Iran and the Middle East’s five hotspots
Michael J. Totten
The chattering class has spent months bickering about whether or not the United States should sign on to a nuclear deal with Iran. Hardly anyone aside from the Saudis, however, seems to recognise that the Iranian government’s ultimate goal is regional hegemony and that its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end.
The Middle East has five hot spots – or “shatter zones,” as Robert D. Kaplan called them in his landmark book, The Revenge of Geography – which are more prone to conflict than others, where borders are either unstable or porous, where central governments have a hard time keeping everything wired together, and where instability is endemic or chronic.
Gaza, where Hamas wages relentless rocket wars against Israel, is one such shatter zone. The Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah does the same on a much more terrifying scale, is another. Yemen, which is finally falling apart on an epic scale, has been one for decades. Syria and Iraq have merged into a single, multinational shatter zone with more armed factions than anyone but the CIA can keep track of.
What do these shatter zones have in common? The Iranian government backs militias and terrorist armies in all of them. As Kaplan writes, “The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.”
That’s why Iran is a problem for American foreign policy makers in the first place; and that’s why trading sanctions relief for an international weapons inspection regime will have no effect on any of it whatsoever.
Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and its Islamic leaders have played an entirely pernicious role in the Middle East since they seized power from Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, stormed the US Embassy in Teheran, and held 66 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
In 1982, they went international. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon to dislodge Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Army, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders forged a network of terrorist and guerrilla cells among their co-religionists in Lebanon’s Shi’ite population.
Hezbollah, the poisoned fruit of these efforts, initially had no name. It was a hidden force that struck from the shadows. It left a hell of a mark, though, for an organisation of anonymous nobodies when it blew up the American Embassy in Beirut and hit French, Italian and American peacekeeping troops – who were there at the invitation of the Lebanese government – with suicide truck-bombers in 1983 that killed 368 people.
When Hezbollah’s leaders finally sent out a birth announcement in their 1985 Open Letter, they weren’t the least bit shy about telling the world who they worked for. “We are,” they wrote, “the Party of God (Hizb Allah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran… We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih [jurist] who fulfils all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!”
The Israelis fought a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah for 18 years in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000, and they fought a devastating war in 2006 along the border that killed thousands and produced more than a million refugees in both countries. Hezbollah was better armed and equipped than the Lebanese Government even then, but today its missiles can reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and even the Dimona nuclear power plant all the way down in the southern part of the country.
Until September 11, 2001, no terrorist organisation in the world had killed more Americans than Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is more than just an anti-Western and anti-Jewish terrorist organisation. It is also a ruthless sectarian Shi’ite militia that imposes its will at gunpoint on Lebanon’s Sunnis, Christians and Druze. It has toppled elected governments, invaded and occupied parts of Beirut, and, according to a United Nations indictment, assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Hezbollah is, for all intents and purposes, the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The parts of the country it occupies – the northern Bekaa Valley, the Israeli border region, and the suburbs south of Beirut – constitute a de facto Iranian-controlled state-within-a-state inside Lebanon.
After the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003, Iran’s rulers duplicated their Lebanon strategy in Iraq by sponsoring a smorgasbord of sectarian Shi’ite militias and death squads that waged war against the Iraqi government, the American military, Sunni civilians, and politically moderate Shi’ites.
Unlike Lebanon – which is more or less evenly divided between Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites – Iraq has an outright Shi’ite majority that feels a gravitational pull toward their fellow Shi’ites in Iran and a revulsion for the Sunni minority that backed Hussein’s brutal totalitarianism and today tolerates the even more deranged occupation by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The central government, then, is firmly aligned with Teheran. Iran’s clients don’t run a Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state in Iraq. They don’t have to. Now that Hussein is out of the way, Iraq’s Shi’ites can dominate Baghdad with the weight of sheer demographics alone. But Iran isn’t content with merely having strong diplomatic relations with its neighbour. It still sponsors sectarian Shi’ite militias in the centre and south of the country that outperform the American-trained national army. They may one day even supplant Iraq’s national army as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has more or less supplanted the Iranian national army. Iraq’s Shi’ite militias are already the most powerful armed force outside the Kurdish autonomous region and ISIS-held territory.
When ISIS took complete control of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, in May 2015, the Iraqi soldiers tasked with protecting it dropped their weapons and ran as they had earlier in Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah. So Iraq’s central government tasked its Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias with taking it back.
On the one hand, one can hardly fault Baghdad for sending in whatever competent fighting force is available when it needs to liberate a city from a psychopathic terrorist army, but the only reason ISIS gained a foothold among Iraq’s Sunnis in the first place is because the Baghdad Government spent years acting like the sectarian dictatorship that it is – treating the Sunni minority like second-class citizens, and trumping up bogus charges against Sunni officials in the capital. When ISIS promised to protect Iraq’s Sunnis from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite rulers in Baghdad, the narrative seemed almost plausible. So ISIS, after being vomited out of Anbar Province in 2007, was allowed to come back.
Most of Iraq’s Sunnis fear and loathe ISIS. They previously fought ISIS under its former name, al-Qaeda in Iraq. But they fear and loathe the central government and its Shi’ite militias even more. They’d rather be oppressed by “their own” than by “the other”, if they had to choose. But they have to choose because Iran has made Iraq its second national project after Lebanon.
It doesn’t have to be this way. At least some of the tribal Sunni militias would gladly fight ISIS as they did in the past with American backing. If they did, residents of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul would view them as liberators and protectors rather than potential oppressors, but Teheran and Baghdad will have none of it.
“All attempts to send arms and ammunition must be through the central government,” Adnan al-Assadi, a member of Parliament, told CNN back in May. “That is why we refused the American proposal to arm the tribes in Anbar. We want to make sure that the weapons would not end up in the wrong hands, especially ISIS.”
That may appear reasonable on the surface, but ISIS can seize weapons from Shi’ite militias just as easily as it can seize weapons from Sunni militias. The real reason for the government’s reluctance ought to be obvious: Iraq’s Shi’ites do not want to arm Iraq’s Sunnis. They’d rather have ISIS controlling huge swathes of the country than a genuinely popular Sunni movement with staying power that’s implacably hostile to the Iranian-backed project in Mesopotamia.
The catastrophe in Iraq is bad enough, but the Iranian handiwork in Syria is looking even more apocalyptic nowadays. ISIS wouldn’t even exist, of course, if it weren’t for the predatory regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the close alliance that has existed between Damascus and Teheran since the 1979 revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power.
Syria’s government is dominated by the Alawites, who make up just 15% of the population. Their religion is a heterodox blend of Christianity, Gnosticism, and Shi’ite Islam. They aren’t Shi’ites. They aren’t even Muslims. Their Arab Socialist Baath Party is and has always been as secular as the Communist Party was in the Soviet Union (and it was in fact a client of the Soviet Union). A marriage between an aggressively secular Alawite regime and Iran’s clerical Islamic Republic was hardly inevitable, but it’s certainly logical. The two nations had a common enemy wedged between them in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and both have been threatened by the region’s Sunni Arab majority since their inception.
Hezbollah is their first child, and the three of them together make up the core of what analyst Lee Smith calls the “Resistance Bloc” in his book, The Strong Horse. The Party of God, as it calls itself, wouldn’t exist without Iranian money and weapons, nor would it exist without Damascus as the logistics hub that connects them. And it would have expired decades ago if Syria hadn’t conquered and effectively annexed Lebanon at the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.
Every armed faction in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, signed on to the Syrian-brokered Taif Agreement, which required the disarmament of every militia in the country. But the Assads governed Lebanon with the same crooked and cynical dishonesty they perfected at home, and as the occupying power they not only allowed Hezbollah to hold on to its arsenal, but also allowed Hezbollah to import rockets and missiles from Iran.
“For Syria,” historian William Harris wrote in The New Face of Lebanon, “Hezbollah could persist as both a check on the Lebanese regime and as a means to bother Israel when convenient.”
The Party of God is now a powerful force unto itself, but it rightly views the potential downfall of the Assad regime as the beginning of its own end. The fact that Assad might be replaced by the anti-Shi’ite genocidaires of ISIS compelled its fighters to invade Syria without an exit strategy – with the help of Iranian commanders, of course – to either prop up their co-patron or die.
Rather than going all-in, the Iranians could have cut their losses in Syria and pressured Assad into leaving the country. ISIS would be hiding under rocks right now had that happened. Hardly any Sunnis in Syria would tolerate such a deranged revolution if they had no one to revolt against. But the Resistance Bloc will only back down if it’s forced to back down. If ISIS devours Syria and Iraq as a result, then so be it.
And while the Resistance Bloc is fighting for its survival in the Levant, it’s expanding into the Arabian Peninsula.
The Shi’ite-dominated Houthi movement took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, earlier this year following the revolution that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and its fighters are well on their way to taking the port city of Aden, in the Sunni part of the country.
The Houthis, of course, are backed by Iran.
They’re no more likely to conquer every inch of that country than Iran’s other regional proxies are to conquer every inch of anywhere else. Shi’ites make up slightly less than half of Yemen’s population, and their natural “territory” is restricted to the northwestern region in and around the capital. Taking and holding it all is likely impossible. No government – Sunni, Shi’ite, or otherwise – has managed to control all of Yemen for long.
And the Saudis are doing their damnedest to make sure it stays that way. Their fighter jets have been pounding Houthi positions throughout the country since March.
Saudi Arabia is more alarmed at Iranian expansion in the region than anyone else, and for good reason. It’s the only Arab country with a substantial Shi’ite minority that hasn’t yet been hit by Iranian-backed revolution, upheaval, or sectarian strife, although events in Yemen could quickly change that.
In the city and province of Najran, in the southwestern corner just over the Yemeni border, Shi’ites are the largest religious group, and they’re linked by sect, tribe, and custom to the Houthis.
Not only is the border there porous and poorly defined, but that part of Saudi Arabia once belonged to Yemen. The Saudis conquered and annexed it in 1934. Najran is almost identical architecturally to the Yemeni capital, and you can walk from Najran to Yemen in a little over an hour.
Will the Houthis be content to let Najran remain in Saudi hands now that they have Iranian guns, money, power, and wind at their back? Maybe. But the Saudis won’t bet their sovereignty on a maybe.
Roughly 15% of Saudi Arabia’s citizens are Shi’ites. They’re not a large minority, but Syria’s Alawites are no larger and they’ve been ruling the entire country since 1970. And Shi’ites make up the absolute majority in the Eastern Province, the country’s largest, where most of the oil is concentrated.
Support among Yemen’s Sunnis for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula- the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda on earth – is rising for purely sectarian reasons just as it has in Syria and Iraq. Iran can’t intervene anywhere in the region right now without provoking a psychotic backlash that’s as dangerous to Teheran and its interests as it is to America’s.
If Iranian adventurism spreads to Saudi Arabia, watch out. Everywhere in the entire Middle East where Sunnis and Shi’ites live adjacent to one another will have turned into a shatter zone.
The entire world’s oil patch will have turned into a shatter zone.
US foreign policy in the Middle East is focused on two things right now: containing ISIS and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. These are both worthy goals, but if sanctions are lifted on Iran as part of a nuclear deal, whether or not it gets the bomb, Teheran will certainly have more money and resources to funnel to Hezbollah, the Assad regime, Iraq’s Shi’ite militias, the Houthis in Yemen, and – perhaps – to Saudi Arabia’s disaffected Shi’ite minority. The region will become even less stable than it already is. ISIS and al-Qaeda will likely grow stronger than they already are.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think that won’t affect us. It’s not just about the oil, although until every car in the world is powered by green energy, we can’t pretend the global economy won’t crash if gasoline becomes scarce. We also have security concerns in the region. What happens in the Middle East hasn’t stayed in the Middle East now for decades.
The head-choppers of ISIS are problematic for obvious reasons. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said, “I’ll see you in New York,” to American military personnel when they (foolishly) released him from Iraq’s Camp Bucca prison in 2004. But the Iranian-led Resistance Bloc has behaved just as atrociously since 1979 and will continue to do so with or without nuclear weapons.
US involvement in Syria and Iraq is minimal now, but even the little Washington is doing makes little sense. It’s against ISIS in both countries, which is entirely appropriate, but in Iraq it’s using air power to cover advances by Shi’ite militias and therefore furthering Iranian interests, and in Syria, the US is working against Iranian interests by undermining Assad and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the nuclear deal Washington negotiated with Teheran places a grand total of zero requirements on Iran’s rulers to roll back in their necklace of shatter zones.
We don’t have to choose between ISIS and Iran’s revolutionary regime. They’re both murderous Islamist powers with global ambitions, and they’re both implacably hostile to Western interests. Resisting both simultaneously wouldn’t make US foreign policy even a whit more complicated. It would, however, make US foreign policy much more coherent.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of six books, including Tower of the Sun and Where the West Ends. Reprinted from World Affairs (www.worldaffairsjournal.org). © Michael Totten, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.