During the Iraq conflict in 2008, as US-led coalition forces fought a bitter battle with Iranian-backed militias, US General David Petraeus received an unexpected message. It was from Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Republican Guards’ elite Quds Force which said: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.”
If the boastful Iranian commander, who is committed to exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world, were to send a similar text today, he could also add Bahrain and Yemen to the list of Middle Eastern countries that are now being targeted by Tehran’s hard-liners. Iran’s determination, moreover, to continue its meddling in the Arab world could have an undesirable effect on the outcome of the negotiations currently taking place in Geneva to end Syria’s brutal civil war.
Last summer, when Iran signed the historic nuclear deal with the world’s leading powers to end decades of international isolation, there were hopes that, by ending it’s seemingly inexorable march towards acquiring nuclear weapons, there would be a significant change in Tehran’s dealings with the outside world.
If Iran could be successfully integrated into the international system, the argument went, then the huge potential of this oil-rich state of 79 million people would be unlocked, allowing global and European countries untold commercial opportunities.
But while Iran now stands to receive up to $150 billion as the sanctions are lifted, the recent decision to test-launch two ballistic missiles bearing the slogan “Israel must be wiped out” clearly suggests there has been no significant change in Tehran’s confrontational attitude.
On the contrary, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that Iran’s hard-liners remain committed to maintaining their aggressive stance towards both the West and its neighbours in the Middle East.
In Syria, Tehran sends Quds Force commanders to bolster the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, while the military wing of its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, provides the manpower to attack moderate rebels. In Yemen, Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels have undermined the recognised government and created an area of instability, thereby causing a serious humanitarian crisis on the border of Saudi Arabia, the West’s ally and Iran’s rival for regional influence. In Palestine, Iran supplies weapons to Hamas that are used to attack Israel.
At home, meanwhile, Iran shows no sign of adopting a more peaceful approach to its neighbours. Since the nuclear deal was struck, it has expanded and upgraded its missile programme. Indeed, the original announcement to upgrade its ballistic missile capabilities, which many intelligence experts believe are being designed to carry nuclear warheads, came in October 2015 in defiance of an American threat to introduce fresh sanctions. Last month, Tehran also announced it is working with Russia to upgrade its anti-aircraft defence systems. These do not seem to be the actions of a country set on reintegrating peacefully with the outside world.
Iran’s increased meddling in the region and its military build-up at home reflects the control the regime’s hard-liners continue to exert over key state activities. Much of this activity, moreover, is being directed by the Quds Force, which reports directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader and the guardian of the country’s Islamic revolution. One of the central tenets of the Iranian revolution is to export its extreme brand of Shia theology throughout the region. And it is to this end that Suleimani, who has been described by the New Yorker as “the single most powerful operative in the idle East today”, conducts military and clandestine operations throughout the region.
It was under Suleimani’s direction that Iran built a network of Shia militias in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that today dominate large areas of the country and have helped to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Indeed, it was Mr Suleimani’s personal appeal to Moscow to support Mr Assad that resulted in Russia’s own decision to intervene militarily in Syria, a move that has radically altered the course of the conflict in favour of both Mr Assad and Tehran.
Resolving the Syrian conflict, which is now entering its sixth year, has become a priority for Western policymakers, particularly in view of the political instability the subsequent migration crisis has caused throughout Europe. But any forthcoming diplomatic effort to end the fighting should be undertaken on the clear understanding that, irrespective of the outcome of the negotiations, the hard-liners in Tehran have no interest in developing a constructive relationship with the West in Syria or any other part of the Middle East.