Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
People do not understand what it means to leave Iran inside of Syria as currently envisioned by the Great Powers. Actually, to get a sense of what the full implications of that move mean for the Middle East, it’s useful to look at Lebanon back in 1982 when the Iranians established themselves in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and from that position established, in a few short years, Hizbullah, a guerrilla army that served as a surrogate for Iran – not only affecting Lebanon, but affecting the entire Middle East. Why was Hizbullah created? The Iranians have a theological doctrine called Vilayat-e Faqih – the rulership of the jurisprudent – which simply means that the head of the Iranian government, the Supreme Leader, is a global leader of all Muslims. When, for example, Shia in Lebanon refused to accept this new idea, Iran created Hizbullah which would accept the idea of Iranian domination, of Iranian leadership of all Muslims in the Middle East.
Today Israel faces a Hizbullah force in Lebanon alone with over 100,000 rockets and missiles. Back in 2010 the American Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was hosting Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense, and he made this very candid statement that Hizbullah by then had more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world. So already then, the United States judged that Hizbullah had become a significant military force. And, of course, who was pulling the strings of Hizbullah? Iran.
Hizbullah opened wars against Israel. It was originally thought that if Israel withdrew from Lebanon, the Hizbullah problem would go away. But lo and behold, Israel did withdraw from Lebanon back in the year 2000 and the Hizbullah threat only got worse because it had nothing to do with Israel. It had everything to do with Iranian regional ambitions. Even before Hizbullah was formally created, Iran used those forces already back in 1983, to attack the American Embassy in Beirut and to destroy the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing at least 250 U.S. servicemen.
But it didn’t stop there. Iran used Hizbullah to train pro-Iranian agents in the Middle East. For example, everyone remembers Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which hosted U.S. Air Force personnel and many Saudi soldiers, that was attacked in 1996 by a huge truck bomb. Guess where that truck bomb was assembled? It was assembled in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon with the assistance of Hizbullah. So the growth of Hizbullah not only had implications for Israel, but had implications for other countries in the Middle East.
Hizbullah has been actively used in the war in Iraq even against U.S. forces. But it has also been instrumental in places like Bahrain, where Iran doesn’t even recognize the right of Bahrain to exist and sees Bahrain as part of Iran’s future empire. Hizbullah has been active in Yemen. Everyplace you look for Iranian intervention in the Middle East, you will find Hizbullah.
People asked, so what if Iran continues to dominate Syria, what’s going to happen? First of all, this is a whole different order of magnitude in comparison to what we went through with Lebanon. The first thing that Iran needs is to resupply its Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. At present, it has to resupply by air transport, which is not a very reliable system. What Iran is looking for is to have a corridor from Iran, through Iraq, and into Syria which will be under its control, and this will assure continuing Hizbullah activity across the Middle East with assured supply from Tehran.
Beyond creating the supply corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean, Tehran is determined to take Shia forces from around the Middle East and deploy them in Syria, first and foremost against Israel’s north, but with implications for stability in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, as Iran has demonstrated in the past.
Years ago, when the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was sitting with a high-level American official, he criticized U.S. policy in Iraq for having recreated the Safavid Empire. The Safavid Empire was the Persian Empire back in the 16th century. It was then that Shia Islam became the official state religion. It was then, too, that Persian control stretched from parts of Syria; it covered Iraq including Baghdad; it went south into the Persian Gulf; of course it included the island of Bahrain; it stretched into half of Afghanistan and into what used to be referred to as Soviet Central Asia. This was a huge state that still is in the fond memories of many in the Iranian leadership. Just as Lebanon became a base for Iranian operations across the Middle East, leaving Iranian forces in Syria will create a challenge on a much greater scale than we have already seen. This will pose a direct threat to the future security of Israel, but also the security of Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The bottom line is: Iranian forces must be withdrawn from Syria back to Iran. If the Great Powers leave Iran in Syria, they are setting the stage for the next great crisis in the Middle East, which will be far larger than anything we have seen until now.