Have Recent Events Sounded the Death Knell for Iran’s Regional Project?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 May 2018
18 May 2018 – It’s been a fairly rough past few months for Iran’s Velayat-e faqih, Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseni Khamenei, and his personal army, the IRGC’s Al Quds Force, as well as its ambitious and increasingly edgy leader, General Qassim Solemani.
Across the region, from Yemen on the Persian Gulf to Hamas on the Mediterranean Sea, many supporters of the “Resistance Axis” are pulling back their support, believing it to be fraudulent. Another reason is that the region’s civilian population are realizing that Syria’s Civil War will not be ending anytime soon as rebels and Islamists rebuild their forces and Syria’s army is once again nearly depleted and women are once again being conscripted.
The people in this region, and beyond, are becoming tired of Iran’s project and its cost in human lives and treasury, not least of whom are the civilian populations of Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon not to mention Russian officials and elements of the Assad regime.
Contributing to an awakening of sorts is the now. denied by Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah speech which he delivered a couple of months ago to an Iranian audience in South Beirut near this observer’s apartment. Some “I told you so!” excerpts from Nasrallah’s speech are still being distributed across the region by social media etc. by Arab Sunni, as well as Iranians who oppose their country’s theocracy, and Shia and Christian hegemony detractors among others.
The continuing strong backlash in Arab and other media against Nasrallah’s speech, including his declaration of absolute loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, includes an objection to some of Nasrallah’s other recorded words a few examples of which are noted below:
- “We believe in him [Ali Khamenei] more than we do the Lebanese Constitution. We consider this view taklif, legal obligation, and necessary.”
- The Lebanese cleric’s speech further highlights that the conventional wisdom of labeling Hezbollah as a “proxy” of the Islamic Republic is insufficient to describe the relationship. According to Nasrallah, “Hezbollah is an arm of the Iranian government and is the Lebanese branch of the Guard Corps. Today, Hezbollah is a global power,” Nasrallah continued, again crediting that success to “obedience to the Velayat-e faqih.”
- “We believe that obeying the Velayat-e faqih is like obeying the infallible 12 Shiite Imams. We believe that if the Valayat-e faqih has said that ‘this is my opinion’ we must obey him.”
- Throughout the speech, Nasrallah emphasized his belief in the Velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurisprudence, the founding politico-religious ideology of the Islamic Republic which calls for a theocratic government and an Islamic state with all powers of Church and State vested in the hands of a cleric, or the vali-ye faqih, the Deputy of God on Earth.
- “We plainly say that the Islamic Republic is the country of the Imam of Time [Mahdi], and we are ready to sacrifice for the holy system and that we are the soldiers of his Excellency, Ali Khamenei and the soldiers of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
- Nasrallah revealed that Hezbollah was created immediately following the success of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
This suggests that the militia that later became Hezbollah in 1985, as explained in Hezbollah’s “Open Letter” of the same year, was active and already had a defined ideology prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June of 1982. During the war, the Hezbollah network grew and was able to frame itself as the “Resistance” of the Palestinian refugees and protector of the Shia.
Nasrallah’s speech caused angst in Tehran and he was instructed by Ali Khamenei’s office to fix the problem and to deny he gave the speech, which he did, blaming the report on “an irresponsible Journalist” in Tehran.
On 5/16/18, Gulf countries, joined by the US imposed further sanctions on Hezbollah leaders, proclaiming the Iran-backed Lebanese group a terrorist organization and dismissing the distinction between the party’s political and armed wings. Additional US sanctions targeted Hezbollah’s top officials, including its leader Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qassem. The measures were imposed jointly by Washington and its partners in the Terrorist Financing and Targeting Center (TFTC), which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the US Treasury Department said.
Iran and Israel’s psychological war is pressuring Tehran
Against this backdrop which is in the minds of millions in this region, Iran has to date lost its military and psychological war with Israel in Syria and is unlikely to launch more attacks anytime soon. Its military is pinned down and Israeli attacks the past few months have made Iran’s Al Quds fighters afraid to enter certain outposts including a major one next to Damascus Airport. It is known “secretly” as the “Glass House” which housed hundreds of Iranian forces, arms, medical facilities, bank vaults, and weapons. The building allegedly contains up to 280 rooms. “A number of departments are based inside ‘the Glass House’, including counterintelligence, logistics, propaganda and foreign-mercenary command. The Iranian intelligence services, that oversee the base, are said to occupy the top two floors. The building is also said to contain a 20-bed private clinic for wounded senior Iranian officers, and facilities for holding millions of dollars in cash for transfer to Hezbollah, according to the website Israel Defense.
On May 10, 2018 Israel intensely bombed the area but left the building untouched, apparently correctly calculating that Iranian Al Quds Forces would not enter the Glass House anytime soon following the IDF attack, knowing that it might be bombed at any time and that it was being watched by drones and satellites.
The message was clear, Israel did not need to destroy the Glass House this time opting to deliver a clear psychological message. The Iranians abandoned a prized possession because of fears of what Israel might do next. Perhaps from Israel’s point of view, it was war vs. politics and why destroy the Glass House at this time since no one will re-enter it for a while and the message to Tehran is clear: “We know where your forces and weapons are, and we can and will destroy them each and every time you attack our civilians, troops or territory.”
Al Quds leader Qassim Solemani was reportedly known to be inside the Glass House at the time and Israel’s government also wanted to send him a message but not kill him. With an 83% approval rating among Iranians, and considered a moderate, Netanyahu and the White House believe that Solemani may be someone the West can negotiate with once the current regime is removed.
Allowing the evacuation of Iranians from the Glass House is emblematic of a larger and deadly chess game being played out in Syria. Over the last five years the game has involved limited and precision air strikes – a handful for which Israel has taken responsibility while others have only been reported in foreign media.
Currently the Velayat-e faqih and his forces in Syria have a new problem. After the large May 10 strikes which targeted numerous positions, including munitions, command and control and intelligence gathering sites, Iran’s agents in Syria must be wondering what’s coming next. They also must be concerned about how much Jerusalem knows about their operations, weapons systems, and troop bases and deployment. During the May 10 strikes, around two dozen people were reportedly killed, most of them Iranians.
So far, for over the past week, Iran and Hezbollah have been mainly quiet with respect to its “Resistance Axis” actions against the Golan Heights or inside Israel’s border with Syria.
Meanwhile, the civilian population across the region and especially inside Iran are calling for Tehran to leave Syria and try to save Iran’s economy. Revitalizing Iran’s sinking economy is going to prove difficult unless Iran’s Supreme Leaders abandons Syria and the region. This Ali Khamenei will not do, and Iranians know this, as protests continue. In the latest incident, on 5/16/2018 one protester was killed and six injured when a group of Iranians gathered in Kazerun chanting “subversive slogans” and set fire to a local police station. At least 25 people were killed in a wave of social unrest that swept towns and cities across Iran last December 28 and January.
Only the success of a widely predicted coming revolution in Iran will achieve withdrawal from the region, salvage Iran’s plummeting economy and return the country to the Community of Nations with respect and countless opportunities leading to a better life for Iran’s people. But, as friends in Iran advise this observer, changing their theocratic government will not be easy.
The Trump and Netanyahu Administrations appear to have reached an agreement about Syria and creating a peaceful region free of Iranian hegemony projects. Israel will stand ready 24/7 to attack Iranian forces in Syria if Iran’s militias initiate military attacks.
And the US will have Israel’s back militarily while simultaneously the US Department of the Treasury (OFAC) will apply historically debilitating sanctions against Iran following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA over the objection of most of the EU countries. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire insisted in early May 2018 that Europe had to defend its “economic sovereignty. The E3 countries warned the White House that Europe is prepared to introduce very tough measures to nullify the effect of the Trump Administration imposing sanctions on any non-US firm that continues to do business with Iran.
On 5/17/18, The EU announced that on 5/18/18 that it will launch measures aimed at confronting the U.S. sanctions on Iran. European Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker said, as part of efforts to preserve the nuclear deal with Tehran: “We will begin the ‘blocking statute’ process, which aims to neutralize the extraterritorial effects of U.S. sanctions in the EU.
In fact, France and the EU will not do anything much. When Trump announced that the US was again imposing the US-led sanctions, including on any entity that continued to trade with Iran, in effect threatening billions of euros of European business, the EU decided it could only talk to the media. A government can say one thing, but a Board of Directors and International Investments Banks who stand to lose billions if they violate OFAC sanctions, have another view. The US Treasury (OFAC) has said this week that it is giving companies three to six months to wind down their contracts, including purchases of Iranian oil or themselves face US banking system sanctions. EU efforts to create a bulwark to protect European companies who attempt to do business with Iran will achieve nothing to counter the US sanctions unless they can somehow convince Iran to return to the JCPOA bargaining table.
According to the Wall Street Journal of 5/17/18, just days after Trump’s JCPOA announcement about re-imposing tough Iranian sanctions, European firms are already canceling investments and abandoning commitments in Iran. Total SA, a a major French oil conglomerate, reported on 5/16/18 that it had has already stopped work on an Iranian natural-gas project and warned that it will likely pull out altogether from its plan to invest $1 billion in the field. Some shippers of Iranian oil have said they are ceasing to facilitate such trades because of the new sanctions. Insurance companies are studying whether they may have to reduce or stop their underwriting on the Islamic Republic’s shipments.
With respect to the recent Iraqi elections, an apparent net loss for Iran
Lebanon’s May 6, 2018 election resulted in a gain for Hezbollah. Not in terms of any increased number of seats it won but rather those won by its allies. Many believe that Lebanon is already an Iranian colony and that the Parliament will continue to be run for and by Iran as it has been for years.
Of more interest is the May 11, 2018 election in Iraq. Tehran expected to control the Iraqi vote with results in its favor like Lebanon’s. But Iraqi’s are known nationalists whereas Lebanese are by and large sectarianists with traditional nationalists rather back in the pack. Lebanon is a lost cause unless and until Hezbollah ceases being an Iranian militia army that dictates to what is left of Lebanon’s army, the LAF and becomes a real “Resistance” in support of Lebanon’s Palestinian civil rights.
With respect to Iraq, which Tehran’s political leaders assumed their candidates would win, initial nationwide results showed a surprise victory for the bloc that supports populist religious scholar Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite not aligned with Iran who campaigned on a nationalist platform, tapping into public resentment against widespread corruption and huge social disparities.
Before the vote, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc – an unlikely alliance of Shites, and certain secular groups – to govern. For his part, Sadr has made clear he is unwilling to compromise with Iran by forming a coalition with its main allies, Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr paramilitary group, and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is known for his unswerving loyalty to Tehran’s leadership.
The main loser in Iraq’s election may be Iran, whose allies in Iraq’s Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces were bested by Sadr, the veteran nationalist who believes Iraqis should run Iraqi affairs – not Washington, not Tehran and not their various proxies. Today in Iraq many are discussing whether Iran has peaked, and Iraq will become nationalist.
Iran and its allies were mustering a bid Wednesday to limit the role of fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in Iraq’s next government after his shock election win reshaped the country’s political landscape.
After years on the sidelines, Moqtada Sadr and his Marching Towards Reform alliance have convinced many Iraqi’s that they are champions of the poor and they linked up with secularists to battle corruption. Since 5/14/2018, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has met with several members of Iraq’s old guard including Abadi and his predecessor, Iran’s agent Nouri al-Maliki, according to the AFP. Soleimani hopes to gather enough political leaders opposed to Sadr to deny his alliance a governable majority and a route to the powerful position of prime minister.
Moqtadr Sadr, who has tapped popular anger over corruption and foreign interference has already ruled out governing with Iranian surrogates and has and called instead for a technocratic government that can begin to tackle Iraq’s rampant corruption and the mammoth rebuilding task left from the battle against IS.
It can be argued that the cornerstone of Iran’s approach to continue its active role in Syria despite the increased Israeli and Western activism is to try to build upon the gaps among the West’s counterparts and to use such differences in Iran’s favor.
Although it is still too soon to speak about the prospects for the success of this approach, one thing is certain: Iran is not about to make any compromise over its presence and core interests in Syria. Iran knows that it owns Lebanon and that Syria and Iraq, as well as Yemen, are within its grasp.
Franklin P. Lamb, LLB, LLM, Ph.D. is a Fellow at Oxford University-UK, Law Professor, Legal Adviser to the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program, Shatila Camp (SSSP-lb.com), and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. As a volunteer with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, Beirut and Washington, DC he is committed to help achieving the Right to Work and the Right to Home Ownership for every Palestinian Refugee in Lebanon. Lamb’s recent book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage: An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve, is available on Amazon and other ebook outlets as well as at www.syrian-heritage.com . For Syria Heritage updates, please visit: www.syrian-heritage.com. To provide a meal to a Syrian refugee child in Lebanon please visit: http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. Lamb is reachable c/o email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 May 2018.
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