Iran and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

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At this point of the crisis the United States has laid its cards out on the table. Any sort of Iranian retaliation will likely result in air and cruise missile strikes against Iranian targets. The dilemma for Iran is how to retaliate and obtain revenge without it resulting in Tehran becoming the world’s largest parking lot. Pretty neat trick if they can pull it off, but highly improbable. The US killing of Qasem Soliemani must be avenged otherwise Iran will lose a tremendous amount of influence across the region. Saving face is an important aspect of geopolitics in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Iran has placed itself in a corner and has limited options to work with right now.

Many of my colleagues on the academic side of the IR field are using the Prisoner’s Dilemma model for this particular situation. I certainly understand their reasoning. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a standard model of game theory explaining how two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce an optimal outcome in a given situation. It is a clean, logical, straightforward instrument. Unfortunately, logic exists only in a controlled environment such as a lecture hall, or a lab. In the real world, there are hundreds of variables that can produce a desultory effect on a situation, and therefore cannot be effectively modeled ahead of time. There are countless examples of this found in economics, politics, international relations, and military strategy throughout history.

It would be counterproductive for me to lay out some models of strategic interaction, and use them to explain the present crisis, and forecast what might come next. The main purpose of this blog is to discuss current geopolitical developments unfolding around the world, and to do so in a manner less formal than what you’d find at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, or the Kennedy School of Government up at Harvard. In any event, now is not the time for this crisis to be modeled, or analyzed through game theory. That comes in the postgame period when folks will sit down and review the crisis with all of the facts available, and the benefit of hindsight applicable.

The time for this will come, however, that time is not the present. There is still a lot of crisis left to play out and this one will include a number of unanticipated twists and turns. As mentioned above, this is the real world where things are not as neat and clear as they are in a lecture hall or conference room.

21 September, 2019: Iran Update

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As the United States military prepares to move additional forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, Iran is threatening to pursue and destroy any aggressor, and that war might be unavoidable. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview on Face The Nation, which will be shown Sunday morning.  In it, the diplomat stressed that should a conflict erupt between Iran and the United States, it will not be a limited war. Meanwhile, as the latest US troop movement prepares to get underway, the Pentagon revealed that the mission of the troops is defensive in nature and will focus on air and ballistic missile defense. Assistance was formally requested by the Saudis. Along with the deployment, the US has announced it will be providing additional military hardware to its Gulf allies. The purpose behind this move is simple. Should the current tension bring about a military confrontation, it is in Washington’s best interest for US allies in the Gulf region to be properly equipped and supplied.

 

On Friday, the Trump administration also raised economic pressure on Iran. A new round of sanctions will target Iran’s national bank, a move that has the potential to cut off Iran’s dwindling access to global markets. When it comes to hard currency, Iran is running short. Further US pressure will make matters worse, and likely spur Tehran to take action similar to last weekend’s attacks sometime in the near future.

 

The coming week will see a new realm in the US-Iran crisis open up. The UN General Assembly will be underway, and the situation in the Persian Gulf will undoubtedly be a major topic. It remains to be seen if Iran’s leadership will meet with President Trump. Another area to be watched carefully will be US efforts to build an anti-Iran coalition and how successful they are. On Monday, we’ll discuss the UN General Assembly in greater detail.

Iran Promises ‘All Out War’ If Attacked

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Less than twenty-four hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities to be an act of war, his Iranian counterpart warned the world that any US or Saudi military action against Iran will lead to an ‘all out war.’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on to explain that while Iran does not wish for war, it is prepared to defend itself should war come. His comments today have escalated the war of words presently underway between the Iranian regime and the Trump administration.

Zarif’s verbal barrage comes on the heels of not only Pompeo’s words, but also Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it believes Iran ‘unquestionably sponsored’ the attacks. Riyadh stopped short of openly blaming Iran, however. In yesterday’s statements, the Saudi government did explain its intention to gather more information on the attack. Specifically, determining the launch points of the cruise missiles. As I hinted at in a post the other day, this explanation could be little more than a screen to hide what is taking place behind the scenes. The US has incontrovertible proof that Iran is entirely responsible for the attack and the intelligence has been shared with the Saudi leadership and its military.

The other Gulf States appear to be aligning themselves with the United States as the crisis escalates. Today the United Arab Emirates announced it would be joining the US-led maritime coalition now being put together. Bahrain has previously said it too would be a part of the effort. Kuwait has raised the alert level of its military and security services as a precautionary measure. The Kuwaitis are also investigating the detection of unidentified UAVs over its territory earlier in the week, in an attempt to determine if there is a link to Iranian actions and future intentions.

 

The Saudi Military Option

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As Iran’s role in the ARAMCO attacks becomes clear Saudi Arabia finds itself at a critical moment. Iran was responsible for the attacks against Saudi oil facilities over the weekend. Drones and missiles were launched from sites inside of Iran. US sources have confirmed it, and provided more detailed information on the locations of the sites. There is no question.

Now, the Saudis must decide how to respond to a clear act of aggression on the part of Iran. Understandably, Riyadh is moving cautiously. However, given the circumstances of the moment, it may need to pick up the pace and reach a decision sooner than it would like. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally are engaged in a high-stakes geopolitical chess match and for better or worse the Saudis are positioned right in the middle. Iran can needle the US by launching attacks against Saudi Arabian targets, either through its Houthi proxy, or on its own, as we are seeing. The United States cannot launch an attack against Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf. Especially not now with the UN General Assembly week beginning today. Timing is everything.

This might explain why the Saudis have elected not to respond militarily yet. Retaliating against Iran as the world meets in New York would be a mistake, plain and simple. Riyadh is buying time, claiming it needs to examine the evidence and reach its own conclusions regarding the attack. But if it waits too long to respond, Tehran will be emboldened, and assume it will not be held accountable for its actions. Another attack will be made against the kingdom, inevitably forcing the United States to respond with military action. Where the crisis goes from that point is anyone’s guess.

General Assembly week also provides Saudi Arabia the opportunity to quietly prepare its forces for a military option, should one be ordered. At present, the Royal Saudi Air Force is oriented towards operations in Yemen. Given that the RSAF would be the main force used in a military effort against Iran, it requires time to shift its focus and prepare for operations against Iran. Those preparations could be underway right now, quietly of course. Should this be the case, expect any Saudi military response to occur within hours of the General Assembly drawing to an end on 30 September, 2019.

Iran Update 22 July, 2019: US Military Preparations Underway in the Gulf Region

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In light of the worsening situation in the Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern waterways, United States efforts to build a multi-national naval force dedicated to the protection of oil tankers are ramping up. The Trump administration has approached a number of NATO allies as well as American allies in the Middle East. The creation of a naval force is the next logical step in the drama unfolding in the Persian Gulf. Iranian actions against oil tankers in the Gulf continue and Tehran shows no indications of easing anytime soon. Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises and operations have become a regular part of the US Navy’s playbook and they will be used to one extent or another in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) is preparing to reactivate Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. PSAB, as it is affectionately known to most folks who’ve been there was the predominant US air installation in the Middle East until 2003. In the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom operations at PSAB were transferred to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Since then, Al Udeid has been the main US airbase in the region.

Now US access to Al Udeid is no longer guaranteed. Qatar has been moving away from its traditional Gulf State allies since the Saudi-sponsored embargo, and towards Tehran in some ways. As a result, the Qataris could possibly place restrictions on US air operations at Al Udeid. Such restrictions would have an adverse effect on all US military operations in and around the Persian Gulf. Instead of running that risk, the US is preparing PSAB in case it is needed. And according to some sources at CENTCOM, Prince Sultan is slated to become the main hub of US air activity in the Middle East regardless of what happens with Al Udeid and the Qataris.