Iran - A Menace That Will Be Around for A Long Time Yet
41 million Iranians voted recently in a presidential election won by the reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani. But despite being a partial democracy in a region with few of them, Iran remains a menace to the Middle East and beyond. Its aggressive military actions have helped to prop up the abominable Assad regime in Syria. They now risk provoking a conflict with Israel that could rapidly escalate out of control.
The reasons for Iran’s behaviour are manifold. As is often the case with revolutionary regimes, it feels impelled to spread its 1979 Islamic Revolution to others. This proselytising particularly applies to its fellow Shia communities across the Middle East. The Shias are a minority in the region as a whole (although they are a majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain) and Iran wants to be seen as their champion.
But much of Iran’s aggressive expansion of its influence stems from its insecurity. As well as being a non-Arab and Shia outlier in the region, the Iranians have a strong consciousness of historical interference in their political affairs by outside powers. This includes the external support for the unpopular Shah before the revolution and the UK and US role in the overthrow of elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953.
Against this background, Iran often sees ruthlessly expanding its influence as a way of protecting itself. Setting itself up as Israel’s strongest foe, with the help of Hizbollah, is in part ideological but also a way of generating support across the Middle East. There are signs too that some senior figures are now hooked on regional power for its own sake and the opportunities for personal enrichment it provides.
Building peace and stability in the Middle East will require more deals with Iran
For all these reasons, Iran’s regime will be around for a long time yet. There is a fault-line within it, between reformists such as President Rouhani and hardliners like the unelected but more powerful Supreme Leader Khamenei. But all sides are united in their staunch support for the governing system. There is no faction within the regime that favours reducing Iran’s regional role.
The only silver lining for Iran’s adversaries is that, whilst many of its activities are unsavoury, it is at least rational. As the agreement on stopping its nuclear weapons programme showed, Iran is a tough negotiator and slow to offer trust, but deals can be reached with it.
Building peace and stability in the Middle East will require more deals with Iran. Such understandings will be fiendishly difficult to strike. Until they can be reached, clearly recognised red lines need to be drawn.
Iran is heavily involved in Iraq. It has developed huge influence over the successive, Shia-dominated post-Saddam Hussein governments in Baghdad. The militias Iran directs in Iraq have become a fundamental part of the Iraqi government’s “Popular Mobilisation Units”. These units are essential to the fight against ISIS. Whilst this is currently helpful, coping with a large, battle-hardened paramilitary force loyal to a foreign power is not a happy long-term prospect for Iraq. To some extent, the two countries will ultimately need to work this situation out between themselves.
More direct worries for the West are Iran’s history of helping some of these militias to attack Western troops and its suspected plans to use Iraq as a base to cause trouble in Turkey or the Gulf States. Those neighbours and their Western allies need to make it clear to Tehran that there would be a strong but carefully calibrated response to any such actions. New economic sanctions could be deployed in the first instance. Much of the Iranian elite would want to avoid such a step, as the country is only just emerging from the earlier measures imposed over their nuclear programme.
One hopes the Iranians are getting the message not to push their luck too far
While Russia’s role in propping-up President Assad has attracted more attention in the West, Iran’s contribution of ground troops to the Syrian regime, including those from its proxy Lebanese Hizbollah militia, has been equally crucial. Distasteful though it is, there is little option but to include Iran in any negotiations to end the war in Syria.
Hizbollah is both a tool used by Iran in Syria and the wider reason why it is so heavily involved there. The militia is in effect an armed state within a state in Lebanon, which can and does hold the rest of the country hostage to its demands. More importantly for Iran, it enables it, in effect, to target Israel across Lebanon’s southern border.
The greatest concern is that Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria is motivated by its strategic objective to establish a land corridor across the two countries. This would open an unimpeded route for supplying more sophisticated weapons to Hizbollah and bring Iran itself within close striking distance of Israel. In addition to this proxy presence in southern Lebanon, the Israelis are alarmed by Iranian attempts to set up other militias on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights overlooking Israel.
Israel, with good reason, sees Hizbollah being better armed and having Iran on its borders as major threats. The Israelis have already taken some quiet but firm military actions in response to these developments. An Iranian general was killed in Syria in one such Israeli air attack. One hopes the Iranians are getting the message not to push their luck too far with arming Hizbollah or setting itself up in the Golan. Provoking a war with nuclear-armed, US-backed Israel is a potential disaster that would eclipse even the existing conflicts in the troubled Middle East region.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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