Friday, December 15, 2006

Some thoughts on using Middle East instability

Earlier this week I asked whether there could be any strategic value to instability in the Middle East. There were no takers on the question, so I am going to try to expand on that idea a little bit here.

First, the instability in Iraq is not optimal for our purposes. However, the instability that does exist there at least opens up some some opportunities to reduce the instability. First off, the instability in Iraq has the Saudis a little antsy, correct? They are threatening to support the Iraqi Sunni if we bail. Since it is a realistic possibility that we might bail, why not use that as leverage? Tell the Saudis this: We'll stick around and continue to work on stabilizing Iraq, but you, Saudi Arabia, need to do something for us. If you keep pumping as much oil as you can, regardless of whatever limits OPEC sets, other OPEC oil producers will follow your lead. This will press oil prices lower. Were not talking $12 a barrel prices here, but still significant decreases. The one country that can probably least afford to see oil prices drop is Iran. That would play into the next step-instability that benefits us and Iraq.

Iran's economy has been bad and the Iranian government is very dependent on oil revenues. Lower oil prices will exacerbate that. Now Iran has been giving off the appearance of strength through all of its bluster the past year, but internally Iran is not as strong as it appears. First and most importantly, Ayatollah Khamenei is quite ill and it is unlikely he will live another year. There is likely a behind the scenes power struggle going on in Iran right now for the right to be his successor. Secondly, there has been discontent nationwide over the economy. Ahmadinejad's promises on the economy and relief were part of what got him his position. Third, students in Iran have been restless. Fourth, there are ethnic minorities in Iran, too, and there has been enough discontent amongst them that there are some areas of Iran that Ahmadinejad has not visited yet despite a promise to visit all parts of the country. None of those things alone are enough to cause Iran much trouble. If their economy gets much worse, though, all of those problems intensify and start to play off of each other a little. If you can get the Saudis to go along with the oil plan and prices do depress, even to $45 or $50 a barrel, then you put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Iranian economy at a time when they are also trying to invest funds in their nuclear program. With that much instability internally in Iran, their focus is going to have to turn inward in an attempt to maintain control over their own internal security. That will hopefully at least lessen the hand they are playing in both Iraq via the Shi'ite militias and also Lebanon via Hezbollah. That would give us an opening to stabilize Iraq at the very least and hopefully give Lebanon the chance to steel itself against Hezbollah. With any luck, things even get a little out of hand in Iran, which would leave Syria on an island, which would give us our greatest chance of prying them away from Iran.

So what I am saying in a slightly rambling manner is why not use Iraqi instability in a way that can create instability in Iran? Iran is the major outside problem for Iraqi stability. If we can force Iran to turn inward to deal with serious domestic problems, then we lessen the amount they can encourage the insurgency in Iraq and, by extension, the amount that Syria can do. It doesn't solve the age old conflict between Sunni's and Shi'ites, but without Iran stirring the pot as much, it makes the friction between the two more manageable.

Is this plan perfect? No. Afterall, I just cobbled it together with some thoughts I've been mulling over. And if we did something like this, we'd certainly need other prongs of action to shore up Iraq. There is enough to it though that I think we can use Middle East instability to our advantage if we play our cards right. The problem with playing with instability is that you can end up with unintended consequences. Unfortunately, instability is the name of the game right now, and I'm beginning to think we need to start playing it ourselves.

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