September 28, 2009

Graduating Out of the Axis of Annoyance

Quico says: It's tempting to dismiss Rodrigo Sanz's revelation that Iran is collaborating with Venezuela in an effort to secure high grade Uranium in Santa Elena de Uairén as mere posturing, or even just a slip of the tongue. That would be a serious mistake.

I believe Friday's announcement will come to be remembered as a turning point in the history of the Chávez era. When the time comes to partition our recent past, it will be remembered as the moment when Venezuela graduated out of the Axis of Annoyance and entered a geostrategic space it's never held before.

Here's why. For the last five centuries, a kind of Iron Law of Geopolitics has dictated that what happened in Latin America only made it onto the Big Powers' radar screens when events here got enmeshed in broader geo-strategic concerns.

For example, our Wars of Independence would've been of little interest to the great powers if it hadn't been for the Napoleonic upheaval, followed by the post-Metternichtian shake-out in European great power politics.

In the same vein, what Guatemala chose to do with its government in 1954 or Chile with its affairs in 1973 would've been of no particular interest to the rest of the world, but seen through the prism of the Cold War, they became important. And, of course, Fidel Castro never would've been anything more than an also-ran in the region's long history of megalomaniacal caudillos if he hadn't immersed Cuba in the USSR's global strategy to confront the US.

In the absence such trans-oceanic entanglements, what happens in Latin America should matter to Latin Americans only. Sporadically, an idealistic American president or a plunder-happy US company might decide to dip its toes in the region's politics as a way to burnish his credentials or fatten its bottom line, but only in ways that matter little beyond the borders of the country involved. In the event, Latin America only graduates to the first tier of geo-strategic concerns when it gets sucked into fights cooked up in the other hemisphere.

Whether he realizes it or not, Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz did exactly that. It injected Venezuela right into the pre-eminent security challenge of the era. For the last 10 years, Chávez has been shadow boxing with the US. On Friday, Sanz shoved him into the rink.

Because we shouldn't fool ourselves: a nuclear armed Iran under the control of an aggressively anti-semitic, proudly extremist Islamic theocracy led by a man known to favor apocalyptic fantasies is a scenario none of the Western Powers can begin to countenance. The potential for Tehran to effectively hold the entire Middle East hostage, dictating terms to the entire region under the implicit threat of nuclear attack is too grave for Europe and the US to accept.

Some might argue that, during the Cold War, having two nuclear armed adversaries facing off against each other served as a stabilizing factor, helping keep the war cold. But there's one fatal flaw in that analogy: the Soviets did not have a death wish, the Iranians do.

That may sound over-dramatic, but the cult of martyrdom is one of the central tenets of Shia Islam, and the absolutely extreme version of Shiism the Iranian mullahs espouse has already led them to send hundreds of thousands of their own citizens to certain violent death. (If you think I'm exaggerating, read this.)

For people genuinely convinced that death in jihad is how you get to heaven por la puerta grande, the possibility of massive nuclear retaliation could easily come to be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. After all, if you were seriously convinced that you had the chance to guarantee everyone you rule over a privileged spot in Paradise, wouldn't you take it? Wouldn't you feel you had a responsibility to take it?

It's the kind of calculus Israel's military planners are having to weigh every night before they go to sleep.

In the wake of the brazenly stolen presidential elections earlier this year and the grave disclosure over the facility at Qom, the sense of urgency over the Iranian regime's intentions is considerably heightened. Couple that with an aggressively nationalistic government in power in Israel, and the Western Powers could well be drawn into a military confrontation with Iran through no decision of their own, merely as fall-out from a go-it-alone Israeli attack.

This is the scale of the international crisis that Rodolfo Sanz - of all people! - delivered us into with his announcement on Friday. Preventing an Iranian bomb is the number one policy goal of the United States today. That's two. Venezuela is actively helping Iran secure the most critical input needed for such a bomb. That's another two. Two and two make...?

What we have in our hands is a game changer. The west simply cannot laugh off Friday's announcement as just another of Chávez's folkloric eccentricities, and the Chávez administration lame attempts at backtracking ("oh no, he meant the Russians were helping us!") are not believable. Helping Iran get the bomb isn't on a par with helping FARC smuggle drugs to Europe or with financing Ollanta Humala's campaign. It's not an annoyance. It's a first-tier strategic threat.

Chávez knows it. The Israelis know it. The Iranians know it. The Pentagon certainly knows it.

We're sailing into uncharted waters here.