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Iran's fortunes rising in a Middle East vacuum
By Michael (Mickey) Segall
A Green Light from Iran to Strike at Israel
The massive rocket fire from Gaza at Israel by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) on March 12, 2014, under the rubric of "breaking the silence," coupled with the detonation of explosive charges by Hizbullah along the northern border fence on Mt. Dov on March 14 and in the northern Golan Heights on March 18, suggests that Iran's two main allies in the region were given a green light to step up the friction with Israel and gradually change the rules of the game that has been played so far.
PIJ is completely dependent on Iran for its funding and equipment, and some of its operatives have also undergone training in Iran for the manufacture of rockets and explosives and for guerrilla warfare. The already well-known ties between Iran and Hizbullah are now reaching a new level as Iran involves Hizbullah in the effort to rescue the Assad regime in Syria. President Bashar Assad's war on the numerous, fragmented opposition factions has entered its fourth year, while so far costing some 150,000 lives.
These recent attacks on Israel, whose timing is not coincidental, were preceded by Israel's interdiction of the Klos C weapons ship with its cargo of forty Syrian-made M-203 long-range missiles, along with mortars. The intended recipient was PIJ in Gaza. These large-warhead, precision missiles were meant as a game-changer in Gaza, to give Iran's client a strategic advantage over Hamas, which has been increasingly beleaguered, with Sinai and al-Sisi's Egypt in turmoil.
Iran is also reestablishing its ties with Hamas after a two-year hiatus in the wake of disagreements over support for Assad in the Syrian civil war. According to Palestinian sources, a high-level Hamas delegation headed by Khaled Mashal, head of its political bureau, intends to visit Iran soon to discuss "important issues." The same source denied that "Tehran has closed all its doors in Hamas' face," and emphasized that "the relationship between the two sides has started to be restored in a positive and gradual manner."
According to the pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas co-founder and member of the political bureau, and Marwan Isa, deputy commander of Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, played a crucial role in arranging the meeting in Tehran. Ali Larijani, head of the Iranian Majlis, said recently that the relationship between Iran and Hamas has returned to the way it was in the past and that Iran supports Hamas since it belongs to the resistance front, and since "our Islamic duty commands us to support the resistance."
Improving Ties among Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah
The course taken by the Klos C cargo – from Syria to Iran to Iraq – again reveals the key points of the "axis of evil" and the tightening links between them. This axis is led by Iran, which has been devising and implementing an ambitious plan to increase its influence in the Middle East and mold it in line with its revolutionary ideology. Central to that plan is ejecting the United States and the West from the region, along with what remains of their influence.
Especially noteworthy in this context is the intensifying cooperation among the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah triangle. At Iran's behest, Hizbullah has entered the struggle to salvage Iran's strategic asset, the Assad regime. Despite growing domestic criticism, in part due to scores of Hizbullah casualties on Syrian soil, Nasrallah has been carrying out Tehran's directives. He has been compensated with advanced weapons (some of them Russian-made) that have been transferred to Hizbullah from Syria (according to foreign reports, some of these weapons consignments have been destroyed by Israel). Among other weaponry, Yakhont (Sapphire) surface-to-sea missiles along with surface-to-air missiles could affect the IDF's future operational range. In addition, Iran has generously paid off Hizbullah with UAVs for attacking and intelligence-gathering, as well as in funds. From Iran's standpoint, Syria and Lebanon have somewhat coalesced.
The Decline of the West
The change in Iran's behavior reflects its growing self-confidence since the nuclear negotiations with the West began, along with America's rapidly declining regional and international status (seen in the Ukrainian crisis as well). That decline was especially evident in Washington's hesitant approach to the Syrian crisis after the regime's use of chemical weapons was revealed, and in the adoption of the Russian diplomatic solution. Tehran saw this compromise as a victory for Iran in particular and for its resistance axis in general, and as clearly indicating the future deterrent capability of this axis vis-à-vis the U.S.-led West. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the United States had been defeated in Syria. "The scheme whereby they wanted to intervene militarily in Syria was defeated and their main plan failed, like the rest of their plans….This while the enemy said, ‘If we do not succeed to overcome Syria, we also will not succeed to overcome Iran.'"
The more the United States' regional and international status sinks, the more Iran's self-confidence rises. That, in turn, will affect Iran's approach to the nuclear talks and its willingness to compromise; the chances of its doing so were never high in the first place.
As Washington continues in its conciliatory course, which has come to be known as "leading from behind," and Russia's international status and power projection keep improving, Russia's partners, including Iran, will take increasingly bold, subversive action in the region. Iran regards the United States, and the West in general, as lacking the capacity to use military force to stop its nuclearization, or to curtail Iran's assertive measures against the Gulf States and in the Middle East generally (including supplying terror organizations with advanced weapons, promoting subversion, and aiding Islamic organizations). On the contrary, Iran sees an opportunity to continue driving the United States and the West out of the region.
Lessons for Iran from the Ukrainian Crisis
In that spirit, the Iranian Kayhan newspaper, which usually reflects the views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote that Iran should draw lessons from the Crimean crisis and learn from Russia's conduct. The paper said Iran should rely on its military (implicitly, also nuclear) power and exploit evolving regional crises. Iran already seems to be applying these lessons.
Kayhan also claimed the events in Ukraine had again shown the effectiveness of military force, notwithstanding international relations theories about the supposed primacy of economic and media factors over military ones. "Military forces can decide, at a sensitive moment, the fate of a particular conflict…as long as they are under wise leadership. That is what happened in the Ukraine affair….We learn that the way to overcome a certain country, and stop its other kinds of power from functioning, is to weaken its military status." For thirty-five years, Kayhan asserts, the West has striven to weaken Iran militarily, and is continuing to do so in the nuclear talks. And yet,
the resolve of the Russians and the alacrity of President Putin have brought the West to passivity. The fact that the Western states are (again) talking of economic sanctions and the fact that NATO (despite having signed a defense pact with Ukraine) has not mounted a military response to Russia's military move and maneuvers in Ukraine, instead settling (as is typical) for declarations – shows that the West is in a passive position.
Kayhan draws links between the West's frictions with Iran and with Russia, and remarks:
From a national perspective, Russia is helped by Iran in addressing most of its security and diplomatic concerns, and in return Iran is helped by Russia's support on the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan, nuclear, and other issues. Furthermore, in this affair Russia is in conflict with our enemies, that is, the West. That in itself means we must be pleased with the defeat of our enemies, even if we have criticism of the Russian side.
Kayhan went on to criticize Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for saying Iran was worried by the developments in Ukraine, and concluded that "it was Russia that had learned from Iran to stand firm against the West and cause it to be passive….We have to look at the benefits accruing from the Ukrainian crisis and use them to extend our power and influence."
Iran views Hizbullah and the Palestinian terror organizations as major components in its national security strategy, part of its long arm. Iran acts ceaselessly to provide these actors with rockets, missiles, and the knowledge to manufacture them, along with other weapons (antitank, antiaircraft, etc.). The latest developments, coupled with Iran's growing realization that it is immune to a Western military attack, could lead it to make even bolder moves, sometimes through its proxies, than it has taken so far. The more confidence Iran feels, the more this tendency will grow, affecting its behavior toward its Persian Gulf neighbors as well.
Israel's Destruction Is on the Islamic Agenda
Iran's confidence is also apparent in its ongoing calls for Israel's destruction. As the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard commanders move further from the "Rouhani effect" of Iran's June 2013 presidential elections, even as Rouhani keeps winning international favor, they have been resuming their harsh anti-Israeli and anti-Western statements. For example, the Guard's deputy commander, Hossein Salami, said recently at a conference on "The Islamic World's Role in the Geometry of the World Power," under a headline stating "Iran's Finger on Trigger to Destroy Zionist Regime":
Today, we can destroy every spot which is under the Zionist regime's control with any volume of fire power (that we want) right from here….
Islam has given us this wish, capacity and power to destroy the Zionist regime so that our hands will remain on the trigger from 1,400 km. away for the day when such an incident (confrontation with Israel) takes place.
He added, hinting at the aid Iran provides to states bordering Israel, that Iran is not the only state with such capabilities, since some of the other Muslim states' artillery can reach targets within Israel.
There Is No Vacuum in the Middle East
In sum, if one connects the dots between the recent developments in the regional and international arenas, it emerges that the more America's regional and international power wanes, the more Iran's self-confidence grows. In the Middle East, Iran aspires to fill the void. The perception of American weakness makes Iran more self-assured and impels it toward more audacious moves on the Syrian-Lebanese and Palestinian fronts, as Iran makes use of the resistance camp in waging its ongoing anti-Israel struggle. If Iran continues to perceive American weakness, it will also step up its activities against its Persian Gulf neighbors.
One should view Iran's reconciliation with Hamas against this background. It is not occurring due to ideology but as part of the wider struggle for influence that Iran is waging against Saudi Arabia in various parts of the Middle East as part of the broader Sunni-Shiite struggle. Iran seeks to benefit from the disagreements within the Sunni camp (such as between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf States) on various issues (such as the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Iranian control in Gaza would enable it to more broadly influence its political associates as well as the newly reconstituted Egyptian arena.
Ongoing American weakness and mounting tensions with Russia will likely have negative implications in general and on the nuclear talks in particular. Russia, which so far has played a negative role in those talks and usually has shielded Iran from strong measures, will be even less prepared to countenance such measures as the talks approach the point of decision. Hence, the chances of the talks diverting Iran from its military nuclear path, which were quite low to begin with, will dwindle to nothing. Moreover, given U.S. behavior in the recent crises, Iran has concluded that it will be able to violate a nuclear agreement without incurring penalties.
As Iran and other regional states view the matter, the Ukrainian crisis is another in a long series of regional and international crises in which Putin has emerged as a resolute, decisive leader on regional issues, while Obama has appeared weak, indecisive, and passive. The region's Arab leaders, especially those of states once considered U.S. allies (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and even Jordan), are not impressed by U.S. conduct in the Syrian crisis and are closely watching Obama's moves in the Ukrainian predicament; they are likely to be disappointed once more.
U.S. policy is increasingly impelling these states to alter their framework of regional and international alliances. They view the United States as less and less reliable, and are seeking an alternate power instead. Possibilities include Russia, China, or – closer to home – Iran. In the Middle East, where change occurs at a dizzying pace, anything can happen.
Iran, in any case, is acting to make itself the dominant, stable power of the region.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.