The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Many American journalists report battles within our government but don’t recognize fissures in the regimes of Iran, China, and other countries. I spoke Sunday evening (audio here) with international affairs strategist George Friedman, chairman of Geopolitical Futures, and asked him how his background in intelligence and international strategy influenced his perception of last Friday’s sensational report from Iraq. His edited responses are below.
When you heard the news that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani had met his earthly reward, what was your instant reaction? What in the world was the head of Iranian intelligence doing just south of Baghdad airport? The last thing you do is allow your head of intelligence to go in harm’s way. You don’t want him captured, you don’t want him questioned. Yet there he was, meeting with the head of Iraqi intelligence. So my first thought was, “This is not how you plan a major attack. This is what it looks like when you're panicking.”
‘This is not how you plan a major attack. This is what it looks like when you're panicking.’ —George Friedman
Would it have been possible to capture him? I don’t know that we don’t have him as a prisoner. I know one thing: A head of intelligence—the head of Quds Force, his mind filled with the secrets of Iranian intelligence operations—does not go to a meeting in an unsettled country where he might be captured.
Has Iraq become a tributary of Iran? Well, obviously it’s not enough of a tributary of Iran to make it fully safe. The issue: There are just some things that senior intelligence people don’t do. It would be like in the Cold War, the head of U.S. intelligence deciding to go to a meeting in Bulgaria—probably not wise. So, the issue here is what is going on in Iran, that would cause him—a very, very good professional—to take this sort of risk?
And that’s still a mystery? We know the Iranian economy is in shambles because of sanctions. We know there has been a great deal of unrest. We know the sphere of influence Iran has developed ran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. There have been riots in Lebanon. The Israelis are hammering the Iranians daily in Syria, and the Russians are not protecting them. And in Iraq there were anti-Iranian demonstrations.
So, we know that the Iranian position is under tremendous pressure. Normally, at this time, you protect your top assets, and you send other people. So, from the intelligence point of view, this is not the way it works, but it’s what they did.
What would cause panic? The Iranians are wondering if the U.S. has penetrated Iranian security. We seem to have been hitting targets, and that seems to disturb them, but even more disturbing is that Soleimani was meeting the head of Iraqi intelligence. And if you’re going to have these two guys meet, you’ll do it in Tehran. Or someplace safe. You will not do it outside the airport.
About 10 years ago, you wrote of the 2010s: “The United States will be required to make a distasteful accommodation with Iran, regardless of whether it attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities.” That seemed to be an accurate prediction during the Obama years. Is it still an accurate prediction? We don’t know what Iran is going to be. We have to remember that Iran is going through a deep internal crisis. They have been arresting people, they’ve been releasing people, there have been debates, and so on. Everybody assumes this Shiite Islamic regime is secure. It’s not.
When the United States withdrew from Iraq and President Trump basically said, “I don’t want to be involved in a 19th year of war,” suddenly Iran had a sphere of influence that ran from Iran to the Mediterranean. Thus far there has been a standoff with the United States not using military force primarily, but squeezing the Iranian economy.
With the killing of Soleimani, we are in a different place. So, over the next year or two, we’re going to be seeing how this evolves. At this moment, everybody is, of course, shocked, shocked that he was killed. But the real question that everybody’s asking is, “Who betrayed him?”
How will the Iranians respond? They are threatening external responses. They want to know how the Americans got wind of it, what security failure was there. So what’s going on right now in Iran is a witch hunt: “Who knew what, when? Who did they speak to?” They’re going through all the records, all the movements, and everything else. Something went terribly wrong to a regime that has had things going terribly wrong for a year or two.
The view we tend to get in The New York Times and other publications is: The sky is falling. What do you think of reports like that? Part of the picture is that the internal politics of the United States are such that whatever the president does, it will be catastrophic—in the press. But it’s also that Iran has power, particularly covert power. It does not have nuclear weapons. It does not have a military force that can challenge United States.
The United States, for that matter, doesn’t have a military force to challenge the 80 million Iranians. We’ve learned, hopefully, that occupying a hostile country is hard—and it doesn’t always work out as you’d want, so we’re not going to go to war. They may strike at us, but we have shown a remarkable capability of striking at them, and now we’re threatening their leaders. There’s a huge psychological crisis in Iran. Their security apparatus, which is one of the best in the world, has been compromised.