By the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, Iran ceded all Caucasian territories to Russia. The land was lost in the worst possible way, by military defeat. Historically, this gives rise to revanchism, the political and popular will to regain lost territory. The revanchist impulse is not presently active in Iranian politics. But as Iran is a society with a central ideological source, the theological establishment of Qom, only willful direction is required to activate the impulse. Fortunately for Russia, Iran’s expansionist impulse is directed westward, to Saudi Arabia, and beyond, accompanied by the intent that Israel should disappear. But Saudi Arabia is in the way.
The apparent stability of Saudi Arabia, and effectiveness as a bulwark against Iranian expansion, is consequent to:
- The ruling mandate granted by the clergy to the House of Saud.
- Vast entitlements to princelings who have multiplied exponentially.
But mandates have quid-pro-quos. One of them is a “we-are-one” with Wahabism, from whence have sprung the jihadists in all their forms. Until 9/11, jihadists were tolerated, with the quid-pro-quo of no terrorism inside the kingdom. Saudi Arabia was then a political monolith. Since then, self examination by the rulers has been followed by a glacial move towards a society less beholden to the literal interpretations of Wahabism. Glacial it must be, since it involves reforming the clergy that grants the mandate to rule.
But stemming the funding of terrorism by citizens of the kingdom has been slow, and is not complete today. Across the spectrum of religious opinion, some elements still have sympathies with jihadist goals, not necessarily 9/11 attacks, but furthering the propagation of Wahabism by violent means. Some of the sponsors themselves have Western lifestyles, and are major players in the economic life of the kingdom. Their patronage resembles the buying of indulgences, so popular in the Catholic Church up to the Counter Reformation, removing the guilt of a western lifestyle. Perhaps this contradiction makes the Russians more uncomfortable than it does us.
Oil guarantees the good life and political stability. Now there is genuine concern that oil will not bounce back soon enough for stability. In “U.N. Security Council Syria Statement; Redeveloping the Assad Property” , I wrote,
- An alleged interest in derailing the fracking business in the U.S. Skeptically, the Saudis, with their business experience and intimate knowledge of oil, must have known that fracking is an impossible target for their oil weapon, impossible because the capital needs of fracking are far smaller than the cost of their weapon.
This facilitates the argument that the primary target of the oil weapon is not fracking, but to keep Iran and Russia too poor to efficiently pursue geopolitical goals. As a goal, the destruction of Saudi Arabia, pursuant to establishment of a Shiite caliphate, fits this argument well. The caliphate, the ideal earthly Islamic State, a myth common to all sects, analogizes with the Catholic Church before the advent of the nation-state.
But now the oil weapon is exhausted. There’s plenty of oil, but not enough cash. The Saudis are borrowing (CNN), which they must do for stability. Based on entitlements and make-work jobs, the fabric of Saudi society is not resilient against the kind of western economic disaster that throws people out onto the streets. Apparently thinking that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, Saudi magnates seem desperate to start manufacturing in-country, even when and where the high cost of labor makes no economic sense.
Iran has been looking west since about 1987. The long-range outlook for the far-sighted minds of Qom looks bright:
- Southern Iraq looks like a ripe cherry.
- The Houthi reversals in Yemen are a minor setback that may reverse several more times.
- Saudi Arabia, the candle that burned so bright so long, flickers and dims.
This is good news to Russia. It will take many years, if ever, for the westward drive of Iran to succeed or dissipate. During the interval, the Russian Caucasus is safe from revanchist notions. The top-down, hierarchical organization of Shi’ism, and rampant corruption in Iran comforts the Russians with similarities. It is tempting for a Russian to think, “They’re just like us.” In making war on Sunni jihadists, Iran behaves like an ideal proxy, even though it is entirely self motivated.
Typically, humans back up complicated reasoning with simplified just-in-cases. The Russian backup is balance of power. A divided Middle East implies weaker neighbors; weaker is better. But does the reasoning precede the goal, with meaningful alternatives, or merely rationalize it? Instead of dividing the Middle East, an alternative strategy might attempt to maximize Russian influence. But that would require a Sunni ally. What nation-state candidates exist?
- Egypt has no convenient land bridge to the conflict.
- Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a strong nationalist core.
- Jordan is too small.
In Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire, I wrote,
“Perhaps the Turks would like to try their hand. Since Erdoğan has asserted that Assad must go, Syria, with a complete governmental vacuum, would be most tightly bound to the New Ottoman Empire. Further regions, including Kurdish, could be part of a loose confederation, with the incentive of Turkish transport of Kurdish oil, and Turkish industrialization. The Sunni tribes are at least religiously compatible, the Sunni region serving as the economically useless borderlands between the the New Ottoman Empire, and Southern Iraq.”
But Turkey has not stepped up, because:
- It is an ethnocracy, with no desire to incorporate problematic ethnicities. Russians could learn from this.
- Turkey’s foreign policy slogan, “Zero Problems with our Neighbors“, was designed by and for businessmen.
- They’re too smart. Americans could learn from this.
In “What Went Wrong with the “Zero Problem with Neighbors Doctrine?”, Mustafa Kibaroğlu explains this as a consequence of Russian and Iranian presence in Syria. But as a reason, it also implies the absence of a U.S. counter. This implies a question: Is the absence of a counter partly an issue of reputation?
If you were a foreign leader, having watched American foreign policy since 2001, would you want to get in on the U.S. program? The results might cause you to think, “Those guys are a bunch of losers”. Responsibility crosses party lines. Past U.S. policy was to attempt creation of civil society from the ground up. Current U.S. foreign policy is to give away the problem. There are no takers.
But perhaps a miniature recreation of the New Ottoman Empire is at hand. The Russian intervention may force involvement that the U.S. has not been able to induce. Russia or Turkey cannot by themselves create a stable situation in Syria. But a partition of Syria into two or three smaller de facto states does have that potential. In “U.N. Security Council Syria Statement; Redeveloping the Assad Property”, with Russia and Turkey as additions, I wrote,
“The Assad Property is due for redevelopment. The bidders are Iran, through their Hezbollah proxy, and Saudi Group. Both bidders bring unique assets to the table. Hezbollah is a strong builder but short on dough, contrasting with Saudi Group, who have weak builders but lots of dough.”
Perhaps, in their own time and in their own way, the rump states of Syria would follow the evolution of the Old Swiss Confederacy. Sadly, there is no shortcut to the wisdom of generations.