ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | The Iranian Power Play

The Iranian Power Play

25 February 2014

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

Today Iran is fighting a two and a half front war in a power play for Middle Eastern hegemony. The chances for victory are quite good. Iran's nuclear front is the most manifest and rightly receives massive media attention, but at the expense of Iranian imperial plans for further penetration throughout the Middle East. The nuclear emphasis serves as a deception from the real issues at hand, those on the ground, both in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. The Syrian-Lebanese arena is fully developed as evidenced by the heavy Iranian involvement on the side of the Assad government in Damascus and the power projected by Tehran's Lebanese Hezbollah military proxies. Hezbollah is far more powerful than the Lebanese army and acts as an Iranian foreign intervention force, sending thousands of fighters into Syria to aid Assad's government against the Sunni and/or Jihadi rebels. At the moment Iran is "only" threatening instability in the oil rich Persian Gulf, hence this "half front" is not developed even if it may become the most decisive of all the Iranian regional initiatives.

Many wonder whether the Iranians will come to terms with the West over their nuclear program. Obviously they will, but only in the short to intermediate term. There will be much haggling and noise, all in the name of the "great distraction" so the world will concentrate on Tehran's compliance with what will become a series of agreements to curtail their ability to become a nuclear power in the military sense. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is savvy enough to keep the agreement just long enough to enable victory in both Syria/Lebanon and an infiltration into the Persian Gulf, challenging or even dislodging Saudi influence. The nuclear arrangement with the West is being done "hudna" or Islamic cease-fire style. It is not a western cease-fire seeking conflict resolution, but rather the opposite whereby the breather is uses to rearm, reload, reorganize and restart. The Iranians know very well what happens when the West "digs in its heals" – they need only look at the North Korean nuclear success and the recent agreement with Damascus to eliminate all chemical weapons - only 11% of these WMDs have been removed and any other serious progress is doubtful. The Iranians are only delayed in their nuclear program and will continue when conditions improve.

After three years of war Assad's Syria is not longer an ally but far closer to a satellite (remember Soviet dominated Eastern Europe 1945-89?). Dependent on Iranian military might and the projection of force either directly or through a third party non-state actor such as Hezbollah, once the dust settles whatever remains of Syria will be given to Iranian dominance. One can expect Iranian-Hezbollah-Syrian control to extend from Aleppo in the north, through Homs, Hama, Damascus and to Deraa on the southern border with Jordan. The western Alawite coastal region including the ports of Latakia, Banyas (oil terminal) and Tartus (Russian Mediterranean fleet anchorage rights) will certainly remain secured while we can expect defensive positions will be held running 50 to 100 kilometers east of the Aleppo – Deraa line. The less important Sunni tribal eastern desert region may very well be relinquished. The present systematic destruction of Syria's opposition cities and neighborhoods is a warning to all the Lebanese communities to adhere to the Iranian-Hezbollah dictates or suffer similar consequences. Tehran will offer a re-stabilization and development of Lebanon under Iranian hegemony or threaten a devastating conflict to achieve such goals. From here Iran may continue challenging Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, in particular making efforts to reassert itself with its former Hamas clients.

Iranian chances of success are good despite the large number of Sunni Jihadi opponents. The Syrian opposition is very fragmented, suffers from infighting and has no central voice or policy. Iranian dominated Syria will suffer low intensity attacks but they can be expected to overcome the Jihadis. The Irano-Syrian counter-attacks cleansing all regions of civilian opposition began with the barrel bombings on apartment buildings months ago and will continue until there is virtually no one left to challenge Iran and/or Assad. The Russians stand solidly behind Assad's minority regime representing Christian interests alongside those of the Alawites and Druze. Moscow will guarantee the arms and ammunition supply while vetoing any condemnations in the UN. After Pres. Vladimir Putin's failure to re-couple the Ukraine to Russia he can be expected to dig in even deeper on the Syrian front.

Eastern Shiite Iraq led by Pres. Nuri el-Maliki is a very willing and reliable ally sharing hundreds of kilometers of a common frontier with Iran. When the Americans left, the Iranians quickly moved in. Iraqi Shiite battles for Falluja and into Sunni dominated western Iraq may not be successful now or in the future. Most of western Iraq may well be conceded to the Sunni tribal desert inhabitants similar to the eastern Syria policy. Iran will not waste resources on regions of peripheral importance. Full consolidation of power over the Shiite dominated oil region is an immediate policy imperative at a time when Iranian oil still suffers sanctions.

But this is only the beginning. Iranian dominance over the Persian Gulf region is the overall objective and that means challenging the Arab Gulf States and in particular Saudi Arabia. Shiites in the Persian Gulf suffer the heavy hand of discrimination and terrible abuse under the Arab Sunni regimes. Many Shiites lean towards Iran despite their Arab cultural backgrounds. Bahrain has a Sunni monarchy but a majority Shiite population while Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have sizable Shiite minorities. The minority Shiites in Saudi Arabia are often the majority in regions of the oil rich eastern province bordering the Persian Gulf. The Iranians may well attempt to foment unrest among Arab Shiites in the hope of weakening the Arab Gulf regimes.

Traditionally the Americans with their oil interests would have none of this but US oil dependency on the Gulf States is diminishing as domestic oil development allows for much more independence. Saddam Hussein of 1991 was a definite threat to US economic interests, but is an Iranian push into the Arab Gulf in the 2010s similar? Iran is several times larger, boasts a powerful military and has serious ballistic missile capabilities. There is a different set of circumstances a generation later, especially when considering US oil production (and the pipeline from Canada) accompanied by the isolationist atmosphere gripping America as of late. In other words, will the US fight for the Saudis once again? Probably not. The West can consistently boycott Iran but the Chinese and Japanese will continue their desperate need of petroleum for years to come and will feel no obligation to American foreign policy dictates. And do not forget the Russians – already de facto Iranian allies in Syria, Pres. Putin can always be expected to oppose western interests as a matter of course (the Ukraine also being a case in point). Russian and Iranian influences coincide in their joint effort to defeat Sunni Jihadi fanatics and hence they can be expected to work together.

Most likely the Americans are heading for a reconciliation with Tehran to include Iranian dominance in Syria/Lebanon and increased influence in the Gulf. One should not expect the Iranians to initiate hostilities in the Gulf but rather work slowly and surreptitiously to undermine overall Arab Sunni and western interests in the region. A war might break out eventually but by then the die will be cast. The Saudis are aware of the slow moving American retreat and are said to have commissioned the Pakistani army to bring in two divisions to help in their defense – but in the meantime they are nowhere to be seen.

So while everyone is focusing on the nuclear talks with Iran the West is and will be losing the battle on the ground, both in Syria/Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. President Rouchani and Foreign Minister Zarif provide the perfect "smile offensive" so badly needed by the West and in particular the Obama Administration to prove the Iranians are serious about halting their nuclear program and engaging in a new type of détente. The West focuses on the nuclear issue since there is no counterbalance to rising Iranian influence and victories on the ground. There is a deliberate image and media shift – the Iranians are seen in a more positive manner. They are being portrayed as true partners in peace despite the horrific massacres in Syria and continuing repression in Iran itself. The Americans prefer not to contemplate out loud what steps Iran may take on its way to Persian Gulf dominance.

At least in the immediate future we can expect the Iranians will keep their end of the nuclear bargain and work to have the sanctions lifted. Pres. Obama and EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton will be able to declare success or even victory in their dealings with Iran. But the victory will be pyrrhic, only having delayed the Iranian nuclear program while on the ground Tehran's dominance continues to expand. The central question remaining is whether the West is involved in a deliberate trade off by allowing for the expansion of Iranian Middle Eastern influence in exchange for what they believe to be a halt of their nuclear weapons program? Quite possibly, but that of course is a different discussion.