Senate Questions U.S. Strategy for Middle East, Iran’s Influence
Last week the topic of Iran and the crises raging across the Middle East was explored at a Senate briefing. On December 15th, members of Congress, as well as the public, were briefed on Iran’s influence in the ongoing crises and wars in the Middle East. The panel was entitled “Iran’s Malign Influence in Syria and Iraq, the Case of Camp Liberty” and hosted Senate Kennedy Caucus Room.
The briefing was moderated by former Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., and featured contributions from former Senator Joseph Lieberman, General Jack Keane, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
While some believe relations between Iran and the West are thawing following the recent nuclear agreement, members of the panel expressed concerns that Iran remains as dangerous as ever. While Sunni extremist groups, including the Islamic State, draw most of the attention, many experts argue Iran is among the root causes of instability in the Middle East.
Given the headline-grabbing brutality of the Islamic State, it’s easy to overlook Iran and its theocracy. And yet, Iran may actually pose a greater threat than a group like the Islamic State ever could. As former Senater Joe Lieberman put it “Iran is a nation state, it’s heavily armed, it continues to develop more sophisticated armaments. It is explicitly anti-American, anti-Western, anti-moderate Islam.”
While the Islamic State aspires to be a “caliphate,” it lacks the power, funding, and organization of a bona fide government. Iran, on the other hand, is sitting on the world’s 4th largest proven oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves. Abundant natural wealth has contributed to Iran’s ability to fund extremist allies, such as Hamas, across the Middle East, fueling conflicts.
Instability in Syria gave rise to the Islamic State
Iran has been among the chief supporters of Bashar Assad in Syria, propping up the regime as pressure from Western and Sunni countries in the Middle East has mounted. Like the Iranian regime, Assad’s regime in Syria consists primarily of Shia Muslims. Syria as a whole, however, is Sunni. Tensions between Shia and Sunni were among the root causes of the Syrian civil war. The instability created by this civil war, in turn, provided the perfect conditions for the Islamic State to emerge.
Worse yet, many critics accuse the Assad of intentionally allowing the Islamic State to take root, and may have even nurtured its growth. The presence of an extremist group in Syria could result in Assad become the lesser of two evils. Without Iran’s support, however, the Assad regime would have been unlikely to survive the initial Arab Spring movement, and the Islamic State might not even exist.
As Ambassador Bloomfield put it: “we’ve misunderstood President Assad and the rise of ISIS, where people said, well, maybe Assad’s more clean-cut, more Westernized, secular, an alternative to these terrible ISIS folks in eastern Syria. No, it was Assad who opened the jails, opened the borders, allowed that bonfire to burn, very cynically, just the way Maliki and the Iranians allowed it to burn in Iraq to draw our attention away from what they were doing.”
Iraq has increasingly fallen under the control of Iran
Bloomfield’s comments also touch on Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, for all of his evils, was the arch-nemesis of Iran, being a Sunni Muslim and having fought a long war with the country. The majority of Iraq’s population, however, is Shia and shares a long history with Iran.
With Saddam Hussein out of the picture and American influence in Iraq waning, Iran has been stepping in to fill the power gap. The current crisis in Iraq and the Islamic State’s massive gains in Sunni-controlled territory are directly the result of the belligerence and incompetence of Nouri al-Maliki, who himself was heavily under the influence of Iran.
Iran fueled Maliki’s mistrust and reprisals against the Sunni population in Iraq. Maliki failed to support and even persecuted the “Sons of Iraq”, a collection of Sunni tribal fighters who had fought against the Islamic State. In doing so, he removed what was perhaps the best buffer against Sunni radicalism in central Iraq.
And as Sunni Muslims were oppressed by the Iran-backed Shia government, they lost any compelling reason to remain a part of Iraq. When the Islamic State first invaded Iraq in the summer of 2014, the then rag-tag group of radicals was practically met with open arms by many of Iraq’s Sunni tribal groups, while the Shia dominated army tucked tail and ran, unwilling to defend Sunni territory.
Is Iran the “god father” of radical Islam?
According to some, Iran’s influence on the emergence of radical Islam goes back farther than the currently unfolding geopolitical events. Former Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge suggested that Iran’s takeover of the U.S. Embassy and seizure of hostages in 1979 “may have been the beginning. At least it was a seminal moment in the development of the radical Islam that we see across the globe today.“
While there are many other actors involved in the rise of Radical Islam across the Middle East, Iran’s roll cannot and should not be ignored. Currently, Iran is fueling the crisis in Yemen, and empowering Hamas in Lebanon, among other things. Time and time again, the Iranian regime has proven that it is unwilling to move past its radical and “revolutionary” ambitions, and that it is willing to watch the Middle East burn, so long as the regime’s interests are being promoted.
Even in the wake of the nuclear deal, Iran’s mullahs have been quick to remind the world that they view the U.S. as “satan” and that no accord would lead to the warming of relations with the West. So while Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be tempered for the time being (even that’s questionable), the regime can continue to undermine stability and peace throughout the Middle East. Stabilizing the region may ultimately prove to be impossible unless the Iranian regime is either removed, or at least contained.