. After the meeting, Mottaki said Russian officials had assured him of their commitment to complete the power plant. Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said, "With regards to the Bushehr power plant, we have reached good understanding with the Russians. In this understanding a timetable for providing nuclear fuel on time and inaugurating this power plant has been fixed." While the truth of Russian assurances is questionable -- Moscow has been mere weeks away from making Bushehr operational for the better part of the last three years, and is about as excited about a nuclear-armed Iran as is Washington -- the fact remains that Russian-Iranian cooperation continues to be substantial, and public.
Mottaki also confirmed -- and this is significant -- that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit Tehran on Oct. 16. The occasion is a meeting of the Caspian Sea littoral nations, a group that comprises Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. According to the Iranians, Putin agreed not only to attend the conference, but also to use the visit to confer with top Iranian leaders.
This is about the last thing the United States wanted the Russians to do -- and therefore the first thing the Russians did. The Russians are quite pleased with the current situation in Iraq and Iran and do not want anything to upset it. From the Russian point of view, the Americans are tied down in an extended conflict that sucks up resources and strategic bandwidth in Washington. There is a similarity here with Vietnam. The more tied down U.S. forces were in Vietnam, the more opportunities the Soviets had. Nowadays, Russia's resources are much diminished compared with those of the Soviets -- while Russia has a much smaller range of interest. Moscow's primary goal is to regain a sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union. Whatever ambitions it may dream of, this is the starting point. The Russians see the Americans as trying to thwart their ambitions throughout their periphery, through support for anti-Russian elements via U.S. intelligence.
If the United States plans to stay in Iraq until the end of the Bush presidency, then the United States badly needs something from the Russians -- that they not provide arms, particularly air-defense systems, to the Syrians and especially the Iranians. The Americans need the Russians not to provide fighter aircraft, modern command-and-control systems or any of the other war-making systems that the Russians have been developing. Above all else, they want the Russians not to provide the Iranians any nuclear-linked technology. Therefore, it is no accident that the Iranians claimed over the weekend that the Russians told them they would do precisely that. Obviously, the discussion was of a purely civilian nature, but the United States is aware that the Russians have advanced military nuclear technology and that the distinction between civilian and military is subtle. In short, Russia has signaled the Americans that it could very easily trigger their worst nightmare.
The Iranians, fairly isolated in the world, are being warned even by the French that war is a real possibility. Obviously, then, they view the meetings with the Russians as being of enormous value. The Russians have no interest in seeing Iran devastated by the United States. They want Iran to do just what it is doing -- tying down U.S. forces in Iraq and providing a strategic quagmire for the Americans. And they are aware that they have technologies that would make an extended air campaign against Iran much more costly than it would be otherwise. Indeed, without a U.S. ground force capable of exploiting an air attack anyway, the Russians might be able to create a situation in which suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD, the first stage of a U.S. air campaign) would be costly, and in which the second phase -- battle against infrastructure -- could become a war of attrition. The United States might win, in the sense of ultimately having command of the air, but it could not force a regime change -- and it would pay a high price.
It also should not be forgotten that the Russians have the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The Russians very ostentatiously announced a few weeks ago that their Bear bombers were returning to constant patrol. This amused some in the U.S. military, who correctly regard the Bear as obsolete. They forget that the Russians never really had a bomber force designed for massive intercontinental delivery of nuclear devices. The announcement was a gesture -- and reminder that Russian ICBMs could easily be pointed at the United States.
Russia obviously doesn't plan a nuclear exchange with the United States, although it likes forcing the Americans to consider the possibility. Nor do the Russians want the Iranians to gain nuclear weapons. What they do want is an extended conflict in Iraq, extended tension between Iran and the United States, and they wouldn't much mind if the United States went to war with Iran as well. The Russians would happily supply the Iranians with whatever weapons systems they could use in order to bleed the United States a bit more, as long as they are reasonably confident that those systems would not be pointed north any time soon.
The Russians are just as prepared to let the United States have a free hand against Iran and not pose any challenges while U.S. forces are tied down in Iraq. But there is a price and it will be high. The Russians are aware that the window of opportunity is now and that they could create nightmarish problems for the United States. Therefore, the Russians will want the following: In the Caucasus, they want the United States to withdraw support for Georgia and force the Georgian government to reach an accommodation with Moscow. Given Armenian hostility to Turkey and closeness to Russia, this would allow the Russians to reclaim a sphere of influence in the Caucasus, leaving Azerbaijan as a buffer with Iran.
In Ukraine and Belarus, the Russians will expect an end to all U.S. support to nongovernmental organizations agitating for a pro-Western course. In the Baltics, the Russians will expect the United States to curb anti-Russian sentiment and to explicitly limit the Baltics' role in NATO, excluding the presence of foreign troops, particularly Polish. Regarding Serbia, they want an end to any discussion of an independent Kosovo. The Russians also will want plans abandoned for an anti-ballistic-missile system that deploys missiles in Poland.
In other words, the Russians will want the United States to get out of the former Soviet Union -- and stay out. Alternatively, the Russians are prepared, on Oct. 16, to reach agreements on nuclear exchange and weapons transfers that will include weapons that the Iranians can easily send into Iraq to kill U.S. troops. Should the United States initiate an air campaign prior to any of this taking effect, the Russians will increase the supply of weapons to Iran dramatically, using means it used effectively in Vietnam: shipping them in. If the United States strikes against Russian ships, the Russians will then be free to strike directly against Georgia or the Baltic states, countries that cannot defend themselves without American support, and countries that the United States is in no position to support.
It is increasingly clear that Putin intends to reverse in practice, if not formally, the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union. He does not expect at this point to move back into Central Europe or engage in a global competition with the United States. He knows that is impossible. But he also understands three things: First, his armed forces have improved dramatically since 2000. Second, the countries he is dealing with are no match for his forces as long as the United States stays out. Third, staying out or not really is not a choice for the United States. As long as it maintains this posture in Iraq, it is out.
This is Putin's moment and he can exploit it in one of two ways: He can reach a quiet accommodation with the Americans, and leave the Iranians hanging. Conversely, he can align with the Iranians and place the United States in a far more complex situation than it otherwise would be in. He could achieve this by supporting Syria, arming militias in Lebanon or even causing significant problems in Afghanistan, where Russia retains a degree of influence in the North. The Russians are chess players and geopoliticians. In chess and geopolitics, the game is routine and then, suddenly, there is an opening. You seize the opening because you might never get another one. The United States is inherently more powerful than Russia, save at this particular moment. Because of a series of choices the United States has made, it is weaker in the places that matter to Russia. Russia will not be in this position in two or three years. It needs to act now.
Therefore, Putin will go to Iran on Oct. 16 and will work to complete Iran's civilian nuclear project. What agreements he might reach with Iran could given the United States nightmares. If the United States takes out Iran's nuclear weapons, the Russians will sympathize and arm the Iranians even more intensely. If the Americans launch an extended air campaign, the Russians will happily increase the supply of weapons even more. Talk about carpet-bombing Iran is silly. It is a big country and the United States doesn't have that much carpet. The supplies would get through.
Or the United States can quietly give Putin the sphere of influence he wants, letting down allies in the former Soviet Union, in return for which the Russians will let the Iranians stand alone against the Americans, not give arms to Middle Eastern countries, not ship Iran weapons that will wind up with militias in Iraq. In effect, Putin is giving the United States a month to let him know what it has in mind.
It should not be forgotten that Iran retains an option that could upset Russian plans. Iran has no great trust of Russia, nor does it have a desire to be trapped between American power and Russian willingness to hold Iran's coat while it slugs things out with the Americans. At a certain point, sooner rather than later, the Iranians must examine whether they want to play the role of the Russian cape to the American bull. The option for the Iranians remains the same -- negotiate the future of Iraq with the Americans. If the United States is committed to remaining in Iraq, Iran can choose to undermine Washington, at the cost of increasing its own dependence on the Russians and the possibility of war with the Americans. Or it can choose to cut a deal with the Americans that gives it influence in Iraq without domination. Iran is delighted with Putin's visit. But that visit also gives it negotiating leverage with the Americans. This remains the wild card.
Petraeus' area of operations is Iraq. He may well have crafted a viable plan for stabilizing Iraq over the next few years. But the price to be paid for that is not in Iraq or even in Iran. It is in leaving the door wide open in other areas of the world. We believe the Russians are about to walk through one of those doors. The question in the White House, therefore, must be: How much is Iraq worth? Is it worth recreating the geopolitical foundations of the Soviet Union?