Catching up on some stuff I don’t want to slip by:
The most important news of the past few days is arguably contained in a somewhat-buried article in the New York Times by Robert F. Worth and C.J. Chiver, entitled “Seized Chinese Weapons Raise Concerns on Iran.” The subtitle gives a hint of one of the reasons this information is so significant: “Capture of Vessel Off Yemen Alarms Region.” (As if it isn’t already alarmed enough.)
And well it should be alarmed. As the article makes clear, the Iranians, via the Revolutionary Guard Corps, are accelerating the volume and sophistication of weapons supplies transferred to extent and potential proxies in the region. In the case of Yemen, that’s the Houthi rebellion. In all cases, Iran’s support is to Shi’a or Shi’a offshoot groups fighting Sunni government or groups. The qualitative escalation is symbolized by the presence of Chinese-manufactured manpads—the QW-1M. These weapons come from a Chinese state-owned company already sanctioned by the U.S. government for illegal arms dealing.
What are Iranian and Chinese officials thinking (and let me note that in neither case can we assume a monolithic government decision system)?
Why, first, are the Iranians doing something that is clearly going to alarm and drive together Sunni countries in the region, and quicken their willingness to cooperate with the United States? Well, they may have assumed they wouldn’t get caught. There have been times in the past when they did not get caught in a timely fashion, and other times when U.S. intelligence and other decision-makers thought that following rather than outing this behavior would bring more long-term benefits.
But they got caught: On January 23 the USS Farragut, a DDG-class destroyer took down the Iranian Jeehan I of the coast Al Ghaydah, a Yemeni town almost directly north of the island of Sucotra in the Gulf of Aden.
Personal aside: I had the honor a few years ago of shipriding the Farragut into the Atlantic Ocean for a couple of days along with a half dozen other civvies. The ship, which sails out of Mayport at Jacksonville, Florida, was on a counter-terror, counter-piracy training mission in advance of a deployment to the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. I got to watch simulated action take place, as Captain Phil Sobeck and his officers explained what was going on. I also got to watch as a cruise missile was fired to its target at Hurlburt Field, near the Gulf Coast all the way on the other side of Florida. And I got to smell a large cloud of cordite during gunnery practice: a-yuck! Congratulations to the men and women of the Farragut, and all those who have been associated with her! The next time I wear my Farragut hat, a gift from Captain Phil, I will do so with special pride.
Note that the Iranians have plotted and implemented this escalation even as they have agreed to talks with the United States and others about their rapidly proceeding nuclear weapons program. Could today’s news possibly suggest that the Iranians have zero intentions of making a deal, and that they are using negotiations only to divide and distract the so-called international community (how hard is that, after all?), so as to buy some quiet time for themselves?
I don’t think that the prospect of getting caught seeding weapons all over the region was enough to stop the Iranians. That is because there is a chance—a fairly good one, I’d say—that the Iranian leadership believes in the inevitability of war, whether a broad-scale Shi’a-Sunni war in the region, perhaps touched off in Syria and Lebanon between Jabhat al-Musra and Hizballah, or an attack by the United States, or both. So why wouldn’t they position themselves for it as best they can?
Why the Chinese? Because they’re willing, they’re discreet—and because they have the right stuff.
Speaking of the Chinese, why are they willing to do this, despite our having read them the riot act several times over this sort of behavior now going on many years? I can think of two classes of reasons.
First, it’s free. We complain to them in private diplomatic circles, and we toss a sanction here and there at a specific reprobate company, but we exact no real price. Every time sanctions against Iran come around, the White House exempts China from them. Not a way to communicate a serious attitude, turning what our diplomatic folks do into what is frequently called in the State Department a “d’marchemallow.” So what’s really to stop the Chinese side from doing the deal?
Second, and much more attention arresting, the Chinese government (or at least the PLA) knows that if there is a fight one day in the Pacific—say one that starts more or less accidentally between China and Japan over some rock in the South China Sea (see the cover story of the current issue of TAI)—it would be very useful to any extended Chinese military campaign if well-armed anti-U.S. groups in the Middle East, taking their cues more or less from Iran, were capable of starting what amounts to a second front. As it is, it seems less than certain that the Obama Administration would back its Japanese ally if it got into a slapping match with China. The prospect of a second, Middle Eastern front coming into play can only make U.S. determination, and credibility, that much easier to doubt. One has to assume that both the Iranian and Chinese sides understand this.
So, important news? You bet. Good news? No such luck.