How Iran is extending its ‘Shiite crescent’ to Africa

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The war against ISIS in Iraq was won by a combination of Iraqi Shiite militias, Iraqi Kurdish militias and Iranian forces and logistical support. As a result of their essential aid, the government in Baghdad has been effectively captured by Iran.

In the Syrian civil war, Russia may be the most powerful actor fully engaged in the conflict, but arguably, Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Iranian personnel and materiel have had at least as much bearing on the trajectory of the conflict as even the Syrian government.

All the while, in Yemen, Iranian backing is enabling the Houthi rebels to withstand the combined onslaught of all the other Arab gulf states, and their Western arsenals.

What is remarkable about these conflicts is just how effective Iran is at projecting power in its region of interest, and how it manages to maintain an upper hand in the face of much better funded and more technologically advanced opposition from the US and Israel.

The comparison with the US is particularly stark. America has the world’s undisputed strongest military and nearly infinite financial and logistical resources by comparison, but in the Middle East at least, it has recently been much less effective at promoting its strategic interests than Iran.

In fact, much of the history of Iran’s growing influence in the last two decades is also a tale of US strategic idiocy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to encircle Iran with a thick cordon of US military bases and permanently contain it. The result was the exact opposite: the US has removed two strong Sunni regimes opposed to Iran’s Shiite influence, it has made friends of Iran and the Afghan Taliban, and has handed the government in Baghdad to Iran-allied Shiite clerics. Iran now dominates, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, and may also end up doing so in Yemen. It is is successfully extending the ‘Shiite crescent’.

Against this background, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal can be understood as a tantrum of impotence in the face of an adversary who actually knows what it wants and knows how to get it. Iran is increasingly the dominant force in the Middle East, despite opposition from the stronger Israel, Saudis, and the fact that its Shiite branch of Islam remains clearly in the minority in the region.

What Iran and its allies have, and what their opponents lack, is unity of purpose, clarity of vision and unwavering commitment. And this combination is now allowing them to set their sights beyond the Middle East itself.

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal can be understood as a tantrum of impotence in the face of an adversary who actually knows what it wants and knows how to get it.

Azeem Ibrahim

In the last few weeks, a new front in the Iran/Saudi conflict seems to be emerging in Morocco. Relations between the two countries have been strained in the past, not least because of Morocco’s support of the Sunni ruling dynasty in the Shiite-majority, Iran-neighbour, Bahrain. But now there are allegations that Iran is actively support the separatist Polisario Front in Morocco’s disputed southern provinces, through their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. As a consequence, Morocco has swiftly broken diplomatic relations with Tehran.

The irony of the situation is that despite our dim view of the Tehran regime in the West, if anything will contain Iran’s growing regional and global influence, it seems unlikely that it will be us. Rather, the most likely break on these developments is likely to come from the Iranian people, who had been putting pressure on their government for redirecting the windfall from the last few years of sanctions relief towards foreign adventures, rather than improving the economy and the livelihoods of the people at home.

In any case, the resumption of open diplomatic hostilities between the US and Iran, and increasing Israeli and Saudi belligerence, are both likely to be counterproductive to stopping Iran’s growing influence. The defence of the nation will take precedence over economic grumblings, and the Iranian people will rally behind the more assertive hardliners, instead of putting pressure on their government in the opposite direction towards regional peace and economic development at home. In ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran, the Western/Israeli/Saudi hawks will have only succeeded in validating Iran’s strategy, and entrenching its gains.

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

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