Important Iraq Question

The media has observed that two of the three  “domestic” parties of the Iraq sitution, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, seem incapable of acting in their own self-interest, even in the face of an increasingly mortal threat discussed in a Reuters article.

An obvious question presents: Is this incapability mainly a consequence of the fathomless depths of human stupidity, of a brinksmanship  primarily of domestic origin, or is this the ruthless use of proxies, with Iran as the primary suspect?

Iran’s presence is huge. But, tempering, to conclude that Iran is the cause of the failure of compromise to occur would be a form of abduction. The classic example of abduction is, “The grass is wet, so it must have rained.” Depending upon the circumstances, it could be a very good guess, or a very bad one.

Fencing a problem is one of the basics of the predictor’s toolkit. In this instance, the question takes a very general, nonspecific form. At the very least, the absence of an obvious open-source answer underscores the limitations of the news media.

From previous posts, you may surmise that I think I know the answer to this question. I have a bias, but predicting is best served by holding all the possibilities in mind at once. True facts are rare, distinguished mostly by omission in discussion.

Putin Not Blinking

Reuters says, “Russia’s Putin not blinking in ‘last chance saloon’ ” Suppose he finally has religion, and wants to do the right thing.  Some of the problems in doing this are discussed in “Putin, rodeo bull rider“, and “Putin’s paramilitary problem“.

Putin cannot seal the border by standing there with a gun. He has to find people who are willing to do this. The Russian soldiers now there have exchanged bear hugs and Russian kisses with their comrades in arms, the paramilitaries. So, as far as this task, their loyalty to Putin, as opposed to the romantic, nationalistic “Russian People”, is questionable.

So while Putin appears to be doing nothing, it is entirely possible that he is already asking around for individuals who would be willing to clean up this situation in return for some money. Putin’s billions come in handy. Of course, he would like to get the job done as cheaply as possible.

The shoot-down of MH-17 provides an important sales point to prospective recruits to this duty. They are saving Russia’s honor, not betraying her, by isolating paramilitaries who are now identified, to use a favorite Soviet expression, as “renegades”. But there is still an organizational task. Individuals enticed to this duty  must be formed into units, promises made for future rewards, a command hierarchy formed, transport arranged, and the existing Russian Army units must be moved out of the way.

As discretely as this may be accomplished (or not), the impact on political liberties will be severe for years to come. The affair defies burying by state propaganda.  Containing the threat to Putin’s legitimacy will severely impact the social media climate. The Ukraine will periodically resurface like the unwelcome dead of Tiananmen_Square.


Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17

Although it is popular to blame the rebels for the shoot-down, it may have been done by the Russians themselves. By this line of reasoning, the airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport plane.

Quoting Reuters, “But Russia kept up pressure on Kiev over the cross-border shell incident. A Russian newspaper, citing a source close to the Kremlin, said on Monday that Moscow was considering the possibility of pinpoint strikes on Ukraine in retaliation.

It’s the kind of small-scale, pushbutton atrocity we have become inured to. For why Putin does not seem touched, see “Putin, Rodeo Bull Rider.”

Putin, rodeo bull rider

With the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, you may be wondering, “When is that cruel man Putin going to find his heart and put a stop to this?” It is doubtful that he can. Putin is riding a bull, and if he gets off, he will get stomped.

In 2007, I asked a young Russian woman to name Putin’s greatest achievement. She replied, “Staying alive.” A few years before then, Moscow was like Chicago in the 30’s. That it is not today is the result of some very sophisticated measures of control, discussion of which would be a digression.

But in spite of examples to the contrary in domestic politics, people tend to view Russia as a “Game of Thrones”, with Putin the  Czar of all Russia. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Russia lacks a political class that even loosely fulfills Will Roger’s description of the U.S. Congress, it has an economic class, the “Oligarchs”, who wear both hats.  When Putin ascended, power was concentrated in a mere seven of them. He has managed to considerably increase the number, which, in Russia, counts for progress.

Perhaps our worst fears of Putin’s negativity towards political pluralism will come to pass, but he sends top students abroad, particularly to the U.K., where they will inevitably become infected with ideals. Why would Putin accept the risk of infection, when they can learn to program in Java at home?

Possibly, it is because Putin really would prefer, on his eventual departure, to hand the country over to an advanced political class, of the type formerly nurtured here by the “Eastern Intellectual Establishment.” I miss those days. But there is a gap approximating a generation. Russia runs on money. The whole of the oligarchic structure is composed of elements that would devour every living, moral thought in the country. The only institution that could conceivably serve as a moral gap-filler is the Orthodox Church.

Much has been made of Putin’s hidden billions, with the spin of hidden fortune, hidden aggrandizement, hidden corruption. Now, look at the man. Do you see him dripping with bling, and gals on the arm? Are there rumors that he sleeps, as did Gandhi, with seven virgins? His style is all of a piece with Warren Buffet’s.

When I wrote a paper about Putin’s character, I omitted mention of a hidden fortune, not because I disbelieved it, but because I could not find a citation without the word, “rumor.” But it is certainly plausible that it exists, and it is large. One plausible reason accompanies the existence of the billions: to buy Russia back.

But, you say, he has Russia. What does he need to buy? The fortune may be real, but the idea that he rules Russia truly is an illusion. If a collusion of oligarchs attempts to remove him, the money is to buy the country back. The price would be huge, but, as we have seen, he is a providential planner. And at stake, literally, is the Soul of All Russia.

This is why, in the administration of a domestically oriented President with a not-so-great foreign policy record, the policy of sanctioning the oligarchs is brilliant. If and when the oligarchs decide, military disengagement with the rebels will occur. But they have a problem. By now,  the oligarchs have gotten the message that, if they betray the rebels, some people who are handy with guns and have long memories will obtain what they call justice. It would be hard to distract these disaffected people, because it is hard to become fat, happy, and lazy in Russia. Life is just not that easy there.

If Putin and his inner circle decide to do the right thing, they are then faced with arranging the mysterious disappearances, accidents, falling down stairs, getting run over by cars, etc., of hundreds of people. These days, arranging even one unfortunate accident can take years.


Centrifuges; an alternate explanation

Parisa Hafezi,  Reuters Bureau chief in Tehran, has written “Iran election tactics drive nuclear deal timetable

The discipline of predicting requires that one hold all possibilities in the mind at once. Favoritism towards one’s own  theory is deadly to the process.

Hafezi says Khamenei’s speech is viewed by Iranian analysts as an election tactic, to prevent Rouhani from being perceived, just before the election,  as saving the country. She says this is important to Khamenei to prevent the moderates from gaining too much political power.

So now we have two explanations. Hafezi’s is political/tactical. Mine has a strategic, geopolitical flavor.

Which is right? Could Khamenei have in mind a mix of strategy and tactics, in an as yet undecided, fuzzy-logic kind of way? I know that’s how I decide about what snack to eat.

“Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’”

The author of the article, “Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run“, has a remarkable background: writing graphic novels, and articles for “Danger Room”, “Wired”, and “Popular Science.” We can thank the designers of the plane that they have other stuff to read.

This kind of so-called reporting makes me mad, because the editors of Reuters, CNN, et al. have a choice. They can find someone with the requisite background to “dumb-down” the technicals to make a little bit of it accessible to the public, or they can select a member of the general public to write the piece. Increasingly, they choose the latter. It took thousands of engineers millions of man-hours to design the plane, which is now described to us by a writer of graphic novels.

As it happens, I have some background in detecting airplanes. Mr. Axe needs to take a few graduate courses in stochastics, followed by a few in prediction/estimation, Kalman filtering, read Itzak Bar-Shalom’s book on data fusion, study noise identification, of which I wrote a few of the very few published papers on the subject, and then progress to the modern literature on the subject, available in the IEEE journals.

And then, only then, if Mr. Axe can put down his crayons, will he begin to understand the problem of detecting this airplane. The secret sauce is that the planes are designed to fly in minimums of pairs, and more recently, with an F-15 as company, because it, too, has specialized capabilities.

Our adversaries have very smart people, so it would surprise me if anything I said here verged on classified information. Nevertheless, since I have the background, it is possible that I have figured some things out. The last time I presented a conference paper, there were some pretty attentive PRC lurkers. So I will not say as much as I know.

As for Mr. Axe, I am sure his ability with crayons exceeds my own. With those instruments in his hands, he is invincible.


Khamenei’s Centrifuges; Breaking the Dollar

This was being methodically developed, with the Ahmadinejad story, in the direction of “Iran’s Three Foreign Policies.” But that raconteuring has been  interrupted by Khamanei’s July 7 speech, which is now said to have surprised the Iranian negotiating team, and made an agreement with the six powers impossible.

I was going in the direction of showing that Iran’s foreign policy was not integrated, and now this? I guess I’ll have to go with the flow. The West had the estates of the realm, but nothing like this, which is more like Mongolian throat singing.

Many nations consider the U.S. to be a hegemonic power. Putin, considering the U.S. to be an economic parasite on the world, wants to break the dollar. Countries that owe large amounts of dollar denominated debt dream of a trading system in which they would not run a deficit. Argentine/Russian partnering in nuclear energy is one such example. Particularly as Russia is losing the Ukraine, Putin’s sour grapes may have caused him to extend in directions that are not yet apparent. Because, if you’re a termite, and you want to take down a house, wood is wood wherever you find it.

Putin’s desire to break the dollar, and Iran’s need to escape the sanctions, which are based on dollar controls, are a coincidence of need. Never mind that Russia is one of the six negotiating with Iran. Breaking the dollar is even more important. Because foreign banks are chafing under the burden of U.S. penalties, the receptive audience has expanded a bit.

Khamenei spends all day thinking. Iraq is under his microscope.  Sanctioned, locked in as it is, Iraq is one point where Iranian foreign policy has a crowbar. So the speculation that follows is based on what preoccupies Khamenei’s mind, and what tools are available to him to advance Iran’s interest.

There are new U.S. initiatives to reach out to Sunnis. Two wordings have been used. One is to identify and arm moderate Sunnis. The other is to pay the Sunni tribes to eject the ISIS (citation missing.) Because we think everyone should just love one another, it does not strike us that Iran could see an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Shi’ites and the U.S.  But I think it strikes Khamenei. He certainly has the machinery to do it. The Mahdi Army can easily be stoked to madness.

But of what rational motive? Khamenei could reason that control over exports from Iraq’s southern fields would provide enough leverage to break the sanctions. And why would Russia wish to help? Because breaking the monopoly of the dollar, initially with a new scheme for trading oil, takes precedence over the price of oil.

Putin gets a new currency. Iran gets 90K centrifuges. China gets cheaper oil. If this is a shared calculation of Putin and Khamenei, is it correct? I am not knowledgeable enough to say. Both sides make mistakes. We cannot omit from our calculations the factors of boredom, frustration, and the feeling, by our opponents, of being contained. As the saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” (It’s a fun Google search.)

I am  gratified that former Deputy Director of the CIA John McLaughlin shares in some degree my sentiments about the Kurds.



Ahmadinejad the cipher; the putsch that never was?

He is out of office now, but he shook the Iranian system so hard, it rang like a bell, and we got to hear the tone.   There is an experiment in systems engineering, called “system identification”, where you’re given a black box which has terminals. You can stimulate the system inside the box with signals, i.e., shake it, and analyze what comes out. If the box is tested in this way thoroughly enough, what’s inside can be mathematically determined.

The first study of the human body was anatomy, the detailed description of all the parts as they visibly appear. Then came function on a macroscopic level, physiology: the coursing of the blood, respiration, metabolism, proceeding in an ever-more microscopic direction, until all becomes chemistry.

Iran a Country Study, (Federal Research Division) is a useful anatomic reference. Some political descriptions are not properly integrated through the text, though it’s a minor cavil, and it has no bias.  After Khomeini (Arjomand, Oxford, 2009) is the physiology, with the degree of analysis appropriate to a conservative historian, writing for the record, with justification in facts.

Iran frustrates analysts with unpredictability. Iranian physiology is not well predicted by the anatomy. In our confusion, we seek the grease that makes the wheels turn, that allows exercise of power. Two suspects are money and ideas.  The governments of Russia and Iran  have roughly similar gross anatomies. Yet while Russia runs mostly on money, Iran has a much stronger idea component. For extremes, look to the Mafia and the Vatican.

That the exercise of power depends upon only one or two things is not to negate or deny all the positive qualities we celebrate in humanity.  But Putin, regardless of the purity of his motives, relies on money for power. To move beyond that is not currently possible in Russia. If we suppose the mullahs have motives in some way admirable, they must still rely on the dual levers of money and ideas.

Imagine that the attitudes and actions of an Iranian public figure wander about the inside of an ellipse, which has two axis: money and ideas. The area of the ellipse is Π*$*ideas. If the ellipse is squashed on either axis, the freedom of action moves towards zero. The constantly shifting interplay that between money and ideas creates variety in the mind of the individual, and lessens the predictability.

We can avoid being sophomoric if we use simple models such as these, not to reach great truth, but to focus our thoughts. A model can be  tested by events and found practically useful, or found too simple and in need of elaboration. With Iran, a two dimensional model is compatible with some features of the conflict surrounding Ahmadinejad.

Arjomand divides Iranian society, which has always been class-conscious, into three strata: clerical, political, and common.  The political class includes the military-security apparatus, of which Ahmadinejad has been a member since the 1979 revolution.  His election in 2005 marked the eclipse of the reformers who, containing some percentage of secular sympathies, threatened the core of theocracy. But even in his first term,  conflicts with Khamenei occurred in which statutory resolution and extralegal power grabs by both occurred in rapid succession. Yet in 2009  Khamenei, still afraid of the reformers, acted to ensure the reelection of Ahmadinejad by fraud.

The conflicts of Ahmadinejad’s first term  had an elastic quality; both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei appeared to adhere to the rules of a contest for power that had leeway of interpretation. In fact, there were no rules, yet each conflict was self-limited, with each appropriation by one followed with a negation by the other. Each player seemed to have some confidence as to the maximum response of the other.  Perhaps Ahmadinejad knew that Khamenei wanted to preserve the semblance of a functional president.   Negation without repeal of Ahmadinejad’s actions satisfied Khamenei because he was secure in his clerical prerogative, the “Mandate of the Jurist” conceived by Khomeini, that vested Khamenei with ultimate power.

Arjomand states that Khamenei did not realize that, in 2009, by a fraud that destroyed a democracy, he became the singular counterbalance to the  entire military-security complex. This would be a prescription for revolution, were it not for Khomeini’s “Mandate”. While Egypt and Thailand are the most recent examples, Eisenhower’s caution, “Beware of the military-industrial complex“, seems generally justified. So if Ahmadinejad could  bypass or negate  the clerical prerogative, it would, on the condition of deep support in the IRG, have opened the door for a putsch.

It is not likely that Ahmadinejad will return to politics. So why the story? It is about two powerful individuals, shadowboxing in the light of a government that, as of 2005, had just been deprived of some vital institutions. Each player interpreted the remaining institutions according to either the law, or his own desires, subject to what he thought the other player would tolerate without drawing a gun. The slang for this is, each could read the mind of the other.

This offers an intelligence strategy. The visible aspects of Iran’s government offer the opportunity to observe interactions, and derive relationships. The derivations are more important than the anatomy.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad merely wanted to diminish the power of the clerical estate.  Perhaps he was just nuts. One looks to an individual’s past statements, speeches, and writings for clues to his goals. But his statements are not consistent. Before we make too much of this, inconsistency of belief systems is fairly common in the region. The  Alawite sect of Syria has been described as syncretistic, a fusion of mutually incompatible ideas.

The Ahmadinejad/Khamenei conflict appeared  rooted in ideas and form of government. Although much of Ahmadinejad’s job involved the disbursement of public money in highly personal gestures, it never became visibly central to the conflict.But the clergy actually is highly monetized, and many engage in conspicuous consumption that is resented by the third, lowest stratum.

Although money does not appear explicitly in this conflict, it is reasonable to ask if it has a dark presence. The self interest is disguised in the  dark courses of the bonyads, or charitable foundations of the mullahs, an estimated 40% of the economy. This would provide a reason of rational self-interest for a putsch by the military-security apparatus. They already control the military-industrial complex, but with the addition of the bonyads, their control would surmount the entire economic system of Iran.

The intersection of ideas and money in Iran is difficult to map.

Next: Ahmadinejad’s beliefs. Current divisions in Iran’s government.






Legitimacy in Iran

Before we bake an intelligence cake, there is a case that the way Iranians behave today has roots going all the way back to the Sassanian Empire of ancient Persia. I’m not a big fan of  heavy historical influence because so many civilizations shed their skins and fuggadaboudit. But Iran, something in the water? In this case, it might have to do with poetry.

The apex of Iran’s government is a theocracy, but it must contain unusual, hidden features. As Robert Baer remarked (previous post), Iran frustrates analysts, providing continual surprise. This suggests that, at the unconscious level, we share a common framework of thought that needs revision.

The concept of power we intuitively reach for may be the result of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which mostly killed off the early Christian heresies. Apart from the Eastern Orthodox split-off, the right to rule became a mostly bipolar contest between the monarchs, and the Church, and remained so until  Martin Luther. And the number 2 admits the most simple definition of power: A having power over B means that A can make B do something. This is the street meaning, which has lead to many misunderstandings, such as the notion that the U.S. President is the most “powerful” chief executive in the world.

The most powerful rulers in the modern period were probably the stronger Russian Czars, culminating with Stalin. For them, and for Saddam Hussein, the visible symbol of power was capricious execution.   Hitler was by comparison  a political animal, a minter of power, which he cannily distributed among various fiefs.

But the  arc of Iran is not the arc of the West. It is a path with surprising twists: pluralistic, communistic, “free love”, multicultural tolerance; episodes of fascinating social experimentation echoing modernity; each ending with the barbarity characteristic of the ancient world.

Persian poetry is everything the chador hides. Theoretically, it should have been digested away by the puritanical aspects of Shi’ism, but there it is, as perfect as a diamond pulled from a dark rock seam. It is actually an intelligence question to ask: Who in the leadership likes Persian poetry? For those who wonder if music is a mind-virus, Ferdowsi is proof that a meme can survive fifty generations. And Ferdowsi, who wrote when Islam had already come to Persia, was himself motivated as a preservationist. The persistence of pre-Islamic cultural memes could include legitimacy of the right to rule: how it is acquired, transmitted, and rescinded. At least two historians of Iran have looked at this.

At the apex, political power springs from legitimacy. In the West, although the “divine right of kings” was not codified until late, it actually goes way back. Any “Christian” victor in a bloody hatchet job was eager to use sanctification for validation. Perhaps this worked because it was imposed, along with Christianity, on a culturally primitive Europe.

In A History of Iran, (Basic, 2008) Michael Axworthy relates a more sophisticated theory of legitimacy (p57). Quoting, “The king ruled on the basis of divine grace… (kvarrah)…and was allowed to raise taxes and keep soldiers, but only on the basis that he ruled justly and not tyrannically…The abstract principle could be used by either side.”

The contrast with the Magna Carta, the first attempt in the West to limit monarchical power, is striking. The Magna Carta is a legal document. The Persian equivalent is based on a principle, without specifying who is to interpret, or judge. Another writer, whose name eludes me, analogizes with the Tyrian purple dye of royal use, saying that the legitimacy of a Sassanian ruler was like a dye that stained the ruler, and his inheritors. But under certain circumstances, that dye, the sign of legitimacy, could be lost. Most Persian dynastic changes occurred in the usual, brutal way, but there is at least one case, (ditto, p65) where the ruler was put on trial.

But how operative is such an ancient principle in modern times? Axworthy’s account of the revolution of 1905-1911 is telling. Multiple poles (excluding the foreign elements) emerged in contention: the ulema (religious establishment), defending religious prerogative, a Majlis (legislature), seeking legitimacy, an intelligentsia seeking revolution, and the Shah, defending himself. In1906, Iran had more than a hundred newspapers (ditto, p204.)

In addition to the usual revolutionary bullets, they were arguing. No other 20th century revolution resembles this. The modern revolution is a secretive decapitation strike, where movements of force are visible, but with communiques rather than literature.

Axworthy’s subtitle, “Empire of the Mind”, gains inspiration from Churchill, who said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind” (Harvard University, September 6, 1943). The 1979 revolution shared this split nature, the richness of the factional landscape, accompanied by the usual measure of horrific brutality.

The violence was horrific enough, yet it did not achieve the stunned silence of Stalin’s Russia, or of Chinese villages when Mao was executing landowners. Instead, a largely secular society rebounded, denied public expression, but with accommodation by the theocracy in the private sphere, by what we might call institutional hypocrisy. The dichotomy between public and private behavior in what is more than nominally (and less than totally) a theocracy is striking. And theocracy is a Khomeini innovation, new to Shi’ism. This is why Ayatollah Sistani is so withdrawn in Najaf. According to classical Shi’ism, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So Islamic theocracy is vulnerable from the perspective of Shi’ite ideology.

This is a scene where the right to rule cannot be settled. Each faction tries to acquire the purple dye; each fails. It gives reason  to Ahmadinejad’s strategy: a religious claim to legitimate rule, yet independent of Qom. But what made him think he would succeed?

Next: Applying this to the Ahmadinejad weirdness; intelligence factoids; baking the intelligence cake.