Iranian expansionism in the Middle East is the best proof that if anyone is counting on a new Iran emerging, they are making a serious mistake. Iran will not abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Looking back to the earliest agreements between the superpowers over nuclear weapons, Washington was in a tough diplomatic quandary in dealing with Moscow, one not very different from its hard dilemmas it faces today in its negotiations with Tehran.
When the U.S. completed its talks with the Soviet Union in 1971 that led to the famous SALT I Treaty, its architect, Dr. Henry Kissinger, wanted to be certain that the USSR was not going to exploit detente with the West by continuing its military encroachments beyond its borders. He hoped that a parallel understanding in this area, known as “Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet Relations,” would either establish that a true detente had been reached or would provide a basis for rallying the Western powers against any Soviet aggression in the future.
What Kissinger wanted to prevent was exactly what happened in the years that followed. U.S. presidents signed new agreements limiting their nuclear arsenals, but in the meantime the Soviets and their surrogate forces moved into Angola, Mozambique, the Horn of Africa and finally at the end of the decade the Russians invaded Afghanistan.
As a consequence of these developments, detente collapsed. As further diplomacy lost all credibility, the U.S. Senate rejected the next Soviet-American arms agreement, the SALT II Treaty. Kissinger at least established the idea that it was completely untenable that there could be nuclear talks on the one hand, while on the other hand one of the parties was engaged in transparent effort to alter the balance of power.
Today, the U.S. and its partners in the P5+1 (the U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany) are anxious to conclude a final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Yet while these talks have been underway, Iran has been busily backing its regional surrogates with weapons shipments, training, and even direct military intervention with the deployment of Iranian boots on the ground.
Looking around the Middle East, Iranian activism has not at all abated since contacts to resume the current P-5+1 negotiations resumed in 2013. In Lebanon, Iran first deployed its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps back to 1982 when it helped recruit Shiite forces to attack the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and the American Embassy. These forces were armed, financed and trained by the Iranians and formed an organization known as Hezbollah. But they are used to this very day to advance Iranian interests across the Middle East.
In Iraq, Iranian forces began operating freely since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and posed a direct threat to British and American troops at the time. But last year Tehran moved Revolutionary Guard battalions across the border to defend Baghdad and Shiite holy cities, like Najaf and Kerbala, from Islamic State. In December, an Iranian general was killed in the Iraqi holy city of Samarra, the burial place of the 10th and 11th imams. Further north, Revolutionary Guard units have not only helped the beleaguered army of Bashar Assad in Syria, they have actually engaged in combat operations along with their Hezbollah allies against its Sunni Arab population.
Even in Jordan, the Iranians have tried to carve out for themselves an area of influence. They have been promoting the idea of Iranian “religious tourism” to the shrines of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions in southern Jordan. In 2013, Jordanian Takfiris, Sunni hard-liners, burned the shrine of the older brother of Ali, regarded by Shiites as the first imam, who is buried near the Jordanian city of Kerak. Should acts like this persist, Iran will find a way to carve out a presence with the excuse that it must protect the shrines of Shiite Islam.
Bahrain, with its Shiite majority population and Sunni rulers, is still a favorite target of Iranian subversion. One of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s key advisers, who was also his candidate for president of Iran, argued in 2009, that Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran. In 2013, according to the head of Bahraini intelligence, terrorist cells in Bahrain that had been captured were run by the Revolutionary Guard. Iranian weapons ships that have been captured were not only bound for Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, but also for Bahrain and Yemen. In early 2013, the U.S. Navy and Yemeni forces intercepted an Iranian weapons ship within Yemeni territorial waters.
Indeed, the most dramatic demonstration of Iranian intervention that occurred this year was the fall of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to Iranian-backed Shiite rebels from the Houthi clan. According to an account in the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat, on Jan. 19, among the demands of the Houthi rebels to the Yemeni president was that they be given control of Bab al-Mandab, the strategic naval choke-point through which oil tankers carrying three to four million barrels per day move from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and on to world markets. While this conflict began as a local war, the Houthi demands exposed a clearly Iranian agenda to gain control of the most important sea lanes that are vital to the global economy.
It is no wonder that a member of the Iranian Parliament who is close to Ayatollah Khamenei defiantly declared not long ago that “three Arab capitals have already fallen into Iran’s hands,” hinting that a fourth capital, namely Sanaa, was on the way. For those in the West who are still in a state of denial about the Iranian role in these insurgency wars, in late January, Khamenei’s personal representative to the Guard’s Qods Force, Ali Shirazi, openly admitted: “The Islamic Republic directly supports the Houthis in Yemen, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and the popular forces in Syria and Iraq.”
Last November, Khamenei himself called for arming the Palestinians in the West Bank, just as in the Gaza Strip. In essence, he has been seeking to open another front with Israel. In the meantime, this month’s incident on the Golan Heights, in which another Iranian general along with Revolutionary Guard officers were killed, provided a tangible illustration that Iran was seeking to further spread its military reach to new parts of the Middle East, especially those near Israel’s borders, which were previously beyond its influence.
What all this Iranian military activism demonstrated was that the Iranian leadership is determined to emerge as the hegemonic power dominating the Middle East. Back in July 1991, Khamenei gave an interview to the Iranian daily, Ressalat, in which he asked a rhetorical question about the ultimate purpose of Iranian strategy: “Do we look to preserve the integrity of our land or do we look to its expansion?” His answer was simple and direct: “We must definitely look to expansion.”
All of this is directly connected to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P-5+1. In a disturbing article in Politico published last week, Dennis Ross, who served under President Barack Obama, catalogued (along with two other former officials) the many concessions that the West has made to Iran during their nuclear negotiations: The P-5+1 agreed to allow the Iranians to continue to enrich uranium (even though this contravened six U.N. Security Council resolutions that had been adopted in the previous decade). Unfortunately, the West did not demand that the Iranians significantly cut back the number of centrifuges they possess; it did not require the Iranians to dismantle any of their nuclear facilities, like Fordo, although this was raised at an earlier stage of the negotiations. In short, the U.S. and its allies made all the concessions, while Iran gave nothing in return.
If a future agreement between the P-5+1 and Iran will not seriously scale back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, then how is it to make the world more secure? How will the agreement make it difficult for Iran to eject the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as did North Korea, and race to complete an atomic bomb? In his new book, “World Order,’ Kissinger writes that in the U.S. there are those who apparently believe that the nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran are transforming the relationship between the two and that this change will compensate the West for abandoning its past policies on Iran’s nuclear program. They rely on a new Iranian foreign policy of “mutual acceptance” emerging as a result of the negotiating process.
Iranian expansionism in the Middle East in 2015 is the best proof that if anyone is counting on a new Iran emerging, and that this change will safeguard any future agreement, they are making a serious mistake. An Iran which still seeks to become the hegemonic power in the Middle East in order to dominate its neighbors will not abandon its nuclear ambitions. With sanctions removed, it will race to complete its nuclear weapons program, through which it will further establish its dominant role in the region. It is for this reason that if at the end of the day the West powers reach a bad agreement of this sort, it would be better that they reach no agreement at all.