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02/17/17

The Problem with Thinking on Your Knees

Opinion article by Mahmoud Omidsalar


photo: Iran's missile tests

Somewhere in Thinking the Twentieth Century (2009), a book, which is based on a series of conversations between the historians Tony Judt (1948-2010) and Timothy Snyder, Judt says-and I'm paraphrasing-Intellectuals around the world share a common frame of reference because they tend to read the same books, enjoy the same art, and receive their information from the same international network.  Most end up having more in common with one another than they do with the general populations of their respective countries.  Consequently, the Iranian and the Indian, the British and the Brazilian, or the Chinese and the Chilean intellectuals can communicate with each other better than they can with the general public of their own countries.  Their non-intellectual compatriots, especially those of lower economic circumstances, assess social, economic, and political issues differently.

Take the Trump administration's recent threats against Iran.  The Iranian public does not seem particularly alarmed.  These are threats that it has heard a thousand times before.  The more fatalist among them shrug and say, "God does what God wills."  But the more combative say, "Let them come and get a taste of us.  Iran isn't Iraq or Afghanistan."  The group that is driven to despair by Trumps threats is the small minority of intellectuals in and out of Iran.  They are concerned that a fight between Iran and the U.S. can only end in Iran's defeat and destruction.  This view, it seems to me, is born of their vantage point.  That is, if they get off of their knees and look carefully, they might be able to see a better and broader vista.

Two short essays that were recently published in the liberal LobeLog are representative of the alarmist interpretations of the present situation.  Both were written by Iranians who live in the U.S.  The first, entitled, "RT: Call Iran," is by a younger analyst who emphasizes the urgency of establishing a link between the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif and his U.S. counterpart, Rex Tillerson. It refers to Iran's "provocative" missile test, which led to Trump's warning to Iran and suggests that Iran and American may soon end up in war, hence the need for an urgent phone call. 

The second essay, "Iran Should Take American Threats Seriously," by a more seasoned scholar, voices the same concerns; citing Lt. General Micheal Flynn's threat of "officially putting Iran on notice," advises Iranians to take America's threats seriously.  It also argues that Iran's recent missile tests have "dissipated any good will" that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may have generated.  The author suggests that the Trump administration's policies offer only two choices to Iranians.  They can choose to survive "as a country, nation, and culture," or confront the U.S. and risk utter destruction.

Let's assume that Iran's military leadership, virtually all of whom are battle-hardened, and the Iranian government, which has survived some four decades of overt and covert attempts at regime change, are interested in the advice of those of us who live in the United States.  Even so, since America's policy toward Iran remains one of naked aggression regardless of what administration is in power, why should Iran lower its guard or weaken its defensive posture?  Is the United States more likely to attack a weak and vulnerable country or one that is able to mercilessly pound America's regional assets and allies?  The history of the American military operations since the end of the Second World War offers an answer.

Since WW-II, the United States has succeeded in overpowering and defeating only countries that can truly be called defenseless.  The invasion of the tiny Caribbean country of Grenada is a good example.  President Reagan's invasion of Grenada, an island no bigger than Martha's Vineyard with a population that could barely fill the Rose Bowl  marked the end of what was called the "Viet Nam Syndrome."  The invasion took place in October of 1983 and required a force of 7,600 American fighters, supported by naval and air assets.  Some 5000 American soldiers received medals for defeating the Grenadian armed forces, which were made up of 1,200 to 1,500 poorly equipped soldiers.  The victory was later glamorized in Clint Eastwood's 1986 movie, Heartbreak Ridge. 

Between 1945 and 1988, that is, during the decades of the Cold War, the United States engaged in direct large-scale military actions only six times.  After the Cold War and the disappearance of Soviet power as a deterrent, the U.S. relied on military action as an almost exclusive instrument of implementing its foreign policy.  In the period between 1989 (the overthrow of Panama's Manuel Noriega) and 2003 (the overthrow of Saddam Hussein), the United States conducted no less than nine major military interventions in addition to innumerable lesser actions that ranged from firing cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan to bombing various regions of the world (see The New American Militarism, 2005, p.19).  The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has copiously documented America's aggressive use of its Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in his books, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2013), and The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program (2016). 

It is objectively demonstrable that almost all of the countries that became victims of America's post-Cold War aggression were defenseless.  America's longest war, the one in Afghanistan, is in its sixteenth year, and the confused operations against ISIS and its clones-sometimes bombed and sometimes armed by the U.S. and its allies-continue in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  If Iraq's gradual stabilization and the impending defeat of the ISIS in Syria may be interpreted as lights at the end of a long tunnel, they are chiefly results of Iranian actions, rather than anything that the U.S. and its allies have done. 

American statecraft seems to be in freefall, and given the presence of white supremacists that are gathered in Trump's administration, the country's democratic institutions will not be far behind.  But that's no concern for Iran.  What is important for Iran in the context of the boisterousness of the new administration is that the American general staff knows that war with Iran is neither necessary nor as simple as the civilian punditocracy imagines it to be.

According to the Washington Post in February 4th, and shortly after his boss's National Security Advisor put "Iran on notice," the U.S. Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis advocated restraint, adding that the "threat from Iran's missile program does not currently require the realignment of U.S. forces in the Middle East."  Four days later, on February 8th, the Post reported that General Mattis tried once again to calm the overly excitable by pointing out that no military steps against Iran were necessary.  He has consistently spoken against provoking Iran and has even departed from Trump's promise of tearing up the nuclear agreement, saying during his confirmation hearings that the United States should honor the deal.

There are two reasons why Mattis is hesitant to provoke Iran.  First, because he is familiar with the deadly effects of Iranian rockets from personal experience.  In 2011, when he was fighting in Iraq, his troops came under volleys of Iranian rockets that were launched by Iran's so-called "proxies."  He lost 15 soldiers in what the Washington Post described as the worst month for U.S. troops in Iraq in more than two years.  Mattis, therefore, knows the damage that Iranian forces can inflict. 

The second reason is that General Mattis is a seasoned warrior who succeeded General Petraeus as the chief of the Central Command (CENTCOM).  Although he is no dove and is well-known for his aggressive views on Iran, Mattis knows that launching a conventional assault on Iran would require a massive commitment of soldiers and supplies.  To put things in context, consider that, even for the war against the much smaller and less populated Iraq, 466,985 U.S. personnel had to be deployed in addition to the forces that were contributed by the U.S. allies

It is hard to believe that Iran would sit and wait while U.S. forces get into position.  That leaves the option of cruise missiles and air assaults.  But modern Iran is not the same country that went to war with Saddam in the 80s.  Not long ago, the Iranian Air Defense operators took over one of America's most advanced drones and landed it in Iran.  According to the Guardian, the Iranians have built attack drones similar to the one that they captured from the U.S. by reverse-engineering it.

During a recent interview, General Mohsen Rezaei, the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who now serves as Iran's secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, pointed out that Iran's military capabilities have advanced far beyond American expectations.  He added that, in spite of this progress, he believes that Iran's most lethal weapon is not its advanced tools of war, but the vast military experience that the country's armed forces have gained in the past four decades.  Referring to the recent missile tests that have been called "provocative" by so many, Rezaei said:

We don't claim that we should start randomly firing missiles in response to Trump's threats.  Such an action would amount to adventurism.  Of course if the enemy moves against us, we will definitely respond.  But we will not be the one who starts anything.  If Trump is allowed to believe that threats work and can cause fear, he will increase his threats.  He is a bully ... if he feels that his opponent can also be a bully, he will back down.  Otherwise, he will keep advancing.  ... Showing weakness has often led to war. ... Our most important defensive doctrine is to maintain our strength as a deterrent against war.  Our strength is our means of deterrence. ... I ask those who are against strengthening our military: If we had our present power at the time of Saddam's invasion, could he had dared to invade us?  There may be no doubt that the answer to this question is "No."  Don't let anyone mislead you into asking: Why is Iran after developing its missile capabilities at all?  If we are weak, if we don't have missiles then we will have war. ... Let me humbly tell our intellectuals that the view that Iran's having missiles will lead to war is wrong.  On the contrary, if we don't have missiles, then we will have war.

The present nervous reaction to the Trump administration's aggressive statements about Iran is an overreaction.  It reminds me of the poem, "The Little Man Who Wasn't There," by William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965):

As I was going up the stair

I met a man who wasn't there!

He wasn't there again today,

I wish, I wish, he'd stay away!

America's over-extended military, the unpopularity of the governments of the U.S.'s Persian Gulf allies, and the weakness and vulnerability of their forces and assets all work in Iran's favor.  Moreover, the size and quality of the Iranian forces, and the devastating results of any clash between Iran and the U.S. for the whole region and the world, make General Flynn's threats meaningless.  With the recent news of his resignation, it seems General Flynn has turned into Iran's "The Little Man Who Wasn't There."

About the author:

About the Author: Mahmoud Omidsalar obtained his Ph.D. in Persian Literature from the Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley, where he also studied Folklore under Alan Dundes. In addition to publishing many essays on Persian literature and folklore, he has also edited the 6th volume of the new critical edition of the Shahnameh, under the general editorship of Professors Khaleghi-Motlagh and Ehsan Yarshater. He has served on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Iranica since 1990, and was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Center for the Great Islamic Encyclopedia (Tehran) in 2006. In 2004, the first volume of his collected English and Persian papers received the book of the year award of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran.  His most recent English book, "Iran's Epic and America's Empire" was published by Afshar Publishing in 2012


 Iran's Epic and America's Empire by Mahmoud Omidsalar
order from amazon
A Handbook for a Generation in Limbo
Trade Paperback: $24.99; 240 pages; ISBN: 978-0962766497
Publication Date: May 15, 2012
Publisher: Afshar Publishing

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