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Entries in Iran (104)


What Does Russia/Putin Seek?

Putin's Russia is becoming the Trump of international security: dominating the news cycle with a constant stream of bold moves (Syria, for example) and often outrageous affronts (Russian hackers just did what?!?!). Just like Clinton will win the White House while The Donald is named Time's Person of the Year (bet on it), Obama's "long game" (see Chollet's new book) may be sound, even as it's seemingly trumped (that word again) on every strategic front by Putin's nonstop shenanigans.

So what does Putin seek for Russia?

The obvious answer is: as much reconstruction of the old Soviet empire (however virtually achieved by various Finlandizations) as possible, combining that sometimes actual revanchism with a successful dismemberment of the EU and NATO, leaving Germany once again living in complete fear of its intentions (Russia has ALWAYS been just that into Germany).

Not by a long shot does that constitute an attempted overturning of the world order. It is far better described as a leapfrogging by a resurgent Russia over the faltering "West" (retreating US, freaking-out Europe, aging Japan [where adult-diaper sales now trump baby-diaper sales]) into the Trumpian position of Initiator-in-Chief (a role once clearly held - and abused - by the Bush Administration but clearly abandoned by Lead-From-Behind Obama).

So what does Putin seek for Russia? He wants Russia to be #1 on everybody's speed dial, search engine, and worry list.

And he's readily achieving it.

That's the thing about an essentially US-constructed (and typically led) world order: when we step back to stare at the horizon, others will step in. Ultimately those others will be China and India, but neither is ready for that now. India hasn't hit its demographic/industrialization inflection point yet and China is too obsessed with its front-yard "pond" (their strategic equivalent of staring at one's bellybutton and muttering, Mine! All mine!).  

So we get Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey running the show in the Center (see map above), while America focuses more on home (and the West Hemisphere) and China looks to lock down the East.

In my old vernacular, the "Gap-shrinking" continues, it is just more obviously and geographically divvied up, with Asian great powers (China, India, Japan) nonetheless forced into some competitive thrusts into the Center (particularly Africa) for reasons both immediate (resource access) and long term (tomorrow's biggest cheap-labor - and consumer - pool).

America, secure in both its energy and food/water (and increasingly Latinized and Millennialized), continues to turn inward for a lengthy Progressive Era that it desperately needs.

Still, we have to play both the Home and Away games, and here is where it gets particularly challenging for the West: imagine Hillary, May (UK), and Merkel (Germany( leading the West's pushback against Putin's many international micro-aggressions. You just know that that macho Vlad will assume he's got the upper hand. One can almost see the misogynystic cartoon: Vlad, in wife-beater shirt, daring  the cowering women to take in the "gun show" (hat tip, Ron Burgundy) as he holds his backhand above his head, poised in bitch-slap-delivery mode.

So yes, expect Vlad to keep pushing things until the West (and specifically America) pushes back, and expect him to continuously elevate his game with little fear of long-term cost.

Putin has seen enough of Obama's "long game" (where America often punted on early downs) to know that, absent a serious course change, the Center field (Europe-writ large, Muddle East, Africa) is his for the reshaping right now (much as Xi Jinping views the East).

This is why any President-Elect Clinton needs to move fast and project an image of a serious housecleaning both internally and - eventually abroad.

But again, none of this signals an existential threat to the system, because, quite frankly, all our great power competitors (not enemies) find it all too much to their liking.

Was this phase of globalization inevitable?

Yes. Nothing moves ever upward in a straight line. It's more Dora's bit about just keep swimming.

America built something so amazing, transformative, beneficial, and enriching that there was zero chance we could control globalization ad nauseum - anymore than we could rule the Internet forever.

Remember: globalization comes with rules but no ruler (a wise man once wrote that).

A dozen years ago I penned a piece for WAPO stating that America's prime partners of tomorrow would be China, Russia, and India (Turkey also mentioned), and that, yes, we'd end up uncomfortably accommodating each in that pathway.  [I soon after added Iran to that group.]  My goal in that piece was simply to signal that the days of America, Europe and Japan constituting a quorum of great powers was over.

At that time, the notion was laughed off.

Not so funny now, is it? I mean, look who's running the Middle East?  China and India are the biggest buyers, while Turkey, Iran, and Russia have all ascended as security actors. I never said we'd be close with any of them, just that we'd have to work with all of them.

Having said all this (again), we need to avoid our usual freak-out response pattern regarding all these powers. Yes, America enjoyed and exploited its post-Cold War unipolar moment to ram globalization down everyone's throats (I approved whole-heartedly), triggering the best set of problems the world has ever known. But that thrust, while an amazing gift to humanity (all that wealth creation, hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty, percentage of extreme poverty less than 10% of human population for first time in history, and a majority global middle class for the first time in history) was unsustainable for the US (or, more accurately, the US consumer and all the personal debt we took one).

Now we move dumbfoundedly into the period where the world's most dynamic great powers seek to consolidate rule-set spheres of influence ("This is how things work around here!"). This period was always inevitable, but keep in mind that we are not looking at the resurrection of great power war (no matter how many hard-talking security types sell you that every night on the news). MAD remains in force with no "offset" required.

What we face now is an extended clash not of civilizations but of great-power rule-sets.

What should America do?

We should persistently and pointedly defend our national interests while not pushing our norms as the only acceptable answer. We tend toward the opposite tack - a habit long ingrained by our "global cop" burden. But that burden has been overtaken by events and developments that we have long sought - a genuine multi-polarity that respects the international structure we've created even as each great power seeks to rule its individual roost (to expect otherwise is naive in the worst way).

So we should stay calm and carry on with our necessarily transformative regrading of our political (less distance between leaders and led) and economic (less tilted toward rich) landscapes. In short, we need to proceed with the next great progressive American era that redefines 21st century capitalism in light of globalization's swift conquering of the planet - finally (with a hat tip to K. Marx) but only under America's tutelage (none of those thieving European empires came even close).

Again, these are the best problems humanity has ever faced - problems of success and not failure.

So, chin up as this US election gets even nastier and more weird - and as daily revelations emerge concerning Moscow's (or Beijing's or Tehran's or Ankara's) latest transgression.

The world system we built remains secure, even as virtually every state now faces very hard choices between open and closed, connected or disconnected, or drawbridges up or down (per the Economist). These are natural reactions and we were all certain to confront these as a result of the Great Recession. What matters now is what we as Americans choose and how we lead - as always - by example.

Make no mistake: I'd gladly take our path and our fundamentals and our challenges over those of any other great power out there - yet another reason to keep all such frenemies in perspective. Neither they nor our true enemies (violent extremist organizations, plus those just-plain-nutty North Koreans) pose any existential threat to either us or our amazingly sturdy world order.

Simply put, don't believe the hype, even as we keep an eye on Russia's Trump.


Western Hemisphere's Shale Men as Oil Industry's New "World Swing Producers"?


FASCINATING BRIEFING IN A RECENT ECONOMIST (23 JAN 16) ADDS A NEW TWIST TO AN ARGUMENT I'VE BEEN RECENTLY ADVANCING ON HOW NORTH AMERICA'S EMERGING ENERGY INDEPENDENCE DRAMATICALLY REDEFINES ITS OWN SENSE OF ECONOMIC RESILIENCE AND – ULTIMATELY – AMERICA'S GLOBAL SECURITY PERSPECTIVE. Think of the future as mostly about energy and water, with the latter accounting for food production. Any country seeking to ensure its economic resilience going forward wants to be either rich in both, or rich in secure access to both. This is essentially where China is weakest now and in coming decades (hence the aggressive military behavior on display off its coast), because it must import both food and energy in ever increasingly amounts (and overwhelmingly via seaborne trade). This is also where America (and North America in general) is strongest now and in coming decades, relative to just about every great power out there – save perhaps Russia. But even there, America has little reason to unduly worry about the widely-perceived renewal of strategic rivalry with Moscow, which invariably becomes China's economic vassal on that basis:

China, please meet Russia, an energy-business-masquerading-as-a-government, which is incredibly vulnerable on the subject of lower energy prices but stands as the world's largest exporter of energy.

Russia, please meet China, which is the world's largest importer of energy and the stingiest, most aggressively demanding trade partner in the world.

Please go about you co-dependency with all the respect and friendship that you've each bestowed upon the other's culture and civilization over the years.

As I've pointed out, North America is already the world's de facto swing producer on grains, which gives us an enormous strategic advantage – and power – that we scarcely realize.

We are, in effect, the Saudi Arabia of grain. So, if, in our imagination, they have the world over an oil barrel, then we've got the world over a breadbasket.

Guess who cries "uncle" first?

And yes, we'll maintain that status in spite of climate change, because we're that clever and that resilient and that blessed by circumstances.

But here's where the Economist's analysis of the recent slide in oil prices is so intriguing: what if North America were to become the world's swing producer on energy – as well?

From the piece:

Now the fear for producers is of an excess of oil, rather than a shortage. The addition to global supply over the past five years of 4.2m barrels a day (b/d) from America’s shale producers, although only 5% of global production, has had an outsized impact on the market by raising the prospects of recovering vast amounts of resources formerly considered too hard to extract. On January 19th the International Energy Agency (IEA), a prominent energy forecaster, issued a stark warning: “The oil market could drown in oversupply.”

Amazing what the fracking revolution in North America has wrought, and don't – for a minute – discount how that sense of energy independence influenced President Obama's decision to see a Nixon-like detente with Iran, identified in the piece as "the most immediate cause of the bearishness."

[Iran] promises an immediate boost to production of 500,000 b/d, just when other members of OPEC such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq are pumping at record levels. Even if its target is over-optimistic, seething rivalry between the rulers in Tehran and Riyadh make it hard to imagine that the three producers could agree to the sort of production discipline that OPEC has used to attempt to rescue prices in the past.

But it gets even more disruptive – again, because of the fracking revolution in North America:

Even if OPEC tried to reassert its influence, the producers’ cartel would probably fail because the oil industry has changed in several ways. Shale-oil producers, using technology that is both cheaper and quicker to deploy than conventional oil rigs, have made the industry more entrepreneurial. Big depreciations against the dollar have helped beleaguered economies such as Russia, Brazil and Venezuela to maintain output, by increasing local-currency revenues relative to costs. And growing fears about action on climate change, coupled with the emergence of alternative-energy technologies, suggests to some producers that it is best to pump as hard as they can, while they can.

So we witness the Saudis – yet again – trying to shake out the market, not to mention its fierce regional rival, through an extended period of self-destructive over-production relative to market demand. It will definitely hinder Iran's re-entry into the world and its energy market, but in the US?

Yet there is also a reason for keeping the pumps working that is not as suicidal as it sounds. One of the remarkable features of last year’s oil market was the resilience of American shale producers in the face of falling prices. Since mid-2015 shale firms have cut more than 400,000 b/d from output in response to lower prices. Nevertheless, America still increased oil production more than any other country in the year as a whole, producing an additional 900,000 b/d, according to the IEA.

And here's where US technological resilience gets truly interesting:

During the year the number of drilling rigs used in America fell by over 60%. Normally that would be considered a strong indicator of lower output. Yet it is one thing to drill wells, another to conduct the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) that gets the shale oil flowing out. Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consultancy, noted late last year that the “frack-count”, ie, the number of wells fracked, was still rising, explaining the resilience of oil production.

The roughnecks used other innovations to keep the oil gushing, such as injecting more sand into their wells to improve flow, using better data-gathering techniques and employing a skeleton staff to keep costs down. The money is no longer flowing in. America’s once-rowdy oil towns, where three years ago strippers could make hundreds of dollars a night from itinerant oilmen, are now full of abandoned trailer parks and boarded-up businesses. But the oil is still flowing out. Even some of the oldest shale fields, such as the Bakken in North Dakota, were still producing at the same level in November as more than a year before.

No, we don't want to overestimate the economic boost to the US economy from all this. Our economic restructuring challenges are significant – as evidenced by voter anger in this year's presidential race. But others have it far worse:

Unsurprisingly some of the biggest splashes of red ink in the IMF’s latest forecast revisions were reserved for countries where oil exploration and production has played a significant role in the economy: Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia (and some of its oil-producing neighbours) and Nigeria. Weaker demand in this group owes much to strains on their public finances.

Russia has said it will cut public spending by a further 10% in response to the latest drop in crude prices (see article).

So where do we go from here? The article discusses "peak demand," something I've long argued would naturally precede the much-feared "peak oil" moment, primarily due to efficiency and environmental concerns.

Then the Economist lays out the crown-jewel argument – from my perspective – of the piece:

More likely, the oil price will eventually find a bottom and, if this cycle is like previous ones, shoot sharply higher because of the level of underinvestment in reserves and natural depletion of existing wells. Yet the consequences will be different. Antoine Halff of Columbia University’s Centre on Global Energy Policy told American senators on January 19th that the shale-oil industry, with its unique cost structure and short business cycle, may undermine longer-term investment in high-cost traditional oilfields. The shalemen, rather than the Saudis, could well become the world’s swing producers, adding to volatility, perhaps, but within a relatively narrow range.


Please keep that in mind when all the politicians and national security experts are trying to scare you to death during our ongoing transition from one president to the next: when it comes to food/water and energy, North America – and America in particular – is sitting pretty.


Because our national resilience on both continues to contradict the pessimists while amazing even the optimists like me!



The real Turkey-Iran battle over Iraq

Blogged a piece a while ago about how Iranian products just aren't making it in Iraq, while Turkish ones are far more welcome.  This FT piece by Daniel Dombey (whom I cite a lot) argues that what the geo-pols consider Turkish empire re-building is undergirded for the most part in wanting to dominate export models (my read of his analysis).  Why?

Turkey has hit that middle-class phase where the people want to consumer a lot and thus imports rise - along with consumer credit.  Unless you combat that with exports, you end up a bit too much like the US.

Iraq has just overtaken Italy as Turkey's second-biggest export market, with the KRG leading the way.

Turkey has similar eyes for Syria and - ultimately - a post-changed-regime Iran.

These are good ambitions, the best kind of "imperialism" - really:  making consumers happier than the crappy regime that lords over them.


Delivering a PPT in the PNT


Was approached by a group at the Joint Staff a while back to present to a working group focused on a particular operational theater.  The group regularly hosts speakers for an audience of about 75 flags, officers and senior civilians, with VTC to a large number of overseas commands.  Audience also had a number of foreign senior officers.  

The sponsor had asked to discuss near- and mid-term issues that could prove disruptive to security issues under their purview.  Because my current brief is more long term, I saw this as a chance to brief a number of Wikistrat sims.  So the bulk of the brief was on four sims we've done over the past couple of years now.

Little bit nervous going in, because it was a significant audience in terms of hierarchy, so a good test of the product line - as it were.  Unlike a pitch where you talk about the methodology and the company, this was a pure product presentation.  Not a demo, but actual product that had to stand on its own - as in, nowhere to hide behind hand-waving.

Joel Zamel was there as well to answer questions on the company and methodology.

I did 28 slides at a podium.  Couldn't move around due to the VTC cameras.  Also had to finger a screen to advance the slides (tap, tap, tap).  All in all, a terrible set-up for somebody like me, and I often feel like I underperform in those situations (I don't get complaints; it just doesn't feel as gloriously un-self-conscious as the perfect set-ups - for me - do).  But for whatever reason, it worked great and I got my head around the delivery and banged out about 30 mins of presentation, followed by another 30 or so of Q&A that felt even better.  Audience was really great.  Really interesting questions and super engaged.  What you expect from that level of crowd.  So you give what you get (e.g., my humor was above average), as the best audiences always get the best briefs.  It's just how it works.

Still, you just never know going in.  I tend to be pretty quiet right up to the point, because it takes a lot of energy. And yes, some nerves on the product. But the material was received very well, which was very gratifying. Big league audience in the bowels of the Pentagon and Wikistrat - at only three years old - comes off as top flight. We fielded a lot of powerfully positive comments and feedback. Extremely validating.

Follow-on lunch inside the Building with a crew of USA younger officers who are all elite something or other in some prestigious fellows program.  Most had seen me give my current standard globalization brief at Belvoir during my regular lectures there.  That was a really nice discussion.  Decent bisque, too.

Only really hard part was getting up at 0400 to fly there and back on same day, but nice to be back home for a movie with the kids at the end of their school week.

All in all, it felt like a genuine milestone.

You know, we run a lot of training simulations at Wikistrat.  Really pretty much nonstop.  And one of the things I'm always preaching throughout the community is that everything needs to be of high-enough caliber that, if I'm standing in front of a senior audience of serious operators and policy types at the Pentagon or some COCOM, I sound like the real deal from stem to stern. That's really the first threshold. Everybody knows we can do it fast and far less expensively, so the only remaining question is, Is the quality as good as anybody else's out there?

And that test was passed today (actually yesterday) - with flying colors.

And that is no small achievement. 

So the community should feel very proud of itself and what it is accomplishing.

Because the quality is only going to keep improving.  I'm seeing that elevate with each sim.  Less correcting work for me as Chief Analyst, and more time to really work the synergizing write-up, so elevation across the board, as well as product I can stand in front of - inside the Pentagon and with a senior audience - and deliver without a hitch.


Charts of the day: Saudi Arabia's options

Nice full-page analysis at FT on how the Saudis have worked hard to give themselves a response option if Iran attempts to close Hormuz (far harder than imagined).

The relevant bit:

Earlier this year, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi opened new pipelines that will increase the ability of countries to bypass the strait. Fully operational, 6.5m barrels per day, or about 40 per cent of total flows, will now be able to take alternative routes. “The Middle East is much better prepared now than a year ago to cushion the impact of a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz,” says Edward Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup and former US deputy assistant secretary of state for international energy policy.

The key number is the Saudi one.  The kingdom has managed to siphon off half their exports to other vectors.

Then look at who's at risk.  US imports only 42% of its oil, and only 16% of that comes through straits, so only about 7% of US imported oil comes through straits, or roughly 3% of total US oil usage comes through straits. Of total US energy usage, that's just under 1.5%.

So no, the US won't be crippled when Hormuz gets shut down - as unlikely as that feat would be for Iran.


Where is the world is Wikistrat?

A graphic listing most - but not all - of the sims conducted by Wikistrat this year.  The point is to display the breadth and the volume.  Be impressed, because you should be.

Wikistrat's sims aren't a year in the planning.  Client names the subject and we're off and running in days.  Why? All Wikistrat needs is a framework and then we turn the analysts loose on the scenarios.  The company don't spend countless man-hours narrowing down the range of possibilities so that 95% of the uncertainty and surprise is drained from the exercise by the time we actually start it.  Wikistrat can customize the structure to your concerns and then it brings the masses in to run with that structure and take it places you - the client - hadn't considered.

That approach allows for a huge mapping of possibilities.  You want to find the needle in the haystack?  Well, Wikistrat can run through that hay awfully damn quick.

Spend a minute and see if you can guess the four sims that were my ideas . . .


First one was China as Africa's de facto World Bank.  I'm pretty sure that was based on a WSJ headline noting that tipping point.  It ended up positing a lot of interesting intersection points between the US and China on the continent. Sim ended up generating both a report and a briefing by me.

Second one was the North American Energy Export Boom.  There was a time when Wikistrat asked me what I'd most like to explore in terms of near-term uncertainty in the system, and the whole fracking thing just jumped out at me:  Which way does it go?  Does it work out big-time for the US and - ultimately - the world?  Or does it get aborted like nuclear power for enviro reasons?  That was a very strong sim in terms of output, and all that material (final report and my brief) still tracks incredibly well with headlines.  All we did is simply systematize all those possibilities, organizing them into four major trajectories (usual X-Y approach). But the upshot was, anybody who goes through that stuff now has the capacity to process all the headlines to come.

Third one was the China slowdown sim.  That one's been in my mind since I wrote the piece for Esquire back in the fall of 2010 (it came out in the Jan '11 issue).  The idea came to me in the summer of 2010 and it took a while to sell it to the magazine, but it looks fairly prescient today, doesn't it?  Anyway, a very solid sim that ran down all manner of possibilities, and I really loved the quartet of scenarios we came up with (which drew comparisons to historical risers).  Great report and probably the strongest brief I've yet done for WS.

Fourth one was "when China's carrier entered the Gulf."  Wikistrat asked me to generate a host of possible sims way back when, and that was one of them. Just a simple logical progression argument, with the trick being imagining all the possibilities when that inevitability unfolds.  Hence the sim, which turned out great, along with a solid report.  And this one was only a "mini-sim" by WS standards:  just a brainstorming drill on scenarios with a quick follow-up on policy options.  Mostly junior analysts, but the output was as good as anything I've seen from the National Intelligence Council - seriously.

Two on the list I didn't really have anything to do with: NATO and Pakistan.  First one was driven by a client's curiousity.  Second one is just a natural "what if?"  Both turned out quite nicely.

The Democratic Peace Theory Challenged sim is another one I did not design, and I will admit that, at first blush, I didn't much care for the subject.  I was brought in to work the design and shaped it somewhat, but I truly had low expectations.  In truth, those were exceeded by a long shot.  The material needed more shaping than usual, because the sim had a theoretical bent, but what I ended up with at the end in the final report was . . . to my surprise . . . quite strong - I mean, present at a poli sci/IR conference strong (or walk into any command and brief strong).  It easily could have veered into all sorts of panic mongering, but instead it organized a universe of possibilities very neatly.  I was really proud of the overall effort, and it reminded me not to get too judgmental going into sims.

The Syria sim I didn't design, nor did I oversee its operation.  That Wikistrat left to junior versions of myself.  I was brought in at the end to shape the first draft of the report, and, while I moved things around plenty, the material held up very nicely to my critical eye, which is encouraging.  If Wikistrat is going to handle all the volume coming down the pike (contractual relationships are piling up at a daunting rate), then the Chief Analyst position needs to be like that of any traditional RAND-like player:  that person needs to be able to shape things a bit at the start and then at the end, but mid-range staff need to be able to herd all those cats and the resulting material. So that one felt like a nice maturation of the process, because, like with any successful start-up, the real challenge isn't marketing but execution.

This graphic, for some sad reason, skips the headlining sim of the year to date:  When Israel Strikes Iran.  That one I had a lot of fun with, giving it my years-in-the-testing phased approach (initial conditions, trigger, unfolding, peak, glide path, exit, new normal).  That approach goes back to my Y2K work and later after-action on the Station Nightclub fire disaster in Rhode Island (done for the local United Way to provide lessons learned on how well the organization responded). That was the most structurally ambitious Wikistrat sim to date and it - unsurprisingly - produced the best material by far. I'd put that final report and brief up against anything the best elements of the US national security establishment could produce . . . naturally at about 20 times the cost and five times the duration of effort.

The graphic also doesn't include the most recent sims.  I just finished a final report on The Globally Crystalizing Climate Change Event (one of mine), and, despite the great time projection, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the material holds up in the report.  I thought the analysts did a great job there.

Based on that fine crowd performance, Wikistrat pushes the community even harder in the just-wrapping-up sim entitled When World Population Peaks.  This one was truly challenging, but my point in designing the sim was almost to purposefully "test out" analysts in the manner of a language-skills oral exam, meaning I wanted something almost too hard for most analysts so as to press both them and the supervising analysts on how they handled it.  Think of it like a NASA sim where Control is trying to crash the lunar module.  That was a bit stressful, I think, for a lot of the community who participated, but - to me - it was like a nasty cross-country workout (I am assistant coaching my kid's team again for the 8th year in a row and I'm on my third kid) early in the season:  bit of a bitch mentally and physically, but it'll pay off down the road.

Yes, Wikistrat does take all its sims - even the training ones - very seriously.  If you're not growing then you're dying - simple as that.  Start-ups have to have that survival-of-the-fittest mentality and we're talking about a small firm that's come out of nowhere (okay, Israel) in just three years.

So, a nice overview of the year, and it's an impressive body of work.  Would you believe me if I told you that all of it was accomplished within a timeframe and with a far smaller budget that one of those bloated wargames that Booz Allen runs for the Pentagon?

Well, if you did, then you'd know why Wikistrat is going to succeed in this cutthroat business.


Morsi will continue to surprise


Fascinating achievement of US foreign policy: Iraq outcranks Iran on oil

You have to credit Bush the Elder on the northern NFZ after Desert Storm because that set in motion the KRG we know today.  You also credit Bush on the surge and Obama on the latest sanctions strategy, because it's collectively a significant restructuring of the correlation of forces in the region - a dynamic obviously driven by the ability to export oil (FT says Iran's exports = 1/2 gov revenue and 80% of total export value).  Iraq hasn't outproduced Iran since their mutual war in the late 1980s.

Iraq dreams of 12mb by 2017, but the industry pegs 4.5mb as more realistic, according to the article.

By December, analysts say, iraq will have earned more selling its oil than Iran for the first time since Saddam Huessein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

All this is to remind of Zhou Enlai's response to a question concerning his opinion of the French Revolution: "Too early to say."


Just how late-Brezhevian Iran really is

It's the little things that matter (from LAT piece):

Amid soaring prices, sweltering temperatures and escalating international tensions, a Ramadan of discontent is unfolding in the Islamic Republic.

Protests have been brief and contained, nothing like the mass demonstrations that followed the disputed presidential election in 2009. But they are still noteworthy in a nation where the government endeavors to project an image of contentment and defiance to the outside world.

Fast-rising prices, probably fueled in part by new international sanctions tied to Iran'scontroversial nuclear program, have tested the patience of people facing an eroding quality of life. Complaints are muttered at bus stops and cafes. The prices of figs and dates, two items often consumed once the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has ended, have risen at least 20% in just a few days, said a fruit hawker in north Tehran.

Perhaps no issue has been so contentious as the cost of chicken, long a relatively inexpensive staple popular during Ramadan. In the last two months, prices have more than doubled, outraging many consumers.

Then we get the word from USA Today (HT to Craid Nordin) that the gov is doing its best to encourage women to start having babies again.  Reason cited is rapid demographic aging, but more upstream, the point is that Iran is suffering a stunning birth dearth.  Women simply don't want to have babies in Iran.

What that says is that Iranians are losing their faith in a better future - in droves.  Birth dearths of this sort represent a populace in depression, because having babies is ultimately an act of supreme optimism, which is in very short supply in Iran.

I lived a summer in the USSR in 1985, and I remember being so depressed by the Russians I met and hung around with that I became a classic crying drunk.  I would drink deep into the night with these people and they were always so sad about their past, their present and their future that, upon getting back to my own place, I would typically burst out crying.  I could only take in so much depression in one night that I'd figuratively "throw it up" like so much excess alcohol.

When I got back to the States, I had one idea firmly fixed in my head:  that place is totally screwed and is going down.  Didn't know when or how.  Just knew it had zero future.

Iran seems very similar.


Iran gearing up for naval fight in PG versus US

We've seen the reports of the US bulking up its naval presence, and now we get Iran claiming (via WAPO) more capabilities to strike USN ships.

What to keep in mind: Iran can do damage to US ships, while US ships can do far more damage to Iran, but none of this says Iran can close Straits, which would be a monumentally more complex drill than is commonly portrayed.

But more immediate point:  war of nerves heating up.

US obviously expects iran to lash out at some point as the West's oil-sales-ban comes into effect over coming months, so we're gearing up for the flashpoint all right, which means shooting could easily come.

Does that qualify as war?  It can qualify itself very quickly. That's for damn sure.


(WPR Feature) Skipping Out on the Bill: Obama's Cost-Free Drone Wars

Thanks to the Obama administration’s aggressive use of classified leaks to the press, we are encouraged to believe that President Barack Obama has engineered a revolutionary shift in both America’s geopolitical priorities and our military means of pursuing those ends. As re-election sales jobs go, it presses lukewarm-button issues, but it does so ably. But since foreign policy has never been the president’s focus, we should in turn recognize these maneuvers for what they truly are: an accommodation with inescapable domestic realities, one that at best postpones and at worst sabotages America’s needed geostrategic adjustment to a world co-managed with China and India.

Read the entire article at World Politics Review.


Chart of the Day: the oil sanctions are working on Iran

Arguably the primary reason why Israel holds off attacking - that and its modest satisfaction with the success of the combination strategy of cyber warfare attacks and assassinations of technical personnel.

You can see that the sanctions have taken about a million barrels a day - or about 40% of daily production denied in terms of sales.

That is significant - and a genuine success for Obama.

The hottest subject in oil deals today involves anybody who has been a regular buyer of Iran.  All of these states are looking to replace - now.

And no, they don't all go running to the Saudis.

This chart is a month old.  More recent news says roughly 50% drop in May-June alone.  Not sure I buy that. Lots of desperate deals happening out there involving Iran.  But clearly, the trend is downward and steep.

I honestly do believe that the Arab Spring is helping plenty.  With Syria on the ropes, the anti-Iran long knives are out.


Time's Battleland: CYBER U.S. Admits to Waging War Against Iran

Check out this New York Times story about President Obama speeding up waves of cyber attacks against Iran.  I personally have no problem with this, and prefer it to Israel’s imagined missile strikes.

But just remember this when next you hear about other countries’ “unprecedented offensive cyber attacks against the U.S.”

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.


Time's Battleland: MILITARY SPENDING On Cyber Warfare, the American Public Is Constantly Being Played by the Pentagon

From a Washington Post piece describing “Plan X,” the Pentagon’s new push to develop cutting-edge offensive cyber weapons:

It makes sense “to take this on right now,” said Richard M. George, a former National Security Agency cyberdefense official. “Other countries are preparing for a cyberwar. If we’re not pushing the envelope in cyber, somebody else will.”

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.


Time's Battleland: SYRIA Obama Cleverly Leading from Behind — Again

The quiet coalition has come together to reverse the decline of the opposition rebel forces in Syria, according to this nice front-pager in Wednesday’s Washington Post.  Much like in the case of Libya, the Obama Administration is hanging back and letting the local “market” determine his military response.  He simply refuses to take the strategic lead, which is frustrating to many and yet decidedly clever on his part.

To me, this is the Obama Doctrine: respond to local demand for U.S. crisis-response services rather than — in typical American fashion — pushing our way to the front of the line, bossing everyone, and then finding ourselves alone on the postwar backside.

 Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.


Iranians not unique in democratic aspirations

Interesting op-ed in WSJ by Israeli political researcher who explains his rather sophisticated attempts to surreptiously measure democratic attitudes across Iran.  It's a very impressive effort, really.

Left scale says Iran is terribly undemocratic, but bottom scale says Iranians are middle of the pack on democratic aspirations, meaning the argument that says "Iranians get what they deserve/want/etc" is absolutely wrong.  It's not an authoritarian society - just an authoritarian government.

Yuval Porat's final words

Our findings demonstrate that Iranian society as a whole is characterized by a pro-liberal value structure that is deeply at odds with the fundamentalist regime.  This presents considerable potential for regime change in Iran and for the development of liberal democracy.

You can read that statement two ways:  


  1. If you take the kinetic route on regime change, you will ultimately be rewarded; or 
  2. The soft-kill approach is the way to go.


While I have written that I think Israel will be hard-pressed not to attack in the end, I still maintain - as I have since 2005 - that the soft-kill on Iran will work.  To me, the soft-kill is the detente here, just like it was with the Sovs.  Open up ties, admit the regime is valid, blow off the nuke pursuit (which grants Iran nothing in terms of leverage with anybody - including already nuked-up Israel), and let the connectivity that results do the rest in terms of regime delegitimizing from within leading to eventual democratization.

Ultimately, this strategy - and not Star Wars - brought down the Sovs, and it can do the same on Iran - in far faster order.

Not a risk-free path, nor one that obviates unpleasant developments along the way (Russia, for example, is still a pain in the neck), but it does work.  It dismantled the Soviet system and it can do the same with the IRGC-dominated mafia-system in Iran.

Find Porat's full report at


WPR's The New Rules: Obama's Missile Defense Fantasy a Pentagon Dream Come True 

Given this administration’s resurging plans for regional missile defense schemes in both Europe and Asia, President Barack Obama’s recent open-mike admission to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have more freedom in his national security decision-making once he wins re-election is not a comforting thought. For a guy who promises “a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama seems awfully intent on incentivizing both Russia and China to field some more.

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


Nice analysis of Turkey v. Iran

Solid opening:

The Arab Spring has heightened the ideological tension between Ankara and Tehran, and Turkey's model seems to be winning. Last spring, Iran often claimed that the Arab revolutions were akin to the Iranian one decades before and would usher in similar governments. Yet in Tunisia and Egypt, for the first time, leading figures in mainstream Islamist parties have won elections by explicitly appealing to the "the Turkish model" rather than to an Iranian-style theocracy. What's more, in December 2011, the Palestinian movement Hamas salted the wound when a spokesman announced the organization's shift toward "a policy of nonviolent resistance," which reflected its decision to distance itself from Syria and Iran and to move closer to Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar.

The clash between Turkey and Iran has been more than just rhetorical. Tehran has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest supporter, whereas Ankara has come to condemn the regime's "barbarism" and put its weight behind the opposition, hosting the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the rebel government and army in exile. In Iraq, Iran is a patron of the Shias; Turkey is, at least in the eyes of many in the Middle East, the political and economic benefactor of the Sunnis and the Kurds. And the two countries have had tensions over the missile shield that NATO deployed in Turkey in September 2011. The Turkish government insists that the missile shield was not developed as a protection against Iran. Nevertheless, in December, an Iranian political official warned that his country would attack Turkey if the United States or Israel attacked Iran.

The rest can be found at Foreign Affairs.


The geo-pol argument on Russian-Iranian bond

Nifty oped in WSJ Monday on Russia's "stake in Syria and Iran" by Melik Kaylan, a "writer in New York."

Usual case made on the old Sov-era naval base in Syria (snore), but more vigorous one made on Iran being sort of geo-strategic southern plug that keeps Russian influence substantial in the Central Asian republics - as in, lose Iran and the CA Reps "escape" with all their oil and gas ("southern bottleneck"), thus loosening Russia's energy grip on Europe, etc.:

Why is Iran so central to Mr. Putin's global pretensions? Take a look at the Caspian Sea are map and the strategic equations come into relief. Iran acts as a southern bottleneck to the geography of Central Asia. It could offer the West access to the region's resources that would bypass Russia. If Iran reverted to pro-Western alignment, the huge reserves of oil and gas landlocked in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and the like could flow directly out to the world without a veto from Moscow . . .

At stake here is not merely the liberation of a vast landmass from the Kremlin's yoke. The damage to Russian leverage would amount to a seismic shift in the global balance of power equal to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.

Hmm.  Had me going right up to that bit, but the argument is certainly compelling enough when you see just how much the emerging reality and future prospect of North America's energy export boom is already redrawing certain global energy market landscapes.


Wikistrat post @ CNN-GPS: Five countries that may rise up next

Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy.  It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.


Is the Arab Spring over? Or are there other countries that might rise up in the year ahead? Wikistrat asked its global community of analysts to consider this question. Here’s what they came up with:

Read the entire post at CNN's GPS blog.