Iran Fidgets in the Middle East: World War III Anybody?

When Alan Greenspan predicted three percent economic growth showing up in the reported figures for the third quarter of 2009, did he mean executive compensation packages? Maybe the lesson here is: don’t ask a crackhead to predict the future supply of crack. Greenspan’s greatest success may be to drive economics into such disrepute that it will be cut loose from the universities and only be taught by mail order or internet subscription from the same outfits that offer PhD’s in astrology. That is, before the universities themselves go broke.

The predicament that the USA finds itself will not be “solved” at the scale of operation that we’re accustomed to, and we should just stop wasting precious time and dwindling resources in the idle hope that it will be. The failure to recognize this dynamic is the most impressive part of the meltdown. The only thing that the federal government is likely to prove in the process is the ineffectiveness of its actions as applied to any of the raging current problems from the killing burden of hyper-debt to the brushfires of geopolitics. Congress will only make the health care system more complex. Both congress and President Obama will do everything possible to keep housing prices unaffordable — in a quixotic effort to protect the collateral of the big banks. Capital will continue to vanish in the black hole of default.

Something’s got to give in the remaining three months of 2009. My guess is that attention will shift overseas for a while. This will not be due, as many probably think, to a cynical effort by the government to divert attention from the financial fiasco, but because the intrinsic tensions in the Middle East are reaching the snapping point. Iran is being called out on its nuclear program. If, from the start, it had just maintained the need for electric generating power in the face of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, they might have gone unchallenged. As it happened, though, the elected leader of Iran made too many intemperate remarks about wiping other nations off the face of the earth, and this has only prompted the leaders of other nations to take his remarks at face value and presume that Iran’s nuclear program was devoted to armaments, not electric power generation.

So, now the USA has picked up the gauntlet. If Iran doesn’t act to demonstrate the de-activation of its bomb-making capacity, then the USA will try to impose sanctions depriving Iran of necessary imported supplies. (Iran actually imports gasoline, due to inadequate refineries.) For sanctions to be effective, support will be required by other nations, including Iran’s chief gasoline supplier, China. What a delicate calculus this will be! I rather imagine that China would not like to see the Middle East blow up. I’m not so sure about the nations of the Middle East though, or at least major parties in certain nations. The rulers of Saudi Arabia would probably enjoy seeing Iran get into big trouble, since Iran is Saudi Arabia’s most active antagonist, working tirelessly to destabilize the Kingdom. Al Qaeda interests dispersed in many nations would certainly cheer any mayhem. The Taliban would love anything that takes the spotlight off them in Afghanistan. The Russians are conflicted between the wish to enhance their own leverage in world affairs and their need to discipline Islamic maniacs along their own borders. Europe is probably scared to death of anything that might threaten their energy lifeline. Pakistan is too tormented to have a position, but its radical Islamist factions are probably on the side of disorder — as the best remedy for the status quo. If any of that spills over on India, as in the Mumbai bombing, then that flashpoint could turn to conflagration very quickly. We forget about Turkey, which was the hegemonic player in the region for centuries until its swift decline after 1914, but it has potent military capability and very mixed feelings about the the Jihad to ruin the West (since it is partly of the West). And finally there is Israel, the object of Iran’s intemperate public statements.

This is a dangerous situation. I’m not so sure that Israel could launch an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but it might try anyway, especially if a US-backed sanctions effort fails to coalesce quickly. I’m not sure Israel would seek permission from the US to do this, though the US would certainly be tasked with defending the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. Iran might succeed in sinking more than a couple of US ships-of-the-line with sunburn missles and other toys, and this would lead to the bigger danger of oil supplies being choked off to the rest of the world. The US air response would be impressive, but possibly not effective against hardened targets. The leaders of Iran might exult even if the Iranian people were swept into a maelstrom. I imagine that what followed would be a very extravagant military frenzy amounting to World War Three, with European air forces and navies dragged in, with Hezbollah and Syria striking back at Israel, India and Pakistan possibly incinerating each other, and mayhem galore among the bystanders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. There could easily be internal mischief in the UK, France, and Germany from angry immigrant populations, and “sleepers” could work some overdue hoodoo in the USA. I don’t know what Turkey would do, but it could be the biggest beneficiary of a bad regional meltdown, providing the only effective governance what remains in the region. China and Japan would probably just gape at the spectacle in wonder and nausea from the sidelines as they saw their energy supplies for years-to-come go up in flames.

The G-20 nations would be crippled as global oil supplies were choked off indefinitely. And if anyone — Iran, or its friends inside the Kingdom — managed to pull off a stunt such as blowing up the Ras Tanura oil terminal — then a darkness will spread across places that were used to being lighted and they will stay dark a long time.

I don’t know if any of this will come to pass, but as I said, tensions have reached a breaking point, including the greater tensions of history, which seem to require periodic release no matter how poignant the Pete Seegar songs are. It is perhaps, just another prime symptom of “overshoot,” the world’s way of shedding some of the toxic organisms that are making it so unhappy — Gaia in a really bad mood.

If nothing develops along these lines on the geopolitical scene, the USA is still stuck in its predicament of trying desperately to maintain an overscaled living arrangement, with no coherent public discussion of downscaling, re-scaling, or re-arranging things. My guess is that this kind of restructuring only occurs when all other options have been exhausted. The last time the USA found itself in an intractable economic morass, World War Two came along and it made things all better here (after considerable sacrifice for us and catastrophe elsewhere). After World War Two, we ruled the world for a couple of generations. The outcome of World War Three would not be so favorable for us. At the very least, it would leave us attempting to run things on about one-quarter of the oil we’re used to. That does not suggest a seamless transition between how we behave now and how the future will require us to behave differently.

James Howard Kunstler

October 6, 2009