With subtlety influenced by millennia of Persian statecraft, Tehran has been steadily expanding its regional influence through a combination of diplomacy and a continual expansion of Shiite non-state actors, predominantly militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen. As to the US, the mullahs aren’t losing sleep
To honour Saddam Hussein’s sixty-fifth birthday, a colossal effigy of the butcher was erected in Baghdad’s Firdaus Square, just opposite the Palestine Hotel. Just over a year later, in 2003, American forces toppled the statue, symbolising the fall of the Hussein government, with the man himself sharing the same fate a few years later, courtesy of the hangman’s noose. Today, the abstract sculpture that took its place is obscured by a billboard of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Tehran, with subtlety influenced by millennia of Persian statecraft, has been steadily expanding its regional influence through a combination of diplomacy and a continual expansion of Shiite non-state actors, predominantly taking the form of militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and more recently in Yemen. Iran now, in effect, controls three Arab capitals: Damascus in Syria, Beirut in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and the freshly conquered capital of Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now control Sanaa. We are seeing the restoration of a new Persian empire, this time under a revolutionary Islamic (more specifically, Shia) label. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in his address to Congress:
Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply.
Iran is doing so despite Washington’s attempts at containment, and the analogous support of Sunni militant groups in Syria by adversarial states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. During the gap characterised by a passive US policy in the region, Iran’s power and influence have grown enormously, and the political desire in the West for involvement in the conflict-shredded region has declined. Iran rightly views itself as ascendant, or as “The Shadow Commander”, Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods-Force (IRGC-QF) rather bluntly put it: “We’re not like the Americans. We don’t abandon our friends.”
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Iranian rhetoric, unchanged for a generation, juxtaposes conviction and posturing in Iran’s challenge to the nature of regional—and world—order. After its 1979 violation of the Westphalian principle of diplomatic immunity by storming the American embassy in Tehran, Iran presented, as Henry Kissinger writes in his magisterial World Order, a paradoxical wish to abolish the Westphalian state system, while simultaneously asserting Westphalian rights and privileges:
Iran’s clerical regime thus placed itself at the intersection of two world orders, arrogating the formal protections of the Westphalian system even while repeatedly proclaiming that it did not believe in it, would not be bound by it, and intended ultimately to replace it.
Implacably hostile to the West, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, considers the ultimate goal of the United States to be the destruction of the Islamic Republic and an end to the Islamic Revolution that began in 1979. As he put it in May 2014:
This battle will only end when the society can get rid of the oppressors’ front with America at the head of it, which has expanded its claws on human mind, body and thought … This requires a difficult and lengthy struggle …
In 2006, the first direct contact between American and Iranian heads of state since 1980 took the form of a letter from the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to George W. Bush. Widely interpreted as an overture to a peaceful end to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad’s letter was signed off with the words, “Vasalam Ala Man Ataba’al hoda”. In the 620s, Mohammad included the same admonition in his correspondence with the emperors of Byzantine and the Sassanid dynasty; correspondence that was a prelude to Islamic holy war against both empires.
The Shiite Crescent
In the years since 2006, the region has seen the strengthening of an Iranian-led Shiite crescent, from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The disintegration of social cohesion in Iraq, the brutal civil war in Syria, Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves, and the increasing strength of Iranian proxies have augmented Iran’s position as a key regional influence at a time when the United States looks to increasingly disengage from the Middle East, in President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia.
As far back as 2007, General David Petraeus concluded that the Iranian-linked Mahdi Army posed a greater threat to Iraq’s long-term security than Al Qaeda. Petraeus argued in a weekly report for Defense Secetary Robert Gates that he believed that Iran was waging war against the USA:
Iran has gone beyond merely striving for influence in Iraq and could be creating proxies to actively fight us, thinking that they can keep us distracted while they try to build WMD and set up [the Mahdi Army] to act like Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq.
As Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent wrote in the Daily Beast on this expansion of Iranian power, “In Iraq and Syria, as we square off against ISIS, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend, he is our enemy, too.”
In a masterly new report, Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute describes how many Shiite militias were re-moulded and trained by both Iranian and Hezbollah forces, with advisers from Hezbollah and the IRGC being attached to units to influence their ideological and military development.
Mohsen Milani wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2009 that Tehran has devised a strategy that aims for “both deterrence and competition in the Middle East” with the United States. It has responded to Washington’s policy of containment with a strategy of deterrence, comprising: asymmetric warfare, including its support of anti-Western terrorist organisations; the modernisation of its weapons systems; developing indigenous missile and anti-missile systems; and lastly, its nuclear program.
The result, especially since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the (almost criminally neglected) mobilisation of Shiite fighters to Syria, has seen the traditional strategic alliance between Tehran and Damascus inflame the millennia-old schism between Shia and Sunni, fuelled by an Iranian desire to revive waning support for Ayatollah Khomeini and his ideal of Islamic Revolution. Syria has become a way for Tehran to bolster its position as the world centre of Shiite Islam, and expand the Shiite Crescent that it leads.
The relationship between Damascus and Tehran evolved after Hafez al-Assad became President of Syria in 1971, and the relationship between his government and the country’s Sunni “Muslim Brothers” became increasingly antagonistic. While carrying out various conciliatory gestures domestically, intending to placate Islamists at home, Assad looked externally as well, beyond the West and hostile neighbouring states to the Iranian opposition movement, headed by Khomeini.
Khomeini ignored Assad’s offer of political sanctuary after he was expelled from Iraq in 1978, instead settling in Paris, but upon returning to Iran after the 1979 Revolution, he maintained good relations with Syria, despite the Ba’ath party’s declared position as a secular, socialist Arab state, juxtaposed with Khomeini’s blending of political and religious authority.
Syria’s Sunni Islamists soon began to see the regime in Tehran for what it was: the intended centre of Shiism in the Muslim world, rather than an ally that transcended Islam’s sectarian lines. The ostensibly secular regime of Saddam Hussein began supporting the Muslim Brothers against the (equally ostensibly) secular Assad government, which enjoyed corresponding growth in support from Iran.
The Tehran–Damascus alliance is never stronger than in times of conflict, with no parallel in modern Syrian history to the severity of the country’s civil war, which began in March 2011. The enormous and unprecedented military support that Iran has given Damascus serves multiple purposes: preventing the mutually beneficial government of Bashar al-Assad from falling, keeping Syria as a route for arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, keeping the organisation positioned in the Levant as a deterrent against an Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear program, and expanding its Pan-Shiite influence.
The on-ground support that Iran offers the Assad regime comes from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias, which form the core of Tehran’s proxy units in Syria. These groups are expanding an IRGC-created network, who, as Smyth describes, use the same messages, co-operate openly, and collaborate in the same operations. One such group, the Badr Organisation, acted as Iran’s most important asset in Iraq during the US-led occupation of Mesopotamia, and bragged in 2014 that it had attacked US forces in Iraq as part of its recruitment and propaganda efforts.
As with Syria, Iran has heavily expanded its influence in Baghdad to an extent not seen since before the Treaty of Zuhab in the seventeenth century. The withdrawal of US forces under President Obama, and the extensively sectarian politics of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saw both the marginalisation of the country’s Sunni minority, and the bolstering of Baghdad–Tehran ties. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Maliki argues that in the absence of US support, Iraq had no choice but to rely on Iranian weapons and support when ISIS tore through the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and sacked Mosul last year.
In response to ISIS’s efforts in Iraq, Tehran has reportedly sent over 1000 military advisers to assist the ISF, conducted air strikes against ISIS positions (with the somewhat awkward approval of US Secretary of State John Kerry) and is arming, training and funding Shiite militias, of which more than 100,000 Iraqis are a part. These militias are playing a vital role in expelling ISIS from the city of Tikrit.
What Weiss and Pregent call the “Hezbollah-isation” of Iraq’s military is being headed by Soleimani. With a well-documented role in orchestrating attacks on US servicemen, as well as propping up the Assad regime in Syria, Soleimani has been appearing in numerous battlefield photographs across Iraq, generally on the front line in places where ISIS has been recently expelled by Iraqi forces.
This influence is not restricted to the battlefield. Veteran foreign fighters have returned from the Syrian theatre to take places in the Iraqi parliament, using their war records to win votes. When Abu Mousa al-Amiri, who served as a commander in the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH)—formerly a militant unit within the Mahdi Army, and currently helping Iraqis to fight in Syria—ran for public office on the AAH’s political ticket, his foreign fighting experience was openly showcased on electoral posters. Another AAH commander, Haji Jawad al-Talabwi, boasted to the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, of how the AAH had cut their teeth fighting American and British forces in Iraq. He threatened to kill Sunnis who helped ISIS, “one by one if necessary”.
The elevation of Mohammed al-Ghabban as Iraq’s Interior Minister, after holding leading posts in the Badr Organisation, shows, as Smyth argues in the conclusion of his report, “just how doggedly Iran is working, through both armed and democratic methods, to thwart US efforts within Iraq”. Despite the best efforts of a new Sunni–Shiite–Kurdish inclusiveness in Iraq’s politics and military by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, if such a force would fail to either materialise, or falter on the battlefield against ISIS, the ascendancy of this new Iranian-led Shiite powerbase would likely be used to crush Iraq’s challenges by force, rather than by politics.
Iran and the Bomb
Perhaps the most vexing challenge Iran poses, and the fulcrum on which Iranian-Western relations will balance—at least in the short-term future—is Iran’s rapid advance towards the position of a nuclear weapons state. This challenges the current regional and international order in three main ways: the ability of the international community (represented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, the “P5+1”) to enforce nuclear non-proliferation; the military balance of the Middle East, in which a nuclear Iran would become a hegemon (Israel excepted), and the risk of sparking a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile and politically unstable region. On the last point, it was put rather bluntly by the Saudis: “If they [Iran] get them, we get them.”
Iran’s ability and desire to achieve nuclear weapons have progressively hardened, while the West’s desire to prevent it occurring has declined. Such is the extent of this increasing permissiveness that it seems that any deal reached between the P5+1 and Tehran will leave Iran on the cusp of nuclear-power status; from which only a short, frantic push would allow it to build nuclear weapons.
At the time of writing, alleged details of the negotiations released to the Associated Press describe the possibility of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program lasting for ten to fifteen years, in return for the lifting of sanctions. Such a deal would leave Iran’s “breakout” capability—the time to enrich uranium to weapons levels—to around one year. Consider that in 2004, the West insisted that Iran terminate its enrichment permanently.
To be sure, if Iran was able to comprehensively demonstrate that it had reduced its centrifuges and enrichment to levels consistent with a peaceful civilian energy program, it would present the possibility of an epochal shift in Iranian-Western relations. Those hopeful of such a shift often cite Richard Nixon’s seminal opening to Beijing in the 1970s as a comparative model, in which Washington–Beijing relations quickly moved from hostility to co-operation. Kissinger, one of the architects of this plan, dismisses any such historical analogy in World Order:
The comparison is not apt. China was facing forty-two Soviet divisions on its northern border after a decade of escalating mutual hostility and Chinese internal turmoil … Iran has witnessed the removal of two of its most significant adversaries, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq … Two of its principal competitors for regional influence, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been preoccupied by internal challenges.
If Iran were to become a nuclear weapons state, it would not mark the end of the current crisis, but, rather, its metamorphosis into a new and complex problem. Tehran has watched, on the one hand, the interventions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, two states that either failed to acquire nuclear weapons or gave them up, and, on the other hand, the relative lack of outside interference against states that have acquired nuclear weapons—Pakistan and North Korea, to name just two.
Some pundits and commentators refer to Iran’s jihadist rhetoric, espoused by such figures as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a warning that a nuclear Iran would, if able, either attack Israel or the West. In reality, Iran’s foreign policy is overseen by calculating ayatollahs, not messianic sadists bent on their own destruction. After the US leviathan force cut through Saddam Hussein’s forces like a hot knife through snow, Iran immediately suspended their nuclear program entirely, in the fear that they would be next.
The question, then, is what nuclear posture a weaponised Iran would take. Whether it chooses an Israeli-esque position of nuclear opacity (a “known nuclear power” that refuses to confirm or deny its status) or flaunts its capability, the posture that Iran chooses has the potential to change the dynamics of the region massively and, perhaps, offer it the use of more coercive diplomacy in times of crises. The difference between hair-trigger readiness, and a more subtle posture, is huge.
Would a nuclear-weaponised Iran feel obliged to curb its new network of IRGC-led Shiite militias, which are currently expanding its influence throughout the region, at the request of the international community? Or would it feel the status quo would be more beneficial, that it could simply stay its course with its new-found deterrence? Would its ascendant militias feel bolder, or less so, resting underneath an Iranian nuclear umbrella?
A US-Iranian “spring”?
Though quite some distance from the naive Wilsonians who took us into the Iraq quagmire in 2003, it seems that US foreign policy under President Obama has slipped into equanimity, rather than strategy. Dragged back to Mesopotamia due to the rise of ISIS, the Obama administration would do well to use their reluctant re-engagement in the region to balance Iran, with a combination of their own presence and diplomacy, and adversarial Sunni states, to secure a satisfactory conclusion to nuclear negotiations.
Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that, in purely objective terms, the USA, the Sunni Gulf states and Iran have more to gain from a co-operative relationship than an adversarial one: by curbing the rise and safe havens of Salafi-jihadi terror groups in the region, and shifting focus towards regional stability and development.
The USA should make it clear that they’re out of the regime change business, and that a nuclear Iran would be a pariah state in the eyes of the international community. Regional nuclear hegemony would be offset by a continuation of heavy economic sanctions, and the US nuclear umbrella that it has promised its Sunni allies. While Iran’s ability to wage asymmetric warfare is growing and impressive, the southern Gulf states have a major lead in conventional military capability, which is, of course, a major reason Iran has sought nuclear weapons. The USA must make an Iranian nuclear capability utterly unappealing to Iranians.
The perceived balance of power in the Middle East’s short term depends very much on the outcome of the nuclear negotiations. While Sunni–Shia competition will inevitably continue between Iran and the Gulf states, an agreement seen as weak from a Western perspective will be regarded as a major Iranian victory, heightening the risk of a regional nuclear arms race. As Cordesman notes, while successful nuclear negotiations (from a Western perspective) are unlikely to lead to a “spring” in the US–Sunni–Shia trilateral, there is no reason why they cannot be used as a “useful prelude to broader improvements in political and strategic relations”, especially with active US and Arab containment and deterrence of Iran, as strategic competition diverts into other areas outside the nuclear realm.
The proliferation of Iranian-backed Shiite militias may have extended Iran’s regional influence, but contributes to the militant sectarianism that led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. The US, possibly backed by the UN Security Council, and with the co-operation of regional powers, should head a forceful response to Sunni–Shia sectarianism, lest it metastasise more severely than it has already. To this end, Sunni states have their own roles to play, particularly Turkey, with its porous south-eastern border, and the Gulf states, who have shown indictable equanimity regarding their citizenry funding Salafi-jihadist organisations, including ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The aforementioned amounts to the best possible—arguably idealistic—outcome that the West can attain. It depends on an active and engaged USA, enlightened statecraft, and a hope that Iran’s actions owe more to strategic ends than revolutionary, ideological ones.
Joseph Power is Editor-in-Chief of the Transnational Review, which is published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.