How to Defeat Iran and ISIS without Getting Our Boots Dirty

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with activity in the Middle East without a scorecard.

However, if we keep our eye upon the donut and not upon the hole, we can see where our interests lie and how we can influence the action to best serve them.

First, we must recognize that the real main contest in the Middle East is the age-old contest of Sunni vs. Shia.  Here it would appear that our interests are clear.  Iran is the champion of the Shia.  Iran has all of the other Shia groups of the Middle East as clients: Assad's Alawites in Syria, Hezb'allah of Lebanon, the Houthi of Yemen, and the Shia of the rump Iraq based in Baghdad.  Iran is the biggest exporter of terror in the world and is responsible for some of the American causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If this is not enough, we and the U.N. recently concluded an agreement with Iran regarding Iran's development of nuclear weapons.  The agreement was supposed to limit Iran's ability to do this or at least slow its progress in that direction.  It has become apparent that the agreement is not likely to do either of those things, and Iran is likely to violate the terms of the agreement anyway.  Moreover, Russia (our biggest nemesis worldwide) has concluded the sale to Iran of a sophisticated air defense system that could make it harder to take out Iran's nuclear capability via bombing.  Russia and some other countries are helping Iran and Assad's Syria by trading in arms and other support.  It would appear that this is enough to show us that our interests generally lie with those countries and groups opposed to Iran and her allies and clients.

Now, some of these countries and groups are easy to see as allies or at least having common interests regarding the Sunni-Shia contest and Iranian export of terror.  Saudi Arabia is generally regarded in the Middle East and elsewhere as the biggest opponent of Iran and the leader of the Sunni countries.  Egypt, the most populous and militarily strong country of the area, is usually allied with Saudi Arabia.  Turkey is a NATO ally and is generally allied with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Jordan is also generally allied with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Pakistan, a nuclear power, might be a player in the Middle East on the Sunni side, especially if Iran succeeds in its quest for a nuclear weapon.  Then there are the Sunni groups ranging from Iraqi or former Iraqi Sunnis to the formerly Iraqi Kurds who occupy territory adjacent to Turkey, Syria, and Iran.  Because of this geographical fact and their generally good fighting qualities, the Kurds could occupy a special place as a means to defend our interests in the Middle East.

ISIS is a Sunni player with extreme ideas and actions.  However, ISIS is definitely a bigger threat to Iran and its clients in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the rump Iraq in Baghdad than it is to any of the Sunni countries of the Middle East.  The problem for the Sunni countries and for us is how to use ISIS to combat Iran while knowing all along that we will have to face ISIS after taking down Iran.  "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  Does it matter for how long and in what way?

As we move into strategy, let's examine some maps of the area.

First, we should conduct some diplomacy with Turkey.  We may want to bring Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan (and Israel) into this before meeting with Turkey.  This would all be confidential diplomacy.  Essentially, we will propose that an independent Kurdistan be formed out of the Kurdish province of Iraq.  The Kurds would pledge to take action against the PKK if it strikes at Turkey and would also pledge to peacefully settle any border disputes with Turkey.

The USA will agree to arm the Kurds via supply lines through Turkey.  Turkey and Egypt will provide air support for Kurdish operations.  The Kurds will agree to assist Turkey and the Free Syrian Army to depose Assad and his Alawites (and any Russians they find in Syria) while continuing to defend Kurdish territory against ISIS and while trying to capture formerly Iraqi oil fields from ISIS.  We will assist the Kurds in operating any oil fields captured.

The long-range strategy will be to drive ISIS out of Syria and western Iraq, leaving them only one area when they might base their caliphate: Eastern Iraq.  ISIS would then have to  concentrate their efforts against the Shia Iraqi army and Iran.  ISIS will also have to fight a rear guard operation against the Kurds.  This would put pressure on Iran and its client, the rump Iraq, without any direct contact between the forces we support and the Iranians or their Iraqi client.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan can take care of Hezb'allah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.  We can support this effort logistically. 

If ISIS makes good progress against the rump Iraq and Iran, we could arrange clandestine support for them through one or more of the Sunni countries.

This leaves us with the problem of Iran's nuclear program.  Ideally, there could be so much pressure on Iran on the ground from ISIS that the Iranians would have to delay their nuclear program.  However, we don't know if the ISIS fighting quality or stamina is great enough to produce that result.  So we have to have another plan (or several other plans) to take out Iran's nuclear capability.

The first of these would be a clandestine, electronic code to scramble the navigation and control modules in missiles and in nuclear warheads.  It might be possible to run two or three kinds of codes simultaneously, and one or more of these could tell us whether a warhead or missile is actually in being and, if so, where.  It might be hard to get this code into the right places in Iran, since a worm was successfully introduced this way some years ago to screw up Iran's centrifuges, and there might be more vigilance because of that.  However, if Iran continues to get arms, computers, and other electronics and repair parts from other countries, it may be relatively easy to "piggyback" the necessary code and get it to the right place.

A second, and simultaneous, effort would attempt to recruit Iranian citizens for intelligence information and occasional direct action.  Since Iran has a young, educated, and technology advanced citizenry, we might be able to relatively easily exploit unrest against the mullahs and their government and get active and willing cooperation.  If this effort were successful, it could be expanded to an active fifth column and/or insurgency within Iran.

The third effort would entail the destruction or neutralization of Iran's air defenses by use of techniques developed some time ago by our Air Force and Navy followed by air attack on Iran's nuclear production and storage sites and on any missile sites or military installations involved in nuclear or missile technology.  The attack aircraft and the supporting air assets need not be U.S. or piloted by U.S. personnel.  We have at least two and maybe three allies in the area that might be able to carry out part or all of this operation.

This strategy would be flexible and could be started with just arming the Kurds and the diplomacy required to do that without ruffling feathers.  The rest could follow on or be modified because of success or lack thereof with the first parts.  There would be a monetary cost to this and some U.S. military and diplomatic participation – but no large-scale use of U.S. forces on the ground or even in the air, save logistical operations with Turkey.

Jeff Scribner is a retired Army officer and president of ASI Enterprises, Inc., an investment bank serving small- and medium-sized businesses.  He can be reached at