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It’s no surprise the wheels are coming off in Syria, and in the absence of an agreement between the various parties regarding Syria at the upcoming Munich Security Conference, things are certain to deteriorate further and at an increased pace.
Therefore, the pressure is on all sides to arrive at a solution to prevent further bloodshed among the civilian population in Syria and to prevent an escalation between the various military groups operating in the region.
Good Intentions Gone Awry
There was at one time, a completely plausible plan for the region that has gone off the rails — not because any side opposed it — but because there was no oversight to bring the plan to fruition.
In between President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, the Arab Spring, and the U.S. elections that brought Donald Trump to the White House, the Syrian situation was left unguided and (no surprise!) it therefore deteriorated.
Major powers are now bombing each other’s troops and shooting down each other’s aircraft (and who knows what else is going on that isn’t reported) which makes escalation a foregone conclusion in the absence of leadership and implementation of the original plan.
The Forgotten Plan
Prior to the Syrian conflict the plan for the region was to bring Iranian #2 (sweet) crude oil and Iraqi #3 (semi-sweet) crude oil via a proposed pipeline across the northern part of those countries and across very northern Syria to the Mediterranean for export to Europe, Turkey, and Israel.
Not only would Iranian and Iraqi crude oil be transported by the proposed pipeline, pumping stations along the route would allow Syrian #3 (semi-sweet) crude to be carried by the new pipeline.
Iran’s #2 sweet is highly prized by refineries around the world because it requires much less refining than sour crude oil and it allows a relaxed maintenance schedule for refineries so they can operate continuously for many years before requiring a mandatory and hugely expensive maintenance protocol.
For example, Iran’s #2 sweet oil can be used to blend very sour oil (such as Canadian tar sands oil which is rated at #4.75 sour) to bring it up to a standard where it is acceptable to an oil refinery.
Further on the Canadian example which is very roughly comparable to the problem facing other refineries around the world, Canadian refineries presently purchase huge volumes of Saudi #3 semi-sweet in order to blend with Canada’s toxic #4.75 oil — but access to Iranian sweet would allow Canadian companies to meet refinery standards with much less foreign oil.
In rough terms, a certain refinery in eastern Canada receives one Saudi supertanker per week to blend with Canadian tar sands oil — otherwise the refinery would never agree to process that sour Canadian oil — but if they switched up from Saudi #3 semi-sweet to Iranian #2 sweet it would allow that same refinery to purchase only one supertanker per month to blend with the sour Canadian oil.
It would be a win for Canadian oil producers, a win for the refinery, and a win for consumers as purchasing fewer (expensive) foreign tanker loads leads to lower prices at the gas pump.
The situation is only slightly different in the United States.
Texas still has a small production of #3 sweet crude, while Pennsylvania (where the modern oil business began) has none left whatsoever. Refineries in Texas have for decades gladly accepted #3 Saudi semi-sweet to blend with their #4 sour so they can blend it to meet their target of #3.25 semi-sweet before it hits the refinery — thereby saving the refinery millions of maintenance dollars per year and saving American consumers money at the gas pump.
Even refineries in Europe and Russia benefit from blending sweet or semi-sweet with their oil allowing them to bring their most sour crude to a standard that is acceptable to refineries. Otherwise, all that sour crude would be left in the ground forever.
Enter ISIS and the Kurds
Prior to the Arab Spring, few had heard of the Kurds other than seeing 30-second video clips of their troops helping coalition forces during the Iraq War, and even fewer knew about ISIS.
Buoyed by their participation with the Americans during the Iraq War, the Kurds were also recipients of generous non-American foreign aid. The Kurds (who have some negative ‘history’ with Turkey) decided the proposed pipeline route should be ‘protected’ by their troops as the security situation in northern Iraq was then at an all-time low.
It’s completely logical from their perspective to want to secure those areas and make them part of their traditional Kurdish territory, and this was seen as a ‘minor good’ by Washington and its allies. No doubt the Kurds would have been recipients of even more foreign aid, many pipeline jobs, and they would have been in charge of security along the part of the proposed pipeline corridor that would run through their territory.
ISIS saw the opportunity to steal the default option from the Kurds and fired the first shot.
Hence we now have Americans fighting ISIS and sometimes using the Kurds to do it. We have Turkey and the Kurds fighting each other. We have the Russians helping Syria. And we have various other countries supporting those or other groups operating in the region. Finally, we have the long-term and largely stalemated situation that exists between Israel and Syria.
A recipe for disaster, if ever there were one.
Vision, Leadership and Management – the Only Solution to This Problem
Instead of a Munich Security Conference that degenerates into shouting match, all sides should return to the forgotten plan and concentrate on making that plan the new reality.
Bringing Iranian sweet crude oil, Iraqi semi-sweet crude oil and Syrian semi-sweet to the Mediterranean via a new pipeline system through traditional and newly created Kurdish territories across northern Iraq and very northern Syria while continuing to finish off ISIS and working to mitigate Turkish concerns about the Kurds is the only real way forward.
Whether the parties agree to redirect their energies now, or at a later date, it’s the only option that solves everyone’s problems in the region.
The plan depends on the extinction of ISIS and that seems as worthy a goal as ever while accommodating the Kurds is simply an extension of what’s already been happening.
Solving the security concerns of Turkey is paramount to bring the plan forward.
The world needs that high quality oil and it’s in the interest of the parties to get that pipeline system built and operational as soon as possible.
The UK government can play as honorable a part as any country to bring this ongoing political disaster to a successful conclusion by promoting the Iran / northern Iraq / northern Syria pipeline that would span old and newly created Kurdish territory to bring exceptionally high quality oil to Europe, Turkey, Israel and even North America.
It’s time to stop looking at the problem and begin working on the solution.
Not since the 1979 Iranian revolution have so many people participated in large-scale protests against the government.
Indeed, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari has yesterday declared the defeat of “sedition” in the country, referring to recent anti-government protests. Yet many Iranians believe that more and larger public demonstrations are on the horizon.
In the United States, President Donald Trump regularly tweets against the Iranian regime and America’s foreign policy seems increasingly to be an anti-Iranian-regime policy. However, let’s hope the Americans are done with regime change — for the simple reason that it doesn’t work.
Yet much good could still be accomplished if Western nations were to adopt the right policies for the region (with a focus on long-term interest) and not sleepwalk into another catastrophic and costly intervention.
When policymakers are looking at the symptoms of a problem, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what the underlying conditions were that led to the present situation. It’s problematic to Iran’s religious leaders and the Iranian government, it’s gut-wrenching to the citizens of Iran, and other countries in the region are looking-on with concern. No one, not even the Iranian leadership wants this situation to continue — the trick is, as always, trying to find ways to resolve it without making it worse.
For much of the 20th century, Iran was ruled by a Royal Family (the late Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) that was mainly ‘good’ for the country although it could be argued it was autocratic (as monarchies tend to be) consequently the government spent its time attending to the specific decrees of the Shah and not much else.
The religious aspect in the country was made up of mainly Shia Muslims, however pre-revolutionary Iran had significant populations of Jewish, Christian, and other faiths — and they all got along just fine.
Prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979 the largest population of Jews living outside Israel and the U.S.A. was in… wait for it… Iran.
Iran’s problems began in the early 1950’s when foreign interference began to change the nature of the country. Although Western companies were then able to make higher profits (but not as high as promised) the 1950’s era regime change guided by Westerners has been negative for everyone in the region, especially the Iranian people.
As with most things in life it’s all about balance, not how fast you can run. And so it is with countries; Each country has its own particular model, and if the model works, voilà! you have a working country.
Until the Western intervention of the 1950’s Iran was a functioning and peaceful country (some might even say a ‘sleepy’ country) where citizens of any belief system could live happy and fulfilling lives.
How Countries Should Work
Since the introduction of democracy by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago, the most successful democracies have shared power in the following manner; 30% of the total power was held by a monarchy or a government, 30% by a religious establishment, and 30% by academia (or a military, in the case of militaristic nations) and the remaining 10% was held by citizen groups.
This power sharing model works to share power among several groups, and just by virtue of the existence of such power centres — each serves as a check and a balance on the others.
Only in recent years have monarchies and religions slipped from their typical 30% (each) power ranking in many countries, with governments, militaries, and corporations greedily absorbing those gains.
Whether that ratio is held by a combination of monarchy or government / religion or corporate culture / academia or military what’s important is that the mix is appropriate to the country in question.
Of course there are some exceptions where theocracies or benevolent dictatorships have worked for a majority of citizens in a given country. But they tend to be few and may not last as long as vibrant and diversified nations with a traditional power sharing mix.
How to Fix Iran
Let’s make it a point to remember that Iran was a fully functioning nation-state until the Western intervention of the early 1950’s before we proceed.
At present, the country’s religious elite seem to be holding 2/3rds of the power in Iran with the Iranian government holding the other 1/3rd, which is a recipe for failure in any country regardless of who is holding that much power.
Internal destabilization in Iran is certain to occur within a few months or years — even without foreign intervention — and such dangerous power vacuums tend to propel the wrong types of people to power (Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, many others) who oppress their competitors but help their followers to live extravagant lifestyles — thereby setting up cycles of inequality and the resulting social angst which does nothing to help the majority of citizens, the country itself, the region, nor world peace.
The next 24 months will be pivotal for Iran; Either the religious establishment won’t allow changes to the present 66/34 power mix and citizen protests will increase, thereby drawing the attention (and sometimes the wrong kind of attention) from the world community — or Iran’s religious elites will find a way to retain a reasonable power base of about 30% of the total power base in the country and Iran will return to a condition of internal stability and other countries in the region can resume their historic (good) diplomatic relations with Iran.
What Can Western Governments Do?
Putting all kinds of pressure on the Iranian Ayatollahs and Mullahs isn’t going to work to cause them to share power with other power centres in Iran, that’s numero uno.
Second, if ‘Soft Power’ won’t work, then ‘Hard Power’ really won’t work.
In fact, making war on Iran is more likely to backfire, causing Iranian citizens to rally ’round an outside threat, further empowering religious leaders to take the country where they want but this time with the strong support of citizens. Whether by so-called ‘surgical strikes’ or by outright occupation of Iran, the aftermath of such conflict would create massive power vacuums and populist (and completely uncontrollable by the West) leaders could gain power and pursue any agenda they want.
(See Iraq War, Afghanistan War, Arab Spring, Syria, Lebanon, Soviet/Afghan War, etc. for examples of intervention where the result was massive power vacuums that turned those nations into dysfunctional states after the war ended)
But promoting equitable solutions, such as returning to a governance model that once worked well for Iran, might work wonders for the country, its citizens, and the region.
Unfortunately for those trying to help Iran, this isn’t a ‘sexy’ solution — it’s all about low-scale, low-speed, steady-as-she-goes professional diplomacy hidden from the public eye. And even if all UN-member countries worked with Iran to resume the previously successful paradigm, such a plan could take years to come to fruition although it would be almost guaranteed to work as advertised. Which is about 100% better than any Hard Power plan to help Iran regain stability.
The UK Policy on Iran
UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson could decide to embark on a long-term plan to help Iran, its people, and the Middle East region, while saving UK taxpayers billions of pounds sterling (compared to the cost of a failed-state Iran, or compared to yet another costly military intervention) and make it easier for Iran to return to a stable condition by helping to promote a more equitable power sharing arrangement within the country.
The softest use of Soft Power would be for the sole male heir of the late Shah of Iran, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi (who has lived in Maryland, U.S.A. since the 1979 Iranian revolution) to be invited to meet with Queen Elizabeth II at his earliest opportunity, and for other Kings, Emirs, or Queens around the world to meet him to help lift his international standing.
Of course, even with a new Shah, the government would still make all the day-to-day decisions while the religious authorities would return to publishing their religious decrees.
Therefore, the new Shah would stand for the people of Iran, while the government would run the country, and the religious elites would continue to run their religion — but not the whole country. All in all, a more sustainable power sharing arrangement that wouldn’t unduly punish any single group.
If the Ayatollahs can hand-off a percentage of their power (to a known individual like Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi who isn’t going to attack them) the country will be better for it, citizens will be mollified, and the new Shah could engage himself in the welfare of citizens of Iran and make himself available for ceremonial duties when a new government is elected and during state visits by foreign dignitaries, etcetera.
For as long as the situation continues to deteriorate, practical solutions like this will become harder to find, making the present the best time to begin working towards such a goal. Millions of Iranian citizens and millions of people in the region are crying out for solutions to the imbroglio in Iran — even as pundits continue to look at only the symptoms of an unbalanced power structure — instead of looking at restoring the previous working model, updated for the 21st century.