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Based on the analysis of Dennis Nilsen, Independent Political Analyst and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University and Northern Virginia Community College, Washington, DC
In the time of pre-Islamic Persian Empire, the capitals of its ruling Achaemenid kings – the cities of Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana – all sat astride the great Royal Highway, built by Darius the Great in the Fourth Century BC and which connected the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea, bridging East and West and promoting interregional trade and movement of people. The heartland of the Persian people, now governed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, continues to extract an international interest and is one of the few countries over which the Great Powers of the world continue to divide themselves. Of the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council, the United States, Great Britain and France continually oppose its policies while Russia and China habitually support it.
Internationally, Iran stands far behind the G20 countries, with a small and relatively underdeveloped economy and with a population of nearly 80 million out of the group’s 4.5 billion. However, when considered regionally, Iran’s position enlarges significantly. Of its neighbors, it holds the lead geographically and population-wise. Militarily it possesses a multi-layered defensive network capable of launching retaliatory missile strikes and, in case of invasion, forcing any attacker to pay heavily to capture territory. The Middle East and Persian Gulf is a region where two oppositional power groups have their front line: the USA/Israeli/Saudi/Gulf State alignment and the Iranian/Syrian/Russian/Hezbollah alignment.
Of these countries Iran and Israel form the core members around which the others have gathered, with the Zionist State holding the region hostage with its nuclear arsenal and the Islamic Republic holding the Sword of Damocles over the Strait of Hormuz by means of its short-range anti-ship missile arsenal.
Iran professes a defensive military posture and has proclaimed since 1979 a regional foreign policy goal of defending oppressed Shia groups and advancing Muslim interests in general. Although relatively contained in the first decades of its existence by a US- and Israeli-backed Baathist Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 placed the initiative in the hands of Tehran and has seen the steady advance of its interests in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, all with the goal of pushing back what it sees to be the existential threat of the US-Israeli alliance. To this end, it makes use of indirect warfare on behalf of and high-level advisement to the leadership of both countries.
Beginning in 2003, Iran started to arm and direct the opposition to the American invasion of Iraq and has now succeeded in forming several interstate economic and security agreements with Baghdad. Its greatest aid to Iraq was the formation of Shiite militias to halt the advance of Daesh in the summer of 2014, filling the gap left by
the massive disintegration of the American-trained Iraqi Army. Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi both publicly relied upon the successive administrations of Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani to combat Baathist and Islamist insurgencies and, despite a lingering American presence in the form of advisors, Tehran has become the dominant security partner of Iraq. Despite the ethnic difference between Arab and Persian, the two countries are bound by the ties of Shia Islam and will rely upon the other to oppose any such resurgence to challenge their popularly-based Muslim constitutional regimes.
In 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon, at Ayatollah Khomeini’s direction the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami (“Corps of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”) formed Hezbollah and since that time has been the chief supplier of weapons and training to the Lebanese Opposition to Israel. Whereas relations with Iraq do not affect the basis of the Islamic Republic’s constitutional order, its opposition to the existence of the State of Israel as it currently stands does. Because of the perception in Tehran that the US and Israel (along with United Kingdom) seek to topple its government and force a regime change – an interference in internal affairs reminiscent of the coup of 1953 against the government of Mohammad Mossadegh – both Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei have consistently supported Hezbollah in order to maintain a battlefront at Israel’s doorstep, thus forcing a heightened militarization of Israeli society and an eternal vigilance upon its northern border. The 2006 Lebanon-Israel War discovered to Tehran the weakness of the Zionist’s military tactics against entrenched Hezbollah soldiers, dedicated with religious zeal to the prevention of a repeat of an Israel occupation of their country.
Similar to its policies in both of the other two countries, Iran’s involvement in the Syrian War has been crucial in maintaining an element in its arc of allies; just as Baghdad and Beirut fall with greater or lesser resolve in the bloc oppositional to the American and Israeli attempt at hegemony and the creation of regimes subservient to their interests, the survival of the Syrian Government against a host of mainly Islamist rebels has meant a continuance of a decades-long Iranian ally and the maintenance of a land-route through to Lebanon. As with Iraq and Lebanon, the Sepah has heavily engaged itself, placing at Damascus’ disposal not only cadres of dedicated and experience advisors but also organic units of the Sepah itself as well as units of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. Consequent upon the reversal of fortunes in favor of Damascus, Iran has reportedly begun constructing permanent military bases and even missile-assembly factories to that much better continually supply Hezbollah with ever more precise missiles to counter the overwhelming Israeli military capability.
The instrument most crucial to a settled state of affairs in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was crafted in order to solve the opposition of the Western powers and Israel to Iran’s domestic nuclear program. Signed in 2015, it stands as a watershed in regional diplomacy, but its steady rejection by the Trump Administration has meant that it lacks the full strength it was meant to possess; the regime of economic sanctions by the United States against the Islamic Republic still stands and has even increased in scope and severity, despite the assurances of the International Atomic Energy Association that Iran has carried out its responsibilities. Ever since his election campaign, Donald Trump has claimed the JCPOA to have been the ‘worst deal ever made’ but has given no real specifics about what is lacking or how it be improved. Despite their disapproval of the Iranian constitutional regime, France, Great Britain and Germany continue to stand behind the agreement as the only reasonable measure to defuse the decades-long animus between the US and Iran; Russia and China for their part do not officially judge between good and bad regimes and so stand behind the deal all the same.
In addition to opposition, the Trump Administration has also claimed that the ballistic missile program which forms a permanent aspect of Iran’s defensive arsenal is in violation of the United Nation’s resolution which implemented the JCPOA. Due to its ambiguity – helpful to the Iranians and distasteful to the United States – the Iranians have recently made major improvements to the precision of their weaponry as seen from numerous tests in the last two years and in the operational missile strike against Daesh positions in Deir-ez-Zor in 2017. Whereas President Hassan Rouhani gladly stands behind the JCPOA, he has stoutly refused to consider his country’s ballistic missile program as having any bearing upon its implementation; both he and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif continually state that the missile program is defensive in nature, that in the place of a nuclear weapon (prohibited by a fatwa of Ayatollah Khamenei) the missile arsenal is the only way to deter an attack. During the War of the Holy Defense, Saddam Hussein launched missile strikes on Tehran and other Iranian cities causing massive human casualties and extensive structural damage; to prevent a reoccurrence from either the US or Israel – the two most likely candidates to carry out a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities – missile development goes ahead.
Despite the unilateral actions regularly committed by the United States and Israel, Iran stands – along with Russia – as an example of international legality when acting in foreign countries. Since the beginning of the Islamist revolt against the Syrian Government, the Iranians have aided the latter in manifold way, but only at the request of President Bashar al-Assad. Contrary to their regional adversaries, the Iranians wait upon their neighbors for a proper invitation.
As mentioned before, the post-2003 world of the Middle East has witnessed Iranian intervention in Iraq and Syria, but only at the request of those respective governments. Due to shared regional history, shared religion and their expertise in prosecuting irregular warfare, the Iran stands out among Middle Eastern countries in its ability to advise, train, direct and supply units modelled after their own Sepah and Basij.
The key to the success of these foreign missions is the aforementioned Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, the “Corps of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” often mistranslated in the West as the “Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.” The Sepah is the voluntary army created and dedicated to the defense of the revolutionary order founded by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Headed by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the 120,000-strong force consists of land, air, sea and aerospace branches dedicated to the territorial defense of the Islamic Republic and to preventing the subversion of it society by outside influences considered harmful by the leadership. As opposed to the conventional Iranian Armed Forces, the Sepah train to carry out irregular warfare. Due to the subversive and irregular style of combat in which the Syrian rebels and Daesh engage, it was quite natural for the Iraqi and Syrian Governments to petition the Iranians to send Sepah units to advise their conventional militaries and to found units patterned after the Sepah in organization and tactics. In Iraq the Popular Mobilization Units are largely Shiite and a large component of these have pledged allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei. In Syria, the Sepah helped to reorganized and train local militias already formed by the Syrian Arab Army and, as the need for manpower increased, transported units of their Iraqi militias to fight in Syria. The Syrians formed an umbrella group for all of these militias called the National Defense Forces, specifically modelled after the Basij militia in Iran, a voluntary paramilitary formation dedicated to civil defense and the prevention of foreign infiltration into Iranian society. The NDF now numbers anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 members and has recently volunteered to fight the Turkish Army in Afrin.
As can be seen from the examples given, the Iranian foreign missions in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria have been highly successful due mainly to the expertise of the Sepah personnel sent and their intimate knowledge of irregular warfare.
All of these developments have been met with displeasure by Israel, Iran’s main regional antagonist. Due to the precarious beginnings of their state and the continued occupation of foreign land in contravention to international law, the Israelis have had to rely upon the United States as a diplomatic guarantor at the United Nations and a military supplier. The opposition between the Zionist State and the Islamic Republic are ideological, each state possessing a religious identity and existing with a purpose beyond the abundance of material goods and individual rights prized by the West. Despite the recurring slogan of ‘Down with Israel’ (a closer translation of the famous Marg bar Israel than the usual ‘Death to Israel’ which appears in the Western press), the Iranians do not actively seek the destruction of the State of Israel but rather the cancellation of its provocative and unjust behaviors: the occupation of most of the West Bank, of the Golan Heights and of East Jerusalem/Al-Quds, and permitting religiously-motivated settlers to continue to build compounds in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Conversely, Israel wants Iran to stop its armament program to Hezbollah and has made it a practice to cross into foreign airspace, usually that of Syria, to attack what it believes to be convoys laden with military hardware and destined for Lebanon. The mutual suspicion between Israel and Iran locally takes shape at Israel’s northern border, across which Hezbollah with the permission of the Lebanese Government has created a multi-layered defensive network consisting of anti-tank and anti-infantry obstacles along with an interconnected bunker system. Behind these ground defenses lays the missile arsenal, kept up to date by Iran and a cause of grave anxiety in Israel. Iranian-Lebanese relations are more friendly than not, although the old fault lines from the Lebanese Civil War still exist with nearly all Shia Muslims supporting Iran and most Sunni Muslims and Christians opposing it. Despite this state of opinions, Lebanon has welcomes Iranian overtures to come to its aid but keeps at a respectful distance due to fear of the US. Be that as it may, it is widely accepted that Hezbollah can protect Lebanon from another Israeli invasion whereas the Lebanese Army cannot, and so the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran continues.
The overall estimation of Iran’s position in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region depends upon its domestic strength and the success of its regional foreign policy. For the past decade, despite an opposition movement to the Islamic constitutional system which turned violent in 2009, Iran has remained politically and socially peaceful, displaying more openness in civil society than nearly all of its regional neighbors. Hassan Rouhani, the widely reelected President of Iran, despite being touted as a reformer in the Western media, is actually fairly conservative, having just recently affirmed his close cooperation with the Sepah and thus the religiously-based order of Iranian society. Willing to promote economic reforms to alleviate the stress of unemployment, and willing to continue to abide by the JCPOA if the co-signees do likewise, he has stopped short of giving in to Iran’s adversaries when it comes to national defense and has refused to hear any talk of curbing the ballistic missile program. Regionally, the invitation given by its allies Syria, Iraq and (in a passive manner) Lebanon have allowed Iran to greatly expand its soft-power influence against the US/Israel bloc, thus giving what it perceives to be a needed security buffer against the continual efforts of its enemies to overtly or covertly force regime change; this soft-power influence also protects Shia populations it considers vulnerable to Western attack or bad influence. The ties of political, civil and religious culture have allowed the Iranians to advance strong ties with the Iraqis and Syrians, and the brotherhood forged in the fight against Daesh and the other militant groups continue to mean an advancement of Iranian interests regionally. While the defense budget of Iran is dwarfed by those of the United States and Israel, its expertise in asymmetrical warfare combined with its tactical use of advisors and diplomacy have seen Iran advance its regional standing since 2003 to the great consternation of its archenemy Israel and its patron the United States.