Monday, March 26, 2012

Ruminations on Sanctions and Democracy

One of the more important debates over the U.S.'s contemporary Iran-policy surrounds the use of sanctions to coerce certain behavior out of Iran. Typically this is framed in the context of the nuclear issue; economic sanctions are meant to induce Iranian leadership into believing that nuclear enrichment isn't worth the cost.  What's noteworthy about this strategy is that it's aimed at the Iranian leadership; the U.S. hoped to modify Ali Khamenei's behavior just as they hoped to modify Saddam Hussein's or Kim Jong Il's. For the purpose of this piece, I'm ignoring targeted sanctions meant to prevent the country in question from acquiring specific arms or technologies; these are not primarily coercive in nature.

Those opposed to sanctions typically cite these same cases of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Kim Jong Il's Korea as examples of the failure of a coercive sanction strategy. In many ways they are right, sanctions failed to fatally cripple the Baath regime in Iraq or in Korea; they haven't in Iran yet either. One important detail I feel that these critics sometimes(always?) miss is the crucial difference between these case studies and contemporary Iran - Iran's a democracy, the rest weren't. For whatever flaws the democratic system in Tehran does have (and it does have many), at the end of the day they're accountable to public opinion. The policy of steadfast resistance that defined Iran through the mid/late-2000s was never inevitable, it came into being because it was electorally popular.

A broader strategy, not just one involving sanctions, will have to take this into account when looking to history examples. Ropert Pape argues in his ground-breaking book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" that democracies are uniquely vulnerable to acts of terrorism because they are forced to respond to the whims of their populace whereas an authoritarian state could simply absorb the relatively small, theatrical acts of violence that define terrorism. Likewise, when U.S. policy-makers are deciding how to influence Iranian behavior, they have to keep in mind that Tehran too is forced to respond to the whims of its populace.

The verdict is still out on how sanctions have affected Iranian behavior, initial reports appear somewhat promising from a policy-making standpoint; economic hardships that are directly linked to the behavior of certain factions is likely to decrease support for that faction. That being said, it is difficult to estimate their structural role in reinforcing the narrative of a hostile 'West' in the Iranian political consciousness. It must also be noted that a successful coercive strategy must also be paired with inducements to choose an alternative; punishment alone risks further intransigence. While the current U.S. administration has been successful in generating international support for unprecedented coercive measures against Iran, they have failed to, as of yet, successfully present an alternative to 'Steadfast Resistance' that can be rallied around in Tehran.

There are still many unanswered questions*, but I thought I'd throw out my early thoughts and present the question to my readers: does Iran's democratic political structure uniquely affect how coercion via sanctions operates?

*for instance, are U.S. and/or international sanctions against Iran actually comparable to other historical examples like Iraq, South Africa, Korea, etc, Pape's model also has questionable application to Iran's unique interpretation of democracy.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Imagery Update

TO&Es for the 81st and 16th AD have now been posted.

In other news, Google Earth has posted updated imagery from 2011 of the Qazvin and Hamedan areas.

Friday, March 2, 2012

81st Armored Division

 Edit (08/23/14) - The following information is outdated and is in process of being updated.
 I am trying out a slightly different format for this post. Instead of attempting to describe everything in the text and being forced to use clunky directional adjectives (ex: "200 m south-west of the western-most garage), I am now directly annotating the screenshots from Google-Earth which will hopefully allow a much more precise analysis of imagery.


The 81st armored division is based in Iran's Kermanshah province on their border with Iraq. Naturally they were among the first forces to come into contact with the invading Iraqi army in 1980. At the outbreak of the war, their three brigades in Kermanshah, Sarpol-e Zahab and Eslamabad Gharb were outfitted with Chieftain MBTs and M113 APCs. (1) Today the situation is less clear; some evidence suggests that one of these brigades has been moved to a base nearer to Kermanshah in Bistoon. (2)

There are, however, two unaccounted-for armored brigades in Eslamabad Gharb, and in Sarab Ghale Shahin. While they most likely belong to the IRGC's 4th ID(3), it is extremely unusual that an infantry division would be so heavily mechanized. One distinguishing feature unique to these two bases compared to their Artesh equivalents is that they all appear to be undergoing some form of construction during the mid-2000s, typically centered around garages. Another possibility (however unlikely), is that the Artesh's armored divisions are much stronger than previously imagined and what we're seeing is merely the 81st AD.

All three brigades are co-located on the east-west Road 48 that leads to the Iraqi border.
("open up photo viewer --> right click --> view image" to view full size image)

The divisional HQ is located on northern side of the Road 48 leading east out of the city. The compound can be identified as belonging to the 81st division because of the markings on a small hill facing the highway which reads "Artesh".
(Google Earth)

On the far-eastern side of the motor-pool is a large battalion - 38 - of BMP IFVs (#9 on the map). Although the size of this formation more closely mirrors a BTR battalion (which we've seen on parade in Kermanshah), the dimensions and appearance are more similar to a BMP. Even though they all appear to be BMPs, there are differences between the IFVs in the western-most column and the rest of the vehicles. Though the following cannot be confirmed, this may be a difference between the visually similar BMP-1 and BMP-2.
North of the motor-pool are a wide array of firing ranges and fighting positions. In between the motor-pool and the firing ranges are a handful of concrete ramps dug into the earth with tracks leading to and from them. It is unclear what the purpose of such a feature is but it may be to practice quick movement to and from firing positions; a tactic we know to involve underground ramps thanks to imagery from exercises. They can be found in armored brigades across the province which makes it a fairly distinctive feature.

Although Bistoon is described as the divisional HQ, the configuration and relative sizes of each compound points to the lion's share of 81st division's assets being based out of Kermanshah as there are several distinct administrative and support sections which are absent at Bistoon. One explanation is that Kermanshah is the former divisional headquarters (which is supported by the historical record) and that the facilities at Bistoon are more recent and as of yet underdeveloped.
(Google Earth)

One of these areas in question is marked #12 on the map. It contains a number of "T" shaped buildings which are common at military compounds across the country and are usually associated with garrison facilities. It also includes a number of long, narrow barracks-like buildings, motor-pools with tractor-trailers and parade yards. Combined with the fact that the compound sits outside the entry-control point for the main base, this evidence may indicate that it functions in some sort of separate capacity to the 2nd brigade. This is purse supposition however.

An army aviation facility is also located in Kermanshah. 

Sarpol-e Zahab
Smaller than either the garrisons in Bistoon or Kermanshah, the compound at Sarpol-e Zahab is rather atypical. Rather then having a rigid organization, buildings here are often small and clustered in disorganized patterns. There are three main types of buildings, a) large, flat-roofed structures; at least a few may be garages or wharehouses, b) multi-winged, flat-roofed buildings; may be barracks, and c) brick/mud buildings with domed roofs similar to buildings at the 1st brigade HQs for the 88th AD in Zahedan. Entering the compound, there are four main clusters of buildings that the roads lead to, two on either side of the main road.
(Google Earth)

Works Cited:
(3) While the IRGC has since been reorganized, doing away with the numbered system of brigades and divisions, the imagery dates from before this shift in force structure.  Compiled from various sources during the Open Source Intelligence Project.