(Persia Digest) - The 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution this month predictably showcased the mix of breast-beating and victimhood that so characterises the theocratic nationalists who rule the Islamic Republic. Even Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic president now more beholden to the regime’s hardliners after President Donald Trump last year pulled the US out of the nuclear deal struck with Iran in 2015, has lent full-throated voice to the jingoistic chorus.
“Iran’s military power in the past 40 years, especially in the last five years, has amazed the whole world,” he told an anniversary rally in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square. Vowing to increase what he called Tehran’s “defensive power”, Mr Rouhani boasted that “the moment Iran [stepped in to] help the people of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, the world saw that the enemies did not achieve any victory against the power of the peoples of the region and Iran’s support”.
David Gardner continues to write in FT that this is no idle boast. Iran has been fortunate in its enemies. Their mistakes have helped propel what should have been an improbable march towards regional hegemony by Iran — run by Shia mullahs and militiamen, who, as Persians, are historically suspect to many of their Arab neighbours.
The Islamic Republic’s initial plans to export its revolution were shelved. It was not just that the target Arab audience was mainly Sunni. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, with backing from the west and the Gulf, to strangle the revolution at birth. This led to an eight-year war that killed an estimated 1m people, but left the leaderships on both sides in place.
Iran only just survived, as Saddam rained chemical weapons on its troops and missiles on its cities, while the world stood by. That is why Iran sought a nuclear capability. That is also its justification for establishing forward lines of defence in neighbouring countries, and its winning formula of militias and missiles. Under regional and international siege, it has indeed withstood all enemies. But it needed their help.
The Israeli invasion of civil war-racked Lebanon in 1982, greenlit by Washington, helped create conditions for Iran to develop Hizbollah, which would become its paramilitary spearhead in the Levant. The reckless US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 took out a tyrant but also demolished a bulwark against revolutionary Iran. Amid chaos and carnage it installed Shia governance in an Arab heartland country for the first time in centuries, rekindling the embers of Sunni-Shia enmity.
The explosion of Sunni jihadi extremism in Iraq after the invasion, and then Syria as the west subcontracted support for the majority Sunni rebellion there to the Gulf states, also garnered kudos for Iran and its paramilitaries for their role in defeating Isis. The Trump administration’s attempt to marshal a Saudi-led Arab bloc behind a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians allows Tehran to posture as the only power that stands by the Palestinian cause.
There is a litany of epic failures here. Before Mr Trump came to power, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had already all but replicated the Hizbollah paramilitary model in Iraq and Syria — except on a larger scale. Hizbollah and the big Iraqi Shia militias also won legitimacy at the ballot box last year.
And yet. Israel is countering Iranian forces in Syria with air strikes, and has threatened to attack Lebanon again to eliminate Hizbollah’s Iranian-supplied missiles arsenal. Mr Trump and more extremist aides such as John Bolton, the US national security adviser, drip with anti-Iranian rhetoric, such as at last week’s gathering in Warsaw which, to some ears, sounded like the sort of council of war that preceded the Iraq adventure in 2003. Meanwhile, someone has started a bombing campaign inside Iran. Last week, at least 20 members of the Revolutionary Guard were killed in a suicide attack in the south-east of the country.
Is there anything to suggest more bellicosity towards Iran might work?
If Israel limits itself to deterring Iran across its northern frontiers it may have an effect. More radical action, including Bolton-esque dreams of regime change in Tehran, stand a very good chance of boomeranging as they have in the past.
With Mr Trump now set to pull US forces out of Syria, the only way Washington can push back against the Iranians there — assuming Israel cannot simply bomb them out — is by dealing with President Vladimir Putin, the main powerbroker after Russia’s decisive 2015 intervention to salvage Bashar al-Assad’s regime from defeat. There are limits to how much he can do, given Iranian strength on the ground. For Iran itself to scale back in Syria would require US concessions to Tehran. The regime there already feels it was swindled in the 2015 nuclear deal, which Mr Trump has reneged on.
Iran has all but completed its Shia axis from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. The demography in this Levantine space has changed, perhaps even to Sunni-Shia parity. The Shia rule Iraq and have the whip hand in multi-confessional Lebanon. About 6m Syrians, overwhelmingly Sunni, are in exile and the Assads look determined to prevent any return to the prewar population balance that nearly toppled their minority regime.
From Tehran’s vantage point, the balance of Iranian regional adventurism looks positive. It used to be said that Iran needed to choose the face it wished to show the world — between Qassem Soleimani, the battle-hardened commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary forces, or Mohammad Javad Zarif, the silky foreign minister who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal.
To Iran’s rulers, this is a false dichotomy, and never more so than in the Trump era: they wish to display both faces. There is precious little in western policy towards the Islamic Republic that is likely to dissuade them.
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