Iran – Geopolitical Phantasm
With swift changes in geopolitics caused by the shuffling of ‘interests’ and opportunities, foreign policy has become more unpredictable and the ideological standings of nations is often blurred by the smudging effect of survival-ism in the global competitive market. In this context Iran’s foreign policy and its standing in the global front is particularly enigmatic and presents empuzzlement for the observer.
Perhaps the reason behind the complexity in Iran’s foreign policy is the historical lesson it learnt from being a victim of the Great Game, wherein it had to balance its existence between the intrigues and attacks from both the Russians and the British. Though Persia never became a colony of either the Russians or the British in the literal sense but Russian and British envoys in the Persian Court dictated a lot that the Shahs would do. The Great Game subsided with the World Wars, and Britain was able to bring the Pehlevi’s to power, ensuring maximum profits from Persian oil.
All was well until Imam Khomeini returned to Iran, bringing the Islamic Revolution and ousting the British Oil Company in 1979. This Shia-bound Islamic Revolution instantly became a threat to the Sunni world. Immediate neighbor Iraq, with almost an equal Shia/Sunni population, saw itself as particularly vulnerable, hence the Iran-Iraq war.
The Iran-Iraq War ended in stalemate, but in this time Iran’s revolutionary ideal was systematically spread throughout the Shia world, creating secret alliances with major Shia groups living in Sunni majority states – setting the stage for potential Shia/Sunni rift in previously peacefully co-existing communities. The more the Iranians made way into Shia communities, the more the Peninsular Arabs were infuriated. Hezbollah was created in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, making the feat of nothing less than the abduction of the Palestinian Issue which hitherto belonged only to the Arabs. With the Arab Spring, 2011, this fear of the Arabs turned into a political reality in three places, in Yemen where the Houthis, after Saleh’s ousting stood for power, claiming inheritance of the late Shia Imamate that had ruled Yemen for centuries. In Bahrain, where Shia protestors sat for over a month at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, just like Egyptians had done at the Tahrir Square. And thirdly in Syria, where the despised Alawite rule of Bashar al Assad was seen by the Arabs as a seizure of the political rights of the Sunni majority of the country.
Why does Iran have to support Shia communities and regimes outside its territories – is it the avarice of expansionism or is it a necessity for its survival?
The power of revolution had its genesis in Khomeini-style self-righteousness that claimed resurrection of a true Islam to be Persia’s burden alone. Khomeini rejected Zionism, Capitalism and Communism in one stroke, this at a time when most nations, after their newly-gained freedoms, were drawn into the Cold War, having to choose between one of the latter two. The strength of this narrative made Iran a leader of all Shias around the world and the Iran-model came to be venerated by many in the Islamic World. Though Khomeinism has remained the prevailing character of Iran to this day but to negate both Communist and Capitalist camps proved to be a farce, as the Iran-Iraq War and later US-led sanctions drove Iran towards Russia and China, who traded with it in oil, arms and basic commodities at its time of isolation. More recently China’s launching of the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) makes it immune to US-led sanctions on Iran.
Perhaps it would be right to conclude then, that Iran’s foreign policy, though opportunistic and intrusive, has been neatly played by them. Iran, being a sole flag-bearer of Shia Islam, has for once shown its ability to lead and change the page of history to its liking. Yet, Iran might just be making the wrong move now by playing the same foul game of proxies on the Sunnis – the game that is being defeated presently and that has failed humanity bitterly.
The geographical instability that this staunch Khomeinism has generated starts from the north of Afghanistan, over which Persians lay historical claim to, pinning on the great Afsharid dynasty, and which going through Syria and Lebanon connects to Yemen. And by the elimination of Saddam the loop has now become uninterrupted. This arch of assertiveness creates instability in two ways – due to Iran/Russian alliance, it has pushed the Russian influence down to the heartland of Asia, making Russian resurgence as a global power a daunting possibility. And secondly, it makes Shia Islam a political reality that is seemingly entrenching closer and closer to the Sunni Arab world on its southwest – and to its east, by playing its part in destabilizing the Sunni block of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir by incursions in the Afghanistan issue.
The puzzle however, lies in the difficult question of the actual relations between Iran and the US and Israel. If you look at the bigger chessboard, Israel’s immediate enemies are the Sunni Arab states that surround it and Israel has only survived thus far by breaking down Arab unity against it and by ensuring inclination of the Saudis, the Jordanians and the Egyptians towards the US camp with the passage of the decades – so for the Israelis, to have Iran as a strong enemy of the Sunni Arabs is a plus that would prevent them from reuniting against Israel and more so remain engaged in own wars. Russia was also an ally of Israel from the onset – in the 1948 Israel-Palestine War, Golda Meir met Stalin in Moscow, who provided a secure supply of arms from Eastern European States to Israel during the war. But Russia had to change its stance in the Cold War and because a strong Islamic World in the heartland was never admissible for Russia either, who had fought as many wars with the Ottomans as had the Europeans. So the Russian might have thought it feasible to engage with the Shias, who were at its side of the fault line as opposed to the Sunnis.
Another anomaly came up in the Iran-Iraq War. Though the US was outwardly all allied to Iraq in the war but undercover the US arranged for National Security Council staffer Oliver North to make deals with Iranian arms broker Manucher Ghorbanifar, out of which one of the deal of 2500 TOW missiles and 250 Hawks to be delivered to Iran came to the surface (famously known as Contra –Affair). At the same time British MI6 tied up with Iranian born Jamshid Hashemi, for illicit arms trade to Iran – British-made motorboats, reinforced to carry heavy machine guns were exported to Iran via Greece. Most of all, Israel, that was outspokenly bashed by Khomeini as the ‘nucleus of evil’, made the “Jews for arms” deal with Iran in Paris, wherein Jews would be allowed to emigrate in return for spare parts for Chieftain Tanks and F-4 Phantom aircraft. The London Observer estimated that Israel’s arms sales to Iran total $500 million annually, which would make an estimate of $4.5billion in the 9years war. All this means that both Cold War camps wanted the destruction of both Iran and Iraq and a prolonged war.
Same such situation was repeated in the US Invasion of Iraq. Whereas US pres. Bush was declaring Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ in his State of the Union address, in 2002, he had arranged for Nouri al-Maliki’s return to Iraq as early as in 2003. Al Maliki was head of the same Khomeini-backed Shia ‘Islamic Dawa Party’ that Saddam had outlawed in the wake of Shia uprisings against the state and because of whose activities Saddam feared the Revolution could soon penetrate into his land. When exiled from Iraq by Saddam, al-Maliki was guest of Damascus and Tehran, and after the fall of Saddam, al-Maliki was made the deputy leader of the Supreme National Debaathification Commission of the Iraqi Interim Government. Later in 2006, he was chosen by the CIA and by the al-Quds Force as premier of Iraq. The result was obvious, the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad was largely Shia and had close ties with Iran. So if Iran was such an enemy to the US and Israel, why did they give Baghdad to the Shias in a silver platter?
The Saudis and the Gulf Arabs had sided the US in its whole War on Terror that had swept Afghanistan and Iraq in its sway. It is comprehensible that the Peninsular Arabs, who clearly dreaded the Shia threat, had an understanding with the US that it would restore Iraq and Syria into the Saudi camp and clearly they were double-played in this regard by the US. When the Iraqi chaos stepped into Syria in the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the Saudis were assured Assad’s ousting in return for their full support. In 2005, the Judicialwatch.org released a declassified document of the DOD (US Dept. of Defense), which states clearly how the DOD understood that the situation in Syria, after the so-called Arab Spring, was ‘taking a clear sectarian direction’ and that ‘the Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood and AQI (were) major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’ and predicted that the ‘regime will survive’ but ‘only in the coastal area’. The report said that ‘the West, the Gulf States and Turkey support the opposition forces…’ and expected that ‘ISIS could also declare an Islamic State… in Iraq and Syria…’ Which means that according to the original plan Iraq and Syria would be balkanized, perhaps with compromising Baghdad to the Iranians and some coastal Syrian cities to Assad.
But to the disappointment of the Arabs that plan could not come to fruition and the Russians and the Iranians used the gaps to strengthen in both Iraq and Syria. One possible enigma is, did the US purposely allow irreversible Shia influence in Baghdad or did Iran penetrate at its own. Plausibly, the deal would have been to let the US invade Iraq, without an interference from Russia and Iran and later they would share some of the fruits. But as opposed to US predictions, Iran and Russia changed stance and opted for the full pie. After Russian military intervention in Syria, and Iran’s Al Quds Forces dominating war fronts in Iraq, an embarrassing retreat became more and more probable for the US. Hence the US called for negotiations with Iran under the cover of a Nuclear Deal. In fact it seems that behind the long endeavor to reach the Nuclear Deal with Iran that was concluded in March of 2015, the actual offer may have been for Iran to take Iraq and leave Syria for the Arabs – which the Iranians refused.
Considering that in both ways the Middle East was getting weaker and Israel stronger and all the brunt of the war was being taken by the people of Iraq and Syria, while the US or any of its allies were never a war zone, the US could count itself a winner – but for two reasons. US retreat would mean Russian advance –and the US would risk losing their long-cherished friends in the Saudis and Gulf States. For these reasons there is the probability of US/Arab resurgence in Syria. Although this does not mean at all that backdoor diplomacy with Iran had ever ceased, for instance, a delivery of a fleet of American-made Boeing airliners worth $22 Bn is shortly expected in Iran.
For the Peninsular Arabs, losing both Syria and Iraq would leave them in a much worst situation in the region in terms of influence than the previous status quo. And once strongly place in both Iraq and Syria, Iran would make sure not to lose the Houthi in Yemen. Arms and aid from a stronger position would mean a prolonged war with the Saudis, if not victory.
But the question is, how does Iran think that it could secure strongholds all over the Sunni-majority world and hold them for long? Such an idealistic thinking is surely not sustainable, unless Iran aims to suppress Sunni majorities in such areas or try to change their demographics, something that is probably happening right now in Iraq. The truth is, as of now, everyone has played dirty in making the whole Islamic world unstable. If the Saudis and the Gulf States sow the seeds of Al Qaida in one Muslim state after the other, it was the US, the British and European allies that watered this seed with arms, training, funds and recruits from all over – it was an Arab gun that the West was firing.
The Sunni World stands with the Arabs’ anti-Iran stance because of the intrusive pattern Iran has shown in Sunni states, making the Shia threat a real one for them. But if the Arabs thought that by reshuffling the Muslim world they would succeed to tilt the Shia/Sunni equation to their side, they have been proven wrong. The solution of all this mess however is not more wars, devastation of life and property and genocide – nor is it a right approach by the Peninsular Arabs to call in the Western Allies to do the job for them. War has only brought more lose to the Sunnis than to anyone else in the whole episode. Therefore a just and lasting solution has to be a minus-US one, one owned by the Arabs and the Sunnis in general, one that looks just, that looks like the Sunnis want peace and prosperity of their Shia population more than Iran would ever possibly be capable of. The solution for both Shia Iran and the Sunni World lies in unity, because a stable prospering Muslim heartland is just as well not in the interest of Russia as it is not for US and Israel. The simple geostrategic lesson would be that ‘we have been played with’ and that this can continue forever if we chose not to co-exist.
Perhaps it would be right to conclude then, that Iran’s foreign policy, though opportunistic and intrusive, has been neatly played by them. Iran, being a sole flag-bearer of Shia Islam, has for once shown its ability to lead and change the page of history to its liking. Yet, Iran might just be making the wrong move now by playing the same foul game of proxies on the Sunnis – the game that is being defeated presently and that has failed humanity bitterly. In such a game, neither of the one seems to be the ultimate winner, and perhaps all of us will come out as losers!
(The article also appeared on gtab.net)
The writer is a geopolitical analyst. She tweets at @aneelashahzad
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oracle Opinions.