Contain Iran, Don’t Invade It
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the most problematic country in the Middle East. It’s one of four state sponsors of terrorism, says our State Department. The others are Syria, Sudan and North Korea. But Iran is far ahead of the other three in population and GDP. Iran’s military is also ranked number 14 in the world. The Islamic Republic’s conventional firepower thus outstrips even North Korea’s. The ayatollahs command the third most powerful country in the region, behind only Turkey and Egypt, and ahead of Israel. If Iran develops nuclear weapons, it might vault to the top spot there.
How does the Iranian regime leverage its power? Primarily by supprting terrorist groups. Mainly Shiite ones. These include Iraq’s Kata’ib Hizbullah, Bahrain’s al-Ashtar Brigades, and, most lavishly, Lebanon’s Hezbullah. But the IRI also funds and arms Sunni terrrorists. The worst of the lot are Palestinian HAMAS and Afghanistan’s Taliban. The Iranian Republic Guards Corps also provides terrorism training. The IRGC was branded a terrorist group itself by the U.S. last month. This was long overdue. The IRGC helped kill Americans in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Internally, the IRGC functions much like the SS did in Nazi Germany. It bolsters the regime, spies on its enemies and enforces ideology.
Iran also aspires to political leadership of global Islam. But here the Shiite state faces an uphill battle. Over 80 percent of the world’s Muslim are Sunnis. Also, Shi’ism itself is divided. Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Lebanon are majority Twelver. The key belief there is that the 12th descendant of Muhammad disappeared in the 9th century AD. Yet he will return to rule the world.
There are also Seveners, or Isma’ilis and Fivers, or Zaydis. The former are scattered throughout east Africa and south Asia. The latter are concentrated in Yemen, making up 40 percent of the population. Iran sees itself as the fulcrum of the Shia crescent. So it runs influence operations among the 3 million Shi’ites in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it openly aids the Houthi Zaydis in southwestern Arabia.
The Yemen War
The Islamic Republic interferes in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. But it didn’t start the fire. The Zaydi Shi’ites have been in Yemen for over 900 years. In fact their Imams ruled it many times. The Ottoman Empire failed to pacify the Zaydis, despite several military occupations. In the 1960s Nasser’s Egypt fought the Zaydis, then backed by the Saudis. These Shi’ites joined with the majority Sunnis post-1990 Yemeni unification. But by the early 2000s, the Houthi tribal leaders rebelled. They claimed government persecution. They also said Sana’a did not protect them from al Qaeda. More recently, ISIS has also attacked Zaydis. Iran has certainly stirred this sectarian pot.
But the Zaydis have genuine grievances. And having ruled the country for much of its past, they make unruly subjects. Perhaps the Yemeni tail is actually wagging the Persian dog. None of this is to discount Saudi Arabia’s legitimate concerns about war on its southwestern border. KSA is also rightly suspicious of Iran creating a fifth column of Shi’ites in its eastern provinces and in Najran. Still, while the ayatollahs aggravate the Houthi Zaydi insurgency, they did not create it.
Meddling in Syria
Syria is Iran’s other major arena abroad. But here, unlike Yemen, there are few real sectarian sympathies. Instead, there’s a political marriage of convenience. While Syria is majority (75%) Sunni, it had been ruled by the Alawi-dominated Ba`ath party for decades. The Alawis split from mainstream Shi`ism in the Middle Ages. Their beliefs became so eccentric that they formed a new religion. What beliefs? Deification of Ali, and reincarnation, in particular. The Alawi minority was marginalized under the Ottomans and then the French.
But post-independence, they infiltrated the military and intelligence communities and finally seized power under Hafiz al-Assad. Elder Assad also worked with Lebanese Twelver Shi’ite cleric Musa al-Sadr on public relations. Together they got the Alawis of Lebanon and Syria recognized as Shi’ites by the ayatollahs of Iran. This led, after the 1979 revolution, to growing ties between Damascus and Tehran. The fictional fig leaf of shared Shi’ism sufficed for both the Assads and the ayatollahs. Syria got funding. Iran gained an Arab ally that bordered hated Israel.
Iran then helped Bashar al-Assad to stay in power after the Arab Spring began in 2011. When ISIS exploded onto the scene in 2014, the IRGC provided major assistance to Damascus against it, and has continued to do so. The IRGC has fought directly against ISIS, losing several thousand men. And it’s also brought in Shi’ite fighters from both Lebanon and Afghanistan. So Iran has been the key reason that the Alawi Assad regime retains power. To be fair, Russian direct and US indirect support have also been crucial. Iran, then, has preserved its Syrian ally. But the cost has been high.
Iran in Iraq
What of Iraq? That country is Arab and Kurdish but majority Twelver Shi’ite. The shrine tombs of several important Shi’ite Imams are there, too. Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, lived in exile in Najaf. Iraq attacked the newly-minted Islamic Republic in 1980, as secular ruler Saddam Hussein got the green light from the U.S. This started the bloody Iran-Iraq War.
Then the U.S. turned on Saddam in 1990, following his conquest of Kuwait. The Islamic Republic benefited from his army’s destruction. America further strengthened the ayatollahs by overthrowing Saddam in 2003. Historically, “al-Iraq” was often part of Persian states. Most notably, the Shi’ite Safavid Empire fought the Ottomans for it. So the current regime sees Iraq as its domain, religiously and geopolitically. (The same can be said of western Afghanistan.) That many of Iraq’s oil fields are in the border area with Iran is also important.
Thus Iran has meddled in Iraqi politics as much as possible since 2003. It supports several political parties there, and militias such as the former Mahdi Army. That group, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, rebranded as the “Peace Companies” and won 54 seats in the last Iraqi election. The IRGC has also fought ISIS in Iraq, although not as extensively as in Syria. Why not? Mainly because of the U.S. presence, even in post-occupation Iraq.
A Global Jihad Against the West
Tehran also plays a role in the non-Muslim world. Since 1979, Iran has billed itself as the leader of the globe’s huddled masses. This includes non-Muslims. The Islamic Republic’s constitution was conceived in anti-Americanism and dedicated to the proposition of Western oppression. Modern Iranian political thought draws on Twelver Shi’ite victimology and eschatology. The Twelvers cite examples of Sunni and Western (Christian) persecution. The Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi will avenge the Shi’ites. He will also redistribute wealth. (Think Bernie Sanders in a turban.)
This Islamic liberation theology plays well in many places. It’s why Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez were such amigos a few years back. Iran since has built on that personal relationship to connect with other Latin American countries. The ayatollahs have also increased their influence in Africa. On both continents the Islamic Republic carries the torch of the old “Non-Aligned Movement.” Thus, the IRI hopes to win friends and influence fellow “oppressed” peoples. These will all live happily ever after once the Mahdi returns and humbles the “arrogant powers.”
Iran’s Dreams vs. Reality
The Islamic Republic clearly has delusions of grandeur. But a Shi’ite state will never lead the global, majority-Sunni umma. Unless the Twelfth Imam really exists, and returns, to seize the reins. Which is not bloody likely, no matter how fervently ayatollahs believe that. So Iran is relegated to causing problems for the Israelis and the Saudis by shipping missiles to HAMAS and the Houthis. But what will the ayatollahs do once they get nukes?
The same thing Little Rocket Man has done. Keep them as regime insurance. The belief among many conservative Americans that Iran wants to nuke Tel Aviv to “hotwire the apocalypse” is wrong. The idea of forcing Allah to send the Mahdi exists nowhere in Twelver Shi`ism. Plus, Iran’s leaders know that doing so would cause Israel, and probably the US, to respond in kind. So if Iran cannot command its co-religionists, what hope has it of playing that role among non-Muslims? The Islamic Republic plays at great power politics. But poorly.
Since 1979, that regime has constructed little that is positive. Iran’s influence is everywhere negative and bloody. President Trump has abandoned his predecessor’s policies that enabled Iran’s dreams of regional hegemony. He should continue to do everything possible to show the ayatollahs that the biggest thing they can work on is simply staying in power — and alive.
Timothy R. Furnish, who has a PhD in Islamic history, is a college prof, author, consultant and a former adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command. Check out his website: https://occidentaljihadist.com/.