Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Iran last Sunday tested its first ever long-range missile defence system, known as Bavar 373 (“the faith”), which is expected to be fully functional by March next year, complementing the country’s already existing S-300 Russian-made system, designed to defend against aircraft and missiles. All of this clearly is part of a decades-long campaign by the Islamic Republic of Iran to assert a dominant power profile in the region.
First, let’s rewind to March 20, 2003.
Never mind that America’s decision to invade Iraq at the time, putatively in pursuit of “regime-change” and “nation-building”, now appears to have been, in the cold light of hindsight, tragically myopic. And never mind that the number of countries in the third world that the US has succeeded in transforming under either rubric tallies to zero. Consider instead the unintended consequences of that policy in our part of the world: The rise of Iran’s arc of ethno-sectarian influence, that today runs, beyond its borders, from the Euphrates River all the way to the Mediterranean Sea — influence made all the more secure through land routes across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that Tehran’s proxies have conquered.
When, for example, Iraq’s Defence Minister Irfan Al Hayali, leading a delegation, recently visited the Iranian capital to sign a memorandum of understanding with his Iranian counterpart, in which a “wide range” of military cooperation between the two neighbouring countries was agreed upon, no one raised an eyebrow. Iran has not only long since established warm ties with Iraq, it has a firm foothold there — and not just figuratively.
Iran’s reach in Iraq runs deep and appears to be there to stay. In the campaign against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Mosul, for example, Iraq’s paramilitary groups, such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, whose cadres are known to have multiple loyalties, have received military supplies and tactical support directly from Iran. To be sure, Iran’s influence in Iraq is pervasive, projected as it is not just militarily, but politically, economically and culturally.
“At some border points in the south, Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought”, wrote New York Times correspondent Tim Arango in July 15. “Busloads of young military recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and then are flown to Syria, where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defence of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Passing in the other direction, truck drivers dump Iranian products on what has become a vital and captive market”.
Elsewhere in Iraq, supermarkets are filled with goods from Iran; Iraqi television stations are replete with broadcasts sympathetic to Iran; new high-rise buildings are constructed from imported Iranian cement; and parliamentarians, along with cabinet ministers, openly pay tribute to Iran, portraying it — just as Iran prefers to portray itself — as Iraq’s defender, friend and strategic ally.
Meanwhile, you cannot overstate Iran’s influence in Syria — at one time long known throughout the Arab world as “the beating heart of Arab nationalism” — where Iran, along with its Hezbollah proxies, has been, since the 2011 uprising, the principal backer of the regime in Damascus, and in fact its saviour. Let’s face it, the war in Syria is about to end with Al Assad still in power. And how could this man, indebted to Tehran for his survival, not feel answerable to that country’s rulers, who will soon be wanting to cash in their chips?
The long and short of it is that you make a pact with the devil, and later you will find that the same devil is lurking around the corner, waiting for his fee to be paid. And that fee will translate, politically, into Al Assad’s regime setting its foreign policy in response to Tehran’s dictates (yes, I think that’s the right term to use here) and, economically, into diverting reconstruction projects into “the helping hand” of Iranians.
Nor can the long reach of Iran in Lebanon be overstated either. There it is the most influential external player. Beyond its support for Hezbollah, Tehran has used myriad “soft power” tactics to dominate, including the sponsorship of cultural, religious and economic programmes, with an eye to implementing its broader expansionist agenda in the region, all the while using Hezbollah as a springboard.
And that, in fact, was one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia last year suspended its $4 billion (Dh14.71 billion) security aid package in frustration over Hezbollah’s growing control over virtually all aspects of the country’s affairs. Hezbollah’s control is so penetrative that when Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions were attacked in Iran in January that same year, and the kingdom demanded that the Arab League condemn the attacks, only Lebanon objected. The message was clear: Lebanon had got so immobilised under the grip of Hezbollah (read Iran’s), that its government preferred to lose Arab support in favour of solidarity with Iran.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.