So, I have been asked to cover the regional implications of the question of Iran. Is Iran heading for a collapse? Because Iran, since 1979, has been determined to have a grip on the Middle East region. You know, the Iranians have a constitution and one of the elements of the Iranian Constitution is the export of the Islamic Revolution. People forget that. They don’t like to know that, so the question of how economic change in Iran affects the ability of Iran to export its revolution is really critical.
There’s a second element here. You know, you all remember when complaints were voiced with respect to the JCPOA. When the first complaints were voiced about the JCPOA, one of the underlying assumptions that I would call the intellectual substructure of the whole effort was that Iran would now become a more moderate country. This became revealed in a very important article in The New York Times Magazine about the activities of Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser of the United States under the Obama administration but really dealt with selling the JCPOA to the media. If you look at the article by Samuels about Ben Rhodes in his role, you’ll see that one of the decisions they made was to talk about the interaction between the Iran agreement and the future expected moderation of Iran. Of course, one didn’t see one iota of evidence that Iran was shifting its direction in terms of its regional activism. In fact, all the evidence pointed in a totally different direction. I was looking at the Iranian state budget for 2017-2018. They run it from March to March. There you saw increases and the funds made available to the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards. You also saw increases for ballistic missile forces. By the way, some of this also is evident in the discussion about the upcoming budget for 2018-2019. Iran was relying on having more cash on hand for the export of the revolution, in short for making trouble in the Middle East. If Iran doesn’t have the cash available, the question that immediately arises is: will Iran’s behavior, or Iran’s impact on the region, change? It’s my view that Iran has made a priority of the funds that it gives to the Revolutionary Guards, to the Qods force, to the acquisition of armaments with strategic reach, and it will be extremely reluctant to cut back those programs. The people in the street, I think, are basically aware of it, so it will create internal difficulties for Iran.
Now, are there theaters that will be affected most directly? Back in 2010, the Iranians announced something called “the axis of resistance,” and those were the areas where they expected to have a strategic impact on the internal situation. The most important example of this to Israel is Syria and Lebanon – Lebanon, where Hizbullah was born as an outgrowth of Iranian military power. People forget that the Revolutionary Guards were already stationed in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon in 1983. They didn’t wait for a much longer period of time. And in Syria, part of our entire national discussion in Israel today is about the growth of the Iranian presence – Iranian military bases, Iranian military deployments, and the deployment of another phenomenon that has been evident in the last number of years, and those are the Shiite militias. The Shiite militias come from a number of countries with Shia as either majorities or, in most cases, minorities. But I’m speaking about Shia militias that come out of Iraq, that come out of Yemen, out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. People forget that as a result of the war between the Taliban and Iran, there are large numbers of refugees, Afghan refugees living in Iran, and these people are easily exploited for Shia militias and they have been brought into Syria. Iran has also been interested in ethnic cleansing. Who are the Arabs that have been leaving Syria either for Jordan for Turkey or for Europe? I’m sure if somebody did a systematic poll, they would find out they’re Sunni Arabs. And who have come in? Shiites. And so, the whole ethnic composition of Syria is going through a dramatic change. This is also part of the Iranian program.
Now Iran has tried, Iran has probed in other areas that generally have not been in the headlines. We know from our own contacts that the Iranians have made an effort to spread Shia Islam in eastern Turkey. I’d like to see what President Erdogan has to say about that. They have also been busy over the last number of years in making offers to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with the idea being that Iran wants to increase pilgrimage tourism in southern Jordan. Now, what is in southern Jordan? Before I looked into it, I thought there’s just a lot of sand, but actually southern Jordan is full of shrines – shrines of individuals who in the seventh century were companions of the Prophet Mohammad. For example, you all know that in Shia Islam, Ali the cousin of Mohammad, who was married to Muhammad’s daughter, has a special place as being the first Imam and the successors of Shia leadership come out of the descendants of Ali, including Husain, Hasan, etc. etc. So it turns out, where is Ali’s older brother, Jaffar bin abu Talib? Where’s he buried? In Jordan. That’s like the royal family of Shiism, and therefore that would be a perfect place for Iranian pilgrims to arrive. Now, the arrival of Iranian pilgrims is not just, “Let’s go to Disney World.” It happens to be something that can lead to the penetration of a country. For example, there is the Zainab shrine outside of Damascus, which the Iranians have made not just a big deal about religiously, but they keep having to put in forces to protect the Zainab shrine from potential Sunni extremists. So, the existence of Shia shrines in a Sunni country or in a mixed country is a way that Iran penetrates and has influence in that country. Iran has been allocating in its annual budget’s money for the propagation of the Shiite faith. That’s exactly where this fits in.
Now, luckily, King Abdullah has had the wisdom to not be tempted by these Iranian offers for pilgrimage. Clearly, Jordan could use the funds and has needed the funds all along, but he has refused this offer and the offers that have been made by the Iranians to supply Jordan with gas, with oil. He understood implicitly the dangers of Iranian penetration. Iran has had a number of setbacks, too. Probably its biggest setback is Sudan, which you might remember was pro-Iranian for many years. In fact, this gave Hamas special access to Sudan. Iranian ships could come through from the Gulf from Bandar Abbas, up into the Red Sea, reach Port Sudan, and unload weaponry for Hamas. Well, that line of supply has been cut. Why? Because Sudan decided to break away from the axis of resistance, and it joined with the pro-Saudi axis in the Yemen War.
There are many places where the Iranians are active, but one other that I wanted to point out. You might recall that Morocco about seven years ago cut diplomatic relations with Iran, largely because the Iranians are very busy trying to propagate the Shiite faith and convert Sunnis into Shiites. The Moroccans got wind of what the Iranians were doing and cut diplomatic relations. Well they restored them about a year ago. But then again, the Iranians were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, meaning that the Iranians were seeking to develop a strategic relationship with the Polisario, who are the guerrilla force fighting for the “liberation” of Western Sahara. I say “liberation” in quotation marks. Western Sahara is under Moroccan sovereignty, and Morocco is determined to keep Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. But as a result of this new connection between Iran and the Polisario, which has been run out of the Iranian embassy in Algiers, there has been a growing tension between Morocco and Iran. Most importantly for our discussion today, it shows the extent of the Iranian outreach in the Middle East, and clearly that outreach requires money. It requires income, and if the income is cut, the Iranian ability to engage in that kind of troublemaking is more limited. I still believe, and I said this earlier, the Iranians prioritize forces like the IRGC, like the Qods force, and if the supermarkets are a little bit barren, so what? It’s these ideological aspects of policy that interest the Iranian leadership, that interest the Supreme Leader, and not questions of what the people need, and you see in the protests a definite awareness of this choice. I believe it’s extremely important for the West to tighten the sanctions regime as much as possible, to make what they call in the West a choice of “guns and butter.” You can’t have both. Well, you can’t have revolution and no oil income, and the more that that choice, the more that that reality, is presented to the Iranians at present, the more Iranians feel, and upper echelons in Iran feel, that Iran is in danger of if not a collapse then certainly a weakening of its economic infrastructure, and then we have more of a chance of doing what the JCPOA was supposed to do, and that is create more moderate behavior by the Iranian leadership.