West Asia

Ascent of Iran

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Foreign Ministers Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran attend the international meeting on Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan on March 16. Photo: Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/REUTERS

Members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a mostly Shia militia group, at the Syrian border outside Al Badi, Iraq, on June 17, 2017. Iran has built militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and has mobilised an army of Shia Iraqi men to fight on its behalf in Syria. Photo: SERGEY PONOMAREV/NYT

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, D.C. A file picture. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

Iran has gained geopolitically from the U.S.-triggered turmoil in West Asia, and its arc of influence has been expanding considerably.

IT has been obvious to observers of the West Asian scene for some time that the United States’ game plan for regime change in Syria has backfired spectacularly. The Syrian government has re-established control over the most populous parts of the country. The U.S. is making a last-ditch effort to carve out an independent Kurdish enclave in Syria encompassing the oil and gas rich parts of the country. But the Syrian government is confident of reclaiming the last remaining occupied parts despite the continuing U.S. military presence on its territory. The Turkish forces have captured the city of Afrin in northern Syria from U.S.-backed Kurds. The U.S. and Turkey, which are both part of the formidable North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), seem to be at loggerheads now. What is emerging on the ground is the consolidation of the tactical alliance between Turkey, Russia and Iran to thwart the U.S.-backed plans to create a Kurdish state in the region.

But the country that has gained the most geopolitically from the U.S.-triggered turmoil in the region is Iran. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in the region was comparatively limited. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq continued to view Iran as a rival. Iran had no direct land links with its only ally in the region, Syria. It had to use a circuitous route to supply arms to the Hezbollah militia, its important non-state ally, in Lebanon. The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in the kind of regime change that Iran was dreaming of since its eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s. That the U.S. would inadvertently deliver the coup d’grace on its behalf was indeed a dream come true for Iran.

The ouster of the Baathist regime was a cherished ambition of the Iranian government after Saddam Hussein tore up the 1975 Algiers Accord on the sharing of the Shatt al-Arab waterway and launched his ill-advised invasion of Iran in 1980 at the prompting of the U.S. and its Gulf allies. That war, which resulted in the death of more than a million people in both countries, ended in a stalemate, but a once prosperous and powerful Iraq paid a bigger price. Iran was much more resilient and much better in withstanding the machinations of the West than its erstwhile enemy Iraq.

The Shia factor

The geostrategic blunders made by the West played a big part in Iran bouncing back on the world stage and expanding its sphere of influence in the region. The ouster of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated secular Baathist regime was key to Iran’s resurgence. Despite the best efforts of Washington, it was a pro-Iranian Shia-dominated government that has been winning elections in Iraq since 2004. More than 60 per cent of the Iraqi population is Shia. Most of the Iraqi politicians who have held office since the ouster of the Baathist regime had lived in exile in Iran and have strong connections with the clerical leadership in Tehran and the Iranian city of Qom. With the Iraqi government now in friendly hands, Iran could establish a land route to Lebanon via Syria.

The Syrian government, led by another wing of the Baath Party, has sided with Iran from the early days of the Islamic Revolution. It is not a mere coincidence that the Hezbollah has become more powerful since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Hezbollah showed the world in 2006 that it could put up a fight against the Israeli army, the most potent in the region.

It was Iran’s prompt dispatch of a 2,000-strong militia force in 2014 that helped Iraq stem the military onslaught of the Daesh (Islamic State). Baghdad was under threat after the elite units of the Iraqi Army fled, abandoning the cities of Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul.

Many senior Iranian army officers, including three generals, and hundreds of Iranian fighters have lost their lives in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria since the beginning of the decade. The demand of former U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, earlier in the year that Iraq send back the Iran-backed paramilitary units was promptly rejected by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. The Iraqi leader said that the presence of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces was essential for the region at this juncture. Iraq today depends on Iran for virtually everything, except oil. Most of Iraq’s foodstuff and consumer items are imported from Iran. Iran’s use of its “soft power” has also been deft. Its cultural influences extend from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean region. The Shia bonding is an important factor though the Iranian government makes it a point to emphasise the importance of non-sectarian Islamic linkages. The encouragement extended by the Iranian government to festivals such as Nowruz (the traditional Iranian New Year) is an illustration of this. Nowruz has been celebrated since the time of Zoroaster and is observed in many central Asian countries.

Bahrain is a Shia-majority country. So are the oil- and gas-rich eastern areas of Saudi Arabia, adjacent to Bahrain. The Houthis, also known as Zayyedis in Yemen, the Alawites in Syria and the Alewis in Turkey are adherents of Shia theology. U.S. think tanks and the media claim that the so-called “Shia crescent” in the region has expanded at the expense of the U.S. and Sunni influence in the region. However, unlike the U.S., Iran has not established military bases in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia have been alleging that Iran is on the verge of building a permanent military presence in Syria. They have not been able to provide any clinching evidence for this.

For that matter, what Iran has achieved so far is without the benefit of a huge army or a big military budget. Iran’s military budget is a fraction of what its wealthy Gulf neighbours such as Saudi Arabia allocate for defence. Iran’s military expenditure in 2016 was around $12.4 billion, whereas Saudi Arabia spent $61.4 billion. Last year, 33 per cent of the global arms exports ended up in the West Asian region. Saudi Arabia, not surprisingly, was the biggest recipient of arms. According to SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and other sources, India, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and China, along with the Saudi Arabia, figure among the top five arms importers in the world.

Iran played a key role in building the “axis of resistance” in the region that has become a bulwark against the expansionist schemes of the U.S. and its allies. The experience the Syrian Army has gained in the civil war has made it the most battle-hardened Arab army. The Hezbollah today is a lethal force armed with potent missiles. Iran’s other ally in the region, the Houthis, remain undefeated and in control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a and most of North Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition finds itself in a quagmire in Yemen.

Saudis and Emiratis are trying to salvage the situation by reviving the moribund state of South Yemen by propping up separatist forces. That Iran’s power and influence has increased significantly in the last decade can be gauged from the fact that many of the militias fighting in Syria under the guidance of Iranian commanders were from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general who was in overall command of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, has achieved mythical status in the region. Suleimani is the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In Afghanistan, the Taliban opened a channel of communication with the Iranian government. Iran, along with China and Russia, has been urging talks with the Taliban to bring peace to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. Iran is also uncomfortable with the U.S. military bases across its borders in Afghanistan and the Gulf countries. James Mattis, the U.S. Secretary of Defence, stated recently that Washington was not looking forward to a military victory in Afghanistan. He defined victory as “a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government”. The Taliban leadership has been saying for some time that it is interested in talks but only after all foreign troops leave the country.

U.S. desperation

The U.S. and Israel have periodically issued warnings that they are getting ready to strike not only at Iran but also against the militias trained by them in the region. Those calling for the abrogation of the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty and military action against Tehran are now in the driver’s seat in Washington. Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, is a notorious Iran baiter. He, along with President Donald Trump, wants to opt for a more confrontational policy with Iran. Trump has described Iran as “the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism” despite the facts on the ground pointing towards Saudi Arabia and its allies being the original supporters and sponsors of terrorist groups that wreaked havoc not only in the region but globally.

The Pentagon as well as moderate think tanks such as the U.S. Institute of Peace have opined that Iran’s military posture is purely defensive in nature. All the same, the West wants Iran to halt its ballistic missile tests, warning that Tehran faces new sanctions. The Iranian government considers its missile programme as a strategic necessity and a “deterrence program” against its nuclear armed adversaries such as Israel. Trump has also demanded that Iran open up its military bases for international inspection. There is no way that Iran will agree to the new demands that are being made with the express purpose of scuppering the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran. All indications are that the Trump administration will unilaterally tear up the JCPOA, as the nuclear agreement is called, and encourage its allies such as Saudi Arabia to ramp up the sectarian rhetoric. Pompeo told the American Enterprises Institute (AEI), a right-wing think tank, in January that the Trump administration was building alliances with the conservative Sunni states to confront Iran. After Pompeo’s elevation to his new job, the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, compared Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Hitler. Iran’s Foreign Ministry in a statement said that the Crown Prince was “a delusional and devious novice” who had “no idea of politics”. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has warned Washington that the West will regret the collapse of the nuclear deal.

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