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Iran’s gamble, is it paying off?

How long can Iran expect to succeed in its plans to dominate the Middle East, asks Salah Nasrawi

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 26 Sep 2019
Iran’s gamble is paying off
Rouhani watches a military parade
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Worn down by eight years of fighting with the Iraqi army and the incredibly high toll this was taking in lives lost, Iran’s revolutionary government accepted an UN-brokered ceasefire in July 1988 that ended one of the bloodiest wars in the Middle East.

The Islamic Republic’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had repeatedly rejected attempts to negotiate an end to the hostilities with Iraq and insisted on regime change first, likened accepting the peace deal to drinking from a “poisoned chalice.”

The ceasefire came after a series of bloody battles in spring 1988 in which the Iraqi army defeated Iranian forces inside Iraq and pushed remaining Iranian troops back across the border.

Though Iraq came out of the Iran-Iraq War bruised and exhausted, Khomeini’s acceptance of the UN ceasefire was seen as a major setback for him and his vision of the Iranian Revolution spreading to other Middle Eastern countries.

The post-1988 regional order and the subsequent conflicts in the Gulf were to a large degree a product of that war and its long shadow, one that is still hanging over what is increasingly becoming the “Iranian Question” at the heart of the Middle East.

As Iran commemorated the 1980-1988 War with pompous rhetoric and military parades this week, the dynamics of the Islamic Republic’s politics and military were thrust into the international limelight as tensions soared between Tehran and Washington.

Over all these years, while Iranian leaders have spared no efforts in continually keeping the memory of the conflict in the public consciousness, they have also tried to keep the war as a defining period in the country’s modern history.

Most importantly, the way in which Iran remembers and interprets the war that began when former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 has been central to the development of its strategic political and military doctrines.

Iran has tried to learn the lessons of the War in order to avoid further national humiliation and to pursue its expansionist policies based on a new brand of religious nationalism created by the war.

Three decades after the war with Iraq, Iran has risen from a pariah state to a regional superpower with extensive nuclear and missile programmes, increasing militarisation, and a steady reach across the Middle East through a vast network of proxies.

In an increasingly fractious regional landscape, Iran is seeking to gain advantages, extend its own power, diminish that of its rivals and roll back US influence in the Middle East.

The assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure on 14 September also highlighted the “Iranian Question” and the nature of Iran’s strategy and ambitions in the region.

Strong US and Saudi government statements have squarely blamed Iran for the strikes on the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, though they have provided no concrete evidence and even though the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have already claimed responsibility for the strikes.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the attacks on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, knocking out half its production, as an “act of war.” The Pentagon announced it would send additional troops to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in response to the raids, raising the risk of a wider conflict in the volatile region.

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned of “all-out war” should Iran be attacked in retaliation for the missile strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry.

Head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Hussein Salami threatened that even “a limited” war with Iran “will not remain limited.”

The attacks, the most significant strikes on Gulf energy targets in decades, have raised questions about Iran’s strategic goals as the Islamic Republic emerges as the dominant power in the Middle East.

Iran’s intentions have always been difficult to fathom given the factors influencing its strategic choices that include the religion, nationalism, history and culture that are baked into Iran’s state philosophy. In addition, there is the wide spectrum of players within Iran’s political and security establishment that influences its foreign policy.

Iran is continuing its military growth and has recorded an impressive number of conventional military hardware developments by way of indigenous industry and arms deals, including an arsenal of missiles, tanks, drones and more.

Iran has also extended its influence across the region and is currently actively supporting proxies in major conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Tehran also has a strategic relationship with Hamas and other groups in the Palestinian Territories. Its cultural influence is evident among Shia populations in many parts of the region.

However absurd it may look, one of Iran’s points of strength lies in its rivals’ weaknesses. Saudi Arabia and other key Arab Sunni states have failed to devise a long-term strategy that can confront Iran’s sustained efforts at regional hegemony either by destroying its main pillars of strength or by integrating Iran into a regional structure on terms acceptable to the Arabs.

Instead, the Arab countries in the Gulf have pivoted to the United States and other Western countries and have relied on them to fight their battles with Iran. Though these powers have adopted the posture of strong allies to the Gulf countries, their strategies and goals may differ from those of their Arab allies.

In many cases, the Western countries’ strategies and actions have benefited Iran and helped it consolidate its regional power, as it has done in the present crisis by exploiting US President Donald Trump’s dithering and confusion.

In 2003, Iran was the only victor in the US-led invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam, according to the conclusions of a massive historical study released last year by the US Army War College. This victory has helped the Islamic Republic to extend its influence across the Middle East.

It is expected, therefore, that the Iranian leaders will feel emboldened, because they see their Arab neighbours as weak and the latter’s American allies as self-centred and full of bluster and bluff.

Yet, this latest phase in the Iran crisis also raises the important question of what Iran really wants and whether its gamble on forcing its rivals to accept the regional status quo that it is trying to create is working.

What Iran is doing is to compel its competitors to submit to its de facto regional power and to accept its influence and physical presence in the Middle East and Gulf regions and their sea corridors.

This “Strategy of Compellence” is replacing Iran’s former strategy of a mixture of “forbearance and deterrence,” which it has used since the end of the Iran-Iraq War to protect itself and to continue the major military build-up to transform itself into a key regional player.

While Iran continues its military build-up by seeking non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them, this new proactive strategy involves support for non-state actors and the organisation of “resistance” and “rejection” proxy armies as well as increased activism in foreign policy.

The big question now is what is in Iranian leaders’ mind? There are many possibilities that they may pursue to keep testing the US and its Arab foes’ resolve without expecting major consequences.

As the Iranian leaders upped their threats of “all-out war” following the Saudi Arabian attacks, triumphalism is becoming entrenched at the heart of Iran’s imagination of the new Middle East in which it plans to play a leading role in regional security.

This strategy cannot hide two dangerous trends, however: the shaking up of the long-established regional order and the boosting of Iran’s regional role at the expense of its Arab neighbours. 

As this writer has repeatedly argued, the Arabs and Persian Iran have routinely experienced “cycles of conflicts” throughout their long and troubled history, and this one is no exception. The anatomy of this phase of struggle fits with those of the past and is a struggle for control and influence over the region.

Strikingly, some Iranian officials do not shrink from an explicitly imperialist approach when advocating their country’s regional policies. 

However, most worrying today is that Shia Iran is taking advantage of the strategic void in the Gulf in order to accumulate power and possibly to build its vaunted “ideological empire” in the midst of the Arab Sunni-dominated region.

Yet, if history teaches us one lesson, it is that almost all attempts to build empires in the span of human history have ended in decline, no matter how long they lasted and how vast the territory they captured or controlled.

The last of such “ideological empires,” and probably the most famous, was that of Nazi Germany, which ruled over most of Europe. However, after just a few years, this empire had not only been comprehensively defeated, but also safely buried.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title Iran’s gamble is paying off

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