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Iran & the Region: Four-Part Series

The following is a four-part series exploring Iran's interests and activities in the Middle East.

Nasser Hadian

What is Iran’s role in the region?
 
For at least the next 10 or 15 years, the orienting principle of Iran’s foreign policy should be stability. Instability in neighboring countries can create security problems for Iran, so the overarching objective is to act as a stabilizing force in the region. This possibly guides U.S. policy as well, since the United States would also like to see a more stable Middle East.
 
Look at what is happening in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is in transition. Iran is getting frightened. Considering the multi-ethnic nature of Iranian society, no matter how strong the state is, there is a reason to be concerned. Instability in the region might have a trickle-down effect on Iran’s security. So stabilizing the region will be the main guiding principle of Iran’s foreign policy for the next several years.
 
Iran is not necessarily looking for Islamic governance in any country. Iran would prefer a country with a revolutionary Islamic government, challenging the U.S. and the world order. But Iran is also realistic enough to know that’s not always a possibility. Iran basically wants a non-ideological government, whether it has an Islamic tone as in Turkey or under [former President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed] Morsi in Egypt, or a secular regime like Bashar Assad.
 
What are the top foreign policy issues for Iran today?
 
The nuclear issue is number one. The next priority is Iraq, followed by Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, which are equal priorities. After that, Iran is worried about Pakistan.
 
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain are not top priorities right now. Iran doesn’t feel the same urgency to deal with those issues.
 
What is Iran’s role in Iraq?
 
Iran’s view is that the territorial integrity of Iraq should be preserved, so Iran is helping the central government logistically, financially, and politically. That’s exactly what Iran did by helping the transition process from Prime Minister Maliki to Prime Minister Abadi. And there’s a famous saying that Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani called the Americans for help, and they didn’t come. They called the Turks, and they didn’t come. But when they called Iran, [Qods Force commander General] Qassem Soleimani was there eight hours later. The Qods Force and Revolutionary Guards are in Iraq in an advisory role, but they are not engaged in fighting.
 
Iran is also mobilizing Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. Iran is in contact with Sunni tribesmen to get their support for the central government. Iran also persuaded the Kurds to remain part of Iraq.
 
The Qods Forces are in close contact with a number of Iraqi militias. Those links are so strong that Iranian forces don’t need to fight in Iraq. For instance, the Badr Brigades brigades were organized in Iran. It’s not just up to Iran to order them around; they are very much within the Iranian power structure. They can influence and shape Iranian policy towards Iraq.
 
Where does Iran share interests with the United States?
 
Iran makes its policy decisions in Iraq independent of the United States. They can cooperate with one another on some issues. For instance, they have a shared interest in fighting ISIS, so they coordinate through the Iraqi government, but not directly with each other. Neither wants to create the impression among Sunnis that Shiites are cooperating with the West to suppress ISIS. So the United States and Iran are very careful to take a strong position against each other.

What is Iran doing in Syria, and to what extent is it wedded to the Assad regime?
 
One of Iran’s goals in Syria is reducing the power of the presidency. Iran is not committed to keeping Assad in power. It’s entirely feasible to see Assad stepping down when he finishes his term, if he can be persuaded to make a face-saving exit. But he would be allowed to finish his term, as a practical measure.
 
The sudden removal of Assad as a figurehead would mean there is a good chance the whole regime would collapse, which neither the United States nor Iran wants. It would make the situation even more chaotic. Finding a way for the regime to be preserved, but for Assad to leave, is one proposal Iran is considering. This could include reducing the power of the presidency, decentralizing power, and allowing the rational opposition to participate in government. Realistically, there are only two options: ISIS or Assad. It is wishful thinking that the Free Syrian Army could succeed, so adopting these measures is more practical and would help isolate and defeat ISIS.
 
The four key regional and international players – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States – have to deal with the issue. If the Saudis are reluctant, they could be replaced by the Turks. If they agree on a plan, Iran and Russia are in a position to persuade Assad to accept it, and the United States and Saudi Arabia are in a position to gain cooperation from the Free Syrian Army.
 
In Yemen, the Houthis have emerged over the last 6 months as a dominant player. They now control the capital. What is Iran doing in Yemen? What does Iran want to see happen?
 
I cannot imagine that Iran is not involved in Yemen, especially since the Houthis seized power so quickly. But it’s probably not to the extent that the West believes. Iran is probably advising the Houthis militarily, likely through the Qods force. But Iran’s plate is already full dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Iran cannot play a very active role in Yemen. And the Houthis actually don’t need that much help. They are probably receiving money, but not arms – they are already well armed. The point is that they have their own grievances, their own organization, and their own reasons to rebel. So Iran is probably not spending that many resources in Yemen.
 
Iran is not concerned about who is in power in Yemen as long as the government has a good, friendly relationship with Iran. Iran is not necessarily looking for an Islamic government or a Houthi government – it realizes the Houthis are a minority.
 
The rise of the Houthis is more an indication of the failure of Saudi Arabia’s influence than the success of Iran’s policy. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are linked to one another, and the Saudis have channeled a lot of resources to Yemen.
 
Iran does not consider Saudi Arabia a threat, but the Saudis felt threatened by Iran even under the shah. Since the revolution, they have taken all sorts of measures to contain Iran’s influence. They are spending money in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, principally to counter Iran. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council was part of that as well. They want to contain Iran and limit its resources. For the Saudis, the cost of that action is what’s going on in Yemen.
 
Tension has defined relations with Saudi Arabia for some time. What does Iran want from Saudi Arabia?
 
Iran wants a normal relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it wants a Saudi government that is not against Iran in principle. It does not want Saudi Arabia to challenge Iran economically, politically, and militarily. Take Syria, for example. Iran supports Assad and Hezbollah as a way of deterring Israeli attacks against Iran. It’s not about the Saudis.
 
But why do the Saudis want Assad removed from power? It’s not because Saudi Arabia is democratic and Assad’s regime is not. It’s about reducing Iran’s influence. They want Assad to step down because he has a good relationship with Iran. Iran is not challenging the Saudis, but they are challenging Iran.
 
What does Iran want in Lebanon?
 
Iran would like to see a friendly and working government there, but it doesn’t matter if the government is being controlled by Sunnis, Christians, or Hezbollah – as long as Hezbollah remains a strong military force to deter Israeli attacks.
 
Iran has two modes of defense against Israel. One is conventional missiles, which are not very precise. The other is Hezbollah. So Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles have a far more reliable deterrent capability than Iran’s own missiles. If you want to see Iran support a different Hezbollah, or a different Syria, the Israeli threat has to be reduced. In the beginning, after the revolution, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah was ideological. But now it is more pragmatic.
 
Iran does not want to see another confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah – it would be crazy to want that. Hezbollah’s position within Lebanese society would be jeopardized if it was perceived as fighting a proxy war. Iran is spending a lot of money there, not just for military purposes, but also for building infrastructure, schools, and roads. These efforts have been perceived positively by Christians, and even a small minority of Sunnis. Many of them have their own grievances against Israel. Thus Iranian support of Hezbollah has been welcomed by many in Lebanese society.
 
An Iranian general was recently killed on the Golan Heights – what was he doing there? What does Iran want from Israel?
 
The general was helping the Syrians, but that does not include attacks on Israel. Iran has basically been building infrastructure against the Israelis for deterrence. But Iranians and Israelis have both been very careful not to directly engage one another. The confrontation began only a few years ago with the killing of Iranian scientists. The Iranians attempted to retaliate in a very unwise and unsophisticated way in operations abroad. They were an indication that Iran never thought that Israel was going to take direct action against Iran. That’s why they were not prepared.
 
There is not a unified Iranian view in terms of what to do about Israel. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proposed a referendum [among both Israelis and Palestinians] on the Palestinian issue. But former President Mohammad Khatami proposed de facto acceptance of two-state solution. There is actually not that much debate going on in Iran about what to do in Israel. There is so much urgent discussion about other issues that Israel is not as much of a priority as it once was.
 
What does Iran want in Bahrain?
 
What Iran wants is not necessarily a democratic Bahrain, but a fair government that respects the rights of Shiites and gives them more participation in the political process. It’s not about regime change. If Bahrain improves its treatment of Shiites, relations with Iran could improve.
 
It was very humiliating for Iran when the Saudis sent forces into Bahrain. The Bahraini government claimed that Iran was involved there, but it was not – so Iran was made the scapegoat. Iran engaged in the propaganda war very late, after the Saudis and Bahrainis, who took a strong position against Iran.
 
Iran is about to celebrate its 36th anniversary of the revolution. How is Iran’s foreign policy different than it used to be?
 
In the beginning, Iran’s view of the world was idealist, and in action it was principlist. As time passed, Iran became more realist. Iran was idealist throughout the hostage crisis, but in the end acted pragmatically. In the war with Iraq, Iran was still idealist and acted with principlist tendencies. But by the end of war, Iran was realist – no longer idealist. And Iran acted pragmatically to end it.
 
So in terms of foreign policy, Iran was idealist and acted principlist, and as time passed, Iran became realist in its views and then acted pragmatically. The trajectory of both has been moving from idealism and principlism to realism and pragmatism.
 
Nasser Hadian is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 
Photo credits: Leader.ir, Syria-Iran by RonenY [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, Bashar al Assad by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Iran & Region II: Salvaging Iraq

Alireza Nader

What is Iran doing in Iraq? How important is Iran in the ground war against ISIS?
 
 
The Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, is playing a huge role in helping the Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State, especially in Diyala. The Guards are working with the Iraqi central government but they are reportedly heavily reliant on Shiite militias with close ties to Iran. Iran is now arguably the most influential foreign actor in Iraq.
 
 
 
Which Iraqi militias is Iran supporting - and how?
 
Iran is supporting many different militias. Some of the biggest and most prominent are the Badr Organization, Asai’b Ahl al Haq (AAH), Kataib Hezbollah, and various Sadrist elements. They are all Shiite. Certain militias such as the Badr Organization and AAH appear to be taking direct orders from Tehran. The Sadrists have had tensions with Iran before, so they may not be the most reliable of the militias.
 
Where are Iranian forces concentrated? How many are there? What are they doing exactly?
 
Iranian forces have tried to keep a low profile in Iraq, so estimating the number of active Iranians is difficult. But since late 2014, the “martyrdom” of Iranian soldiers and officers has become more common, as has Iran’s publicity about its role. Senior Iranian generals—including General Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force commander—are not only advising Iraqi forces and militias, but also visiting the front lines and allowing photographs near warzones.
 
What are the stakes for Iran in Iraq?
 
Iran does not want the Islamic State or Sunni jihadi and nationalist groups to take over Iraq. Tehran is particularly concerned that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be replaced by a regime hostile to Iran, as was the case during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the subsequent eight-year war, which produced more than 1 million casualties, has always been a major factor in Tehran’s strategic thinking. Many politicians and military commanders now in power were part of the war generation.
 
Iraq and Iran share a 910-mile border that is mostly porous. Iraq’s territorial integrity is critical for Iran too. Shortly after ISIS took significant territory in northern Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi that Iran “considers Iraq's security and stability as its own.”
 
Iran is also concerned about the safety of Shiite holy sites in Sammara, Najaf, and Karbala. The rise of the Islamic State presents Iran with the opportunity to demonstrate to the Iraqis, the Arab world, and the United States that it is an important power in the Middle East and should be recognized and treated as such. From Tehran’s perspective, its intervention could even provide more leverage on other issues, including the nuclear negotiations. “The world has understood the reality that the first country to rush to the help of the Iraqi people in the battle against extremism and terror was the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in December.
 
How does Iran's role in Iraq today differ from its earlier activities during the U.S. intervention?
 
After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iran played a prominent but largely behind-the-scenes role in Iraq. Tehran armed, trained and funded a variety of militias, mostly Shiite but some Sunnis as well. Iranian-backed militias attacked both U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Iran also reportedly funded and advised candidates and brokered alliances, although with mixed success.
 
The dynamics shifted when the U.S. withdrew in 2011. After the Islamic State’s sudden seizure of a large chunk of Iraq in 2014, Iran and the United States actually shared the goal of driving the Sunni extremists out of Iraq. Tehran’s goals were to defeat ISIS, ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity, and maintain Shiite allies in the central government. By early 2015, Iran’s role was much more public than in the past. Tehran actively sought to make sure the world knew it was playing a major role.

How do Iran's actions and goals in Iraq differ from the United States?
 
Both the United States and Iran also share an interest in preserving the Iraqi state. But their goals are not totally aligned. In neighboring Syria, the Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Assad regime, which Iran supports and the United States opposes. Tehran has also pursued a sectarian agenda in its support of Shiite militias, which contributed to greater Sunni dissatisfaction and complicating the fight against ISIS.
 
In contrast, Washington has pushed for an inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian government in Baghdad to address Sunnis grievances.
 
How are U.S. and Iranian actions affecting each other's strategies?
 
Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged that the net effect of Iranian strikes on ISIS “is positive.” But U.S. and Iranian officials have denied rumors that they are coordinating their activities directly, preferring to deal only with Iraqi security forces.
 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Photo credits: Abadi and Rouhani via President.ir

Iran & Region III: Goals in Syria

Alireza Nader

What is Iran doing in Syria? How important is Iran in the ground war?
 
Iran is playing a crucial role in buttressing President Bashar Assad, through military advice, provision of weapons, and funding of the cash-strapped Syrian government. The Assad regime might not survive without support of Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah.
 
Where are Iranian forces concentrated? How many are there? What are they doing exactly?
 
Some Iranians have been killed in Syria, including Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammed Allahdadi in January 2015. But Iran does not appear to be committing major ground forces to the conflict. Tehran instead prefers to recruit Shiite militias from across the Middle East and even Afghanistan to fight in places like Damascus and Aleppo. Iran’s profile in Syria is lower than its profile in Iraq.
 
What are the stakes for Iran in Syria?
 
 
Iran has sought to protect the dozens of Shiite holy sites in Syria, especially the Zeinab Shrine near Damascus. Tehran used the holy sites to recruit fighters to aid Assad. More importantly, Syria is the geopolitical lynchpin for Iranian influence in the Levant and the wider Arab world. If the Syrian regime fell, the flow of arms and aid to Iran’s most important Arab ally — the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah — would be affected. Hezbollah, which has thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, is the main Iranian deterrence against Israel.
 
 
 

How does Iran's role in Syria today differ from its earlier activities before the war?
 
Iran and Syria have been close allies since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Each has provided the other with critical assistance at various times. Syria was one of only two Arab nations (Libya was the other) to support Iran during the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. It was an important conduit for weapons to an isolated Iran.
 
Over the last decade, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have trained, equipped, and aided Syria’s security and military forces. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims and tourists visited Syria before its civil war, and Iranian companies made significant investments in the Syrian economy.
 
But in the past few years, Iran has played an active role in Syria that few could have imagined before the civil war. “The deep, strategic and historic relations between the people of Syria and Iran ... will not be shaken by any force in the world,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saidshortly after his 2013 inauguration. Tehran appears to be willing to spend billions of dollars to prop up the Assad regime despite its own floundering economy. For now, Iran is fully committed to the fight.

How do Iran's actions and goals in Syria differ from the United States?
 
Iran has opposed U.S. policies on Syria since the conflict broke out. In 2013, Tehran condemned the U.S. move to provide non-lethal aid to rebels for the first time. Iranian officials criticized U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State (ISIS) targets in 2014, despite a shared interest in defeating the militants. Rouhani said the bombardments were illegal because they had not been sanctioned by the Syrian government.
 
Tehran has also argued that the best way to defeat ISIS is to support the Assad government. It has challenged U.S. support for anti-government rebels. “You cannot fight ISIS and the government in Damascus together,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in reaction to the airstrikes.
 
Tehran generally opposes any type of foreign intervention in Syria. But officials have warned the United States in particular not to deploy its forces in the region again.

Tehran welcomed the Assad’s reelection to the presidency in June 2014, while the Washington dismissed the poll. “The elections are non-elections. A great big zero,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. But Tehran may not be fully committed to Bashar Assad as the only leader for Syria, although it wants a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus.  

How are U.S. and Iranian actions affecting each other's strategies?
 
The divide between Iran and the United States in Syria appears to be unbridgeable, but Iran may be flexible in Syria as long as its interests are protected. This may not be palatable for the United States and its allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have long sought to overthrow the Alawite-led regime.
 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 
Photo credits: Leader.ir, Grave of volunteer by Robin Wright

Iran & Region IV: Lebanon's Hezbollah

Nicholas Blanford

Lebanon’s main Islamist party has undergone a profound transformation over the past three decades. Once associated with suicide bombings and hostage-taking, Hezbollah has steadily evolved from an underground movement in 1982 to the dominant political player in Lebanon in 2015. Yet even though Hezbollah was stronger militarily and politically by 2015, it also faced greater challenges than ever before. They ranged from the party’s massive expansion since 2006 to the rising domestic discontent over its refusal to abandon its weapons, which altered the geostrategic balance in the Middle East.

Hezbollah’s role in the region has been particularly controversial. The most powerful regional militia, Hezbollah used its vast arsenal to fight Israel for thirty-four days in 2006. The conflict was Israel’s longest Middle East war and left no clear winner, although Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah emerged afterwards at the top of popularity polls across the region. But its armed intervention in Syria, beginning in 2013, on behalf of President Bashar al Assad deeply tarnished its image among Sunnis across the region as a champion of anti-Israel resistance. By 2015, the party’s has expansion in manpower, military capabilities and funding also produced looser internal controls and made it more susceptible to corruption and penetration by Israel.
 
The movement, created under Iran’s auspices and aid after Israel’s 1982 invasion, reflects the dynamic Shiite dimension of Islamist politics in the Arab world. Hezbollah was inspired by the teachings of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It subscribes to a doctrine known as the velayat-e faqih—or, in Arabic, the wali al-faqih—Khomeini’s theory of Islamic governance, which bestows guardianship of government on a senior religious scholar. Iran remains Hezbollah’s chief ideological, financial, and military supporter. Syria is also a close ally.
 
Hezbollah’s core ideological goals are resisting Israel, establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, and offering obedience to Iran’s supreme leader. But Hezbollah has developed a keen sense of realpolitik that helped shape its political agenda and allowed it to sidestep challenges to its armed status. It long ago accepted, for example, that an Islamic state is not appropriate for Lebanon, and it has considered alternative systems of government.
                                 
Over three decades, Hezbollah's deepening political engagement has transformed it into the main representative of Lebanon’s Shiites, the largest of the country’s seventeen recognized sects. In turn, the movement now needs continued support of the community to ensure its own survival. Yet the interests of its constituents do not always correspond to the agenda of Iran’s leaders, to whom Hezbollah is ideologically beholden. Balancing these rival obligations is a paradox that Hezbollah is finding ever more difficult to reconcile.
 
The Beginning
 
Hezbollah emerged in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but its genesis lay in the Shiite religious seminaries of Najaf in southern Iraq. In the 1960s and 1970s, Lebanese clerical students were influenced by leading Shiite ideologues such as Mohammed Baqr al Sadr and Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadr, a founder of the Party of the Islamic Call, or Hizb al Dawa al Islamiyya, promoted Islamic values as a counterweight to secularism and the leftist ideologies then attracting Arab youth. Khomeini achieved prominence with his doctrine of velayat-e faqih.
 
Lebanese students and teachers in Iraqi seminaries were forced to return home after President Saddam Hussein cracked down on the Shiite clerics in the late 1970s. Some then began to preach the ideas of Khomeini and Sadr to a domestic audience.
 
By the end of the 1970s, three developments helped create fertile ground for the eventual emergence of Hezbollah. One factor was the creation of Amal, the first strong Shiite movement. Amal’s founder was Musa Sadr, a charismatic Iranian-born cleric who tapped into rising anger among Shiites over their repression by other Lebanese sects, particularly Christians and Sunni Muslims. But in 1978, Sadr vanished during a trip to Libya. After his disappearance, Amal drifted in a more secular direction under new leadership, to the dismay of the movement’s Islamists.
 
The second event was Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1978 in a bid to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel installed a security cordon along the border inside Lebanon, which was controlled by an Israeli-backed militia. It was the first time many southern Lebanese lived under occupation.
 
The third crucial event was the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the first modern theocracy replaced the dynastic rule that had prevailed in Iran for more than 2,500 years. The revolution had an electrifying effect on Lebanese Shiites in general and on the clerical followers of Khomeini in particular. Iranian leaders and Lebanese clerics held lengthy discussions about importing the revolution to Lebanon and building an armed anti-Israel movement. Among the Lebanese clerics were Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli, who later became Hezbollah’s first secretary general, and Abbas Musawi, a preacher from the Bekaa Valley village of Nabi Sheet. The idea was delayed by an Iranian power struggle and the beginning of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in 1980.
 
Then Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. Iran immediately offered assistance, dispatching 5,000 Revolutionary Guards to Syria for deployment in Lebanon. But the main fighting soon ended, and most of the Iranians returned home. Aided by Syria, a smaller contingent of Iranians moved into the northern Bekaa Valley to begin mobilizing and recruiting Shiites into a new anti-Israel force that was the basis of what became Hezbollah.
 
By 1983, the nascent Hezbollah’s influence was seeping from the Bekaa Valley into Beirut’s Shiite suburbs and from there further south toward the front line of the Israeli occupation. By 1985, Israel, exhausted by the intensifying resistance campaign, withdrew to a security belt along the Lebanon-Israel border. Hezbollah—along with Amal and secular local resistance groups, which played smaller roles—had more success in pressuring Israel in two years than had the PLO in a decade. Hezbollah won additional support by providing social welfare services to lower-class Shiites.
 
In 1985, Hezbollah formally declared its existence in its “Open Letter,” a manifesto outlining its identity and agenda. The goals included driving Israeli forces from south Lebanon as a precursor to the destruction of the Jewish state and the liberation of Jerusalem. Hezbollah confirmed that it abided by the orders of “a single wise and just command” represented by Ayatollah Khomeini, the “rightly guided imam.”
 
Hezbollah also rejected Lebanon’s sectarian political system and instead advocated creation of an Islamic state. At the same time, the party was careful to emphasize that it did not wish to impose Islam as a religion on anyone and that other Lebanese should be free to pick their preferred system of governance.
 
In formally declaring its existence and goals, Hezbollah emerged from the shadows and demonstrated that it was not a fleeting aberration of the civil war but a force determined to endure.
 
First Phase: Underground
 
Hezbollah’s evolution falls into five distinct phases. The first was from 1982 to 1990 and coincided with the chaotic 1975–90 civil war, during which the Lebanese state had little control. Lebanon was instead carved into competing fiefdoms dominated by militias and occupying armies. These were Hezbollah’s wild days, when it could do as it pleased under Iran’s guidance and Syria’s watchful eye.
 
The movement became synonymous with extremist attacks, including two on U.S. embassies in 1983 and 1984. Its deadliest attacks were the simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the nearby French Paratroop headquarters, which killed 241 American servicemen and sixty-eight French soldiers. From 1984, more than 100 foreigners in Lebanon were kidnapped. Hezbollah denied responsibility, although some of its members were later linked with the attacks.
 
After 1986, Hezbollah dominated the resistance against Israel’s occupation in south Lebanon. But the party’s growing influence in the south also brought it into conflict with the rival Amal movement. In 1988, the two factions fought the first in a series of bloody internecine battles that over the next two years resulted in thousands of dead and generated an animosity that lingered a quarter-century later.
 
Second Phase: Running for Parliament
 
The second phase was from 1991 to 2000, following the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. The restoration of state control sparked a debate within Hezbollah over its future course of action. Hardliners, represented by Sheikh Tufayli, argued that Hezbollah should not compromise its ideological agenda regardless of the nation’s changed circumstances. Others countered that Hezbollah had to adapt to the new situation to protect its “resistance priority”—the right to confront Israel’s continued occupation of the south.
 
The debate played out over whether Hezbollah should run in the 1992 parliamentary election, the first in twenty years. Joining parliament would strengthen Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon, but it would also flout its 1985 manifesto that rejected a sectarian political system. Pragmatists won after receiving the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran’s supreme leader, to participate in the elections. Hezbollah won eight parliamentary seats.
 
Hezbollah also went through a leadership change. A few months before the 1992 election, Hezbollah secretary general Sayyed Abbas Musawi was assassinated in an Israeli helicopter ambush. He was replaced by his protégé, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a 32-year-old cleric.
 
Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah reorganized, adding new bodies to handle its military, political, and social work. It expanded its social welfare activities nationwide to sustain its popular support within the Shiite community. It also launched a television station, Al Manar, as the flagship of its propaganda arm, and opened a media relations office. Hezbollah even began a dialogue with other factions and religious representatives, including Christians.
 
Hezbollah’s newfound pragmatism did not represent an ideological softening or a decision to exchange Islamic militancy for a share of Lebanon’s political space. Hezbollah was instead adapting to postwar circumstances to safeguard the resistance. Shortly after the 1992 election, Nasrallah explained, “Our participation in the elections and entry into [parliament] do not alter the fact that we are a resistance party.”
 
Hezbollah’s resistance efforts actually intensified after 1992. Its hit-and-run guerrilla tactics claimed ever-higher Israeli casualties. In 1993 and 1996, Israel responded with air and artillery blitzes against Lebanon in failed attempts to dent Hezbollah’s campaign.
 
The late 1990s were Hezbollah’s “golden years.” Hezbollah’s military exploits won it admirers across the Arab and Islamic worlds and earned the respect of all Lebanese, even those inclined to view the Shiite party with suspicion. Under growing pressure from Hezbollah, Israel finally ended its occupation in May 2000, the first time that the Jewish state had ceded occupied territory through force of Arab arms.
 
Third Phase: Confrontation
 
The third phase was from 2000 to 2005. With Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah’s reputation had never been higher. But its victory was Pyrrhic. A growing number of Lebanese began questioning why Hezbollah needed to keep arms. Hezbollah countered by citing minor territorial disputes and the number of Lebanese still detained in Israeli prisons. It claimed its weapons were a vital part of Lebanon’s defense. Hezbollah had to make sure that the Israelis did not come back. Many Lebanese accused Hezbollah of serving an Iranian—rather than Lebanese—agenda. But Hezbollah still enjoyed the political cover afforded by Syria, which continued to endorse the party’s armed status.
 
In February 2005, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in a truck bomb explosion. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus, and roughly one-quarter of the country’s population took to the streets in protest. Three months later, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon, ending three decades of military occupation.
 
The sudden loss of Syrian cover compelled Hezbollah to take another step deeper into Lebanese politics to defend its “resistance priority.” It agreed to an alliance with its longtime Amal rival and with the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party led by former General Michel Aoun.
 
After the 2005 parliamentary election, Hezbollah joined the government for the first time. Yet its participation did not defuse the core issue. Over the following months, Lebanese politics grew increasingly rancorous over Hezbollah’s arms. It was the single most divisive national issue.
 
Fourth Phase: War and Rebuilding
 
The fourth phase ran from 2006 to 2012  and included Hezbollah’s biggest military gamble. On July 12, 2006, its militia abducted two Israeli soldiers along the border. The audacious act triggered a devastating month-long war with Israel. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill in south Lebanon and declared a “divine victory”—but at a high cost.
 
More than 1,100 Lebanese died in the war, which also caused billions of dollars of damage. In the face of intense domestic criticism, Hezbollah walked out of the Lebanese cabinet in November 2006. A month later, Hezbollah tried to force the government to resign by organizing a mass protest in central Beirut. The government stood its ground, but political paralysis gripped Lebanon.
 
Tensions between Hezbollah and the central government continued. In 2008, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—son of the slain leader—announced it intended to shut down Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network. Hezbollah reacted by staging a brief takeover of west Beirut, triggering a week of clashes that left more than 100 people dead and brought the country to the edge of civil war. The crisis ended with the formation of a new government and the long-delayed election of a president, Michel Suleiman.
 
In 2009, Lebanon faced a new crisis when a United Nations investigation obtained evidence implicating Hezbollah in the assassination of Rafik Hariri four years earlier. Hezbollah denied the allegations and claimed that the Dutch-based tribunal investigating the case was serving the political interests of the United States and Israel.
 
The Hariri government refused to abandon its support for the tribunal. In January 2011, as the tribunal was preparing to issue its first set of indictments, Hezbollah and its political allies forced a vote of no confidence in the government. The new government was composed of Hezbollah and its allies; it was led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman and political moderate.
 
Fifth Phase: The Syria Intervention
 
The fifth phase began in response to turmoil in Syria. In March 2011, a popular uprising was launched against the Assad regime as the Arab Spring rippled across the Middle East. Hezbollah initially expected it to blow over quickly. But by the end of 2011, the uprising had morphed into a civil war. Within months, Hezbollah began covertly dispatching fighters to assist the Syrian army against nascent rebel groups.
 
In May 2013, Nasrallah admitted that Hezbollah was fully engaged in the Syria war. He argued that the Syrian opposition was composed of radical Sunni groups would take their war to Lebanon after defeating Assad. Many Lebanese were dismayed at the unprecedented military intervention; it breached the Baabda Declaration of 2012, when Lebanese leaders agreed to immunize Lebanon from the conflict tearing apart its larger neighbor.
 
Syria’s conflict spilled over into Lebanon too, deepening political tensions. It contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government in March 2013. Tammam Salam, scion of a notable Beirut family, was appointed prime minister in April 2013, but it took a tortuous ten months for him to form a cabinet. Lebanon faced another political stalemate when its parliament repeatedly failed to elect a new president after Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014. In November 2014, parliament then voted to extend its term for a second time, putting off elections for two years, seven months.
 
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria enraged Sunnis across the region—and produced a backlash. In 2013 and 2014, Sunni radical groups carried out more than a dozen car bombings, most of them suicide attacks, in Shiite areas of Lebanon. Almost 100 people were killed, some 900 were wounded. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other brutal Sunni militias dampened some of the criticism directed at Hezbollah. Shiites and some other Lebanese minorities viewed the party as a protector against Sunni extremists. 
 
Still, by 2015 the rate of Hezbollah casualties was the highest in the party’s history--with no end to the Syrian war in sight. The looming question was how long Hezbollah could afford to remain so heavily engaged in Syria.

Chief Allies
 
Iran was Hezbollah’s main financial, military, and logistical supplier, and Iran’s supreme leader was the party’s ultimate source of authority. Under the late President Hafez al Assad, Syria was Hezbollah’s protector and supervisor. Since Assad’s son Bashar al Assad took over in 2000, Syria became an even closer strategic ally. Syria was the vital geostrategic linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah. It provided strategic depth and a conduit for the transfer of arms, which explained the heavy effort by Iran and Hezbollah to preserve Assad’s regime.
 
The Palestinian Hamas movement and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been allies of Hezbollah since the early 1990s. Both groups benefited from Iranian financial and material patronage. But Hamas, a Sunni movement, did not share the Shiite ideology of Iran and Hezbollah, making Hamas and Hezbollah uncomfortable bedfellows beyond a shared hostility toward Israel.
 
Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, both secular Lebanese political entities, have been allied with Hezbollah since 2005 and 2006, respectively. Hezbollah also maintained alliances with smaller pro-Syrian factions and individuals, Islamist groups, and Palestinian groups.
 
The Future
 
As of early 2015, Hezbollah was arguably the most formidable non-state military actor in the world. It was also the most powerful political force in Lebanon through the force majeure of its armed wing. It had two seats in Salam’s government.
 
Yet down the road, Hezbollah also faces grave challenges that derive from its sometimes conflicting roles as Iran’s surrogate and, at the same time, the chief representative of Lebanon’s Shiites. Iran has helped transform Hezbollah into a robust and unique military force that serves as a component of Iranian deterrence. Hezbollah is also, however, answerable to the needs and interests of its domestic constituency. The paradox is increasingly hard to reconcile, as shown by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syria war.
 
By 2015, Hezbollah’s public standing had also declined somewhat since the heady days of the 1990s. Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm was at the heart of Lebanon’s festering political divide. Over the years, Hezbollah has been sucked ever deeper into the political mire. It considered its shift into the fractious world of Lebanese politics an unfortunate necessity to better defend its “resistance priority.”
 
The Arab Spring presented another set of difficulties for Hezbollah. It supported uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but it was caught off guard by the nationwide Syrian protests. Its belated intervention in Syria to aid the Assad regime eroded the party’s popularity among Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the Syrian opposition, and in the Arab world as the regional tensions increased between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.
 
Internally, Hezbollah is grappling with the new – and insidious – threat of corruption. Hezbollah has grown extensively since 2006, militarily, financially and politically, which has resulted in a sprawling bureaucracy with looser internal control mechanisms and a reduced sense of personal security among the cadres compared to two decades ago. That has opened the door not only to embezzlement and theft within the party but also made it vulnerable to penetration by Israeli intelligence agencies. Hezbollah has amassed armaments, communications technology and combat capabilities that pose a genuine challenge to Israel in the event of a future war. But the emergence of corrupt practices and the evident difficulty the party’s leadership has in curbing the phenomenon represents the single gravest danger to Hezbollah in the long-term.
 
For now, however, Hezbollah will remain a powerful political player on the Lebanese scene for the foreseeable future regardless of developments in Syria. But the challenge for Hezbollah of balancing its ideological and logistical obligations to Iran and its political and social duties to Lebanon’s Shiite community is a paradox that will only grow more difficult in the years ahead.
 
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a defense and security analyst for IHS-Jane’s. He is the author of Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (2006) and Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel (2011).
 
This article is an excerpt from "The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are." Click here for the full article.
 
Photo credits: Nasrallah via leader.ir; Khamenei and Khoemeini via Khamenei.ir; Hezbollah logo via Wikimedia Commons

Iran & Region II: Salvaging Iraq

Alireza Nader

What is Iran doing in Iraq? How important is Iran in the ground war against ISIS?
 
 
The Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, is playing a huge role in helping the Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State, especially in Diyala. The Guards are working with the Iraqi central government but they are reportedly heavily reliant on Shiite militias with close ties to Iran. Iran is now arguably the most influential foreign actor in Iraq.
 
 
 
Which Iraqi militias is Iran supporting - and how?
 
Iran is supporting many different militias. Some of the biggest and most prominent are the Badr Organization, Asai’b Ahl al Haq (AAH), Kataib Hezbollah, and various Sadrist elements. They are all Shiite. Certain militias such as the Badr Organization and AAH appear to be taking direct orders from Tehran. The Sadrists have had tensions with Iran before, so they may not be the most reliable of the militias.
 
Where are Iranian forces concentrated? How many are there? What are they doing exactly?
 
Iranian forces have tried to keep a low profile in Iraq, so estimating the number of active Iranians is difficult. But since late 2014, the “martyrdom” of Iranian soldiers and officers has become more common, as has Iran’s publicity about its role. Senior Iranian generals—including General Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force commander—are not only advising Iraqi forces and militias, but also visiting the front lines and allowing photographs near warzones.
 
What are the stakes for Iran in Iraq?
 
Iran does not want the Islamic State or Sunni jihadi and nationalist groups to take over Iraq. Tehran is particularly concerned that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be replaced by a regime hostile to Iran, as was the case during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the subsequent eight-year war, which produced more than 1 million casualties, has always been a major factor in Tehran’s strategic thinking. Many politicians and military commanders now in power were part of the war generation.
 
Iraq and Iran share a 910-mile border that is mostly porous. Iraq’s territorial integrity is critical for Iran too. Shortly after ISIS took significant territory in northern Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi that Iran “considers Iraq's security and stability as its own.”
 
Iran is also concerned about the safety of Shiite holy sites in Sammara, Najaf, and Karbala. The rise of the Islamic State presents Iran with the opportunity to demonstrate to the Iraqis, the Arab world, and the United States that it is an important power in the Middle East and should be recognized and treated as such. From Tehran’s perspective, its intervention could even provide more leverage on other issues, including the nuclear negotiations. “The world has understood the reality that the first country to rush to the help of the Iraqi people in the battle against extremism and terror was the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in December.
 
How does Iran's role in Iraq today differ from its earlier activities during the U.S. intervention?
 
After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iran played a prominent but largely behind-the-scenes role in Iraq. Tehran armed, trained and funded a variety of militias, mostly Shiite but some Sunnis as well. Iranian-backed militias attacked both U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Iran also reportedly funded and advised candidates and brokered alliances, although with mixed success.
 
The dynamics shifted when the U.S. withdrew in 2011. After the Islamic State’s sudden seizure of a large chunk of Iraq in 2014, Iran and the United States actually shared the goal of driving the Sunni extremists out of Iraq. Tehran’s goals were to defeat ISIS, ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity, and maintain Shiite allies in the central government. By early 2015, Iran’s role was much more public than in the past. Tehran actively sought to make sure the world knew it was playing a major role.

How do Iran's actions and goals in Iraq differ from the United States?
 
Both the United States and Iran also share an interest in preserving the Iraqi state. But their goals are not totally aligned. In neighboring Syria, the Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Assad regime, which Iran supports and the United States opposes. Tehran has also pursued a sectarian agenda in its support of Shiite militias, which contributed to greater Sunni dissatisfaction and complicating the fight against ISIS.
 
In contrast, Washington has pushed for an inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian government in Baghdad to address Sunnis grievances.
 
How are U.S. and Iranian actions affecting each other's strategies?
 
Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged that the net effect of Iranian strikes on ISIS “is positive.” But U.S. and Iranian officials have denied rumors that they are coordinating their activities directly, preferring to deal only with Iraqi security forces.
 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

 

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Photo credits: Abadi and Rouhani via President.ir

Tags: Iraq, ISIS

Iran & Region I: Search for Stability

Nasser Hadian

What is Iran’s role in the region?
 
For at least the next 10 or 15 years, the orienting principle of Iran’s foreign policy should be stability. Instability in neighboring countries can create security problems for Iran, so the overarching objective is to act as a stabilizing force in the region. This possibly guides U.S. policy as well, since the United States would also like to see a more stable Middle East.
 
Look at what is happening in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is in transition. Iran is getting frightened. Considering the multi-ethnic nature of Iranian society, no matter how strong the state is, there is a reason to be concerned. Instability in the region might have a trickle-down effect on Iran’s security. So stabilizing the region will be the main guiding principle of Iran’s foreign policy for the next several years.
 
Iran is not necessarily looking for Islamic governance in any country. Iran would prefer a country with a revolutionary Islamic government, challenging the U.S. and the world order. But Iran is also realistic enough to know that’s not always a possibility. Iran basically wants a non-ideological government, whether it has an Islamic tone as in Turkey or under [former President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed] Morsi in Egypt, or a secular regime like Bashar Assad.
 
What are the top foreign policy issues for Iran today?
 
The nuclear issue is number one. The next priority is Iraq, followed by Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, which are equal priorities. After that, Iran is worried about Pakistan.
 
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain are not top priorities right now. Iran doesn’t feel the same urgency to deal with those issues.
 
What is Iran’s role in Iraq?
 
Iran’s view is that the territorial integrity of Iraq should be preserved, so Iran is helping the central government logistically, financially, and politically. That’s exactly what Iran did by helping the transition process from Prime Minister Maliki to Prime Minister Abadi. And there’s a famous saying that Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani called the Americans for help, and they didn’t come. They called the Turks, and they didn’t come. But when they called Iran, [Qods Force commander General] Qassem Soleimani was there eight hours later. The Qods Force and Revolutionary Guards are in Iraq in an advisory role, but they are not engaged in fighting.
 
Iran is also mobilizing Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. Iran is in contact with Sunni tribesmen to get their support for the central government. Iran also persuaded the Kurds to remain part of Iraq.
 
The Qods Forces are in close contact with a number of Iraqi militias. Those links are so strong that Iranian forces don’t need to fight in Iraq. For instance, the Badr Brigades brigades were organized in Iran. It’s not just up to Iran to order them around; they are very much within the Iranian power structure. They can influence and shape Iranian policy towards Iraq.
 
Where does Iran share interests with the United States?
 
Iran makes its policy decisions in Iraq independent of the United States. They can cooperate with one another on some issues. For instance, they have a shared interest in fighting ISIS, so they coordinate through the Iraqi government, but not directly with each other. Neither wants to create the impression among Sunnis that Shiites are cooperating with the West to suppress ISIS. So the United States and Iran are very careful to take a strong position against each other.

What is Iran doing in Syria, and to what extent is it wedded to the Assad regime?
 
One of Iran’s goals in Syria is reducing the power of the presidency. Iran is not committed to keeping Assad in power. It’s entirely feasible to see Assad stepping down when he finishes his term, if he can be persuaded to make a face-saving exit. But he would be allowed to finish his term, as a practical measure.
 
The sudden removal of Assad as a figurehead would mean there is a good chance the whole regime would collapse, which neither the United States nor Iran wants. It would make the situation even more chaotic. Finding a way for the regime to be preserved, but for Assad to leave, is one proposal Iran is considering. This could include reducing the power of the presidency, decentralizing power, and allowing the rational opposition to participate in government. Realistically, there are only two options: ISIS or Assad. It is wishful thinking that the Free Syrian Army could succeed, so adopting these measures is more practical and would help isolate and defeat ISIS.
 
The four key regional and international players – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States – have to deal with the issue. If the Saudis are reluctant, they could be replaced by the Turks. If they agree on a plan, Iran and Russia are in a position to persuade Assad to accept it, and the United States and Saudi Arabia are in a position to gain cooperation from the Free Syrian Army.
 
In Yemen, the Houthis have emerged over the last 6 months as a dominant player. They now control the capital. What is Iran doing in Yemen? What does Iran want to see happen?
 
I cannot imagine that Iran is not involved in Yemen, especially since the Houthis seized power so quickly. But it’s probably not to the extent that the West believes. Iran is probably advising the Houthis militarily, likely through the Qods force. But Iran’s plate is already full dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Iran cannot play a very active role in Yemen. And the Houthis actually don’t need that much help. They are probably receiving money, but not arms – they are already well armed. The point is that they have their own grievances, their own organization, and their own reasons to rebel. So Iran is probably not spending that many resources in Yemen.
 
Iran is not concerned about who is in power in Yemen as long as the government has a good, friendly relationship with Iran. Iran is not necessarily looking for an Islamic government or a Houthi government – it realizes the Houthis are a minority.
 
The rise of the Houthis is more an indication of the failure of Saudi Arabia’s influence than the success of Iran’s policy. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are linked to one another, and the Saudis have channeled a lot of resources to Yemen.
 
Iran does not consider Saudi Arabia a threat, but the Saudis felt threatened by Iran even under the shah. Since the revolution, they have taken all sorts of measures to contain Iran’s influence. They are spending money in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, principally to counter Iran. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council was part of that as well. They want to contain Iran and limit its resources. For the Saudis, the cost of that action is what’s going on in Yemen.
 
Tension has defined relations with Saudi Arabia for some time. What does Iran want from Saudi Arabia?
 
Iran wants a normal relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it wants a Saudi government that is not against Iran in principle. It does not want Saudi Arabia to challenge Iran economically, politically, and militarily. Take Syria, for example. Iran supports Assad and Hezbollah as a way of deterring Israeli attacks against Iran. It’s not about the Saudis.
 
But why do the Saudis want Assad removed from power? It’s not because Saudi Arabia is democratic and Assad’s regime is not. It’s about reducing Iran’s influence. They want Assad to step down because he has a good relationship with Iran. Iran is not challenging the Saudis, but they are challenging Iran.
 
What does Iran want in Lebanon?
 
Iran would like to see a friendly and working government there, but it doesn’t matter if the government is being controlled by Sunnis, Christians, or Hezbollah – as long as Hezbollah remains a strong military force to deter Israeli attacks.
 
Iran has two modes of defense against Israel. One is conventional missiles, which are not very precise. The other is Hezbollah. So Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles have a far more reliable deterrent capability than Iran’s own missiles. If you want to see Iran support a different Hezbollah, or a different Syria, the Israeli threat has to be reduced. In the beginning, after the revolution, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah was ideological. But now it is more pragmatic.
 
Iran does not want to see another confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah – it would be crazy to want that. Hezbollah’s position within Lebanese society would be jeopardized if it was perceived as fighting a proxy war. Iran is spending a lot of money there, not just for military purposes, but also for building infrastructure, schools, and roads. These efforts have been perceived positively by Christians, and even a small minority of Sunnis. Many of them have their own grievances against Israel. Thus Iranian support of Hezbollah has been welcomed by many in Lebanese society.
 
An Iranian general was recently killed on the Golan Heights – what was he doing there? What does Iran want from Israel?
 
The general was helping the Syrians, but that does not include attacks on Israel. Iran has basically been building infrastructure against the Israelis for deterrence. But Iranians and Israelis have both been very careful not to directly engage one another. The confrontation began only a few years ago with the killing of Iranian scientists. The Iranians attempted to retaliate in a very unwise and unsophisticated way in operations abroad. They were an indication that Iran never thought that Israel was going to take direct action against Iran. That’s why they were not prepared.
 
There is not a unified Iranian view in terms of what to do about Israel. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proposed a referendum [among both Israelis and Palestinians] on the Palestinian issue. But former President Mohammad Khatami proposed de facto acceptance of two-state solution. There is actually not that much debate going on in Iran about what to do in Israel. There is so much urgent discussion about other issues that Israel is not as much of a priority as it once was.
 
What does Iran want in Bahrain?
 
What Iran wants is not necessarily a democratic Bahrain, but a fair government that respects the rights of Shiites and gives them more participation in the political process. It’s not about regime change. If Bahrain improves its treatment of Shiites, relations with Iran could improve.
 
It was very humiliating for Iran when the Saudis sent forces into Bahrain. The Bahraini government claimed that Iran was involved there, but it was not – so Iran was made the scapegoat. Iran engaged in the propaganda war very late, after the Saudis and Bahrainis, who took a strong position against Iran.
 
Iran is about to celebrate its 36th anniversary of the revolution. How is Iran’s foreign policy different than it used to be?
 
In the beginning, Iran’s view of the world was idealist, and in action it was principlist. As time passed, Iran became more realist. Iran was idealist throughout the hostage crisis, but in the end acted pragmatically. In the war with Iraq, Iran was still idealist and acted with principlist tendencies. But by the end of war, Iran was realist – no longer idealist. And Iran acted pragmatically to end it.
 
So in terms of foreign policy, Iran was idealist and acted principlist, and as time passed, Iran became realist in its views and then acted pragmatically. The trajectory of both has been moving from idealism and principlism to realism and pragmatism.
 
Nasser Hadian is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 
Photo credits: Leader.ir, Syria-Iran by RonenY [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, Bashar al Assad by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

 

European Ministers: Avoid New Sanctions

On January 21, four foreign ministers warned against passing new sanctions legislation in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “Introducing new hurdles at this critical stage of the negotiations, including through additional nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran, would jeopardize our efforts at a critical juncture,” wrote Philip Hammond of Britain, Laurent Fabius of France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and Federica Mogherini of the European Union. Congress is currently weighing a bill to impose new sanctions if talks fail. The following is an excerpt from the op-ed, titled “Give diplomacy with Iran a chance.”

Our objective remains clear. We want a comprehensive solution that both recognizes the Iranian people’s right to access peaceful nuclear energy and allows the international community to verify that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon. Any agreement must provide concrete, verifiable and long-lasting assurances that Iran’s nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful. Nothing less will do. It is now up to Iran to make a strategic choice between open-ended cooperation and further isolation…
 
In this context, our responsibility is to make sure diplomacy is given the best possible chance to succeed. Maintaining pressure on Iran through our existing sanctions is essential. But introducing new hurdles at this critical stage of the negotiations, including through additional nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran, would jeopardize our efforts at a critical juncture. While many Iranians know how much they stand to gain by overcoming isolation and engaging with the world, there are also those in Tehran who oppose any nuclear deal. We should not give them new arguments. New sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far. Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.
 
Let us be clear: If Iran violates its commitments or proves unwilling to agree to a comprehensive, verifiable understanding that meets the international community’s bottom line, we will have no choice but to further increase pressure on it. For the first time, however, we may have a real chance to resolve one of the world’s long-standing security threats — and the chance to do it peacefully. We can’t let that chance pass us by or do anything to derail our progress. We have a historic opportunity that might not come again. With the eyes of the world upon us, we must demonstrate our commitment to diplomacy to try to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue within the deadline we have set. That is the surest path to reaching a comprehensive, lasting solution that will make the world and the region safer.
 
Click here for the full article.
 
Tags: Sanctions

Supreme Leader: Letter to American Youth

In reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Iran’s supreme leader appealed to American and European youth to not blindly accept stereotypes of Muslims. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged them to study Islam for themselves in the following unusual letter.

 

In the name of God, the Beneficent the Merciful

To the Youth in Europe and North America,

The recent events in France and similar ones in some other Western countries have convinced me to directly talk to you about them. I am addressing you, [the youth], not because I overlook your parents, rather it is because the future of your nations and countries will be in your hands; and also I find that the sense of quest for truth is more vigorous and attentive in your hearts.

I don’t address your politicians and statesmen either in this writing because I believe that they have consciously separated the route of politics from the path of righteousness and truth.

I would like to talk to you about Islam, particularly the image that is presented to you as Islam. Many attempts have been made over the past two decades, almost since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, to place this great religion in the seat of a horrifying enemy. The provocation of a feeling of horror and hatred and its utilization has unfortunately a long record in the political history of the West.

Here, I don’t want to deal with the different phobias with which the Western nations have thus far been indoctrinated. A cursory review of recent critical studies of history would bring home to you the fact that the Western governments’ insincere and hypocritical treatment of other nations and cultures has been censured in new historiographies.

The histories of the United States and Europe are ashamed of slavery, embarrassed by the colonial period and chagrined at the oppression of people of color and non-Christians. Your researchers and historians are deeply ashamed of the bloodsheds wrought in the name of religion between the Catholics and Protestants or in the name of nationality and ethnicity during the First and Second World Wars. This approach is admirable.

By mentioning a fraction of this long list, I don’t want to reproach history; rather I would like you to ask your intellectuals as to why the public conscience in the West awakens and comes to its senses after a delay of several decades or centuries. Why should the revision of collective conscience apply to the distant past and not to the current problems? Why is it that attempts are made to prevent public awareness regarding an important issue such as the treatment of Islamic culture and thought?

You know well that humiliation and spreading hatred and illusionary fear of the “other” have been the common base of all those oppressive profiteers. Now, I would like you to ask yourself why the old policy of spreading “phobia” and hatred has targeted Islam and Muslims with an unprecedented intensity. Why does the power structure in the world want Islamic thought to be marginalized and remain latent? What concepts and values in Islam disturb the programs of the super powers and what interests are safeguarded in the shadow of distorting the image of Islam? Hence, my first request is: Study and research the incentives behind this widespread tarnishing of the image of Islam.

My second request is that in reaction to the flood of prejudgments and disinformation campaigns, try to gain a direct and firsthand knowledge of this religion. The right logic requires that you understand the nature and essence of what they are frightening you about and want you to keep away from.

I don’t insist that you accept my reading or any other reading of Islam. What I want to say is: Don’t allow this dynamic and effective reality in today’s world to be introduced to you through resentments and prejudices. Don’t allow them to hypocritically introduce their own recruited terrorists as representatives of Islam.

Receive knowledge of Islam from its primary and original sources. Gain information about Islam through the Qur’an and the life of its great Prophet. I would like to ask you whether you have directly read the Qur’an of the Muslims. Have you studied the teachings of the Prophet of Islam and his humane, ethical doctrines? Have you ever received the message of Islam from any sources other than the media?

Have you ever asked yourself how and on the basis of which values has Islam established the greatest scientific and intellectual civilization of the world and raised the most distinguished scientists and intellectuals throughout several centuries?

I would like you not to allow the derogatory and offensive image-buildings to create an emotional gulf between you and the reality, taking away the possibility of an impartial judgment from you. Today, the communication media have removed the geographical borders. Hence, don’t allow them to besiege you within fabricated and mental borders.

Although no one can individually fill the created gaps, each one of you can construct a bridge of thought and fairness over the gaps to illuminate yourself and your surrounding environment. While this preplanned challenge between Islam and you, the youth, is undesirable, it can raise new questions in your curious and inquiring minds. Attempts to find answers to these questions will provide you with an appropriate opportunity to discover new truths.

Therefore, don’t miss the opportunity to gain proper, correct and unbiased understanding of Islam so that hopefully, due to your sense of responsibility toward the truth, future generations would write the history of this current interaction between Islam and the West with a clearer conscience and lesser resentment.

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