Friday, December 23

Iran analysis: intel school's in session

Below is a letter I dashed off in response to Stratfor head George Friedman's analysis for John Batchelor's audience on Thursday. I decided to publish the letter because it illustrates how differently the same intelligence can be analyzed by different people.

Caveats: While some of my points have been presented in expanded form in recent posts, readers who do not follow Batchelor's show might have trouble following some of my comments. And while I make no apology I acknowledge that I'm being unfair to Friedman because I have provided virtually no quotes from his report.

Terms used in the letter: IR = Iran, IQ = Iraq, ME = Middle East, Maddy = Ahmadinejad, Iran's President.

> Dilip = Dilip Hiro, who also guested on Batchelor's show on Thursday to analyze the Iraq election and Iran's meddling in the election.

> Loftus = John Loftus

> Seffy = Yossef Bodansky

> Dombey = Daniel Dombey, a reporter for The Financial Times who also guested on the Thursday show to analyze the impasse regarding EU negotiations with Iran about Iran's nuclear program.
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I see a pattern here -- Friedman seems to be looking at the ME from the viewpoint of Washington. Maddy is looking at the ME from the viewpoint of a Middle Easterner. He's playing to the Middle East much more than Europe and the US. Maddy is not trying to present himself as mad but as wholly consistent.

So I say let's try and look at things from Maddy's point of view:

1) As for the bellicosity -- threatening to destroy Israel -- Friedman's explanation (Maddy putting on crazy act to scare world) ignores the obvious, which is that Iran said virtually the same thing even before Maddy was put in power. (Remember the missile with 'For Israel' or similar painted on it and paraded for the cameras?)

As to why Maddy called for Israel's destruction at that particular time -- it came on the virtual eve of Iraq's election. So I think the statement is somehow tied to that. Maybe he's trying to make the anti-Israel position the 'official' Shia one -- to dampen any tendency for the new Iraqi government to negotiate with Israel.

Also, the statement was terribly embarrassing to the Saudis, who pushed the two-state solution for all they were worth. By coming out so strongly against Israel, Maddy is in effect saying, "We Shia (led by Iran, of course) are the real spiritual leaders of the region, not the House of Saud."

Another point: isn't there some tit-for-tat going on here? I seem to recall from a few months back that Israel made the threat of having to take strong action if Iran continues to develop nuke weapons. From that view, it's not surprising that Maddy would get reciprocal in his rhetoric.

Also, his statement might have something to do with Hamas; by saying that Israel should be destroyed, he might be sending a warning to Hamas leaders that they shouldn't allow Palestine politics to cause them to strike any deals with Israel or with factions that don't take such a hard line against Israel.

2) I suspect the Holocaust denial talk was directed more at the Germans than Israel. IR has sought to embarrass the new German administration; Seffy's analysis last night explains why. They have been using every means to pressure Germany into backing off a hard line on Iran's nuclear program. Raking up the Holocaust makes sense within that context.

3) Friedman didn't mention Maddy's talk about religion. I have discussed this angle in one of my posts; I bring it up here to dash Friedman's thesis that Maddy is trying to present himself as crazy in order to scare the world. (We're getting the Bomb plus we're nuttier than a fruitcake so watch out, world.)

Maddy's yappity-yap about religion is not crazy talk and it's quite easy to understand, if one recalls that Qom became the spiritual center for Shia after Saddam cracked down on IR holy cities. Iraq's Karbala and Najaf are the holy of holies for Shia, not Qom. Dilip correctly noted that after Saddam fell a third of Iranians made a pilgrimage to the IQ holy cities. Those pilgrims brought with them donation money that would otherwise have gone to Qom coffers. Add to this, the IQ clerics who took refuge in Qom are returning to Iraq.

In short, after Saddam's crackdown (after the Shia uprising), Qom took on a greater significance that it's now losing. Also, IR is playing the 'Shia Brotherhood' card for all it's worth, in order to woo IQ Shia.

Maddy's talk about the Second Coming of the Mahdi and his spiritual visions needs to be viewed against all the above. He's making a pitch.

4) As for Friedman's statement that Iranian expats have inflated the percentage (80%) of Iranians who are against their present regime, where's his data to support that statement? The percentage is based on polls, not on the guesstimates of expats; if Friedman wants to say the polls are skewed -- given that the Iranians live under a military dictatorship, it's hard to get good polling under those circumstances.

5) As for Friedman's admittedly convoluted thesis about Israel -- I don't know what he is talking about. And I do not understand why Friedman thinks Israel could knock out Iran's nuclear facilities. My understanding, from what Seffy and Loftus have said on earlier broadcasts, is that Israel does not have the capability for an effective preemptive strike on Iran's nuke facilities, and Dombey's analysis shores that.

One has to take such intel with a grain of salt -- Israel has been known to be very creative in the past -- but for now, I am accepting the claim that a preemptive strike is virtually ruled out.

What bugged me is that Friedman rationalized the convolutions by saying that of course it's complicated (to the point of gibberish) because "this is the Middle East we're talking about." The very clear implication is that nothing can make sense in that part of the world given the people involved. So the needle on my Sahib-0-Meter went into the red range while listening to his comment.

But you need to put Stratfor in perspective. They have done excellent analysis on certain situations and world regions, and in others they've fallen down in my view. The lesson it's that it's unwise to rely blindly on any one intelligence/news source.

And you need to put aside your views while taking in intel and analysis. Dilip is such an apologist for Iran's current regime, and so anti-American in his views, that he can be very hard for an American to take. But he has a lot of contacts in Iran and tremendous knowledge about Iran and Iraq's political history.

He made some very good points tonight -- in particular about the factor of Iran's greater population number vis-a-vis Iraq. Another good point is the comparison he drew between the Iraq-Iran relationship and the Mexico-US one.

Iran is a powerful country next to a weak one, yet what happens to that weaker country is of great strategic importance to the stronger one. So one should expect a certain amount of meddling from the stronger country or at least the attempt to wield influence on the country's political affairs.

I think Dilip's wrong to dismiss complaints that Iran 'stole' Iraq's election. But I think we need to confront that even if Iran's present regime is replaced by a better one, Iran will try to influence politics in Iraq. The same will hold true for Iraq, when they get stronger -- they will try to influence Iran's politics.

There will always be a lot of ebb and flow between the two oil-producing countries. As Iran's oil reserves continue to shrink, they will be greatly tempted to get a piece of Iraq's oil production.

One other point that struck me from Dilip's analysis: just because leading Iraqi politicians took refuge in Iran for years, it does not necessarily follow that they will be under Iran's thumb now that they are returned to their country.

We can't assume that every Iraqi who lived under the protection of Iran's regime -- there were many such Iraqis -- is going to follow the line of the present regime in Iran. Some will lean more toward the regime, some less. Differences with the regime will become more apparent as the returned Iraqis get settled into the business of governing Iraq.

Yet the truth is that returned Iraqis who left the region to settle in the US and Europe (e.g., Allawi) during Saddam's regime (many such Iraqis lean toward secular government) are simply not as accepted among Iraqi Shia as the Iraqis who took refuge in Iran. Dilip also emphasized this point in his discussion.

All the above points up that useful intel/analysis can come from someone who is not on America's side. The opposite is true; a strongly pro-American observer doesn't necessarily deliver good analysis or useful intelligence.

Intelligence work really is about fitting together 'mosaics' -- bits of data that you try to form a picture with. Dilip's report is interesting to compare with Seffy's Wednesday one. They are both looking at essentially the same data. But Seffy, who takes the side of Israel and the US, sees in Iran's machinations much to worry about. Dilip, who takes Iran's side, sees no cause for Iraq to worry about Iran. The most accurate picture of the vast transitions probably falls somewhere between those two views. That would call for fast reflexes on the part of US diplomacy -- and the Gold Dinar Fairy.

To return to Dombey's report for a moment: I love that he brought out (under Batchelor's questioning) that Brussels and Washington are unable to confront that their actions toward Iran are appeasement. His entire analysis was very sharp, very precise and easy to follow: US has outsourced job of negotiation to the E3, and they've outsourced the job to Russia.

Batchelor asked why pin hope on Russia, which has just reported an agreement to sell close to a billion worth of weapons/weapons tech to IR? Dombey: EU3 and US hope that even if the Russian solution doesn't work (so far it's been rejected by Iran), allowing Russia to propose their solution puts them in line with EU3-US. So if it goes to the UN, China will be reluctant to stand against EU3-US-Russia.

Of course what's hysterically funny (graveyard humor), and which Dombey brought out, is that none of this diplomatic maneuvering is working; Tehran continues to thumb its nose at the EU3-US and will continue to do so at the UN.

All that is very bad news, and it jibes with Seffy's Doom & Gloom Wednesday analysis. Right now, Iran definitely has the upper hand.

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