Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did well to reveal Tehran’s regional strategy, particularly that over the past two years all the talk about it has been confined to Iran’s allies and subordinates in the Middle East.
Zarif, talking openly to the BBC in the heart of the West, said: “I think all of us, regardless of our differences over Syria, need to work together on the sectarian issue,” adding, “Fear-mongering has been a prevalent business.” The Iranian foreign minister affirmed that “nobody should try to fan the flames of sectarian violence. We should rein it in, bring it to a close, try to avoid a conflict that would be detrimental to everybody’s security.” Zarif, according to the BBC, also accused Arab leaders of “fanning the flames of sectarian violence.”
This kind of discourse reproduces Bashar al-Assad’s logic and justification for the destruction of Syria and the killing of more than 160,000 people. It also endorses the claims made by the Syrian representative to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari, who earlier this year said that the Damascus regime was “fighting the Takfirists on behalf of the rest of the world.” We can add to this the public stances taken by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah who it seems has recently “discovered” that the Takfirists represented much greater threat than the Israeli occupation. It was this discovery that prompted Hezbollah to suspend its “resistance” against Israel and devote itself to fighting Takfirism. Last but not least, let us take a look at the official position taken by Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq, which follows precisely the same approach as Zarif’s - and Maliki himself expressed this during his recent visit to Washington.
We are, therefore, standing before an orchestra that is being conducted by the maestro in Tehran. That maestro is cunningly exploiting the deep wounds in the West’s political psyche following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and its repercussions of this in Europe. Here, the message is clear: We are the “moderates” and they are the “extremists,” so make your choice!
The very same message goes on to say, “Accept us as we are, with our religious–military system, our arbitrary judiciary, our vengeful approach to domestic opposition, and our nuclear project which we deceived you with over the past 18 years. Accept us on all of these points, because, first, we were only defending ourselves against Takfirism and terrorism, and, second, because we were also defending you and your interests.”
In return, we must acknowledge the existence of everything that serves this strategy, without the need to return to discuss Iran’s and Syria’s active and on-going role in supporting these same Takfirist and jihadist groups. The feeling of frustration across the Arab and Islamic worlds has, along with other factors, helped create deep resentment that has led to a stronger presence of exclusionist and extremist religious ideas.
We have witnessed a disastrous situation emerge in Syria, with some extremist groups reversing many of the revolution’s gains on the ground. They are fighting against the Free Syrian Army harder than they fought against the regime they portrayed as being infidel whose supporters they said deserved to die. The damage caused by these groups has not been limited to the field; they have also caused great political harm. The heinous acts committed by these extremist groups against innocent people and places of worship, as well as against cultural monuments in liberated areas, led many disgruntled members of the regime—both civilian and military—to question the wisdom of defecting. This, of course, has only served to extend the life of the Assad regime, and has even provided it with some justification for its crimes.
Outside Syria, the practices of these groups have served as a suitable “fig leaf,” disguising the dismal failure of the international community to support the oppressed and punish the oppressor in Syria. Even when the regime committed the crime of using chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, many came out to cast doubt about just who was responsible. This allowed an already lukewarm international community to exploit the confusion surrounding that attack to treat the entire Syrian crisis a “chemical weapons” issue.
The Syrian regime was once described by leading opposition figure George Sabra as “occupying, not ruling, Syria,” and its occupation is currently being bolstered by Iraqi and Lebanese regional militias being commanded from Tehran. The Iraqi people recall well who was behind the appointment of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister, and whose support has allowed him to stay in power in the face of opposition and, consequently, who actually rules Iraq.
As for Lebanon, it is the third of three entities that are effectively being occupied by Iran—in Lebanon’s case, through Hezbollah. The Lebanese people still remember that the state’s military and security forces destroyed the “Salafist” Sunni militia led by local sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in the city of Sidon in just 48 hours. However, these same forces are now unable to confront another non-Sunni local militia in Tripoli, although the chieftain of that militia issued death threats against the staff of a state security agency in a TV appearance, and then took a swipe at Lebanon’s president, speaker and prime minister.
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are now effectively “occupied” by Iran under its pretext of “fighting Takfirist terrorism”Eyad Abu Shakra
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are now effectively “occupied” by Iran under its pretext of “fighting Takfirist terrorism.” This pretext is now being peddled at the highest levels to the international community, couched in Zarif’s diplomacy, Rowhani’s alleged moderation, and an “expressed” Iranian readiness to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue. In the meantime, the Syrian opposition is facing immense international pressure to participate in Geneva II without preconditions, and so it seems that Zarif has made the breakthrough he was striving to achieve.
True, this breakthrough is not complete yet. It is also true, however, that separating Iran’s nuclear issue from its regional expansionist policies is equally problematic as the international community’s shameful silence on the Assad regime’s crimes in return for Damascus giving up its chemical weapons.
Tehran has imposed its own agenda on the issue from the start. It continues to stress the “peaceful nature” of its nuclear program while complaining about being a victim of “double standards,” an allusion to Israel’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapon capabilities. Furthermore, it has engaged the international community in endless bargaining over levels of enrichment it is allowed and the number of centrifuges it can operate, while sending contradictory messages about the mechanisms of negotiations. And, thus, we reached the position we’re in today.
Realistically, we are now facing an Iran that surely possesses nuclear technology. International experts say that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon within a matter of months. Therefore, the international community must openly discuss the “political approach” towards a state which is now - whether we like it or not - a “nuclear state.”
For Iran, politically, there is one certainty. It requires an acknowledgement of its “regional superpower” status, when the price of Tehran’s regional ambitions will no doubt be paid by others. Thus, Iran’s neighbors have every right to be concerned about any international deal agreed with Iran that does not include curbing its regional political ambitions. These ambitions, in at least three cases, have reached the extent of effective occupation.
This article was first published in al-Sharq al-Awsat on Nov. 14, 2013.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.