The Middle East has always been a place of geopolitical shifting sands. Regional players rise and fall, external empires come and go, and dreams of stability have always proven ephemeral. But Iran has always been a centre of power in the region. And after its own internal turmoil with the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, the ayatollahs have built a sufficiently stable and robust state that has been able to exert considerable power on its fractious neighbours.
This was a return to norm. It used to be given wisdom that the Iran would hold sway over peoples, militant groups and governments who are aligned with Shiite Islam. Iran has been the foremost Shiite state in the world for 500 years. The minority Shiite Alawite government in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shiite populations in Iraq, the north-eastern Al-Ahsa region of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Afghanistan and Pakistan would all look to Tehran for support, guidance and even a certain degree of coordination. Iran’s status as guiding light of the region’s Shiite assure them a built-in status as regional players.
A client state
But what is happening now is going well beyond that. Iraq, a region that has often-times in its history been a natural cultural and political extension into the Arab lands of the succession of Persian empires, used to be ruled by the highly antagonistic Sunni Saddam Hussain. His eight-year long war against Iran in the 1980s has been one of the deadliest conflicts the region has seen in centuries. But the United States intervened to remove Hussain, and in his stead have elevated a Shiite led government, more representative of Iraq’s majority Shiite demographics. Except a decade later, the Shiite government in Baghdad has effectively become a client state of Tehran.
The United States supported the Sunni-led opposition in the Syrian Civil War against the Shiite Alawite government of Bashar al-Assad. Except they have not been sufficiently committed to the conflict to see its resolution to a favourable ending for their side when they could have done. And they have since moved aside for Russia and Iran to crush the opposition to Assad and enforce his rule. And where the Assad regime would have previously looked up to Iran as a natural ally, they now look up to Iran as the friend to whom they owe their lives.
The irony of it all is, of course, that in the nebulous thinking of the Bush neo-cons, the Afghan and Iraqi wars were supposed to contain Iran and cement American influence over the region and its critical oil supplies. Instead it has done the exact opposite.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Then there is the matter of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been America’s longest and most expensive war. That war was started against the Taliban, a natural enemy of Iran for their hardline Sunni ideology and intransigent anti-Shiite attitudes. In fact, Iran themselves nearly went to war with the Taliban three years prior to the American intervention 2001 for an incident where the latter killed 10 Iranian diplomatic staff in the country. Needless to say, Iran was pleased to have one of their enemies, America, take out another, and foot the bill in blood and treasure. They could have hardly hoped that the Afghan war would be such a long and bloody slog, that would critically weaken the Big Satan and undermine their entire position in the region.
But now there is a twist in the story of the Afghan war. It is beginning to emerge that Iran has allied itself with the Taliban and it is supporting their efforts to drive the United States out of Afghanistan. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are allowing the Taliban to operate and build up on the Iranian side of the border, seem to be providing them logistical support, and even personnel, as high ranking Iranian commandos are thought to have been aiding recent Taliban operations in western Afghanistan. War makes for strange bed-fellows. But either way, Tehran is finding itself in a much better position in Afghanistan than it could have ever hoped for, and it is making influential friends for the future, when the Taliban will inevitably return to power in Kabul.
The irony of it all is, of course, that in the nebulous thinking of the Bush neo-cons, the Afghan and Iraqi wars were supposed to contain Iran and cement American influence over the region and its critical oil supplies. Instead it has done the exact opposite: it has guaranteed Iranian influence from the Mediterranean Sea to the Khyber pass. And, in a stunning turn of events, influence that is beginning to transcend sectarian lines. Is it any wonder that America’s allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, are becoming more assertive and belligerent in the face of a rising Iran?
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim