Page 1 of 2 Turkey's stark choice as nuclear talks host
By George Friedman
The P-5+1 talks with Iran will resume January 21-22. For those not tuned into
the obscure jargon of the diplomatic world, these are the talks between the
five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Britain,
France, China and Russia), plus Germany - hence, P-5+1. These six countries
will be negotiating with one country, Iran. The meetings will take place in
Istanbul under the aegis of yet another country, Turkey. Turkey has said it
would only host this meeting, not mediate it. It will be difficult for Turkey
to stay in this role.
The Iranians have clearly learned from the North Koreans, who have turned their
nuclear program into a framework for entangling five major powers (the United
States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea) into treating North Korea as their
diplomatic equal. For
North Korea, whose goal since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the
absorption of China with international trade has come down to regime survival,
being treated as a serious power has been a major diplomatic coup.
The mere threat of nuclear weapons development has succeeded in doing that.
When you step back and consider that North Korea's economy is among the most
destitute of Third World countries and its nuclear capability is far from
proven, getting to be the one being persuaded to talk with five major powers
(and frequently refusing and then being coaxed) has been quite an achievement.
Iran exploits an opportunity
The Iranians have achieved a similar position. By far the weakest of the
negotiators, they have created a dynamic whereby they are not only sitting
across the table from the six most powerful countries in the world but are
also, like the North Koreans, frequently being coaxed there. With the obvious
blessings of the others, a seventh major power, Turkey, has positioned itself
to facilitate and perhaps mediate between the two sides: the United States,
Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on one side, Iran on the other. This
is such an extraordinary line-up that I can't help repeating it.
No one does anything about North Korea militarily because it is more of a
nuisance than a threat, even with its artillery in range of Seoul (fixed
artillery positions are perfect targets for US air power). Negotiations and
occasional aid solve the problem. Iran's position is much more significant and
goes far beyond potential nuclear weapons. If the United States withdraws from
the region, Iran becomes the most powerful conventional power in the Persian
Gulf, regardless of whether it has nuclear weapons. Given that the United
States is officially bound to leave Iraq by the end of this year, Iran is
becoming substantially more powerful.
North Korea's goal is regime survival. It has no goals beyond that. Iran's
ambitions include regime survival but go well beyond it. Indeed, if there are
any threats to the regime, they do not come from outside Iran but from inside
Iran, and none of them appears powerful enough to cause regime change. Iran,
therefore, is less about preserving its power than it is about enhancing it. It
faces a historic opportunity and wants to exploit it without embroiling itself
in a ground war.
The drawdown of American forces in Iraq is the first step. As US power declines
in Iraq, Iranian power increases. Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq
from Iran. Muqtada was the leader of a powerful pro-Iranian, anti-American
militia in Iraq, and he left Iraq four years ago under heavy pressure from
American forces. His decision to return clearly was not his alone. It was an
Iranian decision as well, and the timing was perfect.
With a nominally independent government now in place in Iraq under the
premiership of Nuri al-Maliki, who is by all accounts pro-Iranian, the
reinsertion of Muqtada while the US withdrawal is underway puts pressure on the
government from the Iranians at the same time that resistance from the United
States, and the confidence of its allies in Iraq, is decreasing.
The United States now faces a critical choice. If it continues its withdrawal
of forces from Iraq, Iraq will be on its way to becoming an Iranian satellite.
Certainly, there are anti-Iranian elements even among the Shi'ites, but the
covert capability of Iran and its overt influence, coupled with its military
presence on the border, will undermine Iraq's ability to resist. If Iraq
becomes an Iranian ally or satellite, the Iraqi-Saudi and Iraqi-Kuwaiti
frontier becomes, effectively, the frontier with Iran.
The psychological sense in the region will be that the United States has no
appetite for resisting Iran. Having asked the Americans to deal with the
Iranians - and having failed to get them to do so, the Saudis will have to
reach some accommodation with Iran. In other words, with the most strategically
located country in the Middle East - Iraq - Iran now has the ability to become
the dominant power in the Middle East and simultaneously reshape the politics
of the Arabian Peninsula.
The United States has the option of not drawing down forces in Iraq or stopping
the withdrawal at some smaller number, but we are talking here about war and
not symbols. Twenty thousand US troops (as the drawdown continues) deployed in
training and support roles and resisting an assertive pro-Iranian militia is a
small number. Indeed, the various militias will have no compunction about
attacking US troops, diplomats and aid workers dispersed at times in small
groups around the country.
The United States couldn't control Iraq with nearly 170,000 troops, and 50,000
troops or fewer is going to result in US casualties should the Iranians choose
to follow that path. And these causalities would not be accompanied by hope of
a military or political success. Assuming that the United States is not
prepared to increase forces in Iraq dramatically, the Iranians now face a
The nuclear issue is not all that important. The Israelis are now saying that
the Iranians are three to five years away from having a nuclear weapon. Whether
this is because of computer worms implanted in Iranian centrifuges by the US
National Security Agency or some other technical intelligence agency, or
because, as we have said before, building a nuclear weapon is really very hard
and takes a long time, the Israelis have reduced the pressure publicly.
The pressure is coming from the Saudis. As Stratfor has said and WikiLeaks has
confirmed, it is the Saudis who are currently pressing the United States to do
something about Iran, not because of nuclear weapons but because of the
conventional shift in the balance of power.
While Iran could easily withstand the destruction of weapons that it does not
have, its real fear is that the United States will launch a conventional air
war designed to cripple Iran's conventional forces - its naval and armored
capability, particularly. The destruction of Iranian naval power is critical,
since Iran's most powerful countermove in a war would be to block the Strait of
Hormuz with mines, anti-ship missiles and swarming suicide craft, cutting off
the substantial flow of oil that comes out of the strait. Such a cutoff would
shatter the global economic recovery. This is Iran's true "nuclear" option.
The Iranians are also aware that air warfare - unlike counterinsurgency - is
America's strong suit. It does not underestimate the ability of the United
States, in an extended air war, to shatter Iran's conventional capability, and
without that conventional capability, Iran becomes quite insignificant.
Therefore, Iran comes to the table with two goals. The first is to retain the
powerful negotiating hand it has by playing the nuclear card. The second is to
avoid an air campaign by the United States against Iran's conventional