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Iran’s Strategic Depth Expands from Yemen and Africa to the Mediterranean Coast

 
Filed under: Iran, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Iran’s Strategic Depth Expands from Yemen and Africa to the Mediterranean Coast
Raeesi and Khamenei: Iran’s “strategic depth” is Yemen and Africa. (Iranian press)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 19, No. 11

  • Ayatollah Ebrahim Raeesi, head of Iran’s judiciary, said in June 2019, “Today the Iranian border is what the Islamic Republic defines as its “strategic depth” – Yemen and Africa are (our) strategic borders.” Mohammed Reza Nakdi, vice-commander of the Revolutionary Guard for coordinating forces, stated that the Revolutionary Guard “reaches as far as the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.”
  • Hossein Salami, present commander of the Revolutionary Guard, stated in January 2018 that Iran has managed to wage war on its enemies far from its geographic borders, and countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as contested areas in Yemen, have become Iran’s first line of defense. This was the “skill of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” which managed to “tie up its enemies on many, varied fronts….And as the Revolution expands, its level of friction with its foes proportionally grows.”
  • In accordance with this perception, Iran is continuing to arm the Palestinian terror organizations in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah to wear Israel down through incessant conflict. According to the Iranian strategy, this will weaken Israel’s ability to respond militarily.
  • The current harsh sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Iran and its leadership and the ongoing erosion of its oil profits have not significantly affected Iran’s continuing assistance to its cohorts in the Middle East. It appears that Iran has even increased its aid, primarily through expanding the operations of the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE and providing assistance to the Palestinian organizations and Hizbullah.
  • Recent statements on “strategic depth” and military operations (attacks on tankers, missiles fired at Saudi Arabia, targeted attacks in Iraq, continued support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad) are evidence of Iran’s perception of national security – as a regional power acting to protect its borders.

Ayatollah Ebrahim Raeesi, head of Iran’s judiciary, stated at the beginning of June 2019, “During the Iran-Iraq war, the south and west of Iran were the borders of the state (within which the war was waged), but today the Iranian border is what the Islamic Republic defines as its “strategic depth”– Yemen and Africa are (our) strategic borders.” In this context, Mohammed Reza Nakdi, vice-commander of the Revolutionary Guard for coordinating forces, stated that the Revolutionary Guard “reaches as far as the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.”1

Raeesi, whose name has been mentioned as one of the possible heirs of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, firmly dismissed the possibility of Iran entering negotiations with the United States following heavy pressure exerted by the U.S. administration. Raeesi was giving a speech at a mass burial ceremony (on June 27, 2019) in Tehran for 150 casualties of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the body parts of whom were recently located. That week, Iran also marked Judiciary Week, and the words of its leader were widely reported. Raeesi also met with Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Raeesi called upon the leaders of the regime in Tehran and the Reformist faction in President Hassan Rouhani’s government “to forget the option of dialogue with the enemies” because “Iran’s current power is the result of strategic resistance and not of negotiation.” It should adhere to this firmly because “only in the manner of stubbornness and resistance can Islamic Iran advance its goals.” According to him, Iran is “in a position of power” and is benefiting from “strategic continuity,” while the enemy is relying on weak elements such as the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Raeesi also declared, “All nations seeking justice in the region and the world” are standing by Iran and supporting its positions.

According to Raeesi, “Iran has not fallen into the clutches of the United States as President Bush hoped, but has been liberated from the Americans.”  U.S. policy toward Syria has also been a serious failure due to Iranian determination to lead the Syrian people to victory, Raeesi claimed, and in the end, Syria was not defeated by ISIS.

The Deal of the Century Has Failed

Regarding the issue of the Palestinians, Raeesi said that the U.S. president did not learn his lesson from the failures of his predecessors and aspired to make a deal with Palestine known as “the deal of the century.” According to Raeesi, “He will fail, and Iran desires to dictate the facts on the ground, especially in light of the united front of all the Palestinian parties against this deal. The period we are in now will bear witness to the liberation of Palestine and the holy Quds (Jerusalem), because God is on the side of the strong men and women in the frontline of the resistance…”2

The expansion of Iran’s defense lines.
The expansion of Iran’s defense lines.
(European Council on Foreign Relations, ecfr.eu)3

Iran’s First Line of Defense Is Far from its Geographic Borders

This is not the first time that the leaders of Iran have referred to Iran’s “strategic depth,” which deviates from the country’s geographic borders. Hossein Salami, present commander of the Revolutionary Guard, stated in January 2018 that Iran has managed to wage war on its enemies far from its geographic borders, and countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as contested areas in Yemen, have become Iran’s first line of defense. This was the “skill of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” which managed to “tie up its enemies on many, varied fronts….And as the Revolution expands, its level of friction with its foes proportionally grows.”4

Gen. Nasser Shabani, commander of the Research Center for Defense and Security at Imam Hossein University (of the Revolutionary Guard), said in August 2018 that Lebanon, through Hizbullah, and Yemen, through the Houthis (Ansarullah), have become “the regional continuation” of Iran. Shabani revealed, “We asked the Houthis to strike two Saudi tankers, and this was done… Hizbullah in Lebanon and Ansarullah in Yemen are the mainstays of Iran in the region….” (The Fars news agency of the Revolutionary Guard, which published Gen. Shabani’s remarks, erased the original report and published it in a different format.)

In recent years, such expressions have certainly reflected the Iranian perception of security, which attempts to conduct its conflicts beyond Iran’s geographic borders. Iran is translating this policy into action by helping to undermine the sources of power in the Middle Eastern region and even beyond, in Africa and Latin America (Venezuela). In accordance with this perception, Iran is continuing to arm the Palestinian terror organizations in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah to wear Israel down through incessant conflict. According to the Iranian strategy, this will weaken Israel’s ability to respond militarily. Iran considers this assistance as part of the struggle against Israel that it aspires to lead due to the weakness of the Sunni leaders in the region.

It should be emphasized that the current harsh sanctions imposed by the U.S. administration on Iran and its leadership (including against Supreme Leader Khamenei’s financial empire) and the ongoing erosion of its oil profits have not significantly affected Iran’s intention to continue assisting its cohorts in the Middle East. It appears that Iran has even increased its aid, primarily through expanding the operations of the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and providing assistance to the Palestinian organizations and Hizbullah.

Recent statements from Iran about the continuation and intensification of activities in the Middle East as part of Iranian security strategy are a major rejection of the final six points out of the 12 that were presented by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo5 in 2018, which called for:

  1. Iran must stop supporting militant groups, including Hizbullah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
  2. Iran must respect Iraqi sovereignty and permit the demobilization of the Shiite militias it has backed there.
  3. Iran must stop sending arms to the Houthis and work for a peaceful settlement in Yemen.
  4. Iran must withdraw all forces under its command from Syria.
  5. Iran must end support for the Taliban and stop harboring al Qaeda militants.
  6. Iran must end support by its paramilitary Quds Force for militant groups. Iran must end its threats to destroy Israel and stop threatening international ships. It must end cyberattacks and stop proxies from firing missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The worsening economic situation is affecting the citizens of Iran as a result of severe U.S. sanctions, and U.S. envoy Brian Hook recently reported that Iran had lost over $50 billion in oil profits alone since the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.6 Yet, Iran has not only refrained from showing any public sign of flexibility toward the United States, but it has even escalated its extreme rhetoric at the price of risking a military conflict with the United States and deepening its economic crisis.

At the same time, it is apparent that Iran has not yet closed the door on negotiations with the United States and it is trying, through operations on the ground, public statements, and diplomatic moves toward Europe, Russia, and China to continue to clarify the possibility of utilizing political processes against the United States regarding the nuclear deal. In this context, it should be noted that President Trump’s meeting on June 30, 2019, with the North Korean leader in his territory were headlines in the written and broadcast Iranian media.

In Iran, there is a struggle between President Rouhani and his government, who support maintaining the nuclear deal and possibly even renewing negotiations over it and all of Pompeo’s 12 points to save Iran from its increasing economic crisis, and the Revolutionary Guard and conservative sources, who express, at least publicly, strong opposition to any negotiations with the American “Devil.” In any case, both sides are obligated to maintain main parts of the Iranian nuclear plan for the long term in any possible scenario of negotiations.

Recent statements on “strategic depth” and military operations (attacks on tankers, missiles fired at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, targeted attacks in Iraq, continued support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad) are intended to explain to the United States that Iran is filling the position of regional power. Protecting its “strategic depth” is part of its perception of national security. It is protecting its borders, and it is not possible to resolve disputes in the region without Iran’s involvement.

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Notes