THE FRYING PAN AND THE FIRE: IRAN AND THE ISIS THREAT
“Decisions about national security are ours to make . . . that’s not simply our inheritance, it’s our responsibility”
-Rachael Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military
Power (Pg 252), Broadway Paperbacks, Crown/ Random House, NY, 2012
My first encounter with Iran was in the fall of 1975, the year I was Visiting Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Houston (1975-1976). There were a number of Iranian students (men and women) on campus then in various disciplines; but surprisingly there was a relatively large community of Iranians in the Houston Metro area. Today that population has grown considerably.
From 1972 to 1974 I was Professor of Urban Studies and Assistant to the President at Metropolitan State College in Denver; and during those same years was concurrently Associate Publisher of La Luz Magazine with Dan Valdes Publisher of the magazine. La Luz was the first national public affairs magazine in English for American Hispanics and well ahead of the Hispanic surge.
Theretofore the magazine media for American Hispanics was principally in Spanish, the prevailing stereoscopic perception being that as Hispanics, American Hispanics read principally in Spanish. La Luz magazine came into being predicated on research that 80% of American Hispanics were English-language literate.
In the fall of 1974 I joined the Hispanic University of America in Denver as Vice-Chancellor for Academic Development and Professor of Hispanic Studies concurrent with my continuing involvement with La Luz Magazine. By the summer of 1975 I was invited to the University of Houston as a Visiting Professor of English in Chicano Literature—my scholarship in that field growing in recognition.
Midway through the fall semester of 1975 a sizeable group of Iranian students at the University of Houston came to my office inquiring if I’d sign a petition urging the Shah of Iran to release the Iranian Azerbaijani scholar, novelist, poet, and political activist Reza Baraheni imprisoned in Tehran since 1973. After his release and continuing political turmoil despite the Shah’s abdication, Baraheni was granted political asylum in Canada with a teaching position at the University of Toronto.
The jubilation at the Shah’s abdication and establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran petered out with the new regime’s apodictically oppressive measures. At this point those who railed at the Shah’s repressive regime became aware of the repression latent in the Islamic Republic of Iran under the leadership of the Ayatollahs. That’s when the insurgents who came to my office in Houston realized they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Shades of Animal Farm where in the name of freedom one tyranny is replaced by another.
Birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 did not bode well for the United States, especially with the Islamic Republic’s military seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 and holding hostage for 444 days its 52 American personnel until President Jimmy Carter’s last day in office. Since then U.S.-Iranian relations have been tense and tentative.
Since the emergence and rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the insurgency in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s motives for its participation in the fray have been highly suspect by the United States, especially while the United States has been negotiating a nuclear arms ac-cord with Iran. Both sides distrust each other, wary of the others motives.
The Iranian student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 was unexpected and startling and still smolders in memory for many Americans. However my earliest memories of Iran are of the Shah and his family and the apparent goodwill of that nation towards the United States, a goodwill vacated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. There was a lot of glitter and glitz in the heyday of that goodwill—perhaps too much glitter and glitz disguised as goodwill.
Important to note is that Iranians are not Arabs; they are purportedly Aryans which is why Hitler had a soft spot for them. Historically, Iran—one of the oldest civilizations in the world, known for a thousand years as Persia—has long been of geostrategic importance because of its central location in Eurasia and Western Asia. In the Middle Ages, during the Islamic Golden Age, Iran was a major figure in literary production. Though ancestral questions abound, Omar Khayyam is considered a Persian poet, but the Rubaiyat did not escape the censoring fire of the Ayatollahs.
While there is no absolute proof of Iran’s complicity with ISIS, its fingerprints are tellingly everywhere. An important distinction of agency arises here between the people and the government—governments come and go; people perdure. Essentially, Iran is using ISIS’s ascendancy in the Middle East fray to bolster its own interests and to fill in the power vacuum in this volatile region. “Neither a strong Iraq nor a partitioned one is in Iran’s interest. The rise of ISIS, which has attracted many former Ba’athists, is a matter of concern to Iranians” (Esfandiary and Tabatabai, 3). Essentially, Esfandiary and Tabatabai caution restraint in assessing Iran’s rhetoric in the Middle East fray.
Admittedly, mid the sound and fury of Iran’s rhetoric the ever-present specter of Iranian reality must be borne in mind. That is, an ancient civilization like Iran with Persian roots has survived on more than the pabulum of rhetoric. It’s a first-world nation seeking identity in the post-modern world of the 21st century.
But the over-riding question is: To what extent is ISIS a threat to the United States? There’s no doubt that at the moment ISIS looms as a formidable threat to American interests in the Middle East. During my Air Force assignment in Europe (1956-1958) I was an Intelligence Officer with strategic responsibilities as a Threat Analyst, keeping track of Soviet long-range bombers (Tupolev Tu-95) and fighter bombers (Su-25s). Information for assessing information about the Soviet Air Order of Battle came principally from U-2 photos and ground data from embedded sources.
Today, spy satellites of the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, keep track of Russian military aircraft and other realia. Essentially, photographic intelligence of any kind is a quest for patterns in terms of a rhyme that says: Do you see that tree? That’s no tree you see. What you see is not, and what is not is what you see—a bit of droll rhyme from Elsinore the musical version of Hamlet by Philip Ortego, Mark Medoff (Tony Award author of Children of a Lesser God), and George Fellows.
The vulnerability of threat analysis becomes crucial when gathered intelligence is not shared, when intelligence becomes over-dependent on technology, and when there are insufficient embedded sources, not to mention insufficiently trained threat analysts. But there are crucial questions to be asked as well: Is there sufficient evidence that the threat can be carried out? If so, is there a pattern of carrying out similar threats in the past? What are the psychological parameters of the threat? Is verification possible? Are all the pegs in their proper places for the credibility of the threat?
In a recent threat to the Los Angeles School District, the decision to close the schools was made believing the threat was credible. A comparable threat received by the New York City Public Schools was regarded as not credible. Los Angeles erred on the side of caution; New York regarded the threat as a hoax. Why two different decisions? This situation brings to mind the situation of Russian Roulette. What are the implications of being right or wrong? What are the imminencies of the threat?
In the field of “terrorism” these imminencies are crucial. “Imminencies” ask: is the threat coming from one source or multiple sources? Terrorists threats are the most difficult to assess. The process is reminiscent of a 5-card game of poker where on the basis of the visible cards the players are attempting to determine the winning hand. Nowadays various software is available for Threat and Risk Analysis. Decision Theory—an interdisciplinary approach to determine how decisions are made given unknown variables and an uncertain decision—helps us in Threat Analysis
At the moment ISIS represents a serious threat not only to the United States but to the global community including the Islamic community since ISIS seems to be motivated essentially by Jihadist motives at odds with Islamic philosophy. The two are mutually exclusive. Indeed a consideration in conducting a Threat Analysis of ISIS is the adage of being careful since milk may sometimes masquerade as cream. In other words, a Jihadist may infiltrate the United States in the guise of a refugee seeking asylum. In these cases “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” as the American Civil Liberties Union cautions.
The epistemology of Threat Analysis inscribes intent and capability both of which can be over-estimated, leading to knee-jerk reaction over-kill. Important to keep in mind is the prospect of feints—leading protective services astray thus diminishing the protective shield and leaving the intended target vulnerable. Only a robust and comprehensive model of Threat Analysis can effectively deal with threats—especially terrorist threats.
The most difficult terror threats to guard against are home-grown terror threats from within the nation as was the case of the San Bernardino episode. The only remedy is vigilance so long as it does not border on the suspicions and tactics of the Salem Witch Hunts. In the face of a Jihadist terror threat no one is immune. It’s them against us. Cooperative vigilance is the order of the day, if we are to protect and preserve democracy as E Pluribus Unum united in our differences.
That’s the national question. The Soviet Union did not do well here. At the moment the United States is coming unglued about the National Question. Despite our different national or cultural origins we are Americans: Irish Americans, Italian Americans, German Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans, Catholic Americans, and Muslim Americans. United in our differences; that’s our best defense against Jihadist terror threats. During World War II we turned against Japanese Americans because they were Japanese just as we are turning against Muslim Americans because they are Muslims and have been turning against Mexican Americans and Latino Americans because they are Mexicans and Latino Americans.
I was good at my job in the Air Force as a Threat Analyst in Soviet Studies. Importantly, I learned not only how to read clues but how to read people who are not always who they seem to be nor tell each other who they are. Yes, ISIS is a real threat to the United States just as the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula was a threat to Spain in the 8th century AD.
In the case of the Moorish Threat, however, that threat turned out to be salubrious over the 800 years of Moorish occupation in Spain. Indeed, those salubrities are difficult to ascertain at first—even with a Ouija Board. Most often they’re crapshoots. In 800 years ethnic and racial blending produced the Spain that invaded the Americas at the end of the 15th century and the Spain that we know today and its historical progeny since then.
Inevitably, martial power trumps all. With respect to Yeats, the center must hold, else all fails. As to Iran we must remember Shakespeare’s adage in Hamlet: that one may smile and smile and be a villain still. Let us keep our enemies close, our friends closer and hope that Ronald Regan’s fum poo is still effective in our dealings with Iran and that diplomacy is politically more resonant than hostages or bellicosity which asks: whose American boots and whose American blood will be on the ground? This is not Grenada but the real stuff.
On a literary note, Shakespeare’s Othello takes place in part in Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest of the ancient cities in the region. In Act V. Scene II, Othello laments his crime (jealous murder of Desdemona inspired by Iago) with the words “That in Aleppo Once” there was “one who loved not wisely but too well.” Vladimir Nabokov popularized the expression “That in Aleppo Once” as the title of his short story published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1943.
We need to keep in mind, however, that in the settled biblical world the wars of gods and men raged in the Middle East since before the deluge. That suggests scant likelihood of establishing an enduring peace there at this point of history. A ver!
Esfandiary, Dina and Ariane Tabatabai, “Iran’s ISIS Policy,” International Affairs, 91: 1, 2015.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, Chairman’s Report: The National IMAGE Commission on the Status of Hispanics in the Department of Defense, May 25, 1984.
_______________________________, “A Cry of Eagles: Reflections on America’s Cold War Secret Air Power Strategy,” Historia Chicana, July 12, 2011.
_____________________________, Vet Vox: On War and Remembrance y Otros Recuerdos (E-Book), Scribd/Word Press, 2013.
Copyright 2016 By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. Dr. Ortego is Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy) Western New Mexico University; Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English, Texas State University—Sul Ross; Threat Analyst, U.S. Air Forces Europe, 1955-1958. USAF 1952-1962 (Res. Major). Photo of Dr. Ortego courtesy of the author. All other photos in the public domain.