The Middle East is currently a region in transition from one strategic dispensation to another. The 1990s represented the high water-mark of US influence in the region, during which the US stood in essence unopposed as the sole broker of regional affairs and processes. This unilateral moment in the Middle East is passing, however. In its place is emerging a region defined by something resembling a new Middle Eastern Cold War, which pits the US and its allies against an alternative power coalition centering on Iran, and including Syria, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians.[i] As with the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, this process is impacting on all smaller regional conflicts. It is interesting to note that Russia is playing an important, if ‘off stage’ role in the current situation – as the major arms supplier to both Iran and its ally Syria. This article will look at Iran’s ambitions, the key dynamics underlying the system of alliances Iran is building, and the latest developments.
Understanding Iranian ambitions
Within the clerical establishment in Iran, a generational group of leaders who took part as young men in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is currently on the rise. The most well-known representative of this group is President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The members of this generational group are seeking power for themselves. But they are also deeply committed to the revival of what they see as the authentic revolutionary spirit of 1979. Leading British Iran analyst Fred Halliday notes that the ascendance of a group seeking to ‘revive’ the original spirit of a revolution, a decade or two after the revolution itself is a common historical phenomenon. Halliday considers that the Cultural Revolution in China and the Stalinist purges in Russia were examples of this.[ii] He considers that the rise of the group of which Ahmedinejad is a part is a further example. For this group, an activist foreign policy involving support for anti-western and Islamist states and movements throughout the region is a key element of strategy. The expansion of Iran’s regional role and the achievement of an Iranian nuclear capability will serve to consolidate and legitimise the (not particularly popular) regime at home, as well as forming a natural path for the genuinely committed ideologues around the current Iranian President.
Of course, it should be remembered that Ahmedinejad is not the final authority in Iran – a role held by Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini. Hence the rise of Ahmedinejad and the radicals has taken the form of increasing influence for this group, and its incremental placing of its supporters in key positions. Rival power groupings – such as the faction around former President Rafsanjani – remain in existence and influential. But the issue we are concerned with here is the relative rise in influence of the radical group over the last two years.
Ahmedinejad’s group is centred on the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards Corps within Iran, and since his own election in 2005, Ahmedinejad has set about placing members of the IRGC in key positions in the Iranian power structure. Eight of the 22-strong Iranian Cabinet have been replaced by IRGC members since late 2005. Defence Minister Mustafa Muhammad Najar, and Foreign Minister Manoucher Mouttaki are both senior IRGC men. In early 2006, the Iranian foreign ministry replaced around 60 ambassadors, again indicating the slow advance of the radicals.[iii] (It is important to point out that the advance of the radicals has not been seamless and they have also suffered setbacks – Ahmedinejad’s list performed badly in recent local elections, for example. Yet the general trend of the rise of the radicals remains.)[iv] The Qods Force of the IRGC plays a key role in training insurgent and terror groups and offering finance and logistical assistance to forces (not all of them Shia or even Islamist) which Iran wishes to support in its efforts to exert influence throughout the region. The Iranian nuclear programme is an integral element of Iran’s regional strategy.
Key allies and clients of Iran include Syria, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movements, Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the movement of Moktada al-Sadr in Iraq. Iran also supports the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Fatah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Syria is the only state ally of the pro-Iranian regional axis. Damascus’s close relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran go back to 1980, and the first period following the revolution. The two regimes signed a joint defence pact in June 2006. Damascus has long promoted its own regional influence through its self-proclaimed role as a key defender of Arab nationalism and resistance to the west. On this basis, Syria was a key Soviet ally in the region, and the ostensibly secular, Alawite dominated regime appears to wish to utilise its alliance with Iran in a similar way.[v] For Iran to play the kind of regional role sought by the regime, it is crucial that Teheran may present itself as a force around in which anti status-quo forces can coalesce, rather than as a narrow Shia force, and for this reason the alliance with Arab, ostensibly secular Syria is of key importance.[vi]
Hamas has an ongoing relationship with Iran dating back to the mid 1990s. Again, there is an obvious ideological tension between conservative, Sunni Hamas – which emerged from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, and which maintains strong links in Saudi Arabia – and Shia Iran.
This point should be stressed. The Muslim Brotherhood is a worldwide, conservative Sunni Islamist group with its headquarters in Egypt. Hamas emerged from the circles of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. The Sunni orientation of the Brotherhood makes it in many ways a natural foe of Shia Iran. This, however, has not prevented the emergence of a relationship which includes the training of Hamas military operatives in Teheran, and extensive financial support. Iranian military training is considered to have played a crucial role in the creation of the military force around the Gaza Interior Ministry which played the key role in defeating Fatah in June 2006 in Gaza. Iran is thought to have donated around $120 million to Hamas in the last eighteen months.[vii]
Palestinian Islamic Jihad was created in 1980 by Palestinians inspired by the Iranian revolution. The movement has relied on Iranian funding and training from the outset. Islamic Jihad has no political ambitions and operates entirely in the field of terrorist and paramilitary activity. Unlike Hamas, the movement may be seen unambiguously as an instrument of Iranian policy.
Hezbollah is a creation of Iran, and its existence dates back to the dispatching of 1,500 IRGC operatives to the Lebanese Biqa’a in 1982, as part of Teheran’s effort to spread Islamic revolution throughout the region.[viii] Shia Hezbollah is committed to the ‘Wilayat a-faqih’ (rule by clerics) system of Iran, and the official title of Movement leader Nasrallah includes the designation that he is the representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini in Lebanon. Hezbollah has of course a genuine and broad support base in Lebanon. Yet it may also be seen as an instrument of the Iranian regime in the fullest sense of the word.
The Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr’s relations with Iran have undergone a transformation over the last two years. Whereas the Iranian attitude was initially one of suspicion, relations have been improving since the January, 2005 elections. In January, 2006, Sadr visited Teheran and pledged to defend Iran if it were attacked by the US. There is evidence of Qods Force members providing arms and training to the Iraqi Shia militia. Iran also created and sponsors a Shia military grouping of its own – the Badr Brigade. The Sadr-Teheran relationship remains complex, however, with the issue of Iraqi vs. Iranian nationalism a factor with the potential to cause tension.[ix]
Iran’s alliances mean that Teheran has a key role in all the major flashpoints in the region. An Iranian client is behind the emergence of an Islamist statelet in Gaza, and the current war of attrition taking place between Israel and the Hamas Gaza entity. Another Iranian client (Hezbollah) has brought Lebanon to its point of greatest political tension since the end of the civil war in 1990.
Iranian assistance is enabling Syria to resume its discarded goal of strategic parity with Israel. The latest reports indicate that the Syrians are making rapid advances in the field of missile technology. Again, arms transfers from Russia are also playing a key role in the current modernisation of the Syrian military.
In Iraq, too, Iranian support for Shia militias and Syrian support for the Sunni insurgency play a key role.
Thus, the Iranian led alliance is currently the key factor in fomenting instability throughout the region. Iranian nuclear efforts are continuing apace – and if they prove successful, a nuclear umbrella will enable Tehran to increase at will the subversive activity in which it is already engaged across the Middle East.
The growth of Iranian regional ambitions is a cause of deep concern to pro-western and moderate Arab states. It is quite possible that the inherent contradiction in a non-Arab, non-Sunni power seeking to ally with Arab anti-western currents will eventually foil the regional designs of the rising radical elite in Tehran. But for the moment, the Iranian led axis of radicalism is in the process of transforming the strategic dispensation of the region, making possible a series of developments of deep concern to Israeli and western planners.
The emergence of a resurgent Iran, powered by a rising elite with a clear sense of its own destiny, is altering the strategic picture of the region. As demonstrated above, Iran is playing a key destabilizing role in every regional flashpoint. Teheran seeks a nuclear capability to act as ‘insurance’ against any possibility of a real challenge to these activities. The region is witnessing the rise of a new power, determined to challenge the ‘pax Americana’ which held sway in the 1990s and which made possible the hopes for rational, peaceful development which underlay the peace process.
[i] Iason Athenasiadis, ‘Middle East’s Cold war heats up,’ Asia Times, 26 January 2007. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/IA26Ak02.html
[ii] Fred Halliday, ‘Iran’s revolutionary spasm,’ Open Democracy, 30 June 2005. http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-vision_reflections/iran_2642.jsp
[iii] Dore Gold, ‘Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Global Jihad: a new conflict paradigm,’ 27 January 2007. http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=379&PID=0&IID=1491&TTL=Iran,_Hizbullah,_Hamas_and_the_Global_Jihad:_A_New_Conflict_Paradigm_for_the_West_-_Executive_Summary
[iv] Edmund Blair, ‘Results in Iranian vote seen as setback for Ahmedinejad,’ Washington Post, 18 December 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/17/AR2006121700772.html
[v] The Alawite sect, to which Syrian President Bashar Assad and his family belong, comprises 12% of the population of Syria. Alawites hold the dominant positions in the regime, and the wider Alawite population has benefited disproportionately to the rest of the population during the period of the Assad’s rule.
[vi] Daniel Byman, ‘Iran and Syria: What’s behind the Enduring alliance?’ Brookings, 19 July 2006. http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2006/0719middleeast_byman.aspx
[vii] Hamas and Iran, AIJAC Briefing, 12 May 2006. http://www.aijac.org.au/updates/May-06/120506.html
[viii] See Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, ‘Hezbollah: Politics and Religion,’ Pluto Press: 2002: p. 15.
[ix] Babak Rahimi, ‘Moqtada al-Sadr’s new alliance with Iran,’ Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 5, Issue 4, March 2007. http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2370263