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Start from the position that the Iranian people are hostages in their own country to a regime based on an idea, perhaps an ideology, concocted in the 1970s and propounded clearly only after Khomeini’s faction had control in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Consider that there has been popular unrest against the regime. Factor in that the rulers are savvy and ruthless, with an elite military force keeping the regular military and the populace in check, while extending regime influence regionally and globally. The Khomeinists seem to have a strong hand, with some high cards, so how do we set about trumping their hand? Moving towards answers that are feasible takes more than hand-waving and posturing.
The U.S. military has long recognized that it was only one instrument in Uncle Sam’s tool belt, and that military strategy needed to be integrated with plans and actions by the rest of the government. This became called a “whole of government” approach. For many years, military officers, in their advanced schooling, were instructed in consideration of four “instruments of national power:” Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economy (DIME).
DIME was useful for getting officers with around twenty years of military planning and operations under their belts to think more broadly. However, Uncle Sam actually has a larger set of tools, and uses them. To capture these other tools, DIME became DIMEFIL:
Diplomacy: The State Department has always had the lead in this area.
Information: Think about public communication, both domestically and externally. Think back to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Consider everything from old fashioned print to social media.
Military: This is the one everyone talks about, as if it existed in isolation. It does not.
Economy: Think trade deals and tariffs. Consider our move to “energy dominance.”
Financial: The Treasury Department has repeatedly carried out financial system sanctions against foreign targets.
Intelligence: From signals to human intelligence, from our own assets to cooperation with other nations’ agencies.
Legal (or Law Enforcement): Think Department of Justice and FBI. There is even a neologism for the use of courts: “lawfare.”
Let us consider these tools briefly, first from the American government’s side and then from the Iranian regime’s side.
Diplomacy: The State Department, led by Secretary Mike Pompeo, communicates with friends and competitors around the world. They also are in the business of listening to representatives of foreign governments. Done poorly, the end result is either agency capture by “the international community” or blindness to important signals, leading to increased risk that we will have to use other tools (carrier diplomacy) more than necessary.
In this instance, we have a shift from the Obama State Department pushing back on Israel and Sunni states, while securing agreement in the Iran deal from the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, all eager to reap benefits from this deal. Now State is reassuring Israel and Sunni Arab states, while quietly working to draft a broader peace plan around what has been characterized narrowly as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Movement towards stability in the Sunni Arab region is a form of pushing back on the Khomeinist strategy of extending influence through conflict in the region.
At the same time, the State Department is engaged with the parties who were benefiting from the Obama Iran deal. It seems that State helped mediate concerns by partners like India, getting some relief in terms of scope and timing of economic sanctions and trade restrictions.
Information: Back in the Cold War, with simpler technology, this was about Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. Today, communications cannot be so easily limited by any state. Yes, the Khomeinists have cracked down on blogging, social media, and the internet in general. Yet, we have a president who understands the importance of constant public communication, which is observed around the globe. There are both risks and rewards in that.
Beyond the president and his administration, there is a divided Congress, with even some in the president’s party feeling free to free-lance for their own individual benefits. The old “politics stop at the water’s edge” is dead and buried. Then there is the whole range of professional news and opinion voices operating across print, video, and voice formats, largely accessed by a computer network connection, often a phone. Finally, there is that army of Davids, all of us, even if we think we are just talking amongst ourselves.
When President Trump said he called off a military strike because shooting down a drone did not justify taking 150 Iranian lives, he did something powerful on multiple stages. He reinforced the Iranian people’s impression that their government was putting them at risk for its own foreign policy ambitions. He told especially women in America that he cares for the lives of people, even foreigners halfway around the world, over a piece of military equipment. In the region, he said Muslim lives matter. He countered the Democrats’ narrative and that of the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese. At the same, time, he backstopped any signal of weakness by adding that if one American life was lost in a similar incident, that would be a whole different calculation.
The images and public communications, by diplomatic, military, and intelligence actors, about the sabotage of third-country ships puts pressure on their home governments to take steps to protect their own shipping and to not be too cozy with the regime in Teheran. Notice that the Democrats immediately started questioning the evidence or shifting the blame, as did the “Ron Paul” wing of the Republican party. There was not one clear American voice on the attacks on non-American flagged ships.
Military: There is no dispute that the United States has overwhelming superiority in the air and on the water. However, the disputes will continue to be over just how it should and should not be employed. At the minimum, the movement of ships and aircraft into the region make clear that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have very limited conventional military options themselves. This threat helps reinforce the other instruments of power, but also puts demands on some parts of our military to coordinate with friendly countries in the region against proxy force threats.
Economy: Yes, the reimposition of import/export sanctions do matter and yet might have been ameliorated if the Khomeinist regime had held the massive gift of cash from Obama, and the Europeans(?), as a rainy day fund for a few years. That apparently did not happen. While sanctions are the talk of all the talking heads and politicians, the real economic game-changer was our domestic energy production policy change. By allowing American businesses and workers to do well by fracking wells, we changed the global petroleum market. Notice how the different tools of national power interact in the ending of Iranian oil export sanction exemptions:
The White House has officially announced that the exemption of Iranian oil buyers will not be renewed. Starting May 2, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, China, Japan, South Korea, India and Greece, like other countries, are not allowed to buy oil from Iran, otherwise they will face fines from the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a conference after a statement was issued, saying Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have promised to compensate for the shortage of Iranian oil. Pompeo noted that Iran’s oil revenues before the U.S. withdrawal was $50 billion annually.
So, diplomatic efforts, combined with financial system threats, seek to redirect other countries to friendlier oil sources in the same neighborhood as Iran, having arranged for these countries to agree to open their spigots a little wider. Iraq probably could not increase production, and is internally divided over relations with the Khomeinist regime.
You should absolutely read two chapters on China in Daniel Yergin‘s masterful The Quest. You will see that China made the deliberate decision to never let anyone energy source or type become a vulnerability. They will buy from anyone and everyone so that no nation and no industry can ever have them “over a barrel.” This is a fundamentally sound strategy which both drove them to Iranian oil, among other sources, and made them largely invulnerable to disruption of that one source.
President Trump’s administration is fully informed of this energy market dynamic, in part because former Texas governor, Energy Department Secretary Rick Perry, appointed Daniel Yergin to the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB).*
The U.S. economy, as a net petroleum producer now, would benefit from any sustained increase in world prices. Continued and expanded construction of petroleum export terminals just became an even better investment decision. Yet, our good friends in the Middle East, and the Russians, are not going to profit too much, as our excess capacity and desire to sell at slightly higher prices will put an effective cap on world prices.
Financial: From the beginning of President Trump’s administration, we have seen the Secretary of the Treasure, then Steve Mnuchin, stepping up to the microphone and announcing actions in the domestic and international banking systems to punish, “sanction,” various bad actors around the globe. The Treasury Department has an “Iran Sanctions” webpage. So long as we are the healthiest and largest economy in the world, we will have leverage on other nations and even blocs of nations, like the wishfully named European Union. Economic sanctions against Iran are backed by the very real threat of our government cutting off violators’ access to our financial markets, a catastrophic result for most.
Intelligence: In this category, think about both offense and defense, and everything from signals, communications networks, to old-fashioned human agents. It appears that President Trump ordered a computer network attack, “cyber,” on the surface-to-air missile systems used to shoot down our sophisticated reconnaissance drone. These missile systems are inherently centered on computer networks, necessary for everything from detecting a target to firing accurately. Accordingly, more and more effort will go into computer network attacks, bits of code and commands designed to disrupt, deceive, or disable weapon systems or even systems of systems.
Legal, Law Enforcement: Consider that our immigration and border enforcement includes watching out for foreign operatives swimming in the sea of people illegally crossing or overstaying their authorization. FBI domestic counter-spying and counter-terrorism efforts include detecting and disrupting the Khomeinists’ operations in our country. Think back to an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States on our soil. The Department of Justice would bring enforcement actions in our courts, and defend suits launched against the government’s enforcement actions.
[Update:] Paraguay just deported a suspected Hezbollah financier to the United States to answer charges of financial crimes:
Court documents refer to Farhat as a “known money launderer for narcotics organizations and other illicit organizations,” while media reports allege a possible connection to Hezbollah. According to a Department of Justice press release announcing the indictment of his co-conspirators, Farhat participated in “an international money laundering scheme relying on the complexities of global trade, and the use of … businesses here in New York and in Florida, to launder millions of dollars for transnational drug traffickers and other bad actors.” (The cases have since been merged.)
The Khomeinist Regime
Diplomacy: The Khomeinists have a very active diplomatic corps. Iranian and Russian diplomats have been meeting to try to counter President Trump’s undoing of the Obama nuclear deal. At the same time, they feel comfortable setting themselves against the U.S. and Israel, as proxies for the secularist-dominated West, even while hosting German diplomats, representing a major nation supporting continued trade with Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday cited “moral principles” when asked why Iran executes homosexuals for their sexual orientation, as he also attacked the US and Israel for “violating human rights.”
At a press conference in the Iranian capital with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, Zarif was asked by Bild reporter Paul Ronzheimer about the death penalty for gay people in the Middle Eastern country.
“Our society has moral principles, and according to these principles we live,” Zarif responded. “These are moral principles regarding the behavior of people in general. And that’s because the law is upheld and you abide by laws.”
If this seems like poor diplomacy, you have not been following the red-green alliance, in which pointing out the difference in treatment of homosexuals is dismissed as “pink washing.”
Information: The Khomeinist regime is not blind or blind to all the communications outside its borders. It has clearly assessed that it can say all manner of things very plainly, in the language of their choice, and get cover for the leftist media across Europe and the United States. See their official diplomatic presence on the internet: Iranian Diplomacy. Consider the targets of their messaging:
Military: The IRGC is its own force, independent of the regular military and better resourced. While they have enough capability in small boats and missile batteries on shore, their ability to close the Straits of Hormuz would be very short lived. Likewise, they have almost no capability to reach beyond their own borders with air power. Instead, they have developed a highly capable rough counterpart to the United States Army Special Forces. The IRGC is extensively involved in training, resourcing, and guidance for terrorist and light infantry forces mutually reinforced with rocket forces of increasing capability. So far, all of this is intended to be deniably, not provoking direct military strikes on Iranian soil in retaliation.
Economy: If the IRGC seriously disrupts shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, they turn from the sympathetic party, with whom Europe and China wish to do business, to a threat to the European and Asian economies. The Iranian economy has been doing poorly, and their infrastructure has been aging, a factor in public dissatisfaction with the regime. The regime had been counting on business deals with European, Russian, and Asian partners.
The problem for the Khomeinists is that they have relatively little leverage in these deals, that loss of access to the Iranian market is not a serious blow to the economic interests of other states. At the intersection of information and the economy, consider the Financial Tribune‘s headlines. It seems like a lot of whistling past the grave.
Finance: While the regime got a much-needed cash infusion by Obama, the Khomeinists have very limited assets and can no longer fully bankroll their proxies and allies, as The New York Times reported from Lebanon in March:
Syrian militiamen paid by Iran have seen their salaries slashed. Projects Iran promised to help Syria’s ailing economy have stalled. Even employees of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that has long served as Iran’s closest Arab ally, say they have missed paychecks and lost other perks.
Iran’s financial crisis, exacerbated by American sanctions, appears to be undermining its support for militant groups and political allies who bolster Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.
“The golden days are gone and will never return,” said a fighter with an Iranian-backed militia in Syria who recently lost a third of his salary and other benefits. “Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.”
This negatively affects their military tools of national power and makes their diplomats weaker.
Intelligence: The Khomeinist regime has demonstrated global reach with spying and direct action. They are well-embedded in South and Central America. Stories going back over a decade or more tell of Hezbollah building a western base.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia has taken root in South America, fostering a well-financed force of Islamist radicals boiling with hatred for the United States and ready to die to prove it, according to militia members, U.S. officials and police agencies across the continent.
From its Western base in a remote region divided by the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina known as the Tri-border, or the Triple Frontier, Hezbollah has mined the frustrations of many Muslims among about 25,000 Arab residents whose families immigrated mainly from Lebanon in two waves, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and after the 1985 Lebanese civil war.
An investigation by Telemundo and NBC News has uncovered details of an extensive smuggling network run by Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group founded in Lebanon in 1982 that the United States has labeled an international terrorist organization. The operation funnels large sums of money to militia leaders in the Middle East and finances training camps, propaganda operations and bomb attacks in South America, according to U.S. and South American officials.
Legal (Law Enforcement): The Khomeinists have an extensive system of internal enforcement, so far preventing effective opposition. They may also count on lawfare in U.S. federal courts, with the leftist cadre who infiltrated the federal bench at every level. There has been a limited response by the Supremes, but Roberts has pointedly avoided really putting the district courts in check by ruling against their nation-wide decisions as fraudulent on their face, clearly beyond the scope of jurisdiction of a district or circuit court. Additionally, look for friendly efforts in European courts.
A Starting Point for Discussion
Any and all of the above is not intended to be definitive or definite. It provides, by way of illustration and example, one way of sorting bits of news as you encounter them. Hopefully, this will encourage you to think about connections and contradictions between actions that can be sorted into different buckets in DIMEFIL. Perhaps you even have ideas for things to do or not do with one or more instrument of national power. Where should Uncle Sam swing a hammer, flow a solder line, or crank up a power sander?
* See this recent Houston Chronicle interview with David Yergin for a one-over-the-world energy markets assessment.