Since Iraq seems topical right now, here’s some additional commentary. The nightly news seems fixated in the viewpoint of, “this is what the other parties are doing, and what we should we do about it.” This is more about viewing it as a game, and watching the play.
The main actors in the region are the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the non-state element. The non-state element is an asymmetrical threat, with a strategy that rises little above tactics: take, terrorize, and live off the land. But the state actors have the opportunities to engage in complex strategies.
The second tier actors are the Kurds, the Shiites of southern Iraq, and the Sunnis of the middle region. With their quasi-nation, the Kurds verge on being the swing player of the moment. The Shiites have Iran to watch their backs. The Sunnis, with nothing of value save a barren territory, have no better weapon than passive-aggression.
Now photocopy a map from a book, or print one from the web and draw lines between every actor who hates another actor. If you do this correctly, you will have connected every actor to every other actor, with two exceptions:
U.S. <– >Saudi Arabia should be a “love line”
Shiites of Southern Iraq <–> Iran should be a “love line.”
The reason the U.S. is connected to Kurdistan by a “hate line” is that it is a matter of U.S. policy, influenced by Turkey, to oppose a Kurdish state. As for lines connecting the U.S. to other Iraqi factions, we probably all agree that they are all a pita. Perhaps there should be a special line for this.
That the line connecting the Shiites of southern Iraq with Iran is a “love line” is glossed over in all the diplomatic verbiage that’s slinging around right now. The state religion of Iran was born in Iraq. The most holy Shiite shrines are located there.
The only natural force that by extremely tortured argument could compete with this is Pan-Arabism. Have you heard much of that lately? It was big in the day of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and later revived, without success, by Saddam Hussein. If not dead, Pan-Arabism is very stale.
Part of the appeal of a tie-up between Iraq’s Shiite community, and Iran, solemnized in appropriate documents with the appropriate amount of territory-creep, is the novelty of it. Being a new idea, the follies are not yet known. And, who knows? Maybe the absolute congruence of religion is enough to overcome differences in table manners.
To the Saudis, this would be an Iranian dagger thrust into the heart of the Arab World. Besides their old-man conservatism, which brooks no change, they have a legitimate fear. Every nation in the area has at one point been the heart of an empire, and a caliphate now gleams in the eyes of the mullahs, just as it did in the eye of Saddam Hussein.
Occasionally an idea whose time has come can be stopped by tanks. The Soviets succeeded in Hungary in 1956. The Saudis have the tanks, and the means to get them there, but they have the oil disease. The U.S. has, oddly enough, the generations of young men anxious to test themselves in battle, and in which they always acquit themselves well, but their parents are wiser.
But Iran is unique, consisting of two societies in unequal coexistence. One society is civil, secretly tending towards the secular, and very similar to the West. The other is the religious state. It might be tempting to call it a state-within-a-state, but it really is more than that. It is the uber-state. And, there is within that state, an individual who one might liken to a Robespierre , who you may know as “Mr. Guillotine.” But unlike Robespierre, he is still kicking, the modern author of tyranny in Iran, and he is not Khamenei, with whom he may be co-equal in power. Do you know his name?
If the religious establishment commits the IRG to “struggle”, it may be found an instrument of enormous compressed power, the measured complements of strategy and martyrdom.
Following the 1991 Gulf War, one Indian official was quoted to say, “Don’t fight the United States unless you have nuclear weapons.” The IRG has no such opponent in the region. But is Iran willing to endure the privation that would result? A mere speculation follows. The Russians make a huge distinction between Sunni and Shiite as threats. The Sunnis are the wellspring of terrorism. The Shiites, they argue, are not, even though Iran’s state-sponsored assassination program was prolific into the 90’s, and is still active today. If U.S. efforts to reconstitute Iraq fail, and the ISIS is not obliterated, a congruence of Russian and Iranian interests could bypass Iran’s isolation.