In any future arrangements related to [Persian] Gulf security and stability, Iran’s role as an influential regional power must not be overlooked. The 1979 Islamic revolution carried with it an aim to export its ideals to other Islamic countries, leaving the countries in the Gulf feeling threatened. The region was also deeply marked by the Iran-Iraq war, and then by the Iranian nuclear crisis. [In 1971, at the time of UAE independence], Iran took control of three Emirati islands, and they [continue to refuse to respond to efforts to settle this crisis].
In an attempt to spread its ideology through the Gulf region, Iran has recently been waging a battle on all fronts (economic, cultural, social...) through careful organization and planning. Revolutionary Guard agents have been mobilized and sleeper cells [in foreign countries] have been formed, all the more since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. It is clear that the Iranians have a developed and broad plan for the Gulf, the principle tenets of which will be discussed below:
- Home to sacred shrines and central to Islam, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is believed to be the most important target of Iranian activity. The Iranian regime seeks to infiltrate Saudi society, especially in the North Eastern parts of the country, where the [population shares an affinity] with Iranian religious figures.
- Interference in Bahrain has also intensified. An increasing number of Bahrainis are of Iranian origin, and Shiite religious authorities are strengthening links to the [Jaafari] jurisprudence schools in Qom, Mash’had and Tehran.
- In Kuwait, Iranian efforts are focused on reviving the Husseiniyahs [places used by Shiites to commemorate the assassination of Imam Hussein] and supporting relevant Kuwaiti figures. Kuwaiti Shiites were also assisted in forming political and popular movements which have taken opposition to any official anti-Iranian decisions [by the government].
- In Yemen, Iran’s involvement in providing political and material support to the rebellious Houthis [in the North] is no secret:
- In August 2009, warehouses stocked with Iranian-made weapons were discovered, and these weapons allegedly belonged to the Houthis. Meanwhile military activity has escalated in the Sa’ada governorate.
- On October 9, 2009, Lebanese Hezbollah sources declared that their fighters in Yemen successfully shot down aircraft from the Yemeni Air Force using handheld surface-to-air missile systems (Yemeni air forces lost three jet fighters during military operations against Houthis).
- Yemeni forces discovered remains of field radio equipment in a Houthi location destroyed in Saada, set up by Lebanese experts.
- On October 26, 2009, Yemeni naval forces intercepted an Iranian vessel carrying weapons - with five Iranians on board - near the Medi region facing the Sa’ada governorate. The vessel was loaded with guided anti-tank missiles.
- On November 10, 2009, the Iranian Foreign Minister cautioned neighboring countries against intervening in Yemen’s affairs, after Saudi forces initiated military action against Houthis. At that time, the office of the Supreme Guide in Iranian universities was mobilizing and recruiting volunteers to join the ranks of the Houthis in Yemen.
- On December 11, 2009, Major General Ali Al-Onsi, the Chief of the Yemeni National Security, confirmed, during the 6th session of the 2009 Manama Dialogue, that Iran was directly involved in supporting the Houthis.
The Syrian Ally
For years, the Iranian regime has shared strong military and economic bonds with its Syrian ally. These ties have strengthened both parties and their capacity to withstand years of international pressure. As soon as unprecedented popular protests erupted by storm in various [Syrian] cities, the highest authority in the Mullah regime in Tehran rushed to provide material and military support to quell the protests and preserve the Alawite regime. As [the Bashar al-Assad regime] represents [an important strategic pillar] for Tehran. Tehran actively seeks to maintain its position in the region and ensure that [the Syrian regime] retains the tools to influence Hezbollah and Iranian-affiliated Palestinian organizations.
An examination of Iranian regional policies policies reveals that Iran recently intensified its support of the Syrian regime. Tehran’s media has been consistently reaffirming that external conspiracies were working to destabilize Syria, and that this warranted Iranian intervention to defend it as the two countries had signed a bilateral agreement. Security consultants from the Revolutionary Guard were dispatched to Syrian cities by Iranian authorities. In coordination with security forces and the commander of the Fourth Battalion of the Republican Guard Brigadier Maher Assad, they provided important expertise to the Syrian authorities, as Syrian security forces lacked the skills to confront such movements.
Several Iranian anti-rioting experts were also sent to Damascus. The experts arrived as businessmen, via Turkey, to help the Syrian regime. They provided [logistics for the delivery of] weapons and ammunition, which were delivered to the Damascus airport through the [Iranian cargo carrier] Yas Air.
After Assad’s visit to Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei decided that Iranian authorities and the Revolutionary Guard would provide full support to the Syrian regime. Iran also paid the salaries of Syrian army officers and soldiers for six months, as a contribution to support internal stability and to fend off a potential economic meltdown.
During an August 2011 visit by Assistant Syrian Vice President Mohammad Nassif Kheir Beik to Tehran, Iran and Syria agreed to enhance military cooperation. Iran was asked to build a new military base near the Latakia airport in order to transfer weapons and military equipment directly from Tehran to Damascus. This base would also be reinforced with all necessary equipment for a counterattack, to protect Syria against any attacks from Israel or other enemy forces.
As Iran continues to support the Syrian regime, Gulf countries have been threatened by Iran’s capacity to destabilize the region. [The Iranian presence in Syria] has barred them from being able to adopt any position that could be seen as a conspiracy or interference in Syria’s internal affairs. If they were to choose to go along with American and European efforts to topple Bashar Al-Assad and weaken Syria [Iranian support to the Syrian regime would seriously complicate these steps].
In light of recent developments, options are now limited for the Iranian regime. It can only provide support to its Syrian ally, while keeping a close eye on unfolding events and potential surprises. Many are questioning today the regime’s capacity to resist American and European sanctions. At later stage, these sanctions might be followed by similar ones from the United Nations Security Council, if Russia and China prove unable to use their veto to protect the Syrian regime. For this reason, Iran must now reconsider its position vis-a-vis [the Assad regime] and prepare for the arrival of a new Syrian regime, regardless of its affiliations. It has to consider this scenario if it wants to preserve the gains it acquired during years of strategic alliance [with Syria].
Iran’s position towards Lebanon and Hezbollah mainly depends on regional politics. It is also conditioned by Iran’s fears of repercussions left by internal and external pressure on its strategic ally, Hezbollah. Such pressure includes the indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri, the future of Hezbollah’s weapons, and restrictions resulting from the escalating conflict between the March 8 coalition (in which Hezbollah is a member) and the March 14 coalition, composed of the new opposition.
Since Hezbollah’s establishment by Iranian mullahs in the 1980s, Iranian policies towards the Party of God reveal that the Iranian leadership has, throughout the years, considered Hezbollah as its main proxy in Lebanon and the Arab region. The Hezbollah card has been played to achieve Iranian goals in exporting the revolution and Shia beliefs to countries of the region; many Iranian Shiites are present in the Gulf and linked to Hezbollah. For this reason, Iran has sought to adopt a range of policies towards Hezbollah’s leaders and its cadres and support their positions against internal and external pressure. The international community - Israel in particular - has repeatedly sought to undermine Hezbollah’s influence and disarm it. [The motive behind this is] to avoid a war similar to that of [July] 2006, which damaged Israeli arrogance and [weakened the image of its deterrent capabilities].
War with Israel
Past wars between Hezbollah and Israel - especially that of 2006 - and current regional changes have mobilized Iran to develop Hezbollah’s competencies on all levels. [It is preparing itself] for the increasing international pressures, particularly regarding the tensions surrounding its nuclear program. New military bases were built, and a number of underground tunnels were dug in order to store missiles - especially in Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley. Iran has also been working to train military squads, and these are now able to immediately deploy and take control of all Lebanese regions if needed. Iran also trained Hezbollah members on launching missiles and manufacturing bombs. In February 2011, approximately 1,600 Hezbollah fighters visited Iran to take part in military maneuvers with the Revolutionary Guard.
Despite increasing international pressure on Iran, it has not interrupted its support for Hezbollah. Modern communication and wiretapping equipment has been installed in different Lebanese regions, especially near the residences of diplomats working in Arab and foreign embassies. Iran has also reinforced Hezbollah positions in Southern Lebanon, with large quantities of weapons and ammunition from warehouses near Damascus. It has also provided funds to Hezbollah to purchase properties in a number of Druze and Christian villages so that these could later be turned into military bases.
In the realm of Lebanese politics, the Iranian regime is now focusing on supporting its allies. Hezbollah is encouraged to question the credibility of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, in an effort to sap future accusations of main Hezbollah officials. Tehran also instructed Hezbollah cooperate with Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun - Lebanon’s most influential Christian leader. [Iran also called for] all measures were to be taken to curb the influence of Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Hariri. [Iran’s allies in Lebanon have been asked to] discomfit him locally and expose his weaknesses and failures to deal with thorny issues. His late father, Rafik Hariri on the other hand had managed to preserve ties with a wide range of political parties and influential countries, namely Iran and Syria.
Iran also encouraged Hezbollah’s alliance with a number of Sunni leaders in Lebanon. These include the leader of the Murabitun, Brigadier General Mustapha Hamdan, and President of the National Nasserist Organization Samir Sharkas. Iran also sought to expand Hezbollah’s political participation and has sought to enhance its role and influence within the Cabinet. Hezbollah has also achieved another political victory with Vice Director of Military Intelligence Abbas Ibrahim appointment as Director General of General Security in spite of opposition from Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s camp.
In post-invasion Iraq, Iran’s role is widely debated in Arab circles. In fact, Tehran’s role in Iraq has been fundamental to the Iraqi crisis since 2003. Developing an accurate and objective analysis of the Iraqi situation is hard without sufficient awareness of Iran’s role in Iraq; it is deemed key to understanding many of the Iraqi enigmas.
Allies in Iraq
Examining Tehran’s position in Iraq reveals that Tehran’s allies in the former Iraqi opposition influenced - and sometimes controlled - different American arrangements, [What is this referring to?] even before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Spearheaded by the Hakim movement [a Shia political movement founded by Ayatollah Sayyed Muhammad Baqir Al-Hakim], these forces actively participated in laying the foundations for post-Saddam Iraq on the legislative, security, military and political levels. A few years ago, the movement had changed its name to “the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution,” now headed by Shia leader Ammar Al-Hakim. The movement’s ties to Iran are deeply rooted in the 1970s and 1980s. The Supreme Council had fought in the ranks of the Iranian army in its war against Iraq and pursued military operations from Iranian territory against regions of Southern Iraq during the 1990s.
The Council had actively participated in all Iraqi opposition conferences before the invasion, under the supervision of the American State Department and US intelligence. Its military wing, the Badr Corps, provided structure and personnel for the new Iraqi Ministry of the Interior after the fall of Saddam and the dissolution of the Iraqi security apparatus.
As the Hakim movement took the lion’s share in determining political arrangements before and after the opposition, other Iran-affiliated former opposition forces played a similar role, though to different extents. The Daawa party partnered with the United States and follows of al-Hakim. The party’s leader [Ibrahim al-Jafaari] was then appointed Prime Minister of the first elected Iraqi government in 2005, followed by Nouri al-Maliki one year later.
The Sadrist movement has constantly been referred to as an Arab nationalist movement and an opponent of the American occupation. After the invasion of Iraq, it strengthened its ties with Iran, as Tehran offered a safe haven for Sadrists - namely for their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr - at various stages of their confrontation with US forces. US and Western media reported a constant Iranian support for Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army.
Iran’s bonds with those Iraqi forces who held central positions of power since 2003, and the traditional relationship between Tehran and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani – who still represents half of the Kurdish in Iraq – illustrate the tools Iran uses to both influence Iraqi affairs and to bargain with successive US administrations.
An examination of the Shia and Kurdish efforts to build the legislative and political pillars in a post-Saddam Iraq, indicates a major Iranian role. Rather than speaking of a US-Iranian dispute in Iraq, the principal points of understanding between the US and Iran ought to be underlined. In fact, all plans undertaken by the American administration in Iraq were carried out in tandem with the Iranians, or at least through Tehran-affiliated forces.
In the Arab Maghreb, Iran is continues in its attempts to spread its sectarian ideals through the use of diplomatic presence and its privileged relationship with Algeria. It has particularly multiplied its efforts to spread Shia doctrine in Moroccan society, especially among university students. [It has done so by] building on the sympathy and support for the Lebanese group Hezbollah - considered one of its most important political branches in the Middle East - among Arab citizens. In European countries, Iranian intelligence agents have tried to infiltrate Moroccan immigrant groups, which are present in large numbers. [They try to] paint a positive image [of Shiaism] that would encourage a shift to Shia beliefs so that these beliefs can later be disseminated among local communities when the immigrants return to Morocco.
These movements and their undisclosed objectives - i.e. exporting the Islamic revolution to Arab and Muslim countries - have stirred fears in the rest of Arab Maghreb. Iran is known to be seeking the establishment of new Shia regions in Northern Africa, as an extension for its already-strong presence in West Africa.
In a decisive reaction to these attempts, the Kingdom of Morocco decided to sever all diplomatic ties with Iran as of March 6, 2009, after the Iranian diplomatic mission in Rabat was charged with meddling with Moroccan identity, essential religious values and the unity of its royal Sunni doctrine. Morocco deemed such actions a blatant interference in its internal affairs, especially given that Tehran had previously summoned the Moroccan charge d’affaires to protest King Mohammed VI’s [the King of Morocco] position on the crisis in Bahrain. [The King wrote a letter criticizing Iran’s position for attempting to infringe on Bahrain’s sovereignty].