Pentagon game to divide Iranians and Arabs

A military planning exercise illuminates the story driving Washington's response to the Arab Spring

Topics: Iran, ,

Pentagon game to divide Iranians and ArabsSaudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.(Credit: Reuters/Ho New)

Analysts and pundits have spent the past two weeks puzzling over the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington, in part because of a complete lack of either motive or benefit for the Islamic Republic. Iran, reputed to place much stock in cost-benefit analyses of its geopolitical calculations, clearly fails to gain materially or politically from any part of the allegations thus far. So what gives?

Instead of scrutinizing the “whys” of Iran’s involvement, it may be more illuminating to examine Washington’s motivation in advancing this bit of political theater.  The criminal charges were followed by high-profile statements and sanctioned leaks from the White House, the departments of State, Justice, Treasury, Defense, FBI and the CIA, well orchestrated for maximum impact. The U.S. government then sought to persuade the global community via the U.N. Security Council and “phone calls to many capitals” of the gravity of the charges.

Such fanfare went beyond the service of prosecuting a single crime.  More likely, the charges being leveled at Iran came in the service of “public diplomacy,” an attempt to establish a broad narrative that serves a policy decision. Pushing the narrative of the Iranian “boogeyman” is not unusual in U.S. policy circles. What may be new is the emphasis on this story in the aftermath of Arab uprisings throughout the Middle East.

Bring in the “Red Team”

Last March, as the Arab revolts swept through the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. military’s Central Command for military operations in 20 countries — including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan — held a “Red Team” exercise to examine a political narrative that perpetually pits Arabs and Iranians against each other, according to a source involved in the project.

CENTCOM’s Red Team was formed in 2006,  a spokesman told me last year, to “think outside the box, offer contrarian thinking [and] … sharpen the reasoning and force intellectual rigor” on critical issues for the benefit of senior military officials.

 Here are some of the premises and questions included in CENTCOM’s Arabs versus Iranians exercise. (Note: The Red Team refers to Iranians as “Persians.”)

  • Premise: “The Arab-Persian dynamic is a divide.  History, religion, language and culture simply pose too many obstacles to overcome.”
  • Premise: “A general Arab inferiority complex relative to Persians means that many Arabs are fearful of Persian expansion and hegemony throughout the Middle East.  In their minds, the Persian Empire has never gone away and it is more self-sufficient than most Arab states.”
  •  Premise: “Barring a “clash of civilizations” – i.e., a modern crusades, Islam vs Judeo-Christians, warfare between the West/Israel vs Arabs/Persians – there does not appear to be a scenario where Arabs and Persians will join forces against the US/West.”
  •  Question: “Is it appropriate to frame the discussion as Arab-Persian or is Sunni-Shia a more appropriate framework?”
  •  Question: “Assuming a schism, what could unite Arabs and Persians, even temporarily?”

These narratives assume two things: that the division between Iranians and Arabs is a fact and that the greater unity of the two groups in the wake of the Arab uprisings is a potential threat to U.S. interests. Hence the worried question:  What could unite them, even temporarily?

Does the goal then become to ensure a state of chronic hostility between Iranians and Arabs?

Spokesman Maj. T.G. Taylor told Salon that CENTCOM planners “postulate multiple scenarios and potential outcomes to better anticipate and understand the nature of a complex and diverse region.  It is through this prudent military planning and cultural research that we are able to evaluate how to best protect U.S. and partner interests while reducing the risk of miscalculation stemming from ethnic and national differences.”

There is no disputing the region is rife with fault lines that divide populations.  I call the three biggest the Stink Bombs of the Middle East: Sunni versus Shia, Arabs versus Iran, Islamists versus secularists.  While there may be some natural tension between these groups, since the 1979 Iranian revolution there has been a marked increase in narratives that create fear of Shiites, Iranians and Islamists for geopolitical advantage.  And U.S. allies in the region — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen — have been at the forefront of these efforts.

… is Sunni-Shia a more appropriate framework? Arabs are afraid of Persian hegemony …  Islam vs Judeo-Christians …”

Such  themes have been embedded in superficial narratives of the Middle East that recur in our media.  The Red Team exercise was not particularly exceptional in many respects. But two things are highly unusual about this drill: the timing and its sponsor. The question baffles: Why did the U.S. military decide to shine a spotlight on the Arabs vs. Iran narrative three months into the uprisings sweeping through the Arab world?

Why not a broader, more urgent evaluation of how to realign U.S. interests with emerging democratic actors in the region?

The balance of power shifts

At the time of the Red Team exercise, peaceful, political protest had swept away pro-American regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and reached a critical mass in Bahrain and Yemen. The former is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The latter is an operational center for al-Qaida and a recent proxy battleground for Saudi-Iranian tensions.

U.S policymakers had reason to worry. The de facto beneficiary of the uprisings was Iran, a country that for three decades has challenged the primacy of U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East.  The fall of pro-U.S. dictators all but guaranteed that, in the hands of new populist leaders, the region’s foreign policy outlook would likely shift toward Iran’s perspective, although not be steered by Iran.

According to the New York Times’ David Sanger, the U.S. administration never lost sight of this development. Last February, a month before the Red Team exercise, he wrote;

“Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy: how to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there.”

Viewing the Arab uprisings through an Iranian lens offered a possible advantage for the United States. Arab public polls consistently favor Iran when it is contrasted with the United States, but not nearly as much when it is compared to other Arab regimes, even unpopular ones.  This tendency has long provided opponents of Iran to sow discord in the Arab world– even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but especially afterward. Narratives about expansionist, aggressive aspirations of the Iranian Shia have been sown far and wide in the largely Saudi-controlled Arab media, even though there has not been a serious conflict between Iranians and Arabs since the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988.

A testimony to the power of propaganda and the knowledge deficit it encourages, mistrust between Iran and many Arab nations has simmered on low boil ever since. As Washington seeks to manage its losses and assert some control over future developments in the region, this narrative tool becomes a cost-effective way to wrest back some of its primacy by defining a new Middle East and drawing others into those  assumptions.

The Pentagon and social media

 The Red Team exercise did not take place in a vacuum. The Arab revolts have, to a large degree, been driven by the existence of social media platforms, valuable communication assets in countries where public congregation is not encouraged, or is altogether banned.

The Pentagon is actively seeking to understand, influence and control these platforms and the messages they transmit. In July, the technology arm of the Department of Defense, DARPA, announced a $42 million program to enable the U.S. military to “detect, classify, measure and track the formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” within social media.

Wired magazine calls the project the Pentagon’s “social media propaganda machine” because of its plans for “counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.”

In order to “allow more agile use of information in support of [military] operations” and “defend” against “adverse outcomes,” the project will enable the automation of processes to “identify participants and intent, measure effects of persuasion campaigns,” and ultimately, infiltrate and redirect social media-based campaigns overseas, when deemed necessary.

With cyberspace now designated an “operational domain” for the armed forces, we don’t know when and where these online tools will be mobilized. But we can be certain one of the most likely targets is Iran, which earlier this year announced plans to disconnect from the rest of the world and establish its own national Internet.

Manufacturing narratives

Promoting the narrative that casts Iran as a regional threat to Arab nations serves several urgent interests today: It justifies the upcoming sale of more than $120 billion in weapons to Arab governments, and works toward preventing Iran from gaining a further foothold in Iraq once U.S. troops complete their withdrawal in December.

But the Arab uprisings have interfered with Washington’s story. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival and the U.S’s closest Arab ally, has sent troops into Bahrain to violently quell protests, has offered sanctuary to embattled dictators and is subsidizing many of the remaining autocratic Arab regimes throughout the region.

Counter-revolutionary Saudi Arabia’s substantial treasury insures its perspective will be heard in Washington. The Saudis will pay for more than half — $67 billion — of the total value of the region’s controversial arms purchases. The monarchy is also developing an elite 35,000-man force to “protect the kingdom’s oil riches and future nuclear sites,” to be overseen by none other than CENTCOM.

The Arab revolts pose a threat to such business. In recent months, the Obama administration has been hard-pressed to gain approval for even a mere $53 million slice of its weapons sale to Bahrain, which has been censured internationally for its suppression of peaceful protests.  Withstanding pressures from Congress and human rights groups, a State Department official last week finally announced the approval of the sale.

 “The deal is part of a move to defend Bahrain from aggression,” a spokesman told the Gulf News, a not so subtle reference to Iran.

As these Arab uprisings continue to dismantle the regional status quo – for better or for worse – it appears the United States is acting not in accordance with its declared values, but is instead allowing financial and hegemonic calculations to drive foreign policy. Narratives manufactured to support myopic interests over fundamental values cast a long shadow over our ability to play a leading role in global affairs.  We don’t reason, we spin.  And, in the case of this newly vulnerable Middle East, nobody is more proficient in the business of keeping conflict humming.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>