If you’re interested in the real politics of the Middle East (as we are), this thoughtful 17-minute podcast from the New Yorker deserves your time. Dexter Filkins wrote a typically long and detailed piece in last week’s New Yorker about Qasssem Suleimani, the Commander of the Quds Force within the Republican Guard (picture below).

The discussion brings up three interesting theories about Syria, Iraq and the region

  • Iran’s redline is not the preservation of the Assad régime; it is the supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon, “Iran’s aircraft carrier off the Israeli coast”. In practical terms, there may not be much of a difference but it will affect negotiations
  • It’s easy to imagine a settlement of Iran’s nuclear programme being discussed alongside Syria
  • The Quds Force is now directing much of the government military effort in Syria and the number of cargo flights from Teheran suggests that it is flooding the country with arms

Even if you’re not a Middle East geek, it is worth listening to this typically erudite New Yorker discussion for three reasons

  • It highlights how often our media, driven by the news-cycle, forget the real issues underlying conflicts: Iran’s world view is still conditioned not by the revolution but by the Iraq war. We often forget that the West gave Saddam intelligence, arms and help in making chemical weapons with the mandate of overthrowing the Islamic régime. The multiple chemical attacks and the million Iranian dead are what drive the extremists in thinking “never again”.
  • It reminds us of unintended consequences: action by the West left Iran without its traditional enemies. Saddam was replaced by a broadly pro-Iranian Shia government; the fanatical Sunni Taliban were replaced by a government that saw Iran as a potential ally in containing Pakistan’s Saudi-aligned intelligence forces. Unintended consequences happen on all sides — Iran’s decision to fund Jihadi extremists in Iraq led to a civil war with its own Shia allies
  • It shows how people in polite society — even very informed polite society — cannot bring themselves to talk about money. Not once are the business interests of the the Republican Guard or of the Rafsanjani faction in Iran discussed despite estimates of billions of dollars siphoned off. Maybe the reports are false, maybe this really matters less than nationalism or religion, maybe politicians will always allow the geopolitical game to eclipse business interests but, at least, it’s worth talking about. This reluctance to contemplate filthy lucre bedevils almost every discussion of international relations among the chattering classes and it’s the most interesting question for those of us who seek influence around the edges of international policy. When, for example, Barrack Obama has 60 minutes with Manmohan Singh, why does he use it to talk about Afghanistan rather than the intellectual property of American companies, many of which donate a fortune to US political parties?