dimanche 23 juillet 2017

Iran and its four Arab fronts


This text seeks to read the strategies adopted by Iran in the Middle East since the year 2003, especially in Arab arenas that have witnessed open political, sectarian, and military conflicts[1]. In these conflicts, Iran has old and new weighty allies that it supports or has intervened directly in order to protect and guarantee their supremacy.

The text focuses on four arenas: Iraq and Syria, where Iran has escalated its direct intervention since 2011; Lebanon, where Iran’s most powerful local ally has been employed in the Syrian conflict; and Yemen, where Iran is trapping Saudi Arabia in a war that will be very hard to win.


The triumph of the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 and the creation of the Islamic Republic later in the year, accompanied by rhetoric urging the export of the revolution and its model, formed a turning point or a new foundational moment for politics in the Middle East[2]. The Iraq-Iran War - which caused humanitarian, infrastructural, and economic catastrophes - followed shortly thereafter and lasted until 1988.
The revolution triggered a realignment of regional alliances that led from the start of 1982 to the formation of political/religious/military movements in multiple Arab countries. Most of those movements adopted an unprecedented kind of religious and political rhetoric, causing ruptures of a type that would have significant ramifications for years to come.

In reviewing the developments related to the Iranian Revolution and its discourse from one side, and the reactions engendered by it (whether in opposition or in support) from the other, from the mid 1980s until the mid 1990s, we find that Iranian foreign policy, specifically toward the Arab world, has revolved around three pivots:

First, connected with the Palestinian issue: Iran adopted a radical stance of extreme militancy. This subsequently formed the foundation for Iranian alliances in the Palestinian arena, placing Teheran in the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict - a source of worry for many Arab and Western governments.

Second, in connection with political language and vocabulary: Iran eschewed publically sectarian or nationalist terminology in addressing the Arab world, for two reasons. First of all, in the 1980s, this was a response to Iraqi propaganda and attempts by Saddam Hussein to employ Arab nationalist rhetoric against the “Persian enemy.” Second and more importantly, this was in order to avoid antagonizing the emerging Arab Sunni Islamists opposed to their governments and in order to begin communicating with them. Iran also initiated, at the same time, contacts with leftist and secular opposition currents that were likewise opposed to their governments’ foreign policies formulated to appeal to the United States of America.

Third, in connection with the focus on forming a “revolutionary” party in Lebanon and supporting it, Iran helped creating Hezbollah (the Party of God), and transformed it (in time) into a strong ally fighting Israel[3]. This required coordination with Syria as the dominant power over Lebanon (since its army had invaded Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war). Syria for its part was ready to cooperate for geostrategic concerns[4].

Suffice it to say that Iran succeeded in consolidating its position in all three areas. It supported the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and then cemented its relationship with Hamas. Likewise, Iran succeeded in its mission in Lebanon, and in building links in many Arab countries with individuals and groups opposed to their governments, bypassing a myriad of sectarian and ethnic obstacles, despite the war with Iraq and the virulent political confrontation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

However, this strategy was accompanied by severe international isolation for Iran and diplomatic and security clashes with the West - America and France in particular - mostly in Lebanon.[5] All this led to Iran being branded throughout the 1980s as a “terrorist state”. This reputation followed it as well throughout the 1990s, though without severe repercussions.

Turbulence in the 1990s and the great transformation in 2001

At the beginning of the 1990s, after the American-led international Operation Desert Storm (following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) isolated Iraq and allowed the United States to station hundreds of thousands of troops on the Arabian Peninsula, what was called the “peace process” was initiated by Washington between Arab governments and Israel. The negotiations led to the Wadi Araba Agreement between Tel Aviv and Amman, and to the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In contrast, Washington initiated negotiations along the Syrian and Lebanese tracks failed.

Many Palestinian and Arab dissident factions voiced their opposition to the negotiations. Likewise, right-wing Israelis voiced their opposition, creating a political climate that resulted in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a Jewish extremist, accompanied by clashes between Israelis and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. All of this combined with the Israeli settlement policies in Palestinian territories led, in the second half of the 1990s, to the failure of the peace talks. At the same time, fighting escalated in Southern Lebanon between Hezbollah (which was granted access to arms through a Syrian-Iranian agreement) and the occupying Israeli forces.

Amid all this, Iran became a new key player in the Arab-Israeli conflict, through its financial, military, and political support for the armed forces arrayed against Israel. Different Arab political currents moved closer to Iran, united by their opposition to negotiations and to the stances of the regimes of their countries. Iran’s policies simultaneously exposed it to more international criticism and Western sanctions. However, many transformations in the late 1990s would start modifying Iran’s relation with the West.

In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president of the Islamic Republic. He appeared to be more open and willing to dialogue than his predecessors, in a manner that improved Iran’s image abroad, both diplomatically and in the media. At the same time, the violent conflict in Afghanistan escalated. The Taliban movement had emerged and taken control of Kabul, practicing brutal repressions against its opponents. The Taliban incited strong international condemnations for demolishing the world heritage landmarks of the massive carved Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley. From Kabul, the leader of the al-Qaeda organization Osama bin Laden issued a number of statements, threatening the United States with dire retributions unless their forces left the “Peninsula of Mohammad”. After those statements, the Saudi Kingdom witnessed a number of attacks against American interests and military installations, attributed to al-Qaeda. Attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, that followed, were also attributed to the organization.

The aforementioned developments led to the beginning of a revision of the American and general western stance toward dealing with the issue of “Islamic terrorism.” Specifically, this phrase began to be associated more with the Sunni Salafist-Jihadist current represented by al-Qaeda and the leadership of the Taliban in Afghanistan, rather than with the Shiite militancy of Iran and Hezbollah.

In 2000, three developments occurred that would have implications for Iran’s image and its growing role. In May of that year, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, 22 years after its first invasion. The withdrawal was interpreted as a victory for Hezbollah and by extension its sponsor, Iran, as it seemed that Israel had withdrawn for the first time from occupied Arab land as a result of military resistance against it.

In September of the same year, a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon (one of the hawks of the Israeli right) to the Haram al-Sharif in East Jerusalem sparked demonstrations throughout the Palestinian territories that transformed into a popular uprising that then resulted in armed clashes between the Palestinians, the Israeli army, and Israeli settlers. The intifada led to an American attempt to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sharon then won legislative elections in Israel and announced an all-out war on the Palestinian Authority, which had been established by the Oslo Accords, and its head Yasser Arafat.

The following month, in October, a suicide attack occurred against an American destroyer, the USS Cole, sailing off the Yemeni shores. The attack, once again, was attributed to the al-Qaeda organization. In light of these events, Iran seemed to be in a good position. On the one hand, Iran enjoyed praise from Arabs opposed to negotiations with the Americans and the Israelis, and on the other hand, Iran “celebrated” the agony of the negotiations, seeing in the Palestinian intifada a confirmation of its argument that negotiating with Israel was pointless. The militarization of the intifada transformed Tehran into an influential player by redoubling its support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and opening communication with other Palestinian forces. All of this occurred at a time of Arab apprehension over the absence of a state capable of leading the Arab League. Egypt had steadily declined in the region; Saudi Arabia appeared to be in severe disarray as a result of its relationship with Washington and the unpopularity of its policies in the “Arab streets” - in addition to its continual problems with Salafist-Jihadist networks that were already at war with Americans stationed on their soil.

However, the greatest change in the relationship between Iran and the world would emerge after 11 September 2001. The attacks in New York and Washington, the spectacle of violence accompanying a strike on America on its own turf, against symbols of its power, was a historical turning point in the context of “global terrorism”. The attacks contributed to the creation of a new ideology that would be known as the “War on Terror”. It was declared by American President George W. Bush, who would target first Afghanistan and its rulers the Taliban, as the protectors of Osama bin Laden, accused of organizing and financing the attacks. This “War on Terror” would transform into a long, endless war, as it did not recognize any geographic constraints. The vagueness and elasticity of the phrase itself gave rise to different interpretations and accusations.

In any case, the declaration of the “War on Terror” consecrated the change that had begun to occur in the preceding years: the fighters of al-Qaeda and its Sunni ilk became the symbols of terrorism for the West (reinforced by attacks in the four subsequent years in Madrid, Casablanca, London, Bali, and several other cities around the globe). Accusing Iran of terrorism was no longer common. Europe even began to deal with Iran’s ally Hezbollah after it entered parliament and government, becoming a part of Lebanese political institutions. The only condemnations of Iran emerged periodically from Tel Aviv, and every now and then Iran would be mentioned by Washington as a state sponsoring terror[6]. Therefore, the year 2001 concluded with Iranian advances in both the Lebanese and Palestinian arenas, while international pressure against it receded. Things continued along these lines until 2003.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the expansion of Iranian influence

In 2002, after President Khatami’s re-election, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran had not kept the agency informed of developments within its old-established nuclear program[7]. Western capitals considered Tehran to be pursuing an advanced secret program for military use, with the help of Russian corporations and experts from Pakistan[8]. Beginning in 2003, negotiations started between Tehran and the West, with visits from the United Nations and the IAEA to Iranian nuclear sites. The negotiations alternated between tension accompanied by sanctions and breakthroughs that kept the talks alive.

At the same time, after the fall of the Taliban and the expulsion of the leadership of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan (on Iran’s eastern borders), the American administration appeared to be heading in 2003 toward declaring war on Iraq (on Iran’s western borders) to topple the Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. The pretext for the invasion was Baghdad’s possession of hidden weapons of mass destruction. Yet the invasion was grounded in the context of a new Middle Eastern strategy derived from the “War on Terror,” the basis of which would be “regime change” and “democratization”, such that the new regimes would be friendly to Washington and seek to combat terror alongside it. Despite the rejection of the UN Security Council of drafts authorizing the aforementioned American war, and despite the use by Russia, China, and France of their veto powers against a decision to go to war, President George W. Bush and his British ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, declared war on 19 March of that year. They invaded Iraq, overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein one month later.

As a result of this military operation, Iran’s neighbouring archenemy to its west fell. The toppling of Saddam Hussein marked a great transformation in the regional political map, particularly the balances of power in it. Despite George W. Bush threatening Iran and stationing his troops on its borders directly, Iran would manage to transform the situation into a point of strength, benefiting from two factors.

The first was the operational mistakes of the American administration in Afghanistan, which excluded a wide swath of Pashtu notables from post-war political processes, pushing them to firmly oppose the US occupation and seek to challenge its control of the country. Similarly, the American administration adopted a program of “de-Baathification” in Iraq that would dissolve the state and its institutions, which would worsen sectarianism and would make the Sunni Arabs feel directly targeted. The second factor was Iranian efforts to expand its alliances in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran benefited from pre-established relationships with forces among the Tajik and the Shiite Hazara (Persian speakers in Afghanistan). Similarly, Iran had strong relationships with Arab Shiite forces as well as Kurdish parties in Iraq.

Most importantly for the subject of this paper, Iran would contribute to the transformation of Iraq into a quagmire for American forces, by allowing for example many members of the leadership and supporters of al-Qaeda to escape Afghanistan and transit its territory toward Iraq to fight the Americans[9]. Iran would also agree with the Syrian regime to establish ties with tribal chiefs among the Iraqi Sunni Arabs and former Baathists who resisted the Americans, and to allow Arab jihadists to cross Syrian territory to fight in what would later be known as the Iraqi Sunni Triangle (Faluja - Ramadi - al-Qa’im).

In tandem with these developments, Iran armed and supported its Shiite allies in Basra and Baghdad (taking into account the particularity of the powerbase of al-Sistani in al-Najaf, and avoiding direct competition with him), and remained open to cooperation with Kurdish forces in the north. Altogether this resulted in a unique “formula”. Iran used the American occupation of Iraq to benefit its own political interests, as they had many allies in common (the Da’awa Party, the Supreme Council for Revolution, and “friends of Washington” who had been in exile until their return with the American invasion and their formation of the new government). Simultaneously, Iran drained the U.S. occupation forces militarily through the adversaries of Washington (such as al-Qaeda, Sunni tribal leaders, and former Baathists) with whom it shared a very limited number of objectives.

Iranian policies bore fruit in expanding Tehran’s influence in Iraq (and in Afghanistan), transforming the American forces from the dominant occupying powers into forces needing to focus on protecting themselves and negotiating deals for this purpose. The first parliamentary elections in Iraq after the American invasion in December 2005 confirmed Iran’s influence, as many of its Shiite allies won a majority of seats (just as they had succeeded in passing a new constitution months prior, despite the opposition of most Sunni Arabs to it)[10].

Iran on the borders of Israel (2006 - 2009)

Developments in the region continued to favour Iranian policy and its capacities to influence matters in multiple arenas. In Palestine, Yasser Arafat died in 2004 after two years of siege imposed upon him militarily by Ariel Sharon. Arafat’s death led to the weakening of the Palestinian nationalist movement to the benefit of the Islamist movement led by Hamas.

In Bahrain, a brief period of political openness ended, driving the Bahraini opposition closer to Iran for protection from the Manama authorities, who feared the implications of Shiite empowerment in Iraq for Bahrain and the possible threat to their rule. A new cycle of distrust started in the country, where sectarian tensions and historical marginalization of the Shiite political forces had always made the situation fragile.

In Lebanon, violent political conflict broke up between Hezbollah and other allies of the Damascus regime on one side, and a broad front opposed to the Syrian domination on the other. This confrontation was ignited as a result of the joint French and American decision to remove Syrian control over Lebanon, 29 years after its imposition. On 14 February 2005, amidst this confrontation, Rafic Hariri (Sunni leader, former prime minister, and foremost Saudi ally in the region) was assassinated. This led to massive protests in Beirut and polarization between supporters and opponents of the Syrian al-Assad regime. After two months, these events led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon and the initiation of an international investigation dedicated to the Hariri assassination. Matters did not stop there, as assassinations of the opponents of Damascus and Hezbollah continued, and tension increased in the country. At this time, international pressure mounted on Iran concerning its nuclear program. And Israeli public threats toward Tehran emerged and increased, particularly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in June 2005 and issued violent warnings against Tel Aviv.

Between the years 2006 and 2009, two short but fierce internecine wars occurred in Lebanon and Palestine. Each had several effects. In Lebanon, fighting erupted between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in July 2006. Israel launched a total war on Lebanese infrastructure and on areas considered popular bases of support for Hezbollah. The war led to the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians and to widespread destruction and ruin in the towns and cities of south Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah responded to the Israeli bombardment with a show of force and launched the rockets supplied to it by Iran over a period of years against Israeli targets. Subsequent military developments in the field, such as when Israel tried to advance inside Lebanese territory, illustrated the preparedness of the Hezbollah. Such developments translated into Israeli losses. The war ended after slightly more than a month with a UN ceasefire and a renewal of the mandate of multinational forces that had already been present (UNIFIL). The international community requested the supervision of arms transfers in the south, as well as an official Lebanese military and security presence on the Israeli border.

Hezbollah considered the war to be a victory of military steadfastness, preventing Israel from imposing its conditions. Internal tension in Lebanon increased after the war. Hezbollah and its opponents traded accusations concerning the causes of the war, its developments, and its outcomes. Critics argued that Hezbollah had implemented an Iranian political agenda, connected with Iran’s nuclear program and the Iranian-Israeli-American tug-of-war. What resulted from this aggravation of tensions domestically in Lebanon was further political assassinations, the deployment of Hezbollah’s forces in Beirut to topple the Lebanese government in 2008, and subsequently the imposition of its conditions to form a new government.

In late 2008 and early 2009, Israel launched a war on the Gaza Strip (besieged since Hamas took control in 2007 and expelled the forces of the Palestinian National Authority from it) in alleged retaliation to rockets launched from Gaza toward Israeli cities. The war lasted several weeks, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians. The war did not result in a radical realignment in the balance of power, as Hamas retained its capacity to bombard Israel with rockets (even if with limited effectiveness). Militarily, operations ceased and the blockade of Gaza continued while Hamas maintained control of the strip.

The lesson from the two wars of July 2006 in Lebanon and December 2008 in Gaza concerning Iran, lies in the fact that two allies of Tehran confronted Israel at a time when the Israelis were threatening the Iranians with bombardment because of their nuclear program. It seemed as if Iran had succeeded in displaying its capabilities of retaliation on the borders with Israel in case it was attacked.

On the eve of the end of the first decade of the second millennium, a number of developments occurred in connection with Iranian policy: changes inside Iran itself, and in the United States, which began to take a new approach toward relations with Tehran and the Middle East. At the start of 2009, Barack Obama took office. His Middle East policy focused on the military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and on reaching a peaceful solution with Iran regarding its nuclear program.

In June of the same year, Iran witnessed massive protests accusing the Iranian establishment of rigging the elections in which the official results had proclaimed the victory of Ahmadinejad for a second term. The protestors over a period of weeks raised green flags and pictures of reformist leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi who had expected favourable results before the official pronouncement of a victory by Ahmadinejad. The “Green Movement” that emerged in the wake of these protests was subjected to brutal repression by the authorities, which mobilized popular militias loyal to it. The pronouncements of the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei combined with street suppression killed the momentum of the protest movement, at the cost of polarizing the base of the regime, particularly in relation to Iran’s younger generation.

The third development occurred in Yemen, in the northern province of Saada, in September 2009, when the Houthi revolt against the central authorities transformed into a military conflict. This rebellion bore tribal, regional, and sectarian significance. In addition to the Houthi complaints of economic marginalization of Saada by the government in Sanaa, the rebellion reflected anger towards governmental tolerance of the implementation of Salafist networks in the north against the largely Zaydi residents in the area. Previous clashes there in 2004 had already led to the killing of the Houthi leader Hussein. It seemed that the rebellion this time was blessed with Iranian support, through which Tehran could find local allies to bedevil the Saudis. This ominous development on Saudi borders was of grave concern to Riyadh.

The fourth development occurred in Iraq, where the al-Qaeda jihadist map witnessed several transformations. Many of the leaders connected with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, who were compelled by necessity to deal with the Iranians and placed all emphasis on fighting the Americans, were eliminated. The new strong man of the jihadists, Abou Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, entered into conflict with Shiite forces (allied with Iran) in Baghdad, as he considered striking against them to be one of the duties of jihad. His assassination in 2006 was followed by the establishment of a “Council of Mujahedin” led by Abou ‘Omar al-Baghdadi, who proceeded along the same anti-Shiite line until his death in 2010, upon which Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi succeeded him as leader.

Thus, the first decade of the second millennium ended with Iranian influence extended via Iraq and its Syrian ally to Lebanon and to Gaza, and holding significant influence in Yemen and limited influence in Bahrain. Furthermore, Iran could claim a breakthrough in its relations with Washington and a victory over the challenge by the internal “Green Movement” opposition.

But subsequent developments, beginning in 2010, would show that this influence had produced violent counter-reactions. The positive image of Iran held in many Arab countries as a result of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas in fighting Israel had begun to recede with the growing Shiite-Sunni tension in Iraq (and in Lebanon and Bahrain) on the one hand, and with the growing Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states apprehension toward the ascendancy of Iran and its expansionist policies, on the other.

The Arab revolutions (and counter-revolutions) since 2010

The year 2010 did not end without dramatic transformations in the Middle East. It is no exaggeration to say that the end of this year marked the beginning of events that would come to be some of the most dangerous and influential in the region for many decades.

The spark for these events came from Tunisia in December, represented in the demonstrations by trade unions, students, lawyers, women organizations and other sectors against unemployment and corruption. These protests later transformed into a large popular uprising fed by the anger generated by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi.[11] The demonstrators all over the country chanted the slogan: “[President] Ben Ali leave,” and their uprising continued until they actually overthrew Ben Ali in January 2011[12], after the military refrained from intervening against the demonstrators.

It was not long before another uprising erupted in Egypt, which witnessed over a period of weeks in January and February 2011 demonstrations, sit-ins, and occupations of public spaces by millions of angry citizens. Egypt also witnessed attacks by the security forces and the pro-government thugs known as “baltagiya” against the demonstrators in a desperate attempt to stem the spread of the revolutionary movement, which chanted the iconic phrase: “the people want the fall of the regime.” The military preferred to stay “neutral” leaving President Hosni Mubarak isolated. The President’s resignation[13] led to the transfer of power to a military council that would oversee the transitional period.

Iran welcomed the Tunisian and Egyptian events, considering them to be a blow against governments allied with the United States of America and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Iran subsequently welcomed the start of demonstrations in Bahrain against the rule of the Khalifa family[14], and sharply condemned the Saudi intervention in the form of a GCC operation “Peninsula Shield” (in March 2011) that aided the Bahraini regime in repressing the opposition movement. In return, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other states of the GCC accused Iran of attempting to destabilize the security of the region and cause damage to their countries.

Meanwhile, popular uprisings took off in Yemen, then in Libya, and thereafter in Syria, against the regimes of Ali Abdullah Saleh[15], Muammar al-Gaddafi[16], and Bashar al-Assad[17] respectively. Iran’s enthusiasm for the Arab uprisings diminished slightly with the events in Yemen, though it did not disappear completely. It changed to apprehension then worry and disapprobation in the case of Libya, particularly after the UN Security Council voted to authorize NATO military intervention against the Gaddafi forces and to protect Libyan civilians. This intervention would later lead to the overthrow of Gaddafi and then his killing.

However, it was the Syrian revolution that would radically change Iran’s dealing with the new political factors in the region. Iran considered the threat to the al-Assad regime to be a threat to its regional hegemony, a break in the chain of its arc of influence and dominance from Iraq to Lebanon[18]. The situation in Syria was, additionally, changing at a time when the American military withdrawal from Iraq was being completed, and the jihadist movement led by Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi[19] was preparing a significant military escalation against the allies of Washington and Tehran in Baghdad.

The Iranian response to the new challenges was not long in coming. The change began in Iranian official rhetoric toward the revolutions in the Arab world, with a newfound focus on the “conspiratorial dimension” of these events. Iran’s rhetoric in this context started to focus exclusively on “imperialism and Zionism seeking to destabilize the security of the region in order to divide and partition it”.

The Iranian response became operational in Lebanon after the fall of Sa’ad al-Hariri’s government, due to the resignation of the Shiite ministers in it (and some of the Christian ministers allied with them)[20]. Hezbollah exerted pressures on Lebanese politicians to form a new government headed by its allies. The matter demanded the Shiite party to parade its military forces in Beirut,[21] in a manner that would frighten a block of legislatures opposed to the party, and oblige them to modify their stance and accept a government in June 2011, in which Hezbollah and its allies would hold a significant share of power. This made it easier for the party, a few months later, to cross the borders to Syria and begin its involvement in the Syrian conflict as it transformed into an armed one.

As for Syria, Iran translated its direct support for the al-Assad regime into opening a line of credit and sending security experts to suppress the demonstrations. It then sent officers to create paramilitary groups and organize fighting operations against the revolution when it became militarized. It also sent military equipment, ammunition, in addition to short-range missiles to support the al-Assad army. Finally, Iran mobilized the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters to move into the Damascus zone and protect the Syrian capital.

Politically, Tehran sought to preserve its channels of diplomatic communication with the GCC through the Sultanate of Oman, in contrast to the escalation of its rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and accusations of Saudi sponsorship of the “takfiris[22] and in contrast to its criticisms of Qatar (and later Turkey) and their stances toward Syria. Iran also sought to preserve its good economic relations with the United Arab Emirates, as it has come to possess (under international sanctions) significant investments in Dubai and to engage in considerable financial and commercial activity there.

Likewise, Iran tried to cope with the changes inside the Muslim Brotherhood movement, with which Iran had previously cultivated good relations. This came via contact with the Egyptian organization and the Tunisian movement “Ennahda”, then by preserving a channel inside Hamas, which withdrew from Syria and several of whose officials took stances in opposition to al-Assad (in harmony with the Turkish and Qatari stances).

Thus, Iran sought to limit the damage that its regional status had begun to suffer, and it started to prepare for a total war in Iraq and Syria to defend and reinforce its dominance, while at the same time continuing its nuclear negotiations with the West.

Iran’s four fronts since 2012 

In the years 2012 and 2013, fighting escalated in Syria and Iraq, as expected, so did Iran’s direct and indirect roles in supporting its allies. Beginning in 2014, as a result of al-Baghdadi’s declaration of his Islamic Caliphate[23], its expansion in Syrian territories, and the additional advances made by his forces inside Iraq (taking control of Mosul and approaching Bagdad), the Iranian intervention in Iraq intensified, parallel to the American one. The United States’ aerial bombardment of “the Caliphate” forces seemed to be conducted with indirect coordination between Washington and Tehran, through the government of Bagdad.

In Syria, the dangers and threats to the al-Assad regime increased as a result of the progress of the opposition against it, while the regime’s own armed forces were increasingly consumed by major losses of its fighters, overextension, and desertion. The situation called for Iranian mobilization of additional fighters from its allies: the Lebanese Hezbollah, but also from the Iraqi Shiite militias (the brigades of Abu al-Fadhl al-‘Abbas, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Harakat al-Nujaba), and the Afghani militias (“Liwa’a Fattamiyoun” joined by youth from the Hazara people), in order to stem the tide of the opposition (receiving support from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia). In addition, Iran thought of investing in a new front in order to drain the resources of its regional adversaries and diminish their increasing pressure in Syria.  So when Yemen witnessed a failure of its political transition process (after the abdication of Ali Abdullah Saleh in late 2012), and a civil war began to rage between the transitional authorities and the Houthis (in an alliance of convenience with the abdicated Saleh[24]), Tehran found in its Houthi allies a power capable of worrying the Saudis on their southern borders and at the mouth of the Red Sea. All of this occurred months after the Iranian presidency was transferred from Ahmadinejad to Hassan Rouhani, and the nuclear negotiations with Washington and European capitals were resumed at the IAEA in Vienna. 

Developments accelerated on the various fronts in 2015. In Saudi Arabia, after the death of Abdullah the crown was passed on to his brother Salman in the first month of that year. King Salman and the hawks in his administration (led by his son, Prince Mohammad, the defense minister) decided to respond to the Iranian manipulation of the situation in Yemen and the threat which it posed to Saudi Arabia by launching airstrikes, beginning in March. After a few months, these military operations succeeded in putting a stop to the advances of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in Yemen and to the recovery of Aden and its strategic port. But the Saudi military operations did not succeed in inflicting a major defeat on them, as the Houthi-Saleh forces continued to maintain control over the north of the country (including the capital Sanaa) and part of the centre. 

In Syria, the armed opposition made significant progress in the north and south. The patch of territory controlled by al-Assad thanks to the aid of Iran, Hezbollah and other regional allied militias had shrunk to 20 percent of the Syrian territory. These developments drove al-Assad to announce in a press conference that his military no longer had sufficient human resources to fight on all fronts. 

In Iraq, the military forces subordinate to the Iraqi government, supported by the Shiite militia al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi (which in turn was supported by the Iranian government with the blessing of al-Sistani in al-Najaf), launched a counterattack on the Islamic Caliphate (ISIL) of Baghdadi, stopping its progress then dispelling it from some of the regions that it had occupied. The Kurdish Peshmerga in turn launched a counterattack on the “Caliphate” in the north of Iraq, stopping its progress toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

Throughout all these developments, the name of an officer in the “al-Quds” [Jerusalem] Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard began to circulate in Baghdad, Damascus, and Aleppo. He appeared in pictures and videos addressing the fighters allied with Iran on these fronts and urging them to sacrifice themselves and fight until victory. Some began to call him “the most powerful man” in the Middle East. The aforementioned officer, Qasem Soleimani, seemed disconnected from Iranian governmental institutions, the military, the ministry of foreign affairs, and even the presidency. Instead, he seemed to be connected almost exclusively to the Supreme leader Khamenei. 

However, several paradoxes began to emerge in the second half of 2015 and the first half of 2016, concerning the direct or indirect alliances and approaches of Iran on all its four fronts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen[25]. Militarily, if the Iranian support for the Iraqi government and al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi militia was transformed on the ground into stopping the advance of ISIL, this was also due to the American and Western warplanes that carried out thousands of airstrikes at Bagdad’s request. 

In Syria, Iranian support failed, despite the significant expansion in numbers mobilized via its regional allies, to arrest the collapse of the regime. It merely slowed it, and only reinforced the regime’s control over the capital Damascus and its suburbs. Requesting help from Russia became inescapable, since the American bombing of ISIL in Syria did not help as it did in Iraq, because the greatest threat to al-Assad was not posed by ISIL, but by the Syrian opposition, that was fighting both al-Assad and ISIL. Beginning 30 September 2015, Russia launched its military intervention in Syria[26]. This intervention allowed the Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghani Shiite forces loyal to Tehran under the leadership of Soleimani, to coordinate with what remained of the al-Assad military and the Syrian paramilitary trained to protect the regime and its forces, in order to recover some of the strategic areas that had been lost to the opposition in the two preceding years. In addition, it enabled the pro-regime forces to secure the regions surrounding the Syrian coast, and most of the areas along the Lebanese border[27].

In contrast, the situation in Yemen continued much as it was. The Houthi allies of Tehran did not succeed in retaking the initiative, remaining under Saudi fire from the skies. But the Iranians did achieve their major objective there, in terms of occupying and depleting the Saudis on their southern doorstep, transforming Yemen into a true quagmire for Saudi Arabia, in which Riyadh could neither win nor lose. This contributed, along with the decreasing warmth in the American-Saudi bilateral relationship and the start of American-Russian negotiations over Syria, to distancing Riyadh from the Syrian battleground as of March 2016, and as a result decreasing the Saudi threat to Iran there. 

In Lebanon, Iran through Hezbollah and its local allies succeeded in freezing the political situation, after the conclusion of the term of President Michel Suleiman. Hezbollah prevented the election of a new president while also preventing the collapse of a consensus caretaker government, which - most importantly to the Party - did nothing to obstruct its freedom of movement over the Lebanese-Syrian border. 

Diplomatically, the negotiations between Iran and Western powers over its nuclear program moved forward. Iran succeeded in improving its image in the western media when Rouhani and his team moderated their proposals, compared to positions adopted under the presidency of Ahmadinejad. Iran began to improve its economic relationship with Turkey, despite the indirect clashes between the two in Syria. Likewise, its relations with the new authorities in Egypt (that had overthrown the elected president Mohammed Morsi in a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in June 2013) evolved positively, offering room for manoeuvre and regional options for Egypt, and giving it some space from Saudi Arabia (which had supported the coup). 

In terms of the Iranian propaganda in regards to its foreign policy, a paradox emerged. Iran benefited from the emergence of ISIL, its caliphate and its barbaric practices (recorded and broadcasted around the world), and then by the terrorist attacks in European cities and in the United States of America. After long focusing on “Zionist and imperialist conspiracies” in Syria (and the Middle East), Iranian propaganda transitioned to focus through some of the old satellite channels and news media[28] on two things. First, Tehran and its allies began to pretend defending “religious diversity” in Levantine societies, in the context of the conflict against the “ISIL crimes”[29]. This had important repercussions in many Western circles, particularly after the atrocities committed by ISIL in Iraq against religious minorities. Second, Tehran and its allies exploited the negative image of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in most Western countries and therefore depicted their adversaries in the region as “Saudi agents”. By doing so, they aimed to dispense with all political and socio-economic reasons of Arab revolutions, especially in Syria.

Iranians, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias used, however, another propaganda for internal consumption and for the sake of mobilizing their troops. This propaganda was geared toward inciting sectarian enmities, talking for example about the Zaynabi reprisal against the Umayyads in Syria, or calling for  the revenge “of the Karbala martyrs” in Iraq[30]. 

On social media, one can find much Shiite and Sunni extremist propaganda invoking victimization in the past (in the case of the Shiite) or the present (in the case of the Sunni). They occasionally cite racist or nationalist arguments: talking, for instance, about the “primitive desert nomadism [al-badawah]” marking the policies of Saudi Arabia, or warning against “Neo-Safavids” and “Persian enemies” to describe Iranian policies.

Conclusion: What do the four fronts represent today for Iran? 

Amidst all these conflicts, how are things developing politically and militarily on Iran’s four fronts in May 2016? Things in Iraq seem to be heading toward a continuing battle between the Iraqi military and the al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi (both supported on the ground by Iran and in the air by America) on one hand, and ISIL on the other. In the meantime, the fighting continues between ISIL and the Kurdish Peshmerga as well. Iran counts on Iraq to be its backyard, strategic depth, and a significant economic partner for the future. It considers its victory there to be inevitable, if only slightly delayed, because of the demographic and sectarian composition of Iraq as a Shiite majority society. 

On the Syrian front, Iran faces a greater challenge. Unlike Iraq, its intervention does not rely on government or political forces with popular legitimacy or demographic sectarian weight. This is not only because of the lack of a Shiite bloc in Syria (as the Shia compose less than 1 percent of the population), but mainly because the Alawites (who constitute around 10 percent) on whom the Assad regime relies to recruit fighters are concentrated in the coastal region. The region where Russia has since September 2015 had the most prominent military presence, adding to its old naval base a modern airbase, an espionage network, and logistical services. Thus, in Syria, Russia is in a way a prospective competitor for Iran, though currently Moscow and Tehran hold an alliance. Likewise, Turkey has influence in the north of the country that is likely to expand, owing to Turkish security concerns over sharing direct borders with areas controlled by ISIL, and to Ankara’s fear of a Kurdish independence movement influenced by the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), close to the Kurds in the southeast of Turkey. Furthermore, Iran recognizes that it and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah are unable to deploy their forces in the Syrian south, where Israel carefully observes the conflict, and seeks for the situation to remain calm as it has been since 1974 on the borders of the occupied Golan Heights.

For all of these reasons, Tehran and its Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghani allies, are concentrated in the Damascus region and the areas bordering Lebanese territory, where they can not only deploy and fight, but also displace a share of the residents (Sunni Muslims) to change the demography and guarantee safe passages between Syria and Lebanon, which Hezbollah needs. 

In Lebanon, Iranian influence needs no exceptional efforts to be maintained. This is because its local ally Hezbollah possesses a surplus of political and military power, based upon the political alliance uniting most Shia (which altogether are a third of the population) with a large share of the Christians (also about a third)[31]. The vacuum in the presidency enabled the freedom of movement for Hezbollah’s fighters, who (despite their losses in Syria) have not lost their popularity in Lebanese Shiite circles from which they recruit, for reasons connected to the apprehension of the fighting shifting from Syria to Lebanon “if Hezbollah were not to prevent it by fighting abroad”[32]. And no doubt, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community[33] temporarily removed the possibility of a direct clash between Iran and Israel. This has made the south of Lebanon and the Lebanese-Israeli borders quiet and calm, despite the dangers of future tension[34]. 

Yemen has become more and more a source of anxiety for Saudi Arabia. If Iran does not foresee the necessity or the possibility of winning, it knows that Saudi Arabia will not win either, owing to Yemeni demographics and the overlap of a myriad of social and political factors in the current conflict. Above all, Yemen has turned into a Saudi quagmire (as it did for Nasser’s Egypt last century), worsening the Saudi’s negative global image in the process, owing to civilian casualties caused by its airstrikes, whether by mistake or as “collateral damage”.

Beyond the four fronts and their details, one can look at the map of the Middle East now and observe Iranian strong presence in a crescent stretching from Tehran via Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut to the Mediterranean and the borders of Israel. One can also see Iranian control over the Hormuz Strait at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and its ability to influence the Red Sea, linked to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (through the Suez Canal), via its allies in Yemen at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. By land and by sea, Iran has extended its reach by force throughout the region to try to impose its hegemony. All these attempts continue to raise fears in many Arab states. They consider Iran’s hegemonic drive as “Persian Imperialism”, feeding Sunni-Shia tensions and creating divisions throughout the Middle East. And this does not bode well for extended stability in the region.

Ziad Majed
The International Institute of Social History, Sadighi Annual Lectures (presented in Amsterdam in May 2016 and published in June 2017)

[1] The reading is based on political developments in the Middle East and on empirical facts involving Iran in those developments. It does not pretend any analysis of the foreign policy decision-making processes in Tehran and their mechanisms.
[2] Former foundational moments were three. The first, from 1915 to 1920, was marked by the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and the conferences following the World War I, which resulted in the treaties of Versailles and Sèvres establishing new borders in the Levant. The second moment took shape from 1947 to 1949 with the establishment of the state of Israel and its expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, which was followed by a series of Arab-Israeli wars and military coups in Arab countries, bringing officers to power in the shadow of the Cold War. The third moment began in 1973, the year of the last war between Arab states and Israel, and the year of Egypt’s withdrawal from the conflict and its transition away from the legacy of Nasserism. This moment had numerous implications, among them the ascendance of Palestinian nationalism and the growing role of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Among them also the beginning of the oil boom that gave the states of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, expansive influence in the region.
[3] By that time, in 1982, Israel already occupied parts of Lebanon. It would later partially withdraw, maintaining as of 1986 a southern territory under its control.
[4] Syrian president Hafez al-Assad had wanted to drain his Iraqi Baathist rival Saddam Hussein in the war with Iran, and also wanted to raise “his profile” among those in the West and in the Gulf - especially Saudi Arabia - by demonstrating his willingness to be an intermediary with the Iranians in all conflicts. By extension, he sought to blackmail the rest of the region to remain cooperative towards him lest he would completely embrace Tehran.
[5] Attacks on US and French military, embassies and western citizens in Lebanon (between 1982 and 1988) were attributed to Iranian security services, and seen as connected to the US-Iranian crisis and to Iranian retaliation to France’s selling of sophisticated weapons to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war.
[6] George W. Bush eventually identified Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002.
[7] Iran’s program had been initiated by the Shah with American support in 1957. Iran later signed (in 1968) the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The program ceased after the 1979 revolution when Washington and other western countries cut their support. It was resumed in the 1980s, and its slow development was followed by the International Agency for Nuclear Energy. The program expanded in the 1990s as a result of agreements with Russian companies, although its facilities were not officially inaugurated until the end of 2002.
[8] They evoked the quantities of enriched uranium and heavy water at Iran’s disposal, and considered them alarming.
[9] Numerous reports documented the presence of dozens of al-Qaeda officials and their families in Iran at the time. Many known names in the organization such as the Egyptian Saif al-Adel, the Syrian Yassin al-Souri, the Kuwaiti Mohsen al-Fadhli and Oussama bin Laden’s son Saad, were among them. According to NBC news, in 2003 Iranian and U.S. negotiators discussed the possible exchange of al Qaeda operatives in Iran with members of the People’s Mujahadin, an anti-Iranian regime organization that was based in Iraq since early 1980s. That “exchange”, however, did not concretize.
[10] This Iranian large influence in Iraq was seen by Saudi Arabia and many Gulf Cooperation Council members as a direct threat to their national sovereignty and to the balance of power in the region.
[11] Bouazizi was a street vendor who immolated himself to protest against his humiliation at the hands of Police officers.
[12] Ben Ali had been president since 1987. He seized the post from Bourgueba who presided from 1956 to 1987.
[13] Moubarek became president of Egypt in 1981, following the assassination of the former president Anwar Sadat. In 1970, he succeeded Nasser, who reached the presidency in 1954, following a military coup.
[14] The Bahraini royal family, Al-Kalifa, imposed its rule in Manama, with British support during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1971 Bahrain became independent, under the Al-Khalifa authoritarian government.
[15] Saleh became president of Northern Yemen in 1978 and of united Yemen in 1990.
[16] Ghaddafi overthrew the Libyan monarchy in 1969 in a military coup and declared himself the “Ultimate Leader” of the “Libyan Peoples Republic”.
[17] Al-Assad regime was built in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad seized power in a military coup and overthrew his former comrades (with whom he already orchestrated a previous coup in 1963, imposing the Baath party rule and the state of emergency in the country). All political rights and freedoms were suspended following the coup, and thousands of political opponents were killed or imprisoned throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died. Presidency passed to his son Bashar, who maintained the state of emergency in Syria and consolidated the family circle in power. He shared economic benefits and political privileges with his brother, three cousins and brother-in-law, who were all appointed along with other officers and notables of the Baath party and the military/security establishment to key posts in the State.
[18] That explains why the former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, as well as Mehdi Taeb (one of the close associates of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) stated that “Syria is the golden seal in the resistance” (Velayati), and that it is “the 35th Iranian province, and if we lose it, we would no longer be able to defend Tehran itself” (Taeb).
[19] Al-Baghdadi continued the distancing begun by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi from al-Qaeda. He declared the establishment of the “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2011, and his fighters progressed on the ground.
[20] These resignations meant that the cabinet no longer met the necessary sectarian quotas that are needed in the Lebanese confessional system.
[21] The party sent out its fighters in black shirts as a reminder of its capability to occupy Beirut as it did in 2008 when it toppled the government of Fouad al-Siniora, resulting in a settlement that gave it a larger share in the next government (before the Party and its allies lost the legislative elections one year later).
[22] A term used by Iran and Hezbollah to designate Sunni jihadists.
[23] The Caliphate attracted to its jihadist troops some of the notables of the deposed Baath regime, as well as a significant number of Iraqi army officers who had been expelled from their positions during the process of the American “de-Baathification” campaign. Additionally, the organization attracted Arab, European, and African jihadists who travelled via Syria or had moved from al-Qaeda in Iraq into the organizational ranks of the new self-declared state.
[24] With Saleh continuing to command the loyalty of a large segment of the Yemeni military, the Houthi and Saleh were united, after being enemies, because of their common desire to translate their military power into political power. The alliance also had to do with regionalism in Yemen, as both Saleh and the Houthi came from the north, in opposition to the south, which had sometimes made claims about separatism (related to the historic divisions between the two Yemeni states that existed for much of the second half of the 20th century). The Houthi-Saleh alliance had also to do with Yemeni sectarian divisions. The Houthi belong to the Zaydi sect, while the majority in the South is Sunni. Iran entered the Yemeni conflict by investing in its Houthi allies, supporting them materially and logistically by sea and air (especially after the Houthi had taken over the ports and airports by the end of 2014 and early 2015).
[25] This excludes Bahrain, where the regime succeeded in suffocating the opposition with the aid of Saudi Arabia primarily, without a significant Iranian response. This also excludes Gaza, where Iran’s ties are not, as we mentioned, the same since 2011, due to the repositioning of Hamas.
[26] The main reasons for the crucial Russian support to the al-Assad regime are the following. First, the Kremlin’s belief that the situation in Syria today offers Moscow the opportunity to return to its former status of a major player in the international arena. The Kremlin wishes to demonstrate that Washington and Europe need to consult with Russia and obtain her approval before acting. Second, coordination between the foreign policy of Russia and Syria has its own history since the days of the Soviet Union, as does Russian investment in Syria. Third, the sole Russian naval base in the Mediterranean is located in Tartous, on the Syrian coast. Fourth, Syria is one of the foremost clients of Russian munitions. Finally, there is a sectarian element involved, as the Russian Orthodox Church (which is firmly connected with the Kremlin) supports the Syrian regime, considering it the “protector of one of the largest Christian minorities in the East”. This supposition relies on apprehension toward the “Sunni majority surge” that could reach some of the Central Asian republics on the borders of Russia, or could even penetrate the Caucuses and the Russian republics with Sunni Muslim majorities, evoking in particular the not-so-distant and extremely bitter wars in Chechnya.
[27] The death toll in the Syrian conflict and the devastation of the country in addition to the refugee crisis caused mainly by al-Assad (and its allies) bombing campaigns against zones controlled by the opposition reached unprecedented levels in 2014, 2015 and 2016. More than 50% of the Syrian population (23 millions) was directly affected by the conflict.
[28] The Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite channel, the two Iranian TV channels al-Alam and Press TV, and the newly established al-Mayadeen satellite channel.
[29] They aimed through focusing on ISIL crimes at occulting all other crimes and massacres committed by the al-Assad regime and their other allies.
[30] This terminology and its metaphors bring in Shiite narratives related to the 7th century’s “discord” between Muslims, and to the assassination of Hussein (Ali’s son) and part of his family by the Umayyads (whose capital was Damascus) in the city of Karbala (in today’s Iraq) in 680 AD.
[31] This alliance lost in last elections against its Sunni, Druze and other Christian rivals. It succeeded nevertheless in paralyzing state institutions and in imposing a “Syria policy” on Lebanon. Its hostility to Saudi Arabia was met with a decision from the GCC countries (with Oman’s exception) in March 2016 to classify Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.
[32] Hezbollah’s propaganda repeating this argument proved efficient, as most Lebanese Shia and many Christians adopted it too.
[33] The deal that was reached in late 2015 was a compromise imposing limitations on the Iranian nuclear program, international supervision on all its facilities, and the lifting of certain economic sanctions against Iran linked to its previous noncompliance with international requests.
[34] Israeli reports have proliferated regarding the building of an arsenal of Hezbollah rockets and its violation of the agreements reached after the July 2006 war. The Israeli media periodically carry the threats by Israeli politicians to bomb Lebanon back to the Stone Age in any future wars. Hezbollah responds by threatening to bomb all of Israel with its reprisal capabilities.