Hicham Felter works for Bonneville Associates as International Communications and Public Affairs consultant.
There is always much to read about about IS (Islamic State), ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Daesh (Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham, the Arabic translation of ISIL) or whatever name they go by these days.
But we should also be aware that, amid the political hodgepodge of the Middle East, Iran is using underhand tactics to exploit the situation in order to increase its influence
This should have alarm bells ringing in the West. With greater economic, military and political influence in the region, coupled with its nuclear ambitions, Iran is rapidly destabilising the whole of the Middle East. Their actions are sparking an arms race, pitting Sunnis against Shia and trapping ethnic minorities in the middle of a bloodbath. And now, of course, it has achieved a nuclear deal.
In Iraq, we see Iran’s influence increasing while the West’s influences is decreasing. This is partly due to Tehran’s unwavering financial, military and political support to Shia actors within Iraq. The influence of the Shia majority and the marginalisation of the Sunni and other minorities can be seen as the cause of Iraq being torn apart. The hardline policies of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia former Prime Minister, created a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS amongst Iraqi Sunnis. This went unchecked or unopposed by the Obama administration and was encouraged by the ill-advised hasty withdrawal of coalition forces at a time when the Iraqi army was not ready.
Iran has taken advantage of the West’s novice approach to foreign policy and has increased its influence massively in Iraq. If one looks at the fightback against ISIS we can clearly see a pattern where the Iraqi military has taken a supporting role to the Shia militias. These militias (who are controlled by Iran) are not only supported in terms of military personnel, they are also - more worryingly – supported with heavy military equipment indirectly supplied by the US.
This could lead to bigger problem further down the line if and when central government may attempt to take back control of its territory. The militias have grown so much in confidence that one of their commanders recently slammed the Iraqi army as “weaklings”. The ever-growing confidence and influence of Iran will create a situation where the militias will be too strong for the government to take on, mirroring the state-within-a-state which Hezbollah established in Lebanon, with Iranian support. This will ultimately lead to the Iraqi government answering only to Tehran.
The revolution against the totalitarian Assad regime started four years ago. When Assad had his back against the wall, aid came in from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. Iran (the biggest exporter of terrorism) threw a lifeline to the regime and continues to prop it up. This assistance has given the Syrian regime time to adapt and tailor its military response to the revolution with deadly force, resulting in the loss of countless innocent lives. With no end in sight Iran is still sending arms, fuel, fighters (including 4,000 Revolutionary Guards) and money by the truckload. Hezbollah is also sending weapons and fighters (as many as 8,000 men, according to Lebanese sources) across the border.
Iran saw the dithering by the West as an opportunity and grabbed it. The West’s lack of action served to fragment the opposition and strengthen Iran’s influence in Syria. The turning point for Iranian confidence was when Obama famously warned the Assad regime that using chemical weapons against his own people would be “the red line.” When chemical weapons were used in Syria (a practice which still continues), Obama failed to back up his words with hard power. The Middle Eastern credibility of the USA and the Obama administration collapsed after it failed to enforce its own threat. This can be seen to have encouraged Iran to take even bolder steps towards expanding its influence.
Looking at Lebanon provides further evidence of the Iranian expansionist agenda. Iran’s aim is the creation of a satellite client state - it has been involved in Lebanon since its Islamic revolution. Indeed, only with Tehran’s help did Hezbollah come to prominence on to the international terrorism scene when in 1983 it killed 299 American and French servicemen in the infamous Beirut Barracks bombing. It is widely acknowledge that Hezbollah only answers to its Iranian masters. If Iran says “jump” Hezbollah would say “how high?” Indeed it was no surprise that Iran called on Hezbollah to shore up the Assad regime in Syria by sending fighters across the border.
Iran funds Hezbollah with well over $100 million a year including countless armament shipments. As in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s aims are to increase its political, military and economic influence. Hezbollah has been a strong destabalising force in the Middle East, in large part thanks to the support it receives from Iran. It is stronger than the Lebanese army, imposes its will on the Lebanese government, commits countless political assassinations, issues bribes, practices regular intimidation and as a result holds the Lebanese population hostage. This model is now being implemented across the Levant region.
Growing confidence, growing influence
Iran’s influence in the region is not something new, but just how bold it has become is staggering. The perceived retreat of, and loss of confidence in, the US and the West has driven growing Iranian confidence. Tehran’s influence can not only be felt in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but it also can be seen in Yemen (where Shia militias have taken over the country), and Bahrain (where sectarian tensions are running high, fuelled by Iran).
Iran’s ultimate aims include the defeat of Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis, the ability to launch land attacks directly on Israel, access to the Mediterranean and maximum control of the oil wealth in the Gulf. This is a country which does not abide by international rules – in fact, it has broken more international agreements than any other nation state.
The desperation of the Obama administration to secure any deal, even a bad one, in order to save face will lead to disastrous consequences. Why we are negotiating with a country which is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons that will inevitably lead to an arms race in the Middle East and the “annihilation” of Israel is beyond any intelligent observer.