The Pentagon has somewhere a threat list that ranks external threats to the national security of the United States. It also wargames those threats, asking hypothetically "what if" and "what then," with teams of officials simulating US and foreign decision-makers. The current short-term threat list is undoubtedly topped by Iran and the long-term one by China.
The first thing to be said is that neither of these threats is existential -- that is, they do not entail invasion or significant bombing by a foreign nation, although you would not know it from the hyperventilating candidates in the current primaries. But tactical threats of isolated yet lethal attacks by terrorists at home and overseas certainly do exist, and could become catastrophic if nuclear materials fall into the wrong hands.
How does the government analyze such security threats? The way all governments do: on the basis of assessments of capabilities and intentions. Technology has contributed mightily to good information about capabilities by enabling satellites with astonishingly high resolution to see everything down to human figures. But it makes no sense to act on assessments of capabilities alone. We know the capabilities of Great Britain, including its nuclear arsenal, but no one would put it on an American threat list As for the hostile nuclear would-be and the hostile already-is, we know quite a lot about the capabilities of North Korea. But we don’t really know where Iran stands on its suspected nuclear weapons building. Some new facilities may be deep underground where they can’t be seen by satellites (nor readily attacked). So Iranian capabilities are incompletely understood.
But even when capabilities are well known, the real puzzle concerns intentions: just what do Iran and China have in mind? Are the Iranian mullahs actually planning to build deliverable nuclear weapons, and if so, what do they plan to do with them? Will they to provoke the US by blocking the critically important Strait of Hormuz, which would surely start a war? As with North Korea, we just don’t know what’s going on in their minds.
China poses a different problem. While Iran makes no secret of its animosity and threats, China is and could remain both our economic competitor and environmental partner, and our prime Asian-Pacific strategic rival. Changes are possible in China’s economic policies, and seven of the top nine of its leadership positions have already transferred to a new generation. It’s also possible that these new leaders have no clear definition yet of their longer-term intentions, if any. Iranians may dream of restoring Persia’s Fourth Century BC empire. But for a rising China, the best historic analogy might be Prussia’s Bismarck, who unified a rising Germany to create an empire and, after minor conflicts with France and Austria, oversaw a balance of power policy that kept the European peace for decades until the first World War.
National Intelligence Estimates, classified and unclassified, contain judgments based on available knowledge of both capabilities and intentions. Enormous resources go into providing the raw intelligence. For example, the National Security Agency uses a huge budget to acquire electronic information about countries on the threat list, monitoring global electronic traffic for key words. But despite all this, our knowledge is murky. Is there anything more that can help us understand Iran's intentions in the short term and China's in the longer term? Is there anywhere else to look beyond conventional sources?
One answer can be found in the famous aphorism by Speaker Tip O'Neill that “all politics are local.” As in most authoritarian countries, policy in Iran and China is driven by the leaders’ determination to retain power, whatever the cost. We can also surmise that at least some Iranian and Chinese behavior can be attributed to generational change. The potential leadership in Iran and the emerging leadership in China are more savvy about the modern world than the bearded mullahs in Qum and the survivors of the great march in China. That fact alone may portend change.
History also helps supply a perspective. Jordan and Iraq were created in 1921, Israel was born in 1948, and a host of African states acquired identity in the decolonization period after World War II. By contrast, both Iran and China were great empires a couple of thousand years ago. National pride and memories of regional hegemony are hard to erase, even through the filters of Shia Islam and Communism. It is conventional wisdom that both aim to restore such hegemony. The challenge for the international community is to show that it understands this, even as it works to peacefully contain both ambitions.
Finally, can we learn something from patterns of culture that still define both societies? In Iran, as any visitor knows, there is a pervasive bazaar culture. When the vendor and the customer are deadlocked over price, the customer finally starts for the door, and the vendor protests, “Wait, wait, come back, we talk.” Is it only the proverbial rug merchants who bargain, or are Iran’s clerics playing a potentially deadly but promising bargaining game? Iran’s strategy in the current crisis may be a form of brinksmanship right up to the tipping point. If so, it will take strong nerves on the part of the US. But this scenario might be far better than the alternative.
Like Iran, China has a powerful culture that historically looms in the background of policy. Alongside the Confucian rule book is another one: the Sun Tzu handbook of military wisdom which, like Machiavelli’s cold-blooded prescriptions for his Florentine bosses, has long supplied guidance to Chinese (and other) military, particularly when faced with asymmetrical power. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” dates from several centuries BC. While some dispute its authenticity, the axioms in this ancient treatise describe a good deal of Chinese military history. Here are some relevant ones: “All warfare is based on deception.” “If you are far from the enemy make him believe you are near.” ”Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Sun Tzu’s most provocative, deeply Chinese, maxim is this one: “It is the way of the world for the weak to defeat the strong.” And here are his millennia-old words for those who predicted a cakewalk in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran: “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”
When our intelligence professionals correctly figure out Iranian capabilities and Chinese intentions, they surely will have earned their keep.