Monday, March 20, 2006

So What is the Deal with Iran? Part 2

I considered discussing the nuclear question which is puzzling many western thinkers, however I think its necessary to talk about the important role which Iran plays in the Middle East and more importantly, Iraq. Many people believe the US is operating in a vacuum while rebuilding Iraq. I believe that it is very important to explain how Iran's actions are incredibly relevant to our overall strategy in the Middle East.

For starters, Iran is made up of Shiite Persians which is entirely different from most of the Sunni Arab countries to its western border. This was articulated fairly well in the movie, "Crash" where the Persian shopkeepers ask each other why someone would deface their storefront with the word, "Arab". While most Americans lump all Muslims under one banner as Arabs, the difference is critical to understanding why the different countries interact in certain ways. In a region where sectarianism reigns, many countries are fiercely divided along the more fundamental Shiites (Persians) and secular Sunnis (Arabs). With such emphasis placed on tribal society, it is not surprising that countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds with each other, except when it comes to the United States.

The United States is not only the "Great Satan" but also the great unifier of Muslim agreement. There is little doubt that their low opinion of the US is uniform across the Middle East. This is where we are in Iraq. Iraq and Iran have never been very good friends which was exemplified by their eight year war in the 1980s. Iraq is itself 70% Shia (Shiite) and was ruled by a small minority of Sunnis headed by Saddam Hussein. As the US grapples with securing the peace in Iraq, it must also contend with a large population of Shiites who are organized in many cases by Iranian political and religious backers. They are easily mobilized by their leaders after spending decades under the Sunni minority. This is a source of concern for US planners as the one thing harder to control than Iraqi stability is the strong Iranian influence on Iraqi stability. While this does little good for the insurgency, it provides a permanent safe haven for those who would seek to turn Iraq into a theocracy. This is equally distasteful in the eyes of the United States.

Given their strong presence in the Shiite community and the inseperable blend of religious and secular domains, you should expect to see the US continue to coerce the Iranian influence with both carrots (economic aid) and the stick (threats of military action or Sunni support).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

So What is the Deal with Iran? Part 1

You may have been asking yourself this question too. Nearly everyone I talk to is concerned; however this concern covers a wide range of emotions and (oddly enough) seems to emulate a lot of the TV punditry as well. On one hand, there is vague acknowledgement of the situation which fixates on how it will affect US gas prices. On the other hand, there are people who are genuinely alarmed by their President's fiery rhetoric and threats against the nation of Israel. The truth I think is somewhere in between.

So which is it? Is the Iranian leader (Ahmadinejad) really the "New Hitler" or is he just one more political cavalier playing to his base? In my estimation, he is playing political jujitsu in the Middle East and abroad. Iran's economic power is directly related to oil, which while potent, also means that it is linked to the international economy. This symbiotic relationship means that Ahmadinejad can only take his rhetoric to the point where the international economy rejects Iran's oil. While this threshhold is most certainly high, it provides a context for understanding the rhetoric as well as the wider implications of US/UN action.

At a lower level and in more practical terms, Ahmadinejad was elected by a "landslide" on the promise of economic redistribution..basically a classic Robin Hood campaign. The poor and middle class, already suffering under high unemployment, are anxious and will not stand idly by for long. As a result, the nascent Iranian political reform movement will see a resurgence if Ahmadinejad falls through on his wild-eyed promises. Both he and the conservative clerics who keep him in power know this.

So what? Even if you understand what I just said (which I barely do), what on earth does this mean. To be honest, not much in the near term of six to twelve months. You'll continue to see alarmist headings like the recent Newsweek as well as a stern tone taken by the UN Security Council when they meet this week. In the end however, the threat is not immediate enough to validate the rhetoric. Diplomacy...gotta love it!

Monday, March 13, 2006

There is Always a First

Capturing your thoughts is like catching minnows with a net. As a kid, I remember standing on the side of a pond, staring down at the little fish swimming just a foot away from the bank. After gently lowering my loop net into the water, I tried to slowly swirl it around the agile fish but was unable to catch even one. Finally I gave up and just slapped the net into the water. After pulling it out, I was surprised to find several fish flipping around.

Much is the same when righting down my own thoughts about events in the US or overseas. While I'm tempted to sit and contemplate my thoughts before I write them down, which I might add would be the educated, logical way to articulate any point, I am going to do something different. I'm going to fire off my ideas stream of conscience and we'll see what happens. There are so many conflicting emotions and thoughts that run through my mind when I see news stories flash across the TV or internet. Why does war happen? Is it avoidable? What does it matter that the US has a gazillion dollar budget deficit? Will it affect my ability to buy a burrito at Chipotle?

While I cannot forecast world events (including the future existence of Chipotle), I get excited when I see cause and consequence in the world and feel there is a valid explanation for both. That is my desire and provide commentary on such subjects in a way that conveys feeling and encourages understanding of the deeper elements hidden behind opaque world events.

This will be a learning experience for anyone reading this. I think it will also be a revealing lesson in capturing my own thoughts and concerns. I study foreign affairs and work with many men and women who have made it a career. The broader question is "do I actually care about all this?" Is it a thought experiment or something that captures my own heart when I write about war crimes or global inequity? I honestly don't know the answer but I'm hoping to move just a bit closer by sharing my thoughts with you.