The current presence of Qassem Alì Soleimani, leader of the Al QudsForce of the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” in Iraq is strategically significant.
Certainly, according to the Iranian press, Soleimani was the sole responsible for the destruction of the so-called “Caliphate” of Al Baghdadi, whohas recently been eliminated by the US Special Forces, upon probable Turkish pressure.
It is not entirely false: the various Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq have made about 3,000 military operations against Al Baghdadi’s network.
Soleimani also remains the strategic holder of the Lebanese stability – if we can say so – even with the robust presence of Hezbollah in Saad Hariri’s Lebanese government that resigned on October 29 last, in spite of the pressure from a great Christian friend of Iran and Syria, namely Michel Aoun. President of the Lebanon and, as Maronite, certainly not disliked in Iran and Syria.
The idea that the government of Saad Hariri – a friend of the naive West and of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, but in fact in the hands of Hezbollah and Amal, two Lebanese Shiite and Iranian movements – could survive the economic crisis that persists even after the 11 million US dollars lent by the Sunni monarchies and the USA, and after the Shiite riots in Beirut and in the South of the country, was completely unfounded.
If the Lebanon collapses, Iran shall strengthen Iraq, and vice versa. It is obvious if we study the political structures of both countries and their role for Israel and the USA.
In Syria, however, the Russian Federation – and not Iran – has won, but it is equally true that the Shiite Republic, also thanks to Qassem Soleimani, is currently able to fight well in Syria, thus maintaining such a level of hostility as to minimize the possibility of retaliation against Iranian forces both in Syria and at home.
Iran has now stably penetrated the informal and official Syrian defence structures and its goal is both to support Hezbollah and the Shiite forces that will replace it, for an attack southwards, namely against Israel, and the definitive exclusion of US forces or US allies from the whole region of the Syria-Iraq axis.
Nevertheless the trump card that counts for the internationalization of the Syrian crisis is still in Russian hands only.
Furthermore, the territorial and operational limitation of the Russian forces in Syria, above all on the Golan Heights, is a further strategic aim of Iran in Syria and Jordan, as well as obviously in Iraq.
Qassem Alì Soleimani, however – often associated to Rahbar, the Supreme Leader Alì Khamenei, in the iconography of the Iranian regime – is considered the military leader closest to the ideas and opinions of Rahbar himself.
He has always been a myth for the Iranian public because he has quickly risen to the top ranks, among Iran’s 13 Major Generals, starting from a humble job as mason in Kirman, Southern Iran, and he is currently the only senior officer of the Armed Forces who speaks directly with the Supreme Leader.
Jointly with some of the most powerful representatives of the Sunni regimes in the Emirates and in the Saudi Kingdom, Soleimani and the Rahbar are organizing a new policy of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and with the whole Sunni world of Egypt and Jordan.
Currently the Al Quds Force led by Soleimani is organizing alone – with at least 12 commercial jet planes never entered into any register – import-export operations in its favour and in favour of the Iranian regime, while millions of Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Azerbaijani and Bahraini refugees in Iran have quickly obtained – through the Al Quds Force – citizenship in the Republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini.
An Iranian passport is always ready -through Soleimani’s Force – also for many Lebanese, Pakistani (20% of the Pakistani inhabitants are Shiite) and Bahraini citizens.
These are the future strengths of Iran’s destabilization, which uses the Shiite minorities, but not only them.
Soleimani also manages a network of special envoys of the Shiite Republic of Iran throughout the Middle East that report directly to him who then transfers data directly to the Supreme Leader’s Office.
Currently Soleimani’s parallel and military diplomacy is the real axis of the Iranian power projection in the Greater Middle East and reaches as far as India and the West.
As Ayatollah Yatani said about a month ago: “Nowadays, thanks to General Soleimani, we directly control four Arab capitals, namely Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a”.
This is not entirely true, but certainly Soleimani’s network is effective and credible, at least to back the business that supports the Al Quds Brigade and hence also its political operations of infiltration and control of the local political systems.
Certainly Qassem Soleimani’s power is not as relevant as the Iranian propaganda suggests, but it is however true that, in Iraq, the role played by the General and his Al Quds Force is really important and decisive.
Iraq has a border of 1,559 kilometres with Iran and the great country that was Saddam Hussein’s absolute dominion has always hosted a vast Shiite majority, the second in the world after Iran and India. It is also the majority in the country.
In fact, it has just been reported that General Qassem Alì Soleimani has reached Iraq by helicopter and has settled in Baghdad, taking direct control of the Shiite armed forces and their autonomous security services.
Certainly, the most important sign to define this Iranian decision was the attack on the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, the Shiite holy city. The attack launched on November 3 last caused the death of three people.
The demonstrators carried the Iraqi flags and cried out “Karbala is free, Iran out, out!” – one of the many signs of growing intolerance, not only by Sunnis, towards Iran’s strong interference in Iraqi politics and economy.
On November 11 last, Al-Sistani, the Great Shiite Iraqi Ayatollah, gave the Iraqi government a two-week deadline to find out which “undisciplined elements” – as the Iraqi government of Adel Abdul Al Mahdi euphemistically called them- had used snipers to shoot some demonstrators.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi declared three days of mourning for the victims of the demonstrations in Karbala and elsewhere.
The toll was terrible. At least 110 Iraqi citizens were killed in the demonstrations; over 6,000 were injured in demonstrations in Baghdad, Karbala and the South of the country. The death toll includes at least six elements of government security forces.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo ,asked the Iraqi Prime Minister for maximum repression of demonstrations, which, however, are becoming increasingly “harsh”.
Abdul Al Mahdi immediately announced his 13-point plan for reforms, with economic subsidies and free housing for poor people, while a special session of the Iraqi Parliament opened on October 8, with meetings between the government and the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Mohammed Al Haboulsi, and between them and the tribal leaders.
On the same day, the Head of the State Grain Buying Agency in Baghdad, Naeem Al Maksousi, was removed and immediately replaced by Mahdi Elwan.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had arrived in Baghdad as early as October 7 to negotiate with the Iraqi government and curb the protests, which are potentially destructive both for the Russian equilibria in Syria and for the sensitive relationship that the Russian Federation has with Iran, between Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
If Iraq becomes viable for all the destabilization operations that currently pass through the Greater Middle East, the Russian successes in Syria, the stability of Assad’s regime in Syria, the penetration of the Sunni jihad from Afghanistan into Iran, and finally the destabilization of Jordan, will become not only possible, but likely.
In this case it is not only a matter of “bread riots”, as those described by Manzoni in his book The Betrothed, but of a political equilibrium between Iraqi ethnic groups, tribes and international relations, which today is inevitably breaking.
However, as mentioned above, on October 30 last a helicopter transported Qassem Alì Soleimani from Baghdad airport to the fortified Green Zone around the Iraqi capital.
In a meeting called by him in the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Soleimani also discussed the issue of the protests mounting in the capital city and, above all, in the Shiite Southern Iraq.
Soleimani is now the de facto Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, especially with reference to the actions taken to keep the protest under control.
“We in Iran know how to control these situations. They also happened in Iran and we quickly put them under control”. According to many sources, he reportedly said so to the Iraqi political leaders.
Hence a real Iranian coup d’état took place in Iraq, because of or with the pretext of the often bloody riots that occurred particularly in the last fortnight.
But there is also another weakness that has emerged for Iran in a traditionally friendly country like Iraq.
Soleimani and his Brigade were not able to organize Hezbollah and its network in the Lebanon, especially to prevent Saad Hariri – a Lebanese President who is a friend of Iran, but connected to the Saudi banks that hold him in their hands – from resigning together with all his government, including the various, and often powerful, Ministers chosen by Hezbollah itself.
Hariri’s resignation has also made a future technocratic solution for the Lebanese government more likely – a solution that would certainly diminish the grip of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, always trained by the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”a Lebanese movement that was the “right eye” of Imam Khomeini.
If Iran loses also Iraq, its area of influence will be so much reduced as to allow a possible penetration of its own territory.
However, despite the presence of Soleimani, the Iraqi Prime Minister intends to leave power.
Therefore, while a “friendly” government for Iran resigns in the Lebanon, another “friendly” government in Iraq is floundering in a structural crisis. This is the rationale underlying Soleimani’s presence in the Iraqi capital.
It should be noted that on the border between Iran and Iraq, on both sides of the line, the Kurds live and they are a real human shield against massive military penetration from Iran into Iraq.
Sunni and Shiite Arab-Iranian tribes are also straddling the border line, and all the parties involved on the border between the two countries – both with a Shiite majority – have vast reserves of oil at their disposal, which they control almost entirely on their own.
Not to mention the various rivers of the region and, above all, the Shatt-el-Arab.
Let us see, however, who Qassem Alì Soleimani really controls in Iraq.
Firstly, there is the Asaib al-Haq network, as well as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and finally what remains of the old Al Badr Brigades.
Asaib al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous”, also known as the Khazali Network, heavily operated also during the last war in Syria.
In the Iraqi war, after Saddam Hussein’s fall, it was responsible for at least 6,000 attacks against the US and coalition forces.
At the time, the “Widowers’ House”, where the Sunni jihadist “martyrs” – also those who hit Italy’s military in Nassiriya – passed at the end of their journey towards death, was placed in Syria.
It was from there that a young Sunni “martyr”, of Moroccan origin, who initially worked in a halal butcher shop on the Catalan coast moved to the Mosque of Viale Jenner, in Milan, and finally to Syria, to hit Italy’s soldiers in Camp Mittica, Nassiriya.
We were informed of it by the Spanish Guardia Civilthat – as always happens in these cases – had received some DNA found on the body of the “martyr” who killed our soldiers.
Asaib al-Haq, that is also an Iraqi political party, is under direct orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, in any case, is institutionally part of the old network of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
It is estimated that the militants and operatives of the Asaib network and of the Popular Mobilization Forces are currently worth about 15,000 elements, all well-trained, both in Iraq and Iran.
Asaib was born as a splinter group of the old Army of the Mahdi, led and founded by Muqtada al-Sadr (and exactly in the old “rationalist” Sadr City, ferocious clashes between the “rebels” and the Iraqi police forces have taken place very recently).
The working style of the militia group among the population – that is to provide aid to poor people through a “religious welfare”, the same policy of Hezbollah in the Lebanon – is, however, a significant cost for Iran.
Hezbollah in the Lebanon, however, is supported by a system of private funding from rich local Shiites; companies, also Sunni ones, that operate in the areas or with Iranian customers; income from investment and from the usual private donations.
Between 1983 and 1989 Iran has given directly to Hezbollah as many as 450 million US dollars.
Currently – and, however, this does not include operational military support and training for Hezbollah men and women in the Lebanon – there is talk of at least 650 million US dollars a year, from Iran directly to the Southern district of Beirut, where the operational centre of the Lebanese and Shiite “Party of God” is located.
Hezbollah also gets money from the often powerful Shiite minorities outside the Middle East, such as those in West Africa, in the USA and also in the very important area of the “tripartite border” between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.
As shown by international agencies’ data, there are also operations that demonstrate how and to what extent the business network of the “Party of God” also deals – for significant amounts – with the illegal trafficking of tobacco and, often, with international drug trafficking.
Currently news about Iran’s financial commitment in Iraq tells us of at least 16 billion US dollars to train, support and organize Shiite militias in Iraq.
Moreover the expansion of the Shiite militias in these areas is recent and will follow Soleimani’s presence in Iraq, like Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces are currently a complex organization born in 2014 to fight against the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.
In September 2019, upon order of the Shiite Iraqi leader, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis,the network of the Shiite PMF separated from the rest of the Iraqi Armed Forces. This Iran’s political choice stems from a series of air bombings that the PMF bases have suffered in Iraq over the last three months.
The Shiite network has accused Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied the charge.
But there is no guarantee that this Shiite network is now also opposed to many of the sectarian forces operating on Iraqi soil, between Sunnis and Kurds.
However, the great Shiite military alliance, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, was born in 2014 from a fatwa of the Great Ayatollah al Sistani that indicated to the young Iraqis the duty to “be part of the security forces” to save the country from the danger of the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.
Despite various decrees enacted by the Iraqi government, both by Nouri al Maliki and the current President, the structure of the Popular Mobilisation Forces has not given their weapons to the Iraqi army and the PMF have never subjected their chain of command to the Iraqi hierarchy of the Armed Forces.
Recently, the Shiite network in Iraq has increased from the 4,500 armed militants, who had been identified in 2011, to well over 81,000 ones, with a significant increase that has occurred only over the last six months.
The network of the Popular Mobilisation Forces is also useful for Iran to create a second front – more difficult to control – of missile launch against Israel, operated solely from the Iraqi territory.
Also the Hashd al Shaabi movement in the Lebanon was born in 2014, like the new PMF. It is a movement connected – from the very beginning -to the Iraqi brigades of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, as well as to the Badr Brigade and the new Asaib al-Haq network, always linked to the presence of the Brigades of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hence to Soleimani’s Al Quds Brigade.
Now this network, under Qassem Alì Soleimani’s direct control, currently counts at least 130,000 armed militants.
In other words, Iran is replacing its proxies in Iraq and the Lebanon with a view to avoiding the enemy penetration and staking – with new organizational and military models – a very heavy claim to regimes, between the Lebanon and Iraq, which are obviously at the end of their pathway.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
The Russian bear in Lebanon
It turned out that the Biden-Putin summit on May 16 has established a wider effect than anyone would expect.
It exceeded by far political analysis, especially in Lebanon. The summit almost coincided with the Russian economic delegation’s visit to Beirut on the 18th of the same month and the announcement of its study results to initiate investments projects in Lebanon.
The results revealed the Russian delegation’s future plans in rebuilding the oil refineries in Zahrani and Tripoli and rehabilitating the latter’s port. Regardless of the projects, the Russian companies intend to deal with, if they are approved and encouraged by good signs changes can be relied upon. It means that Lebanon has taken an important leap in its economic policies by gradually moving towards the East.
Naturally, Lebanon’s orientation towards the East “if it happens” will not be absolute and definitive, but rather principled and partial. This is an important matter by itself. It is marked as a qualitative leap that may minimize the private companies’ monopolization of energy imports, which will be directly reflected, firstly, in electricity production in Lebanon, and secondly in facilitating the provision of petroleum products in Lebanon. Such projects became a necessity, in particular, after the collapse of the Lebanese lira against the American dollar.
Logically, changing the reality of the production of electricity will reveal immediate results. It will be reflected in the change in the rehabilitation of the economic infrastructure fields in Lebanon. It will also positively reflect in other vital areas, such as determining the prices of food commodities, which became outrageously high.
Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the obscene rise in food prices is related to the high costs of transportation in the last month alone. It is almost above the purchasing power of the Lebanese. For example, the prices of vegetables and fruits, a non-imported commodity, which is not supervised by government support, remained within reasonable prices; however, once the diesel prices started rising, it directly affected the prices of the seasonal vegetables and fruits.
In addition, there are unseen accomplishments that will go with the entry of Russian companies, which is creating new job opportunities in Lebanon. Lately, it was reported that unemployment in Lebanon will reach 41.4% this year. It is a huge rate, which the Lebanese media, in general, use to provoke people against the current resigned government. However, it neglects to shed the light on the importance of the Russian investment in creating new job opportunities, which will affect all social groups, whether they were transporters, building workers, porters, cleaners, or university graduates.
The companies coming to Lebanon are directly supported by the Russian state. However, they are private companies, a fact that has its advantages. They are familiarized with dealing with other Western international companies. Russian companies have previously coordinated with French and Italian companies in Lebanon, through contracts concluded for the extraction of gas in Lebanese fields and in other fields outside Lebanon. Russian- European coordination process is also recognized in rebuilding Beirut’s harbor. A German company will rebuild the docks, while the French will rebuild the containers or depots, and the Russian companies will rebuild the wheat silos.
It seems that the process is closely related to the future of Lebanon and the future of the Chinese project, the New Silk Road, [One Road, and One Belt]. However, it is not clear yet whether the Russian companies will be investing in Tripoli’s refinery and in regenerating and expanding its port or it will be invested by the Chinese companies. If this achievement is accomplished, then Tripoli will restore its navigating glorious history. Tripoli was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. Additionally, there is a need for the Russian and the Chinese to expand on the warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Secondly, the project will boost Tripoli and its surroundings from the current low economic situation to a prosperous economic one, if the real intentions are there. The results in Tripoli will be read as soon as the projects set foot in the city. Of course, this will establish another Sino-Russian victory in the world of economy and trade, if not in politics as well.
The entry of the Russians and the Chinese into the Lebanese field of commerce has international implications. It will come within international and global agreements or understanding. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the Americans are actually losing their grip on Lebanon. This entry will stop the imposition of a limited number of European-oriented Lebanese monopolizing companies, which have dominated the major Lebanese trade of oil and its products. Dominance is protected with the “illusion” of meaningless international resolution. It is true that the Americans are still maneuvering in several places; however, this is evident to the arbitrariness of decisions making in the U.S. today. It is the confusion resulting from ramifications of the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in Palestine; it seems that they do not have a clear plan towards policies in the region, other than supporting “Israel”.
If the above is put into action, and the Russian companies start working within a guarantee agreement with the Lebanese state. This means a set of important issues on the international and regional levels. And it also means that the Americans would certainly prefer the Russians to any Chinese or Iranian economic direct cooperation in Lebanon.
Firstly, it is clear that in their meeting Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin reached a kind of consent to activate stability in the region. Two years ago, the Americans had a different plan. According to an established source, the Americans actually intended to strike internal stability in Lebanon and ignite another civil war round, before finalizing stability in Syria. This assertion tunes with David Hale’s, an American envoy to Lebanon, a declaration about the American anger over the $10 billion spent in Lebanon to change the political reality and overthrow Hezbollah from the government. Consequently, the American project is behind us now. Russia and China need to invest in the stability of Lebanon, in order to secure their investments in the process of rebuilding Syria.
Secondly, the Lebanese state guarantee, which the Russians require, is directly related to the lack of confidence in the Lebanese banking policies, which have lost their powers as a guarantor for investments after the role they played since November 17, 2019 till today. It proved the inefficiency of the financial policies of the Lebanese banks, which was based on the principle of usury since the nineties of the last century. In addition, a state guarantee will enable the Russian companies to surpass the American sanctions.
The state guarantee increases the value and importance of the Lebanese state as an entity in the region, and this can be understood from Macron’s statements after the explosion of Beirut port last August when he said that Lebanon’s role in the region as we know it must change.
Thirdly, if we consider the history of international unions in the world, including the European Union, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and others, they started as economic alliances before they end as political alliances. Therefore, at this historical stage and in order to work on the economic recovery of Lebanon, which needs more investments instead of falling under the burden of more debts. Lebanon needs to head East towards economic unity with Syria. In cooperating with two superpowers, Lebanon and Syria can form an economic bloc on the Mediterranean shores, a bloc that can get Lebanon out of the vortex of Western absurdity and expand its alliances and horizons to be a real economic and cultural forum where the East and the West can meet.
From our partner Tehran Times
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