Friday, December 16, 2011

U.S. to Leave Iraqi Airspace Clear for Strategic Israeli Route to Iran

by Rowan Scarborough

The U.S. military’s fast-approaching Dec. 31 exit from Iraq, which has no way to defend its airspace, puts Israel in a better place strategically to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iraq has yet to assemble a force of jet fighters, and since the shortest route for Israeli strike fighters to Iran is through Iraqi airspace, observers conclude that the U.S. exit makes the Jewish state’s mission planning a lot easier.

Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the Iraqi military will maintain radars to monitor the country’s airspace, but it has not taken possession of American F-16s to guard that space.

“The country has a capable and improving capability to see the airspace, a viable system to provide command and control, but no system to defeat incoming air threats until it gets either the F-16s or ground-based systems or, optimally, some of both,” Gen. Buchanan told The Washington Times.

Iraq made the first payment in September for 18 F-16s that will not arrive until next fall at the earliest. This means Israel would have a theoretical window of about 12 months if it wants to fly over Iraq unimpeded by the Iraqi air force.

Retired Air ForceGen. Thomas McInerney, who advocates a U.S. strategic bombing raid to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites, agreed that Iraq’s open airspace would make it easier for an Israeli mission.

“Yes, it will be,” he said. “However, it will be much easier for Iranian forces to get to Israel through Iraq via land and air.”

Gen. McInerney said he thinks there is a good chance that Iran, stretched economically by Western sanctions and fearing threats from Israel, will launch a war against the Jewish state through Iraq.

“Our departing Iraq will be a huge strategic mistake,” he said of the Dec. 31 deadline for all U.S. forces to leave.

Iraq’s ruling Shiite majority has historic ties to Iran’s dominant Shiite society, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has warned Tehran against meddling in his country’s politics.

Unknown is the role of U.S. jet fighters stationed outside Iraq but within striking distance from Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf, or possibly Kuwait.

“I would hope we would jump to defend Iraqi airspace,” said James Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “These are the kinds of contingency plans that ought to be put in place.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, like his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, has downplayed the impact that an airstrike might have on Iran’s quest for an atomic bomb. The Islamic republic has denied that it is trying to make a nuclear weapon.

In an appearance this month at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Panetta said U.S strikes might set back the nuclear program two years and acknowledged that some Iranian targets remain elusive.

“The indication is that, at best, it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years,” said Mr. Panetta, who also has mentioned three years as a possible delay. “It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that we’re after. Frankly, some of those targets have been difficult to get at.”

Rowan Scarborough


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy?

by Svante E. Cornell

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) was reelected to a third term in June 2011. This remarkable achievement was mainly the result of the opposition's weakness and the rapid economic growth that has made Turkey the world's sixteenth largest economy. But Ankara's growing international profile also played a role in the continued public support for the conservative, Islamist party. Indeed, in a highly unusual fashion, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his victory speech by saluting "friendly and brotherly nations from Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Sarajevo, Baku, and Nicosia."[1] "The Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans have won as much as Turkey," he claimed, pledging to take on an even greater role in regional and international affairs. By 2023, the republic's centennial, the AKP has promised that Turkey will be among the world's ten leading powers.

In a scene that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, the head-scarved wife of newly reelected Turkish prime minister Erdoğan greets well-wishers with her husband. Turkey's founder Kemal Atatürk saw such public displays of religiosity as a hindrance to the creation of the new, secular Turkish Republic.

At the same time, Turkey's growing profile has been controversial. As Ankara developed increasingly warm ties with rogue states such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan while curtailing its once cordial relations with Israel and using stronger rhetoric against the United States and Europe, it generated often heated debates on whether it has distanced itself from the West. Turkey continues to function within the European security infrastructure—although more uneasily than before—but has a rupture with the West already taken place, and if so, is it irreversible?

AKP Changes Focus from West to East

The basic tenets that guided Turkey's foreign policy since the founding of the republic included caution and pragmatism—especially concerning the Middle East. An imperial hangover from the Ottoman era drove home the lesson that Ankara had little to gain and much to lose from interjecting itself into the acrimonious politics of the region. Notwithstanding occasional differences with the Western powers, Ankara concentrated on playing a role within Europe.

The AKP appeared to maintain this course during its first term (2002-07) as seen in its focus on EU harmonization as a means to join the union. But in its second term (2007-11) it departed significantly from this approach. Guided by the concept of "strategic depth" elaborated by Erdoğan's long-term advisor-turned-foreign-minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Ankara increasingly focused on its neighborhood with the stated goal of becoming a dominant and stabilizing force, one that would function as an honest broker and project its economic clout throughout the region and beyond.[2]

The official slogan, which could be called the Davutoğlu doctrine, was "zero problems with neighbors." Ankara rapidly developed relations with the Syrian government to the level of a strategic partnership; Turkish officials also began cultivating closer economic and political ties with the Iranian and Russian governments, both large energy providers to the growing Turkish economy. It also reached out to the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq, a previously unthinkable move. In another bold but ultimately failed move, the AKP leadership sought to mend fences with Armenia; its predecessors had never established diplomatic relations with Yerevan due to its occupation since the early 1990s of a sixth of Turkic Azerbaijan's territory, including the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

These moves were generally welcomed in the West. Critics in Washington deplored Ankara's overtures to Tehran and Damascus, but the incoming Obama administration went on to develop rather similar outreach policies of its own. The AKP argued that it could function as an interlocutor with these regimes on Turkey's border with which Brussels and Washington had only limited ties and that a more active Turkey would also benefit the West. Ankara's eagerness to mediate in regional conflicts also brought goodwill. The Turkish government offered its good offices in bridging differences between Syria and Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and between the rival Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas. Western leaders generally gave the AKP the benefit of the doubt as it assured them that its outreach could help moderate rogues and bring them within the international system.

An Axis Shift

Yet Ankara's actual course soon began to deviate substantially from its official narrative. Three issues in particular have generated concern about the AKP's foreign policy intentions: Iran, Israel, and Sudan—and more recently, renewed belligerence on Cyprus.

Ankara's policy of engagement with Tehran was welcomed as long as it was influencing the Iranians, rather than the other way around. But Erdoğan and his associates soon began to move away from the stated objective of acting as a mediator between Iran and the West, becoming increasingly outspoken defenders of Tehran's nuclear program. In November 2008, Erdoğan urged nuclear weapons powers to abolish their own arsenals before meddling with Iran.[3] Soon afterwards he termed Ahmadinejad a "friend"[4] and was among the first to lend legitimacy to the Iranian president by congratulating him upon his fraudulent and bloodstained election in June 2009.[5] Turkish leaders then began to publicly juxtapose the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons with Iran's covert program,[6] and in November 2009, abstained from a sanctions resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Tehran that both Moscow and Beijing supported.[7] In May 2010, in a display of defiance, Erdoğan and Brazilian president Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva made a well-publicized appearance in Tehran on the eve of a U.N. Security Council vote on a new round of sanctions on Iran, holding hands with Ahmadinejad and announcing their alternative diplomatic proposal to handle the Iranian nuclear issue.[8] In the scope of two years, Ankara had become Tehran's most valuable international supporter.

The breakdown of Turkey's alliance with Israel is another cause of concern. The AKP at first sought to mediate between Syria and Israel as well as between the two Palestinian factions, Fatah and the Islamist Hamas.[9] Yet in 2007, following Hamas's violent takeover in the Gaza Strip, Ankara broke the Western boycott of the movement when it invited Hamas leader Khaled Mesh'al to Ankara.[10] Following Israel's offensive against Hamas in December 2008-January 2009, Ankara became the chief castigator of Israel in international forums.[11] In January 2009, Erdoğan famously walked out of an event at the Davos World Economic Forum after starting a shouting match with Israeli president Shimon Peres; Turkey subsequently disinvited Israel from planned joint military exercises under the NATO aegis.[12] By the spring of 2010, a nongovernmental organization closely connected to the AKP, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, designed and implemented the notorious Gaza flotilla[13] aimed at putting Israel in an untenable position regarding its blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory. When eight Turkish citizens were killed in fierce clashes with Israeli commandos boarding the ship, Davutoğlu called the event "Turkey's 9/11,"[14] and a series of Turkish leaders threatened to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel while Erdoğan stated in no uncertain terms that he did not consider Hamas a terrorist organization.[15] Ankara later downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to the level of second secretary.

More worrisome is Erdoğan's military posturing, including threats of confrontation with Israel. In September 2011, he argued that Turkey would have been justified in going to war with Israel following the Gaza flotilla incident.[16] In addition, the Turkish navy was ordered to "ensure freedom of navigation" in the eastern Mediterranean, including supporting the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza—raising the danger of a direct confrontation with the Israeli navy upholding the blockade on Gaza, which a U.N. inquiry commission has deemed to be legal.[17] Moreover, the Turkish air force has begun installing a new identification friend or foe (IFF) system on its F-16s, replacing the built-in system that automatically designated Israeli jets or ships as friendly thereby preventing armed clashes between the Turkish and Israeli forces. The new system produced by the Turkish company Aselsan does not automatically designate Israeli ships or jets as friendly and will supposedly be deployed across the Turkish armed forces.[18]

Ankara has repeatedly referred to Sudan as its main "partner in Africa" though it is far from being Turkey's largest trade partner on the continent.[19] Ignoring the growing international outrage over crimes against humanity committed by Khartoum-aligned militia groups in Darfur, Erdoğan voiced support for President Omar Bashir during a 2006 visit, stating he saw no signs of a genocide.[20] The Sudanese president was invited twice to Turkey in 2008, and by 2009, Erdoğan publicly argued that Israel's actions in Gaza were worse than whatever had happened in Darfur[21]—a mind-boggling assertion given that the Gaza fighting claimed about 1,200 lives, an estimated 700 of whom were Hamas terrorists[22] while in Darfur over 300,000 people have perished. The progression of Turkish policies in all three cases suggests a move from an honest broker and regional peacemaker toward siding with one of the parties involved—the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas in the Hamas-Fatah relationship, and Iran and Sudan in their confrontations with the West.

Early in its tenure, the AKP proved willing to agree to far-reaching concessions on the Cyprus dispute—so much so that it provoked the ire of the Turkish general staff. But lately, Erdoğan has reacted harshly to the Cypriot government's decision to develop natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, threatening to send in the Turkish navy and air force to the area to "monitor developments."[23] In so doing, Erdoğan seemed oblivious to the implications that a military dispute with an EU member would have on Turkey's relations with Brussels.

The distancing from the West has led Ankara closer to both Moscow and Beijing—culminating in Turkey's joint military maneuvers with China in October 2010, the first such with any NATO country—in what has been described by AKP critics as an "axis shift."

A Center of World Politics?

A number of factors have been cited to explain the shift in Turkish foreign policy. While Ankara has undergone tremendous domestic change in the past decade, an arguably more significant shift is Turkey's emergence as an economic power. Since 1990, Turkey's gross domestic product has quadrupled, exports have grown by a factor of five, foreign direct investment by a factor of 25, and the value of traded stocks by a factor of 40. While economists have increasingly begun to issue warning flags regarding Turkey's current accounts deficit and risks of overheating, such concerns have yet to translate into the political field. It is only natural that Turkey's newly found economic clout would translate into more self-confidence on the international scene. Ankara's "rediscovery" of the Middle East is part and parcel of this: Turkish exports are looking for new markets, and hordes of businessmen regularly accompany Turkish leaders on their numerous visits to Middle Eastern states. Given the close ties between politics and business in the region, closer political ties provide Turkish businessmen with preferential treatment. In Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, the dynamic is inverted: The growing presence of Turkish businesses there after 2003 helped open the way for a political rapprochement with the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil.

Secondly, alleged Western mistakes are often viewed as an important factor in this transformation—including the view of former U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates who blamed the EU's cold shouldering of Turkey for the country's "drift."[24] While Ankara sided with Western states in major foreign policy issues in the past, this relationship was based on perceived reciprocity. However, since Turkey began negotiating for EU accession in 2005, opposition to Turkish membership not only grew in Europe but became ever more clearly articulated in terms of Ankara's cultural identity: Was Turkey in fact European at all? Overt calls by French and German politicians against Turkish accession had a profound impact in Ankara where politicians of all stripes denounced this stance. Most Turks now believe that Ankara will never join the EU, and internal support for membership has dwindled. Europe's alienation from Turkey has clearly had foreign policy implications.

Meanwhile, ties with Washington suffered primarily as a result of differences over Iraq. Turkey's involvement was crucial to the 1991 Kuwait war, but Ankara was left dissatisfied by the war's outcome—chiefly due to the significant damage to Turkey's economy that Washington did little to soften, and the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. The events since 2003 saw a rapid deterioration of relations as the war in Iraq indirectly led to the resurgence of Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK) terrorism in Turkey. Until 2007, the U.S. administration failed either to exercise sufficient influence on its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq to rein in the PKK or to allow Turkey to raid PKK bases inside Iraq.[25] This generated substantial resentment across Turkey's political spectrum.

To be sure, some of the differences that have arisen with the West may well be attributed to Ankara's resurgent self-confidence, or what one observer termed "Turkish Gaullism"—a Turkey that is "more nationalist, self-confident and defiant."[26] The new self-confidence is explicit: Foreign Minister Davutoğlu often laments the trepidation and lack of self-confidence of previous governments, implying that a Turkey at ease with its identity and history can play a great role in the region and beyond—one that is not locked into the one-dimensional focus on Western alliances but rather appreciates the "strategic depth" that Turkey had in the former Ottoman lands. In a 2009 speech in Sarajevo, Davutoğlu laid out Ankara's ambition: "We will reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus … together with Turkey as the center of world politics in the future."[27]

The Role of Ideology

Much as the AKP rejects any definition of itself as "Islamist" because it rejects the term as such,[28] it equally opposes the idea that its foreign policy is ideologically grounded, or that it is distancing itself from the West at all. In a 2010 interview, for example, President Abdullah Gül rejected any notion that Ankara had turned its back on the West. Turkey "was now a big economic power that had embraced democracy, human rights, and the free market." It had become a "source of inspiration" in the region, he said. "The U.S. and Europe should welcome its growing engagement in the Middle East because it [is] promoting Western values in a region largely governed by authoritarian regimes."[29] Such assertions notwithstanding, the growing tendency of Turkey's policies to go from mediating to taking sides—and to consistently side with Islamist causes—underscores the question of whether ideological factors are indeed at play.

The question is particularly relevant given the AKP's roots in a strongly ideological milieu: the Turkish Islamism of the Milli Görüş school, dominated by the orthodox Naqshbandiya order.[30] The Naqshbandiya has been the hotbed of Islamist reaction to westernizing reforms since the mid-nineteenth century, thus predating the creation of the republic. The Milli Görüş movement was its political vehicle, which mushroomed at first in Germany among expatriate Turks before becoming a force in Turkish politics in the late 1960s. During a brief stint in power from 1996-97, leading figures in the Turkish Islamist movement had called for the introduction of Shari'a and pursued a foreign policy that sought to distance Turkey from the "imperialist" West.[31] The founders of the AKP publicly broke with that movement in 2001 in the aftermath of the military's shutting down the main Islamist Fazilet party. The "young reformers" led by Gül and Erdoğan openly repudiated Islamism, emphasized their commitment to democracy, cultivated an alliance with the Turkish liberal elite, and sought to have the new party accepted as a mainstream conservative force by performing an 180-degree turn in embracing both the market economy and Turkey's EU membership aspirations.[32]

This ideological transformation was quite abrupt and top-down but while the AKP largely stayed true to such democratic rhetoric during its first term in office, it is striking to what extent its consolidation of power since 2007 has been followed by a growth of authoritarian tendencies at home and a distancing from the West in foreign policy.

Statements suggestive of reassertion of Islamist ideology are plentiful. Addressing a crowd of 16,000 Turks in the German city of Cologne in 2008, Erdoğan equated the assimilation of Turks, urged by German politicians, to "a crime against humanity."[33] In reference to Sudanese leader Bashir, he stated in 2009 that "a Muslim cannot commit genocide."[34] At the same time, the prime minister's statements on Israel show not only a growing antipathy toward the Jewish state but are strikingly evocative of the anti-Semitic tendencies pervading Islamist movements across the world. Thus, in 2009 he blamed "Jewish-backed media" for allegedly spreading lies about the Gaza war. Similarly, when the Economist endorsed the Turkish opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) in the June 2011 elections, Erdoğan accused it of working on behalf of Israeli interests, castigated the CHP's leader for being an Israeli tool, and expressed regret over the fact that the CHP, under Turkey's second president Ismet Inönü, had recognized the State of Israel,[35] alluding also to a growing perception "equating the star of Zion with the swastika."[36]

Many of Erdoğan's most combative statements have occurred during electoral campaigns and could be interpreted as electoral populism. Nevertheless, given his dominance of the Turkish political scene, these stated views should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, the formulation and conduct of Turkish foreign policy has in the past several years been dominated by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, who is widely considered the architect of the AKP's foreign policy and a major influence on Erdoğan's views. With a long academic career preceding his ascent to political fame, Davutoğlu has left a substantial trail of published work that provides ample insights into his worldview.

The AKP's Alternative Worldview

While Davutoğlu's best-known work is his 2000 book Stratejik Derinlik[37] (Strategic Depth), of equal interest are his earlier works: a doctoral dissertation published in 1993 as Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory[38] and his 1994 volume Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World.[39] These works are dense, theoretical treatises, as are several lengthy articles published in the Turkish journal Divan in the late 1990s. While heavy going, the main thrust of Davutoğlu's work could not be clearer: It is dominated by a deep conviction in the incompatibility of the West and the Islamic world, and by resentment of the West for its attempt to impose its values and political system on the rest of the world.

Davutoğlu argues that the "conflicts and contrasts between Western and Islamic political thought originate mainly from their philosophical, methodological, and theoretical backgrounds rather than from mere institutional and historical differences."[40] He focuses on the ontological difference between Islam and all other civilizations—particularly the West. While most of this work is almost two decades old, Davutoğlu has continued to reiterate the same views, showing their continued relevance to his thinking. In a 2010 interview, for example, he stressed:

All religions and civilizations before Islamic civilization had established a demigod category between god and man. In fact, civilizations except the Islamic civilization always regarded god, man, and nature on the same ontological level. I named this "ontological proximity."… Islam, on the other hand, rejects ontological proximity between god, nature and man and establishes an ontological hierarchy of Allah, man, and nature.[41]

Davutoğlu's problem with the Western "modernist paradigm" lies in its "peripherality of revelation," that is, the distinction drawn between reason and experience, on the one hand, and revelation on the other, resulting in an "acute crisis of Western civilization."[42] By contrast, Davutoğlu underscores the Islamic concept of Tawhid, "the unity of truth and the unity of life which provides a strong internal consistency" by rejecting the misconceived secular division of matters belonging to church and state.[43] Such a view is neither merely theological nor theoretical, and its main implication is that the Western and Islamic worlds are essentially different and that Turkey's long-standing effort to become part of the West is both impossible and undesirable. It is impossible because it goes against the country's intrinsic nature: the "failure of the Westernization-oriented intelligentsia in the Muslim countries … demonstrates the extensive characteristic of this civilizational confrontation."[44]

As far as Turkey is concerned, Davutoğlu concludes that Atatürk's republican endeavor was "an ambitious and utopian project to achieve a total civilizational change which ignored the real cultural, historical, social, and political forces in the society." Thus, "the Turkish experience in this century proved that an imposed civilizational refusal, adaptation, and change … cannot be successful."[45] Moreover, it is undesirable, because the West is in a state of crisis. As early as 1994, he argued that capitalism and socialism were "different forms of the same philosophical background" and that "the collapse of socialism is an indication for a comprehensive civilizational crisis and transformation rather than an ultimate victory of Western capitalism."[46] Thus, the downfall of communism was not a victory of the West but the first step to the end of European domination of the world to be followed by the collapse of Western capitalism.[47]

Davutoğlu approvingly characterizes the emergence of the Islamic state as a response to the imposition of Western nation-states on the world but takes the argument one step further: Viewing globalization as a challenge to the nation-state system, he suggests that "the core issue for Islamic polity seems to be to reinterpret its political tradition and theory as an alternative world-system rather than merely as a program for the Islamization of nation-states."[48]

Indeed, Davutoğlu's worldview has important consequences for how recent, key world events are interpreted in Ankara. For example, since the 2008 financial crisis has affected the West much more severely than emerging economies, it could easily be taken as evidence of the supposed "acute crisis of the West" that Davutoğlu wrote about twenty years ago, vindicating his view of Western civilization in decline.

Not only do Davutoğlu's writings and Erdoğan's statements dovetail, they also demonstrate the power of ideology that lies behind some of Turkey's most controversial foreign policy stances. Indeed, the tendency of the AKP government to side increasingly with Islamist causes, its growing attention to non-Western powers combined with its increasing criticism of the West, can be fully understood only if the ideological background of Turkey's top decision-makers is taken into account. This is not to say that the other factors previously cited are not useful in grasping changes in Turkish foreign policy. But it suggests that they are insufficient and that the ideological component must be factored in for a full understanding of Ankara's evolving policies.

The Challenge of the Arab Upheavals

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have been challenging for Turkey, which has seemed to struggle with formulating its stance in the face of unfolding events.

Ankara was an early cheerleader for the Egyptian revolution: Erdoğan called on Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 2, 2011,[49] making him the first world leader to do so. This behavior was markedly different from Turkey's reaction to the 2009 events in Iran, which otherwise bore great similarity to the Egyptian protests. In the Iranian case, far from urging Ahmadinejad to step down, Erdoğan was among the first to congratulate him on his fraudulent reelection.[50] Likewise, Davutoğlu repeatedly refused to discuss the validity of the Iranian presidential elections, promising "to respect the outcome of Iran's political process"—in marked contrast to the decision to take sides in Egypt's internal struggle.[51] This ostensible inconsistency lay to a considerable extent in the ideological affinity of Turkish Islamism with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (and for that matter—with the Shiite Islamist regime in Tehran) and the pervasive hatred generated by the Mubarak regime within the global Islamist movement as a result of its repression of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

If Ankara was unequivocal on Egypt, Libya proved more complicated. When violence in Libya escalated, the Turkish leadership refrained from taking a clear stance. In fact, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu initially opposed U.N. sanctions on the Qaddafi regime and rejected calls for a NATO operation in the developing civil war. Erdoğan, Gül, and Davutoğlu cast doubt on Western motives, referring to "hidden agendas" and the West's thirst for oil resources.[52] Ankara eventually relented when some of its reservations were taken into account and later approved the NATO operation, calling for Qaddafi's resignation in April,[53] formally withdrawing its ambassador from Tripoli and recognizing the Transitional Council in early July.[54] Following the collapse of Qaddafi's regime, Turkey tried to maximize its influence in the country, and Erdoğan was received more warmly during his visit[55] than either French president Nicolas Sarkozy or British prime minister David Cameron.[56]

However, the deteriorating situation in Syria proved the most difficult for Ankara to handle. From a country with which Turkey almost went to war in 1998, Syria had become what one expert called "the model success story for [Turkey's] improved foreign policy."[57] A seemingly solid rapprochement developed between the two countries, involving the lifting of visa regimes, economic integration, and deepened strategic relations. In particular, Erdoğan developed a close personal relationship with Bashar Assad. When Assad's violence against civilian protesters escalated over the spring and summer of 2011, Ankara took upon itself to caution the Syrian regime to exercise restraint. Despite repeated trips by Davutoğlu to Damascus, Turkish efforts appeared to yield no result. By June, Erdoğan was declaring that "we can't support Syria amidst all this,"[58] and in early August, Turkish leaders spoke of being unable to "remain indifferent to the violence" and demanded reform in Syria.[59] Later that month, President Gül stated that Turkey had lost confidence in Assad[60] but did not call for his resignation though it seemed only a matter of time before Ankara would be forced to take that step.

Ankara's response to the turmoil in the Middle East, thus, lends itself to several conclusions. First, it shook the policy of "zero problems with neighbors" to its core. The refugees pouring across the Turkish border, fleeing Assad's crackdown, triggered an inevitable test of the Davutoğlu doctrine. Ankara proved unable to use its clout with the Assad regime to affect any significant change. Moreover, its growing criticism of Assad led to a deterioration in Turkish-Iranian ties: Official Iranian media outlets have openly criticized Ankara's stance on Syria since June 2011, hinting that it was doing the West's bidding in the region.[61] The Turkish government's decision in the fall of 2011 to accept the stationing of U.S. missile defense systems was very much linked to these new tensions with Tehran while also in all likelihood an attempt to ingratiate itself with Washington and reduce the impact of its increasingly harsh anti-Israeli policies.

Davutoğlu's "zero problem with neighbors" policy was always predicated on the unrealistic assumption that none of Turkey's neighbors had any interests or intentions that ran counter to those of Ankara while neglecting the difference between the regimes and peoples of Turkey's neighbors. Likewise, the alienation of Israel was based on the equally unrealistic assumption that Turkey would never need the friendship of either Israel or its allies in Washington. But mostly, perhaps, these policies have been based on the notion that the United States and the West need Turkey more than Turkey needs the West. This might make sense if Ankara is growing economically while the West is in the throes of crisis, but it might well prove a dangerous assumption given the risk that Turkey's economy could enter a crisis of its own in the not too distant future.

A second conclusion is that the AKP government had grossly overestimated its influence in the Middle East. Erdoğan's hard line on Israel has indeed made him a darling of the Arab street, and the AKP government spent significant efforts building trade relations across the region. While Ankara peddled its clout in the Middle East as a key reason for the West to be supportive of its decisions, the events of 2011 suggest that at least for now its rhetoric has not been matched by actual influence. Erdoğan's visit to Egypt in September 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood appeared unwilling to adopt his suggestion that they emulate Turkey's political system, is a case in point.[62] This is not to say that Turkey is not a rising power, rather that the country's leadership has been unable to realistically gauge its true level of influence. Indeed, building regional influence of the type to which Turkey aspires is a process that takes place gradually and incrementally over decades and not as an immediate result of the hyperactivity of Davutoğlu's diplomacy.

Finally, Ankara's policies never squared the circle of the AKP's rhetorical embrace of democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and its focus on developing ties with the authoritarian regimes of the region on the other.[63] Indeed, a policy of "zero problems" essentially suggests the absence of principles or, for that matter, concrete and well-defined national interests. While some of the missteps in regard to Libya and Syria can be understood against the backdrop of Turkish overconfidence, the dramatic divergence in Ankara's attitude to the various countries in the region cannot be so easily explained. Indeed, the slack that Turkey's leadership was willing to cut Iran's Ahmadinejad or Syria's Assad, or even Libya's Qaddafi, stood in marked contrast to the vehemence with which it denounced Egypt's Mubarak.

In the fall of 2010, the author asked a former AKP minister and deputy chairman why Turkey was so much more assertive on the Gaza issue than the Arab countries. The answer was straightforward: One should not misconstrue the Arab regimes with the Arab countries. These, he argued, are all monarchies that are doomed to collapse. When that happens, democratic forces sharing the AKP's views on these issues would seize power.[64] While the response was indeed prescient given the events that would follow, it betrayed a deep disdain for the pro-Western regimes of the Arab world as well as an expectation that Islamic movements would replace them and see Turkey as a leader or model.

Indeed, this senior official's perspective echoes Davutoğlu's worldview. It indicates an expectation of a fundamental remake of the Middle East with the demise of the pro-Western regimes. Thus far, the vision might not differ much from that of Western supporters of the wave of popular protests sweeping the Arab world. The question, of course, is what would succeed the regimes that had hitherto been safely ensconced in power for decades.

While in the early 1990s, Turkey was touted for its secularism and democracy as a model for the newly independent Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, Ankara was looked to as a model for a different reason: In the words of The New York Times, it was perceived as "a template that effectively integrates Islam, democracy, and vibrant economics."[65]

Indeed, Islamist movements across the Middle East—primarily in North Africa—have emulated the AKP's approach to gaining power through democratic means. The question, however, is: Do these movements see a party that truly democratized its ideology and accepted underlying liberal democratic principles, or a party that successfully used the democratic system in order to achieve power without being committed to democratic values and ideals? The jury is still out on this question, but the developments in Egypt are indeed cause for concern given the Muslim Brotherhood's growing dominance over the country's political scene.

As the AKP's recent authoritarian tendencies have become increasingly acknowledged, its credibility as a force of true democratization in the Middle East has suffered concomitantly. More and more it appears that the AKP—and Turkey—has adopted a rather simplistic understanding of democracy as majority rule: In societies where the overwhelming majority are conservative Muslims, democracy will ensure that the political forces representing these conservative Muslims will be ushered into power.


While there is much to suggest that Turkey's role in the world is likely to grow, confidence appears to have turned into hubris. At the bureaucratic level, Turkey's state apparatus—especially the Foreign Ministry—is hardly equipped to handle the load of initiatives coming from Davutoğlu's office, and expanding the foreign policy machine can only happen gradually. Thus, many Turkish initiatives have been less than well prepared, suggesting a top-heavy approach rather than balanced and serious planning. This was true of the opening with Armenia, and similarly, Turkish leaders appeared truly surprised when the Turkish-Brazilian deal on Iran failed to prevent new sanctions against Tehran at the U.N. Security Council.

Nonetheless, Turkey is now an active and independent player in regional affairs whose clout is likely to continue to grow in coming years. It is also a less predictable force than it used to be and one whose policies will occasionally clash with those of the West. This is, in part, a result of Turkey's economic growth, of the mistakes made by the West in alienating Ankara, and of Turkish overextension, which is in turn related to an inflated view of its newly found role in the world. But the role of ideological reflexes and grand ambitions, in particular those of Turkey's two foremost decision-makers, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, must not be underestimated. These impulses are likely to continue to have policy consequences as Turkish leaders will interpret events from a distinctively different—and Islamically-tinged—viewpoint than their Western counterparts.

While a cause for concern, Ankara's changing foreign policy is not necessarily a cause for alarm. On many issues, Turkey is a power with which the West can work: As the Libyan operation showed, suspicions of Western motives notwithstanding, Ankara came around to join the undertaking. The reaction to the Syrian crisis and Turkish cooperation on missile defense are further examples of this possibility.

But significantly, whenever Turkey and the West will cooperate, it will be because their interests happen to align rather than as a result of shared values. Where the values of the Turkish leadership do not align with those of the West, most prominently concerning Cyprus and Israel, Turkish behavior will continue to diverge from the Ankara the West used to know. It is increasingly clear that the Turkish leadership does not consider itself Western, a worldview that will inevitably have far reaching implications for Turkey's role in the Euro-Atlantic community.

[1] Hürriyet (Istanbul), June 13, 2011.
[2] See, for example, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiye'nin Uluslararası Konumu (Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001).
[3] Hürriyet, Nov. 17, 2008; The Economist (London), Nov. 27, 2008.
[4] The Guardian (London), Oct. 26, 2009; Sofia (Bulgaria) Echo, Oct. 26, 2009.
[5] Svante E. Cornell, "Iranian Crisis Catches the Turkish Government off Guard," Turkey Analyst, June 19, 2009; Hürriyet, Feb. 2, 2010.
[6] Middle East Online (London), Mar. 17, 2010; The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 8, 2010.
[7] Reuters, Nov. 27, 2009.
[8] The Economist, May 17, 2010.
[9] The New York Times, May 21, 2008; Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), June 30, 2009; Reuters, June 10, 2010.
[10] Khaleej Times (Dubai), Feb. 19, 2006.
[11] Ha'aretz, Jan. 13, 2009; Eurasianet (New York), Feb. 4, 2009; The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 13, 2009.
[12] Hürriyet, Oct. 11, 2009.
[13] The Jerusalem Post, June 24, 2011; Michael Weiss, "Ankara's Proxy," Standpoint, July/Aug. 2010.
[14] The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 6, 2010.
[15] Radikal (Istanbul), June 4, 2010; The Jerusalem Post, June 4, 2010.
[16] The Telegraph (London), Sept. 13, 2011.
[17] The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2011; Today's Zaman (Istanbul), Sept. 12, 2011.
[18] Today's Zaman, Sept. 13, 2011.
[19] Eurasia Daily Monitor (Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.), Jan. 15, 2008.
[20] Milliyet (Istanbul), Mar. 30, 2006.
[21] Today's Zaman, Nov. 9, 2009.
[22] "The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre's Response to the Goldstone Report," Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, Gelilot, Israel, Apr. 4, 2011.
[23] The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2011.
[24] BBC News Europe, June 9, 2010.
[25] Gareth Jenkins, Turkey and Northern Iraq: An Overview (Washington: Jamestown Foundation, 2008), pp. 15-20.
[26] Ömer Taspinar, "The Rise of Turkish Gaullism: Getting Turkish-American Relations Right," Insight Turkey, Jan.-Mar. 2011.
[27] Gökhan Saz, "The Political Implications of the European Integration of Turkey: Political Scenarios and Major Stumbling Blocks," European Journal of Social Sciences, no. 1, 2011.
[28] Daniel Pipes, "Erdoğan: Turkey Is Not a Country Where Moderate Islam Prevails,", updated Apr. 12, 2009.
[29] The Times (London), July 3, 2010.
[30] See, for example, Birol Yesilada, "The Refah Party Phenomenon in Turkey," in Birol Yesilada, ed., Comparative Political Parties and Party Elites (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), pp. 123-50; Itzchak Weissmann, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and Activism in a Worldwide Sufi Tradition (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 152-6; Svante E. Cornell and Ingvar Svanberg, "Turkey," in Dawid Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg, eds., Islam outside the Arab World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), pp. 125-48.
[31] Banu Eligur, The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chap. 3; Birol Yeşilada, "The Virtue Party," in Barry M. Rubin and Metin Heper, eds., Political Parties in Turkey (London: Frank Cass, 2002); Gareth H. Jenkins, "Muslim Democrats in Turkey," Survival, Spring 2003, pp. 45-66.
[32] William Hale, "Christian Democracy and the AKP: Parallels and Contrasts," Turkish Studies, June 2006, pp. 293-310; Sultan Tepe, "Turkey's AKP: A Model 'Muslim-Democratic' Party?" Journal of Democracy, July 2005, pp. 69-82.
[33] Der Spiegel (Hamburg), Feb. 11, 2008.
[34] Hürriyet, Nov. 9, 2009.
[35] Ha'aretz, Jan. 13, 2009; Reuters, June 6, 2011; Bugün (Istanbul), June 4, 2011.
[36] Sedat Ergin, "Can the Symbols of Nazism and Judaism Be Considered Equal?" Hürriyet, June 22, 2010.
[37] Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001.
[38] Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993.
[39] Kuala Lumpur: Mahir Publications, 1994.
[40] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms: the Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993), p. 2.
[41] Kerim Balci, "Philosophical Depth: A Scholarly Talk with the Turkish Foreign Minister," Turkish Review, Nov. 1, 2010.
[42] Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms, p. 195; idem, Civilizational Transformation (Kuala Lumpur: Mahir Publications, 1994), pp. 13-4.
[43] Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms, p. 196; Michael Koplow, "Hiding in Plain Sight," Foreign Policy, Dec. 2, 2010.
[44] Davutoğlu, Civilizational Transformation, p. 64.
[45] Ibid., pp. 107-8.
[46] Ibid., p. 64.
[47] Ibid., p. iii.
[48] Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms, p. 202.
[49] Press TV (Tehran), Feb. 2, 2011.
[50] Halil M. Karaveli and Svante E. Cornell, "Turkey and the Middle Eastern Revolts: Democracy or Islamism?" Turkey Analyst, Feb. 7, 2011.
[51] Cornell, "Iranian Crisis Catches the Turkish Government off Guard."
[52] World Bulletin (Istanbul), Mar. 24, 2011.
[53] Al-Arabiya (Dubai), May 3, 2011.
[54] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), July 3, 2011.
[55] Bahrain News Agency, Sept. 14, 2011.
[56] The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2011.
[57] Henri J. Barkey, "Assad Stands Alone," The National Interest, June 14, 2011.
[58] Today's Zaman, June 10, 2011.
[59] The Turkish Daily News (Ankara), Aug. 1, 2011.
[60] The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2011.
[61] Sobh'eh Sadegh, quoted in Burak Bekdil, "Zero Problems, a Hundred Troubles," Hürriyet, Aug. 9, 2011.
[62] The Huffington Post, Sept. 13, 2011.
[63] M. K. Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli, "Vision or Illusion? Ahmet Davutoglu's State of Harmony in Regional Relations," Turkey Analyst, June 5, 2009.
[64] Author interview with an AKP deputy chairman who requested anonymity, Ankara, Aug. 2010.
[65] Landon Thomas, Jr., "In Turkey's Example, Some See Map for Egypt," The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2011.

Svante E. Cornell is research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

How Iran's Rulers Think about the Nuclear Program

by Harold Rhode

As the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic revolution in Iran, said: The Muslim world is engaged in a war with the non-Muslim world, a war which will end only when the non-Muslim world converts to Islam.[1]

What, then, is Islam, and what is the form of this religion that Khomeini wished should rule the world?

Although Khomeini, a staunch Shiite, wrote before he returned to Iran that Islam was "one," and that the differences between the Sunnis and Shiites were secondary, he also constantly argued that the problems facing the Islamic world were the result of three sources: the hated Rashidun Caliphs, who were the first four leaders of the Sunni world after the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, died; the Umayyads, who ruled the Muslim world from Damascus from ca. 660- to 750 AD/CE, and the Abbasids (750-1258) from Baghdad.

The Sunnis, however, who make up about 85% of the approximately 1.4 billion Muslims throughout the world, see these Sunni rulers as the very embodiment of the Golden Age of Islam.

This is the context in which we should understand why obtaining nuclear weapons in so essential for the Iranian regime.

Possessing nuclear weapons addresses both of the problems mentioned above: At one end, it addresses Islam's eternal battle with the non-Muslim world.

Nothing of this is lost on the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world, whether Sunni or Shiite, who, from their point of view, see that the non-Muslim domination and control of most of the world goes against the basic precept of Islam: that Islam is Allah's [God's] most recent and final revelation to man, and therefore is a supremacist religion that must rule the entire world. To think anything less would be heresy. Hence the massive admiration by all Muslims – even the Sunnis -- of Iran's dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

At the other end, a nuclear-armed, defiant Iran would seriously threaten most of the Sunni dictators and tyrants who rule the Arab world whom the West (usually inaccurately) labels as "moderates." Over the years, these dictators and tyrants have whipped up anti-West and anti-Israel hatred as an a way to focus the anger and frustrations of their own people towards the outer world, so their people would not blame them, their leaders, for the massive poverty, corruption and lack of accomplishment everywhere, despite the staggering oil-wealth of many of these nations.

Along comes Iran and demonstrates that these Sunni Arab leaders have failed to push back the West, while Iran has stood up to the West, threatened it, and successfully caused it to retreat. A nuclear, anti-Western Iran would enable the Muslims to hold their heads high and force the West into retreat. Of all the Muslim countries, only Iran will have proven that it is willing and able to stand up to the non-Muslims and to the Sunni rulers of the Muslim world.

This is what the acquisition of nuclear weapons means to the present Iranian regime, and why nothing the West does short of changing the current regime will stop the Iranians from acquiring these weapons.[2] From the regime's point of view, nuclear weapons free them to make the political calculations they would like, both in the international arena and within the Muslim world. They do not even have to be used: the mere threat of their use would be sufficient to cause most countries to capitulate to whatever they were asked, especially if there were nuclear-tipped weapons pointed at every capital of Europe.

Who, then, runs the regime in Iran, and what should we examine if we want to understand how to control that regime's nuclear designs?

The Iranian Revolution at first was Islamic, with the vast majority of the religious establishment standing behind of the regime. Since the late 1970s, however, more and more members of the religious establishment have become alienated from the regime, which it seems to see as destroying their beloved Shiite Islam. People are now blaming the current regime for Iran's disastrous economic situation and international political isolation. From the religious establishment's point of view, Islam can only be saved by the religious leaders of Shi'ism returning to their mosques and worrying about the spiritual needs of the people. Many senior clerics in Iran have started showing their disdain for the regime throughout quietism: they refuse to pray in the mosques. The masses, knowing that their religious leaders could be arrested or suffer other worse fates, seem to understand this quietism as a protest against the clerics behind the regime.

Today, Iran is no longer run by the religious establishment but by the praetorian guard, whom Khomeini established as a counter-balance to the regular military, which he apparently believed could potentially be disloyal. The praetorian guard – called the Pasdaran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC) – with its extreme form of Shi'ism that even Khomeini feared, have taken over the country and are now running the nation. They have a few religious leaders to whom they are at least nominally subservient. Nevertheless, as best we know, it is the IRGC that calls the shots, and is unswervingly committed to a nuclear Iran. The IRGC has, in effect, created a coup against the clerical establishment, and even found a few ayatollahs to give them a "religious stamp of approval."

These leaders see a confrontation with the West, Israel, and the Sunni world not as a deterrent, but as an inducement. In their view, by provoking a confrontation with the non-Shiite world, they will hasten the return of their beloved 12th Imam, a messiah-like figure who will show the world once and for all that the the Shiite view of Islam is the correct one, and then the non-Muslim world will succumb to the 12th Imam's will. From their point of view, the IRGC leaders are well on their way towards accomplishing their goals.

The only way to stop them is to change the regime, so that Iran's new rulers – whether religious or non-religious -- would return to the traditional Shiite view of the world: that the Imam will come whenever he presumably feels like it, and cannot be provoked or encouraged by the actions of the Shiites or anyone else. These new leaders would therefore, one hopes, worry about the practical and political interests of the Iranian people -- not about the religious salvation of Iran, Islam, and the world.

Iran's current leaders seem to reason that once they acquire nuclear weapons, no one will attack them because Iran's enemies will be afraid of the consequences of doing so, just as President Obama declined three different ways of destroying the US drone aircraft even before the Iranians had nuclear weapons. The IRGC leaders probably reason that nuclear weapons would be an even more effective deterrent.

At the same time, however, there would be no reason for this Iranian regime not to use -– or threaten to use -- these weapons against the Sunni Muslims and their oil fields, and against Iran's non-Muslim enemies in Europe, the US, Israel and beyond. If Iran's rulers provoke a conflagration between the Shiite view of the world and everyone else, they reason, and if the outside world were to retaliate, their Imam would come and save them.

Given Iran's traditional view of the world and how the West has used every opportunity to avoid confronting Iran over its nuclear policy[3], this regime must by now assume it can pick the time and place of its choosing to break out these weapons. Until then, the regime will work to acquire nuclear weapons, and then wait for the moment it believes it can use them to its best advantage.

If Iran's pursuit of its pursuit of nuclear weapons eventually were to causes a huge number of civilian casualties, it would not matter to the regime. Regarding civilian casualties, either from an accident at one of the nuclear facilities, bases for deployment of non-conventional weapons, and the like, the Iranian government evidently has little regard for the wishes of its people and would probably do its best to blame foreigners for anything that happened. A government that has so little regard for its own population will have even less for its neighbors or foreigners.

Further, if there were a massive loss of life for which the people blamed the government, these could spark in the larger cities riots and demonstrations, which the government might have a problem putting down.

Whereas in the West we are judged not by our thoughts but by our actions, in Islam if your intent can be seen as furthering the cause of Islam or Allah, you are promised eternal Paradise. In classical Islam, non-Muslims – most notably the Jews, Christians, and others claiming to have a holy book revealed to them prior to the advent of Islam - are offered the choice of converting to Islam; living under Islam as a "protected," albeit inferior, second class citizen, called a dhimmi --- or death. The fate of large numbers of non-Muslims who refused to succumb to conversion was not exactly compassionate.[4] Those who refused either status were almost always murdered.

As for the territory which the State of Israel occupies today, as it formerly belonged to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, and as in the Muslim worldview, any land that once was under the rule of Islam must stay under the rule of Islam forever, in Muslim minds, Israel belongs to Islam. To them, it is wrong that infidels, especially the most-loathed Jewish ones, rule this territory; and if the Jews are not prepared to relinquish control of the territory, they deserve to suffer the consequences, even if that means bombing them all.

If Muslims would be killed if an Iranian bomb either in Israel or in other Muslim lands such as today's Saudi Arabia, the Iranian regime would not have a problem here either: these Muslims would simply become shahids, or martyrs, and thereby immediately be sent to Paradise, where their seventy-two perpetual virgins await them. Moreover, these Muslims are almost all Sunni, so their death would a way for the Shiite rulers of Iran to avenge the 1,400 years when Sunnis murdered Shiites.

The death of the many civilian Shiites – both inside Iran, in the Persian Gulf, or in Lebanon -- as a result of such an attack, or a Western retaliatory attack on Iran, would also not be a problem for the Iranian regime: such attacks, they believe, would precipitate the return of the 12th, or "Hidden," Imam [a leader or ruler anointed my Allah] -- a descendant of Mohammed and messianic savior whose second-coming would rescue the Shiites from disaster and enshrine Shiite Islam over the world forever.

There is no reason, therefore, for us to believe that the current Iranian regime would not use nuclear weapons should it acquire them. The conflagration they caused would bring their messiah, after the regime decided on the most felicitous time and place.

Moreover, just having nuclear weapons – or the world's believing they had them – would probably be sufficient for the regime to accomplish its initial goal of first deterring the West and the rest of the Muslim world before the regime's expected triumph of Shiite Islam throughout the Muslim world. Finally, after 1400 years of suffering at the hands of the hated Sunnis, whom they see as having killed Shiites at will, the blood of the Shiite martyrs finally would be avenged.


Classical Iranian culture, however -- as opposed to Shiite messianic -- argues for another, almost contradictory, approach to gaining insight into how Iranians understand WMD.[5]

Historically, people who head both the military and political institutions of Iran have a Darwinian ability to know when power is shifting and then act accordingly. This means that once the senior officials in the government, in the IRGC and in the regular military, once they realized we were serious about regime change – if we were – might be very willing to cooperate with us as opposed to lose their jobs. The regime must believe that its reign is over, period. If and when that happens, today's senior leaders might turn out suddenly to be our best friends.


A few years ago, the regime gave orders to its lower-level military personnel in the Persian Gulf that if, during warfare, they were cut off from the center, they were to use whatever they had to wreak havoc in the Gulf – especially to blockade the Strait of Hormuz. We do not know if these orders were given for other situations as well. Such orders were amazing in themselves as they go against one of the basic rules of Iranian culture: that superiors make decisions, not inferiors. Inferiors are authorized to make decisions only when superiors cannot do so themselves. In such instances, superiors can only hope that those beneath them would be prepared to do what their superiors would have wished. If this actually were to happen, it would be an indication that the superiors had lost power, and that the future of the country would be in play. In such a situation, the inferiors would first try to determine whether they would be at risk in following those orders. If the inferiors believed that there would be any risk to themselves, their families, or their assets, it is doubtful that they would be prepared to carry out the orders, especially if the men were are not part of the small group of people who believed that by provoking a conflagration, their messiah will come.

It is also hard to imagine that the lower ranks would follow orders from their superiors if they saw the regime falling apart. By and large, the leadership view the lower ranks with disdain, which the people in the lower ranks know all too well.[6] As a well-known story in Iran has it:

During the Second World War, the Iranian military created two defensive lines along its northwestern/Caucasian border with the Soviet Union. The first line was opposite the Soviet forces. The second line – the fallback line - was some distance inland. Both lines were manned by simple Iranian soldiers, mostly peasants. The senior Iranian officers, to make some money, sold those in the first line positions in the second line.

During the early days of the Islamic revolution, the government could count on the revolutionary fervor in recruiting soldiers to sacrifice their lives for Islam and their country. Then, the word "to die" (mordan in Persian) disappeared from people's vocabulary; almost everyone replaced this word with "to become a martyr" (shahid shodan in Persian). But that period is long gone. Iranians today seem to view their government and the IRGC with disgust. The commitment to the Islamic revolution is gone, except a very few who are well-paid by the government -- and even they appear to be having second thoughts. Today, therefore, it should be relatively easy to gain intelligence, and influence the lower ranks of the military, should that be useful.


In patterns and apparatuses of command and control, Iranians do not trust each other: the military therefore keeps tight control both of its most important weapons and those which could be turned against the regime. Since Khomeini set up the IRGC to insure the regime's survival, the people appointed to senior ranks of the IRGC are considered the most loyal to the regime. If the regime falls, they have the most to lose.

Nevertheless, the regime recently dismissed 250 IRGC leaders who had supported the opposition leaders -- demonstrating that political loyalty matters more than military competence.

It is unclear who controls the Iranian nuclear program. Although there have been defectors from the program, some have been being double agents, returning to Iran after having supposedly defected to the West. It is hard, therefore, to judge the reliability of their information. What appears to be true, is that only a few people at the top of the Iranian government's pyramid have decision-making abilities on the nuclear issue – but those leaders are the messianists who could easily use these weapons.

Given the fear that the senior leadership generally has about the loyalty of those around them, we should be wary of thinking that certain individuals or people holding particular positions are in charge. The Iranian leadership knows that today's ally can become tomorrow's enemy, so it probably constantly re-evaluates who is permitted access to the nuclear program.

It is also difficult to know on what Iran's nuclear scientists are working. One way of trying to ascertain this, however, is to follow their open publications: the particulars about which they write give us insight into what they are thinking about, and might also tell us on what kind of problem they are working.

The same deduction holds true for conventional weapons. Loyalty -- to the rulers of the country, not to Iran – matters above all. It appears that political commissars both in the regular military – a holdover from the Shah's regime - and in the IRGC have more decision-making power than do the military officers who often outrank them.

Although during the Iran-Iraq war religious leaders were stationed at the front and often instructed the military in such matters as in which direction the troops should shoot – despite the religious leaders' lacking military experience -- it was their decisions, not those of the military leaders, that were implemented.

Such is not the case today. Instead of religious functionaries, who have overwhelmingly abandoned the regime, it is the political commissars, again possibly with little military experience, who are closest to the regime, often because of familial, ethnic, or religious ties. But these political commissars are also under scrutiny and, like the 250 senior IRGC officers who were fired, the regime constantly worries about their loyalty. If the regime has any doubts about them, they are replaced. This concern about loyalty most likely means that the regime has divided up command and control of different parts of these weapons, so that none besides those permitted to decide when and how to use these weapons would be able to do so.

However, if they or their colleagues who control other parts of the system are prepared to work together to employ these weapons and thus bring about the return of their messiah, there is a serious danger that the weapons could be used.

As always, can those in the senior echelons of the Iranian government, -- who are responsible for the nuclear and other non-conventional weaponry -- be sure that they, and only they, have the decision-making authority regarding these weapons? This is a question that must plague them. They may fear that the moment they appear to have lost control over the country, these weapons will no longer be theirs to control. Those who actually have possession of the weapons could make their own decisions as to whether it is in their interest to use them. Should the Iran's rulers lose control, it would be wise for foreign governments who might be threatened by this regime to devise plans to take control of these weapons, in a way similar to how the US addressed the need to capture the Iraqi oil fields during the early stages of the Iraq Libration War in 2003.[7]

If the regime does appear to be tattering, many of the IRGC leaders might try to make deals with people whom they perceived would in the future be the new leaders of the country.


Another subject that should worry us is nuclear and other WMD proliferation. The Iranian government has proxies all over the world, especially in Lebanon, but also notably in South America. It would therefore not be surprising if the Iranian government distributed nuclear and other non-conventional material to their allies in these countries: the Iranian leadership understands that the US, Europeans, and other enemies of their regime are less suspicious of Latin American countries. If Iran wanted, for example to smuggle weapons into the US, it could be much easier to do so via Latin America,[8] where our guard would be down. Culturally, this way of indirectly attacking an enemy is classically Iranian.


The Iranian regime views the deployment of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons differently from how it used Lebanon for storing conventional weapons. In Lebanon, the Iranians, via their proxy Hizbullah, stored weapons in buildings where civilians live, and next to hospitals and schools. The Iranian regime and its allies use the international media as a weapon in its arsenal against its enemies, claiming that those attacked by Israel or the US are victim of "human rights abuse" and of "a disproportionate use of force." Hizbullah places cameras near the hospitals and schools in which it plants explosives so it can photograph the Israeli destruction of these supposedly civilian targets.

Inside Iran, the regime is more cautious. To be sure, they have put nuclear facilities near population centers, as is clear both in Natanz, where civilians can travel around the outer perimeter of the fence[9] surrounding that facility, and in the mountain next to Qom. But we have no indication that whatever nuclear and non-conventional weapons the Iranians possess are located in populated areas. Perhaps there was concern that the weapons might draw too much attention from people who live in those areas; however the only way the Iranian government could ensure these weapons were in safe hands – and not be able to be used against the government itself – was by placing them in areas over which the government believed it had complete control. The government would not want place these weapons in remote locations to which people the government doesn't trust might have access.

As we have learned from people who traveled around the perimeter of the Natanz facility, however, apparently government control is clearly not absolute, and the government must therefore constantly be on guard against people who might wish to render inoperable the nuclear and non-conventional programs.

Other significant elements in the Command and Control structure are ethnic, religious, tribal, business, and geographic solidarity. These have always formed, and still form, the backbone of Iranian society. Persians, for example are possibly not even the largest ethnic group in Iran. The largest - probably about a third of the country - are Shiite, mostly-Turkish-speaking Azeris. They are concentrated mostly in the northern part of the country and in Tehran, and are not the ethnic Persians who culturally dominate the country. A large number of these Azerbaijani Iranians no longer even speak Turkish; but even though they have abandoned the Azeri-Turkish language for Persian [Farsi], they still identify themselves as Azeris. Almost all of the Azeris whether Persian- or Turkish-speaking also identify themselves strongly as Iranians. "Iranianness" is, therefore, less of an ethnic identity than a political identity. Even those who do not speak Persian identify themselves as 100% Iranian. Most do not identify with Turkey or with the other Turkic-speaking countries, which are largely Sunni, not Shiite.

The most unifying factor in the country is probably Shiite Islam, to which about 80%-90% of the population adheres. Sunni Muslims, who primarily inhabit the border areas -- such as the ethnic Turkomans, another Turkic people concentrated in the northeast; as well as the Baluchis and the Sistanis in the southeast, and most of the Kurds in the West -- are evidently looked upon with suspicion by the rulers of the country: they are not allowed to rise in the military, and they are not part of the ruling establishment.

Although tribal ties are also important, Iran has traditionally been a settled culture, so tribal connections are not the first things people think of when it comes to forming bonds with people. Most important are familial ties. These have always been paramount in Iran, as they are in much of the rest of the Middle East.

As family connections are important in establishing bonds of trust, whether in the government or the military, mapping out who is married to whom could be essential in dealing not only with the government, but also with the IRGC as well. When it comes to the nuclear program, which requires the utmost trust, familial and female connections could prove very important.

As with many groups throughout the world, plans for survival usually start with the family:

During the US hostage crisis, the father of an important family in Qom, the religious capital of Iran, called his sons together for meeting on how to secure the family's future. It was decided that one son would become a mullah, and most likely rise in the religious hierarchy. Another son would join the military, so he could protect the family. Another went into the Tudeh (Communist) party, because it seemed at that time that the Soviet Union was very powerful. But the youngest son was not "placed" anywhere. When he grew up, his family decided he should go to America and join the opposition, just in case the opposition there might one day convince the US government to overthrow the Islamic Republican regime, or another government, closer to the US, might emerge.

Women, although they appear to be weak, as the regime discriminates against their holding political power, are also important in the Iranian hierarchy: because the regime discriminates against them, they have every incentive to oppose it.


Political beliefs do not seem to be all that important in Iran. People's professed beliefs often appear to change as needed. Although religious messianism among Iran's senior ruling class is essential, and many of its members strongly believe in making the 12th Imam return to save them and the world, ideology is the realm of a relatively small group of people. From what we know, however, it is these people who are calling the shots now in Iran, and it is these people who have been trusted to build, run and launch nuclear weapons when able to do so, and the regime has decided on th most auspicious time to use them. These people who now control the destiny of their country. Should they acquire nuclear weapons, it is this small group of people who will decide when and how to use these weapons, and therefore decide their fate, the fate of their neighbors, and possibly even the fate of Europeans, Americans, and beyond.

Apart from them, family connections are a good way to figure out how the Iranians, with their finely-tuned instincts for survival, think their country is headed. These ties are also essential in connecting with people who now have high-level positions in the government, the IRGC, the nuclear program, and other organizations in the country, and for understanding the Iranian Chain of Command and its decision-making process. In the end, even job title is less important than personal connections, which remain the most important way the Iranian government can ensure that its commands are carried out, and form, in short, an alternate chain of command.

The Iranian government therefore has one additional problem to worry about: How can it ensure that its decisions are being carried out, even with this alternate chain of command? That problem is further complicated by the fact that Iran is a top-down society, in which information is passed down the chain; almost never up the chain. People in lower ranking positions, therefore, will not tell their superiors

bad news, or anything they think their superiors do not want to hear. The ramifications of this are that people in senior positions may really know very little about what is actually happening on the ground, and, apart from family connections, might have very little way of learning the truth.

The only other way they can ensure that their orders are being carried out is through bribery and others forms of monetary or similar remuneration.

Rulers therefore often try to coerce information out of people, but torture methods often result in people telling their superiors what those tortured believe their superiors want to hear, rather than the truth. This probably applies to the nuclear program as well, even if those working on it undergo scrutiny.

Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and other senior leaders of the IRGC might not really know what it happening in their nuclear program, even with periodic visits to those installations. Iran has always been one big Potemkin village. It is highly likely that no one, especially the rulers, really knows what going on.


So where does all this leave us? Iran is an ancient imperial nation which a deep sense of cultural identity, resilience and ability to survive. enemy after enemy and somehow survived. Over the past 2,500 years, the Iranians may have developed ways to outfox their enemies, but the culture is permeable.

If its people come to the conclusion that the regime does not have both the ability and will to survive, the people have demonstrated time and again that they are eager to remove their leaders. We should therefore find ways to demonstrate to the people that the regime cannot defend itself both internally against its enemies.

When the regime tries to put down local demonstrations and revolts, we should do our utmost to support the protestors and to make the regime look weak, inept, and fragile. This includes above all helping forces inside the country who want to overthrow the regime, and finding ways to make sure that the IRGC and the Basij cannot put down riots and demonstrations, such as making sure that the IRGC and the Basij leaders could not communicate with their troops, and that their headquarters would suffer attacks similar to the recent explosions outside Tehran and inside Isfahan.

Iranians have a refined ability to detect strength and weakness in their leaders. Their history is replete with instances where they overthrow leaders they saw as weak. We have an opportunity to help them do so again. We should not squander the opportunity to do so now.

There is still a chance we can ensure that the present Iranian government will not acquire, then use, nuclear weapons. This effort needs to be well-thought-out and possibly long term, but it can be done. The question is: Are we willing to put in that effort?


[1] It is in this context that we should understand Khomeini's call on former Soviet leader Gorbachev to convert to Islam; or the same offer Ahmadinejad extended to President George W. Bush. The Soviets and we might have seen this as outrageous, but Khomeini and many Muslims throughout the world were totally serious.

[2] It is in that context that we should understand why the activation of the nuclear plant in Bushehr is so dangerous for the West. We might think the issue is the safety of the fuel rods, but the Iranian regime sees this as a political victory in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims throughout the world in their battle to wrest control of Islam from the Sunnis.

[3] On the nuclear issue, today Iranian regime seems to view the West, Israel, and the Sunni Arabs leaders much as Hitler's regime viewed the UK's Chamberlain and other Western leaders in the 1930s: the West as a paper tiger, and willing to do anything to avoid confrontation. The more we ask them to negotiate, the more the Iranians become sure of that view, just as Hitler and those around him did.

[4] The Arabic word "rahman" – invariably translated as compassionate -- is a characteristic of Allah towards man, not man towards man. There is no equivalent in Arabic of the Western concept of compassion.

[5] Iran has been divided since it was conquered by Arab Muslims in the mid-660s AD/CE. It became Muslim, at least on the surface, but apparently remained Iranian under the surface. Throughout its history, the struggle between classical Iranian cultural attitudes and Islam has manifested itself over and over again.

[6] This was demonstrated in 2009 during the riots after the election results. The basij thugs charged with quelling the riots were not sure which side was going to win, so they went easy on the demonstrators, telling them, "Please remember, we did not hit you" – already mentally preparing for a change in regime.

[7] We were afraid that Saddam might set these fields on fire, as he had done in Kuwait during the Kuwait war, so, during the Iraq Liberation War in 2003, we quickly took over the oil fields so that this would not be repeated -- the only way we could guarantee that they would not be sabotaged.

[8] These include not only Venezuela and Brazil, but other countries such as Paraguay and the areas of Argentina across the Paraguayan border.

[9] In 2007, an American student of architecture in Natanz, who travelled around the perimeter of the fence, reported that the facility was close to, but not exactly, in the highly populated area of the town.

Harold Rhode


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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