The regional threat of Iran explained

Entangled with nearly every Mideast country, Iran is a regional threat. The only Shiite-ruled country in the Sunni-dominant region, the theocratic regime has made clear its ambition to spread its Islamic revolution throughout the Arab world. This has continuously posed a serious threat to the Sunni rulers of majority-Shiite countries, and has prompted unprecedented cooperation between the Gulf States and Israel, who share the view that Iran is the biggest regional threat.

Iran’s regional threat is laid out here country-by-country. Iran’s strategic threat to Israel is especially complex, and will be addressed on another occasion.

Palestinian Territories

Iran has long been criticized for its support of Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip with an iron fist. Iran has also been a prominent supporter of Islamic Jihad, the even more radical organization which operates in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Iran’s support for Hamas began after the initiation of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ Islamist ideology has made it an ideal vassal for Iran, and the group has declared that it shares with Tehran an “identical view in the strategic outlook toward the Palestinian cause in its Islamic dimension.”

Iranian support for Hamas mainly comes in the forms of arms and money; following the seizure of the Karine A, an Iranian cargo ship intercepted by Israel in 2002 and found to be carrying 50 tons of weapons to Gaza (including rockets). Numerous further weapons shipments have been stopped by Israel and other countries, and Iran has been sanctioned by the UN over this issue. Hamas also receives up to $70 million yearly from the Iranian regime, although US sanctions have likely cut into this number.

Islamic Jihad also depends on Iranian money for its terror activities. A radical group which split from the “moderate” Hamas, many of the weapons shipments seized by international navies are to be split between the two terror organizations, and an estimated $30 million of Iranian funding goes to Islamic Jihad. Leaders of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have met with the Iranian regime, which has in turn voiced its total commitment to the destruction of Israel.

Egypt

Egyptian relations with Iran have been rocky ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Egypt gave refuge to the deposed shah of Iran. The newly-established supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and called for Egyptians to overthrow their leader, president Anwar Sadat. Egypt supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War and remains the only Arab country without an embassy in Tehran.

Iran’s support for Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also a wedge issue. An Islamist missionary movement turned political party, the Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power following the 2011 Egyptian revolution before being ousted in a military coup and declared a terrorist group. Recently, Egypt’s president has condemned Iranian interference in the region, joining the international chorus on this issue.

Lebanon

The Islamic Republic’s influence over Lebanon especially highlights Iran’s regional threat. Tehran asserts its domination of Lebanon primarily through its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. Founded in the 1980s, Hezbollah developed political clout by running in elections, while a vast supply of weapons give it the ability to fight Israel and intimidate political opponents within Lebanon.

Following a 2006 raid into Israel, the IDF launched a counterattack to destroy Hezbollah, but was unsuccessful. Since the war, Iran has not only replenished Hezbollah’s rocket stockpiles but increased them exponentially, with generous supplies of advanced anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles.

Today, Hezbollah is the de facto army of Lebanon, significantly more powerful than the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Hezbollah is not only a heavily armed militia, it is also a key part of the government of Lebanon. The terrorist group provides a variety of social welfare services and runs its own media and education, and also pays its fighters very well ($600-$1,200 a month for married fighters). This is possible due to funding from Iran: the Islamic Republic has historically given Hezbollah up to $700 million a year, in addition to an estimated $300 million after the war with Israel in 2006. However, recent US sanctions imposed on both groups are taking a severe toll, and Hezbollah has invoked severe austerity measures to cut costs.

Hezbollah has also recently grown in semi-legitimate influence, winning more seats in parliament in the 2018 elections and gaining several ministry posts (including the Ministry of Health, one of the largest budgeted departments) during coalition negotiations. Hezbollah will likely use these positions of power to benefit its followers (such as prioritizing medical care for its supporters), but it is difficult for US sanctions to impact only them and not Lebanon as a whole.

Lebanon will surely be the battleground for any new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, with all the catastrophic destruction that accompanies war. With Hezbollah’s implicitly violent control of the Lebanese economy also stifling investment, Iran continues to drag Lebanon down.

Syria

Iran and Syria have historically had close relations, but since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War this relationship has been unbalanced. The Islamic Republic has spent over $100 billion to prop up Bashar Assad’s regime, including huge volumes of military supplies, intelligence support, and direct intervention by Iranian-sponsored militias and regular forces. Iran has also provided a line of credit for Assad, a luxury most countries deny him.

Hezbollah has also played a key role in the civil war, acting as Iran’s elite forces and training other pro-regime militias. Hezbollah has been involved in some of the hardest fighting of the war, resulting in thousands of casualties (including 1,250 killed) but gaining vital combat experience for its fighters. In line with Iran’s regional threat, Tehran also uses Syria to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah and its other proxies, part of its efforts to threaten and destroy Israel.

Bahrain

A small island nation in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain’s population is estimated to be 65-70 percent Shiite but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. This, combined with its proximity to Iran, has made it a frequent target of Iranian interference: a failed coup attempt in 1981 was led by men trained and armed by Iran, Arab Spring protests on the island were widely believed to be supported by Tehran, and Bahraini militants have been discovered with Iranian heavy weaponry.

Today, the island is regarded as one of the many battlefields in the proxy war for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iraq

Iran and Iraq had a history of animosity, fighting a long and bloody war which ended in a stalemate. The situation changed drastically with the US invasion of 2003 and subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein.

Now faced with the prospect of another US-sponsored government (in addition to Afghanistan) on its borders, Iran turned to financing the insurgents fighting against American forces. In addition to huge arms shipments, Iranian operatives from the elite Quds Force (tasked with protecting and spreading the Islamic revolution) trained and planned operations for Iraqi Shiite militias, and 603 American servicemen’s deaths (Almost 20% of all American troops killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom) have been directly attributed to Iran through these militias.

Following the rise of the Islamic State (IS) as a prominent threat in Iraq in 2014, Iran pledged to provide assistance and began sending advisers to the Iraqi army, as well as weapons shipments to the Kurdish militias. Additionally, Iran-backed Shiite militias joined the Iraqi army’s operations against IS, as did units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which suffered several high-ranking casualties. Since the destruction of IS, Iran has maintained its ties with the Shiite militias, which continue to exist separately from the army and act as Iran’s political influencers and enforcers.

Iran has recently escalated its support for the militias, sending them sophisticated missiles which have a range of up to 700 km, enough to strike most of the region. Iraq now risks being drawn into the escalating tensions between the US and Iran, as the US seeks to maintain the loyalty of the government it created and Iran seeks to create another Shiite tributary state in which it can exercise its influence.
Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is widely considered the only Middle Eastern power which can counterbalance Iran, prompting a high degree of belligerence from the Islamic Republic. The two countries have clashed almost constantly since the 1979 Revolution, with Saudi Arabia supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War and Iran questioning the legitimacy of the Saudi regime.

Saudi Arabia is the region’s leading Sunni state, while Iran is the leading Shiite state. Thus, a key component of their conflict is the personification of the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Indeed, it is partially as a counter to the Saudi-led bloc of Gulf States that Iran has attempted to create its own “Shiite Crescent” to threaten the region.

Iran has repeatedly attacked Saudi Arabia in the past: during the Iran-Iraq War Iranian fighter jets attacked Saudi oil tankers and violated Saudi airspace, while in 1987 the Ayatollah incited riots among Shiite pilgrims in Mecca which left hundreds dead. A similar incident occurred in 2016, when, following the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric, Iranian crowds sacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

The two countries are also ranged against each other in a proxy war in Yemen, which has involved Iranian-backed groups launching missiles supplied by Iran into Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have dramatically increased defense spending to counter the Iranian threat.
Yemen

Yemen has been gripped by civil war since 2015, a situation for which Iran is directly responsible. While officially a secular government, the country is split 55-45% Sunni to Shiite, and since 2004 the Shiite Houthi group Ansar Allah has been in conflict with the government. What started out as an insurgency has since turned into a full-blown civil war which has left over 91,000 dead and resulted in one of the worst cholera outbreaks of all time.

Iran is culpable for this carnage, having turned the conflict into a proxy war by supporting the Houthis against the internationally backed Yemeni government and its Gulf allies, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the UAE, Senegal, Sudan, Morocco, and Qatar (with limited backing by the US and France).

Iranian support for the Houthis has taken a form similar to its support of the Assad regime, with shipments of sophisticated weapons, trainers from Hezbollah and the IRGC, diplomatic and monetary assistance, and proselytizing. Iran has also provided the Houthis with ballistic missiles, which the rebels have then launched into Saudi Arabia, killing over 500 civilians.
The Risks

Alone, any of these threats would be manageable. However, when combined they escalate the risk of a wider conflict. Many of the countries threatened by Iran are US allies, and an attack against any of them would likely result in regional retaliation, as well as assistance from America.

Iran also possesses globally threatening assets which it can activate in such a conflict, like terror networks and ballistic missiles. Thus, by threatening the region, Iran inherently threatens the rest of the world.

Source » honestreporting

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