Friday, February 24, 2006

Has war with Iran begun already?

Chester, The Adventures of Chester:

Back in January, I said:

Here's what I expect in the next 12 months.

-There will be airstrikes upon Iranian facilities by either the US or Israel.
-There will be catastrophic, if not cataclysmic, terror attacks in various parts of the Middle East, sponsored by Iran or its proxies; The Gulf States, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq are potential targets.

I'm not going to make any definitive statements of causality. Either of the above two events may happen before the other. What happens after those two is anyone's guess. But I think they are both coming, and coming faster than we may all expect.

Is it possible that the Iranians have begun their campaign of terror, but with as much deniability as possible? Let's discuss. READ MORE

As far as terrorism and its relationship to a state, Iran presents a different set of circumstances than either Iraq or Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's raid on the eastern seaboard on 9/11 was an act of a transnational terror organization with sanctuary within a state. Afghanistan was a totally willing host to Al Qaeda's parasitic organization. Nevertheless, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were still different organizations, with different goals, intents, and motivations, complementary though they might have been.

In Iraq, terror organizations have yet a different relationship with the state. There they exist as something more akin to a cancer, feeding off the ideological and organizational remnants of the Hussein regime, and attacking the host -- the new Iraqi state, founded in the period of 2004-2005.

But what if terrorism is not just a tactic, or an organization separate from its host state? What if instead, terrorism is part and parcel of the state, and not just a tactic, but key to the national security strategy of a state? What if its institutions are not just cooperative with those of a given state, but nearly completely reliant upon it, even to the point of serving as its proxy?

Something akin to this last scenario describes the relationship of Iran to terrorist outfits, whether Hezbollah, its own internal security organizations, or its Pasdaran officers who have made mischief in all parts of the Muslim world at some point or another. Let us then posit that terrorism in some form is an integral part of Iran's foreign policy.

Allow a slilght digression on the nature of terrorism itself. As much as Al Qaeda or its brethren may wish to inflict massive casualties within the West and the US especially, terrorism is just as much about, well, terrorizing a given audience or constituency. That is to say, even though many forms of it might inflict significant casualties, the ultimate goal is influence. It is meant to change minds. When its perpetrators are known, and terror acts are overt, it might be categorized within that type of operation that the West would know as a "show of force." When its origins are not known, or if it is perhaps not even clear that a certain event has a single human agency behind it, then it seeks other forms of influence -- perhaps to change mindsets or affect policy. In some cases, it might even overlap or be confused with covert action, one of the purposes of which is to affect or change policy without any public knowledge of agency or origin.

The US response to 9/11 -- transformation of two states, and an unremitting pursuit of Al Qaeda in all its forms -- would seem to suggest that overt terrorism does not influence the US in a productive manner. Any organization or state that used terror solely for the purpose of a "show of force" would be looking down the business end of the US military's arsenal with little delay. This is not to suggest that spectacular attacks won't be pursued, just that they might now be most useful only for their destructive power.

But the second kind of terrorism -- deniable, covert, and meant to influence -- might take on a whole new importance. These kinds of attacks might be meant to embarrass the West, harrass it, sow discord among its nations, or alternately (and perhaps not simultaneously) unify the Muslim world against it. What might some of these actions look lilke? Well, perhaps "spontaneous" demonstrations in dozens of countries about something published four months previously in an obscure news organ would fit the bill. Or, perhaps a massive terror attack upon a key Shia shrine, which has thus far not been claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq, could fit into this category as well.

When considered in the light of the long history of Iran with terror, as both its sponsor and its exporter, one wonders if Iran has begun a new campaign in its quest to achieve nuclear power status with no real objection from the rest of the world. Much of the below has been stated in other venues, but consider each of these points afresh:

-the cartoon controversy did not really begin until after the IAEA had referred Iran to the security council.

-the current chairmanship of the IAEA is held by Denmark.

-some of the worst violence was in Syria, a state where the government controls association, and which is allied with Iran.

And as far as the mosque destruction goes:

-no particular group has claimed responsibility.

-conventional wisdom, correct or not, holds that this act has created one of the highest states of tension in Iraq in some time.

-President Ahmadinejad was quick to blame the US and/or Israel, for the act.

Have these acts been effective in influencing the West? The cartoon controversy might have united the West a bit, but it might have united the Muslim world much more. The mosque destruction is a bit too recent to judge.

One wonders though: how does the US public's reaction to the UAE port deal relate to the cartoon riots? One commentator today (can't find the link) mentioned that it is the reaction of the US public to distrust this transaction when they see that their own government was not forthright enough in supporting Denmark.

One can speculate all night on whether the above two acts are related and how. There are other explanations. Coincidence is one of the easiest.

But all of this raises a larger point: when Americans envision war, we imagine large scale military assaults and operations to neutralize targets, not covert and deniable violence on behalf of influencing public attitudes. Yet this blind spot is exactly what Iran excels at performing, and exactly what vexes Secretary Rumsfeld so much as he laments today in the LA Times:

Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we -- our government, the media or our society in general -- have not.

Consider that violent extremists have established "media relations committees" and have proved to be highly successful at manipulating opinion elites. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to break the collective will of free people.

I believe our war with Iran has begun.

Strategypage today has a list of "Ten Signs that the United States is about to Bomb Iran." These are things to look for that will indicate an imminent strike by the US, movements of units and materiel and such that intelligence analysts would examine.

Iran is playing quite a different game than us. It seeks a campaign of influence, of which terrorism and rioting might be key components. Iran's campaign needs no top ten signs to detect it. If the period before it was referred to the Security Council might have been called the "diplomatic phase," it is now in the "influence phase," which might last for a long time, and mean no further escalation is necessary. There may be no start or stop, there may be no formal military action, there may be no overt Iranian involvement, but war with Iran will likely look like a series of events, inexplicable and spontaneous, yet which frustrate our aims.

It is a well-crafted strategy really, as it seeks the seams in our defenses. It undermines our cultural assumptions (wars must be declared at a given point, ended at a given point, and fought by uniformed military forces on "battlefields") and even some of our societal organizational seams (media institutions are not part of the governments that fight wars, but are separate, and beheld to different standards).

For those who think I might be some sort of conspiracy nut, consider: a key part of influence is opportunism. I'm not implying that Iran knew the cartoons would be published, or even was behind the Danish imam who first started circulating them. But when you see an opening you seize it. Iran may have had nothing to do with the destruction of the golden mosque, but this doesn't stop Ahmadinejad from fanning the flames of popular emotion by blaming the US or Israel.

Welcome to warfare in the 21st century. What will be next?

Read the update and comments here.