Christmas Weekend Update: Brexit Deal & Iran

Merry Christmas! Well, a slightly belated Merry Christmas, but a sincere greeting nonetheless. 😊  I hope that all of you enjoyed the holiday. I know this has not been the most typical Holiday Season, but most of us are trying to do the best we can, given the present circumstances. The last week has been active on the international front. As we look forward to the final full week of 2020, some long running dramas are coming to a close while hints of what may loom on the horizon are starting to show.

Foremost is the Brexit finality. Negotiators from Great Britain and the European Union have agreed on a Brexit deal with less than a week remaining before the transition period ends. With a deal now in place the prospect of a messy, disruptive no-deal Brexit can now be laid to rest. The majority of outstanding issues between the UK and EU have been settled and compromises reached.

Now comes the point in time for all of the pundits and talking heads to find a new angle that satisfies their “Brexit is Bad” bylines. Some journalists have made a career out of predicting for the past four years how Brexit would never come about for a myriad of reasons. Instead of admitting the were wrong, eating crow and moving on to a new subject, they’re going to beat the dead Brexit horse for the time being. Oh well, no surprise there.

Iranian proxy groups in Iraq have been busy over the past ten days. Responsibility for the failed rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad was placed on Iranian shoulders by the Trump administration. Tehran has, naturally, denied playing a role in the attack. Despite its insistence, Iranian involvement is very likely. The Iranian government has been seeking a way to strike back at the US following a year in which Iran has not been able to respond effectively to US, Saudi, and Israeli actions in the region. There’s growing concern that the Iranians are preparing to conduct a fresh wave of attacks against US and Israeli targets. The one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani could be used as an occasion to begin these attacks.

Iran Crisis: 8 January Evening Update

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President Trump’s address to the nation this morning laid out the US position in clear terms. Barring any further action by Iran, this crisis is and the ball is now in Tehran’s court. Trump opened the door to future negotiations, calling for a new, revised nuclear deal to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) that was implemented in January of 2016. Trump pointed out that Iran is standing down, a move that certainly helps to reduce tension, and open a pathway for future discussion. The president went on to call for NATO to adopt a larger role in the region, likely hinting at an increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Last summer an effort was made to create a multinational naval force to escort oil tankers through the Gulf and Red Sea waters, however, many European allies of the US balked.

Iran’s internal dynamics are certain to play a large role in the coming weeks and months. As I spoke about this morning, the regime’s priority for the moment is likely centered on survival. Hence the moves to arrest many IRGC commanders who were seen as excessively loyal to Qasem Soleimani. With them out of the picture, Iran’s security apparatus will become a trustworthy instrument with loyalty to the regime and not simply one man. This is a signal that a thawing of US-Iran tensions could be coming in the future, and the regime wants to assure that its vaunted IRGC will not act on its own to stoke the flames.

Alas, it is time to move on to other hotspots around the world. Libya, and North Korea first and foremost. We will continue to monitor and discuss Iran in the coming weeks, but for now, with this crisis concluded, other topics can be highlighted and talked about.

Iranian Crisis: 8 January, 2020 Morning Update

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In a previous article I spoke a bit about how preserving one’s honor, aka saving face, is so significant in Middle Eastern politics. Given all of the troubles already facing it, the Iranian government probably does not want to spark a major war right now. Yet it could not simply allow the Soleimani killing to go unpunished. Tehran had to find an action that would allow it to save face with its allies and Iranian-supported proxy forces around the world, and satisfying internal elements such as the IRGC without inviting major US military action. The missile attacks against Irbil and Al Asad yesterday give the appearance of a compromise. The number of ballistic missiles used was limited, and the target selection demonstrates Iran’s desire not to inflict US casualties. Damage was caused against facilities used by US forces in Iraq, hopefully satisfying the desire for revenge among IRGC officers and troops loyal to Soleimani.

On the heels of the missile attacks are rumors that the IRGC intelligence organization arrested upwards of 50 IRGC commanders who were the most fervent followers of Qasem Soleimani. If true, this demonstrates the regime’s desire to control escalation, and prevent Soleimani’s faction from making unauthorized attacks against US targets in the Persian Gulf region. It also highlights the Iranian government’s main priority at the present time: Survival.

Then there is the Ukrainian airliner crash on the outskirts of the airport in Tehran last night. That will be discussed later, though at the moment it would appear to be a tragic accident at the wrong time.

More updates will come later in the day as time allows.

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.

Waiting For Iran’s Response

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The world waits anxiously for Iran’s response to the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Iran’s leaders wasted little time vowing revenge against the United States, and punctuating those words with symbolic acts designed to inflame the passions of the Iranian people, and of Muslims worldwide. Today, Iran raised a red flag over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque as a representation of a severe battle to come. At this point Iran is almost entirely obligated to retaliate, and Tehran understands this. Soleimani was a senior member of the regime, and largely responsible for the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. His death cannot go unanswered.

As Iran considers its next move, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon are trying to locate clues which might give a hint about what is coming, when, and where. Iran’s fiery rhetoric in the last 24 hours makes it clear emotions are running high. Statements about striking vital US targets have filled the airwaves, and world wide web. Tehran’s first instinct has likely been to strike a high-value, high-visibility US target in the region. An attack that will put the United States, and the world on notice, as well as showcase Iran’s capabilities.

Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, its eyes are bigger than its stomach. If it wants to challenge the US militarily in the Persian Gulf region, the fight will be brief and the end result not in Iran’s favor. Since late spring, the US has been quietly building up its forces in the region in dribs and drabs. A handful of fighters here, a battery of Patriots there. The media has been so obsessed with the impeachment soap opera in Washington that it has barely noticed the movement of forces. Suffice to say, the US has enough hardware on hand around the Persian Gulf to fulfill a host of offensive, and defensive operations should Iran decide to respond militarily, and on a large scale.

On Friday, Iran declared a three-day public mourning period for Soleimani’s death. Once it draws to an close, Iran probably will not waste much time before retaliating. Until then, the waiting game goes on.