Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A New Iranian Empire is rising

In this essay, I consider the dramatic rise in Iran's influence and power in the Middle East over the last few years and how that impacts on future developments in that region. I discuss the possible scenarios regarding such a resurgent Iran in the context of the Syrian conflict, IS and the conflict in Yemen (where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Iranian-supported Houtis).

The last few years have seen a spectacular reshaping of the Middle-Eastern political landscape. Although most commentators focus on the rise of IS (Islamic State), whose cruelty has grabbed the headlines, in my view the really important event is the dramatic rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Suddenly Iran has become a much more assertive player in that region, which leaves the other major powers like Israel, Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and Turkey very uneasy.

In this essay, I consider the reasons why Iran has been able to expand their influence so dramatically as well as the implications that this has for the future of the Middle East. The issue over Iran's nuclear program is now overshadowed by the enormous power that they have gained in the period while the talks lasted. Even if Iran would never build a nuclear bomb, their power has grown to such an extent that all future geopolitical analysis would have to include them as one of the major players - even as the most important one (Israel excluded) - in the Middle East.

Iran's growing influence and power in the Middle East

Over the last few years, the Iranians have extended their hold on power all over the Middle-East - in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. In this regard, they have empowered all the Shiites or related groups across the Middle East (like the Syrian Alawites to which the Assad dynasty belongs). At first, they merely supported the Assad regime in Syria. When their partners, the Lebanese Hezbollah, became involved in the Syrian civil war their influence grew to such an extent that Iranian generals now lead the Syrian-Hezbollah-Shiites in some areas in their conflicts with the Syrian rebels.

In Iraq, the Iranian influence has grown due to the threat posed by IS. Many of the Shiite militias that sprang up in Iraq are now coordinated as a single group, called the Popular Mobilization Committee (Hashid Shaabi), by the Iranians. They are led by Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, right-hand man of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who is head of the Quds Force, a part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In the battle for Tikrit Soleimani became openly involved as the leader of those groups. In Yemen, Iran's partners, the Shiite Houthis, have become the de facto rulers after taking over most of the important parts of the country, including the capital Sanaa. Their southward push toward the city of Aden, last bastion of Yemen's elected President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (who fled to Saudi-Arabia), resulted in the intervention on 26 March of the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi-Arabia in that conflict. The primary reason for this Saudi intervention is to counter the enormous growth in Iranian power in the region.

What we see is that the Iranians with their alliance partners, Hezbollah, the Assad regime, the Iraqi Shiites and the Houthis are now in control of a large part of the Middle East stretching from Iran to the borders of Israel and Saudi-Arabia. Even though they do not officially control all these countries, their partners have strong military forces that are not subjected to the national armies (and can operate as they please). They are indeed in a very powerful position and it is very possible that they would in future become an even more powerful force. As one can expect, this leaves the other Middle Eastern countries very nervous and uneasy about these developments.

The role of the Obama administration

How did this happen? This Iranian projection of power is primarily due to the manner in which the Obama administration handled the situation in the Middle East. First, they did not provide any significant support to the moderate Syrian rebels which allowed IS to become the dominant force in eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. It seems that they did not want to upset the Iranians who are involved in that conflict and with whom they were in talks regarding their nuclear enrichment program. When the US-led coalition became involved in the fight against IS, they even had to accept Iran's involvement in Iraq against IS [1]. In fact, according to newspaper reports president Obama sent a secret letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he suggested the possibility of US-Iranian cooperation in fighting IS once a deal regarding its nuclear program has been reached. It seems that the whole US strategy against IS has to some extent become reliant on Iran.

Irrespective of the eventual outcome of an agreement with Iran, the space which the Obama administration allowed Iran to occupy in the Middle East cannot be easily reversed. Iran has dramatically extended its influence in the Middle East at the cost of the other countries. It might be that this was in fact from the beginning an important aspect of Iran's strategy during the nuclear talks, namely to play for time while they extend their power in the Middle East! This expansion of Iranian power has brought them to Israel's borders where Iran is involved in the fighting between the Assad-regime and the rebels at Israel's Golan border where they (Israel) some time ago shot down a helicopter leading to the death of an Iranian general and various Hezbollah military commanders. In this Iranian offensive, the divisions in the ranks of the US's Middle Eastern partners, namely between those who represent the counter-revolution after the Arab Spring (Saudi-Arabia, the UAE and Egypt) and those who support Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who gained momentum through the Arab Spring (Turkey and Qatar), have played into Iran's hands.

Iran can easily consolidate its power. Even if they do not build a nuclear bomb, they now have a very powerful base from which to consolidate and expand their power. Even though the division in the ranks of the Sunni states weakened the Arab response, this dramatic rise in Iran's power has forced them to find common ground. The GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab countries) has recently decided on a unified military command and at the last Arab League meeting at the end of March in Egypt they decided to form a joint military force of willing countries.  

Saudi-Arabia was also able (on short notice) to put together a coalition of nine countries to fight the Houthis and to enforce a no-fly zone in Yemen (i.e. Saudi-Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan). Turkey also expressed their support for this action. The new Saudi king, King Salman, who is more pragmatic than his predecessor, may eventually succeed in overcoming the divisions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood which would unite the Sunni block (which may include Turkey) in any military confrontation with the Shiite alliance led by Iran.

The larger geopolitical game

On the surface, it is difficult to understand the Obama administration's decisions which are the most important reason why Iran ended up in this powerful new position. Why would the US allow Iran to use the period of the nuclear negotiations to expand their power so dramatically? It seems to me that a possible answer may lie in the larger geopolitical picture which also involves Russia's role in the Middle East.

When we compare the Obama administration's handling of the Ukrainian crisis with their handling of the Syrian crisis, they are much more decisive in the first situation. Whereas the US takes a more confrontational position against Russia - who has also expanded their own sphere of influence in annexing the Crimea and supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine - they were much more reluctant to do anything in the Syrian situation so as not to affront Iran. The US played a major role in the sanctions that have so far been installed against Russia whereas they allowed the Iranians to spread their sphere of direct involvement up to Israel's borders.

Why this difference in approach? It is possible that the US is trying to win the Iranians over from a possible Russia-Iran-China axis. In this regard, the US may think that a future world in which these countries are aligned would seriously limit their own sphere of interest - comparable with the Cold War period when the balance-of-power in the world was quite evenly balanced between the USSR and the West. We may compare the Obama administrations' move in this regard with Henry Kissinger's China "card" - when he went in secret to China in 1971 and convinced them to enter into more friendly relations with the US. The result was that the USSR was left isolated in its conflict with the West. This was part of the containment strategy that eventually led to the fall of the USSR. As such, flipping Iran would also leave Russia quite isolated - especially regarding its geopolitical aspirations in the Middle East. In this context, the successful conclusions of the negotiations with Iran may be viewed not merely in terms of Obama's legacy or resolving the nuclear issue for some time, but as an effort to change the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

There is, however, another possible outcome to this approach that may not be so positive. We can compare beleaguered Iran with Russia at the end of the Cold War. In contrast with the aftermath of the Second World War when the main enemies of the West, namely Germany and Japan, were effectively defeated and then incorporated in the Western sphere of influence, Russia was treated as an equal after the collapse of the USSR. The West did not assert their victory (they could not effectively do that due to Russia's nuclear weapons) but treated Russia very much as an equal. At first, it seemed that Russia would accept Western values and become a democracy - but that is not what happened in the end. Russia is rising again as an opponent of the West and commentators now talk of a new "Cold War".

What would Iran do? In my opinion, this approach will not result in Iran becoming part of the Western sphere of influence. In spite of any agreement with the P5+1 countries (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e. the US, Britain, France, Russia, China as well as Germany), Iran will assert their own (new-found) position and try to extend their influence even further. The only way in which Iran would become included in the Western world is when they are defeated in war (as was the case with Germany and Japan). If this does not happen, they would take exactly the same route as Russia after the Cold War. They would take care of their own interests - which would be to consolidate their position.

Since Iran is not as powerful as China, the China-card option will not work with them - they know that any distance between them and Russia would leave them vulnerable to future Western demands and actions. One can, therefore, expect that Iran will not allow the West to drive a wedge between them and Russia. They would rather try to consolidate their new role as one of the most important players in the Middle East.

The war scenario

One possible scenario is that the Middle Eastern situation regarding Iran is defused by an agreement between Iran and the P5+1. This would effectively mean that the other Middle Eastern countries (grudgingly) accept the new hegemony of Iran over large parts of the Middle East. This may mean that some agreement between the moderate rebels, whose power has been significantly reduced by the al-Nusra and Syrian regime forces, and the Assad regime has to be reached. If Iran can achieve this, they would be able to further consolidate their power. They could, for example, enhance the military capabilities of their partners - which would put further pressure on Saudi-Arabia and Israel. They have already deployed heavy weapons, including missile systems, in the conflict in Iraq (Fajr-5 artillery rockets and Fateh-110 missiles are mentioned). If this process continues unchecked, Iran's offensive capabilities in the region may eventually overshadow that of the Sunni block (such a change in the balance of power in the Middle East may also upset this peaceful scenario).

Another scenario is that the situation in the Middle East is not defused even when an agreement is reached. Although the Obama administration may confirm the outcome through a UN resolution, this may not dissolve the tension that Iran's increased projection of power in the Middle East has caused - it could even increase such tension if the Sunni block (and Israel) feels that their core interests have been compromised. An increase in Iran's power in the Middle East may force a future US administration to become more aggressively involved to counter the Iranian influence - especially insofar as Israel, Syria and even Yemen are concerned. That may mean that an agreement with Iran may eventually be regarded in similar terms than the Munich Agreement of 1938 which led the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to proclaim "peace for our time", but which ended in World War II. In that case, Obama would be remembered in the same way as Chamberlain (in fact, Obama referred to Chamberlain's words during his last inauguration speech).

The scenario that is especially dreadful, is the one that ends in another great war. The greatest potential for escalation in this regard is probably in the context of the Syrian civil war (although the Yemen situation is also escalating fast). The US has belatedly decided to start official training of moderate rebels - to assist in the fight with IS (but not against the Assad regime). Although the Obama administration would probably try to keep it at that, the possibility is not excluded that they would at some stage have to support such forces against the Assad regime (both the Turks and the Saudis strongly support military engagement against the Assad regime). That could lead to a dramatic escalation in the conflict.

The reason why the conflict in Syria has the potential for such escalation is that Iran is so deeply involved. Once the US-led coalition decides to include the Assad-regime with IS as a target for attack (maybe under the next US administration), this will bring the US and its Arab partners in conflict with Iran and even Russia. (Although the conflict in Yemen may escalate in that direction, this would not involve Russia as long as it is contained to that area). Iran would try to disrupt such an effort against Assad, using their partners to destabilize other parts of the Middle East. At this point, the conflict can easily escalate into a war between the Iranian led Shiite-axis and the Sunni block supported by the US (and even Israel). One of the reasons why the US tries to stabilize Iraq (over and above improving their ability to fight IS) is to prevent that country from being used as a mere proxy of Iran. But even if the Iraqi army becomes a powerful and neutral force in the country (as we find in Lebanon), Iran would still be able to call upon the powerful Popular Mobilization Committee - at the very least to provide soldiers for battle.

Such a Middle Eastern War could escalate to include other important countries in the same manner that happened during the Vietnam War. In this regard, one can expect that an Iran-Russia-China axis could come into being. This will bring NATO into the picture. Even without going into detail, one can imagine that this could change our world for good [2]. One outcome would be that the EU would become much more integrated - even developing a clear military dimension far beyond the current coordination. Another may involve a weakened but resurgent Iran - similar to Germany after the First World War. One thing is sure: Iran's rise has changed the Middle East for decades to come.

A new Persian empire?

At this point, we should consider the current growth of Iranian influence in the Middle East in historical context. We should remember who the Iranians are. Although post-revolutionary Iran is a newcomer on the world scene, the Iranian people have a long and distinguished history. During a visit to this great country, one does not only see the ruins of the palaces of the great Iranian rulers of the past; one also finds a proud nation who remembers those days. Any visitor who leaves without a beautifully illustrated copy of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh - The Epic of the Kings - have truly missed out.

The Iranians did not only give the world a few great empires throughout history; they also constituted a formidable enemy to the Western nations and their empires. The great Persian empires embodied the most important opponents of both the Greeks and the Romans. East and West first met each other when Darius the Great, ruler of the First Persian Empire (539-312 BC), invaded Greece but was halted at Marathon (490 BC). Later Xerxes again invaded Greece (480-479 BC) in the first great confrontation between these powers which eventually led to the formation of the Athenian Empire (448 BC). Later the Parthian empire (250 BC - 224 AD), which included Persia, stopped the eastern expansion of the Roman Empire. This was followed by the Sasanian Empire (also called the second Persian empire; 224-651 AD).

Sasanian Empire in 620 AD [3]
Now, after slumbering for a long time, the Persians are back. In this case, they are using the ties between Shiites to project their power. If one believes that history follows certain patterns, you might see this within the context of the current geopolitical rise of the European Union in the footsteps of the great Greek and Roman empires of old. Is the rise of Iran in some manner linked with that of their ancient foes? Are we once again going to see the same great opposing powers of old rising up to oppose each other? Would a more powerful and politically integrated EU rise from such conflict in a similar manner that the old Athenian empire did? Would the geopolitical map of recent history, in which the United States and Russia became important players, again over the next few centuries give way to a world in which the EU and Iran fill the shoes of the great Roman and Persian empires of old?

At this point, one might add an eschatological perspective to this picture. There is a major current in Biblical eschatology that takes the beast of Revelation 13 as referring to the final (Antichristian) empire of this age. This beast is depicted as combining the various beasts mentioned previously in a prophecy in the Book of Daniel (ch. 7), which are taken as referring to the various great empires that would arise throughout history to rule over Israel. These beasts include a lion (the Babylonian empire), bear (Persian empire), leopard with four heads (Alexander the Great's empire and its divisions) and an enormous beast with ten horns on its head (taken as the Roman empire). The fact that all of these are included in one depiction in Revelation 13 is taken to mean that the final world empire would include the geographical area of all those past empires (see [4]).

As such this final empire will include a re-established Roman empire in Europe that rules over all the areas of the other empires, including that of the Persians. This reminds of the empire of Alexander the Great, who ruled over both west and east. For this to happen, the Western forces would have to eventually include Iran in their family of nations. The current overtures of the Obama administration toward Iran may be the first step towards bringing Iran closer to the West. In the light of the discussion above, I can, however, not see this happening if Iran is not dramatically destabilized or even conquered by Western forces and then integrated into the West (like Germany and Japan after WWII).

This prophecy seems to imply that Iran will never be able to grow a nuclear arsenal which will make such a victory very difficult (but maybe not impossible). The question is when one can expect this prophecy to go into fulfilment if this interpretation is correct? In my view, the world may very well be moving in that direction, but it will take many years for it to come to pass. We also do not know if such a war or wars with Iran lie in the near or distant future. What we do see, is that a resurgent Iran is back on the world stage just as in times of old.


At this point, I have to leave the reader to form his/her own opinion. The analysis given above suggests that we are entering a new phase in world history which might involve more conflict than the previous decades combined. I gave various possible scenarios - without asserting that they are the only ones. The dramatic rise in the power of Iran over the last few years during the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program has already changed the world. There is no turning back. What is strange, is that this is the direct result of the policies of the Obama administration. In trying to make the world a safer place in which the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved, they may have actually made it much more dangerous! In allowing Iran to extend its power up to Saudi-Arabia and Israel's borders, they have sown the seeds for future conflict.

Although the relation with Iran may yet be managed in a peaceful manner, it seems to me that the enormous growth in Iranian influence and power in the Middle East has already upset the balance of power in that region. Once the US-led alliance decides to also focus on the Assad regime (and not only on IS) - to cripple the Iranian axis at its weakest spot - this would bring the Shiite axis in direct confrontation with the Sunni block (although such a confrontation may also evolve out of the conflict in Yemen). At this point, things can easily escalate into chaos - and another great war may ensue. Normally peace follows war; in this case, war may follow the peace effort. The white horse of peace might be followed by the red horse of war!

[1] I have previously said (see [2]) that the Syrian situation may force the US to become involved in the Middle East if some unforeseen incidents require that. This happened after IS suddenly conquered large geographical areas in Syria and Iran and the US brought a wide coalition of Sunni states together in the war against IS.
[2] See Is A Third World War Brewing?
[3] Map was taken from Wikipedia
[4] The rise of the final world empire: the different views

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (ref.