‘The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,’ wrote Lord Byron in his famous poem about the ancient Persians on the rampage. Well, the modern Persians are on the rampage now; and they are right on our doorstep.
Fortunately President Trump is well aware of the danger; he has slammed the diplomatic door in Tehran’s face, to the fury of France, Germany and EU companies, all suddenly forced to ditch their lucrative contracts with Tehran.
One of the mistakes Westerners make is thinking that the Middle East is run by Arabs: wrong. The Middle East is mainly split between Persians and Arabs; and they don’t get on – and never have. The ancient Persians were the bane of Greece and Rome; it wasn’t until the fanatical Arabian warriors of Islam conquered Persia in 651 that the Persians even became Muslim. To this day Persia – now calling itself Iran (after its Persian name) – is a separate culture, language and even a separate branch of Islam.
Persians are Shi’ite Muslims and believe that Islam should be ruled by direct descendants of the Prophet. Most Arabs are Sunni Muslims, believing that Muhammad’s successor was an elected Imam called Abu Bakr. The ‘religion of peace and love’ fell out in 661 when Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was murdered. Since then the religious split has widened and acquired political significance – Persians are mainly Shi’a; the rest of the Arab world (85%) are Sunni.
This matters because the modern Assyrians are once again muscling in across the Middle East – and even further. Thanks to Iran, and the meddling Mullahs of Tehran, the great geo-strategic tectonic plates are shifting, and not necessarily for the better. Iran is on the march – and Iran wants a nuclear bomb.
Iran’s efforts to expand its influence are there for all to see. Following the rout of ISIS by Kurdish infantry and American and Russian air power, Iran now controls large swathes of the Middle East, as well as dominating the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, whilst simultaneously intimidating the Gulf States. Through its use of proxy fighters like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Tehran’s tentacles have now reached the Mediterranean. Iran is busy setting itself up as a regional superpower.
However, Tehran’s real interests are much wider; as Trump warned, we ignore them at our peril. Azerbaijan’s traditional alliance has been with Turkey: Azeris are ethnically Turkic, and the two countries’ languages have shared roots. However, with Turkey now mired down in Syria as a result of Ankara’s paranoia over the Kurds, Tehran is suddenly wooing Baku, because Azerbaijan was once part of the Persian Empire and over 20 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran. Tehran is concerned that the Azeris might try to break away – like the Kurds.
However, Iran’s interests are much wider than domestic unrest on its northern border. Assad’s rump Syria is, once again, effectively a Persian satrapy. This worries Jeddah, because far to the south west, Tehran is fighting a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the other big player in the region. (‘War’ is no exaggeration. When guided missiles start falling near your capital, that’s war!) The luckless hosts for this struggle for regional dominance are the wretched Shi’a Houthis of Yemen, whose rebellion against their government is being brutally crushed by the Saudis and Gulf States, determined to stop the Shi’a gaining even more power on their doorstep.
Washington is not fooled by Tehran’s manoeuvrings, either. With respect to Iranian aims, US General Jack Keane warns: ‘Syria for Iran is a strategic anchor in the region … they really want to gain more influence and domination of the countries in the area … the Iranians have been conducting a military build-up in southern and south-western Syria .… What they really want to do is replicate what they’ve done in Lebanon, where Hezbollah have in their hands 130,000-plus rockets and missiles capable of reaching Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. This is serious stuff, what Iran is up to. They certainly want to undermine the government of Israel, create instability and eventually, in time, destroy it.’
Iran’s leaders make no secret of their ambition to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East and, eventually, the entire Islamic world. Tehran is quite open about its aims: to roll back the influence of the United States in the region and to work towards Israel’s destruction. For example, in 2015, Ali Younesi (a senior intelligence adviser to Iranian President Rouhani) outlined a clear blueprint for Iranian plans, describing Iran’s role as ‘protecting the interests of all the people in the region – because they are all Iran’s people .… We must try to once again spread the banner of Islamic-Iranian unity and peace in the region. Iran must bear this responsibility, as it did in the past.’ Interestingly he spoke of Iran’s past as an empire, and called for a ‘greater Iran’, stretching from the borders of China to the Persian Gulf.
There is however a built-in limit to imperial Iranian dreams: Sunni Arabs are deeply suspicious of Persians. As a Shi’a power, Tehran finds it difficult to win support outside Shi’ite Arab populations. The principal tool of Iranian expansion has been the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by the experienced Mohammad Ali Jafari, an advocate of asymmetric warfare using its elite al-Quds Force, whose prime mission is to create Shi’a political/military proxies in other countries and further the ‘Iranian Islamic Revolution’. The chaos in Syria and Lebanon opened the door to Iran’s take-over, using the IGRC as its vanguard.
Iran’s control of Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs rams the point home. According to a recent report in the Asharq al-Awsat, the IRGC openly maintains a permanent staff of senior officers and political appointees in Baghdad to manage the Shi’a militias and control the Iraqi countryside. Similar IRGC units are being set up in Syria and Lebanon.
Now Iran has been caught stirring up trouble in another area of expansion, this time on the Atlantic, a very long way from home: Morocco. When colonial Spain left Morocco in the 1970s, Polisario guerrillas fought for independence for the Sahrawi people until a UN-brokered ceasefire. However, Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah, have just been exposed running arms secretly to the Polisario and training its fighters. ‘Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with … weapons and trained them in urban warfare’, according to Rabat. Intelligence reports confirm this meddling. Sunni Morocco has reacted by expelling the Iranian ambassador and severing all diplomatic ties.
However, the greatest danger of all is Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Trump warned when he scrapped Obama’s 2015 naive Iranian deal. Under pressure from Obama and the EU, Iran had agreed to limit its attempt to develop a nuclear capability in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. But, as Israeli intelligence has proved conclusively, the Persians lied and cheated. Now, despite EU corporations’ wails of lost profits, Trump has re-enforced savage sanctions to bring Tehran to its knees once again and scupper Iran’s nuclear programme once and for all. Iran’s aims may be ambitious but its armed forces lack any genuine capability to attack its neighbours; so, without a nuclear capability, Tehran’s options to become the bully on the block are limited.
Iran’s long-term strategy is clear: a naked grab for regional hegemony, mainly by controlling proxies. The irony is that Tehran has badly overplayed its hand; Iranian interference and subversion abroad has been too blatant and encouraged international resistance to Tehran’s over-ambitious dictators. Absolutely no-one wants to see the mad Mullahs with a nuclear bomb. Perhaps the Ayatollah should heed the old Persian proverb? ‘Experience teaches us that wishful thinking only leads to disappointment.’
But be in no doubt: the Iranian wolf is hungry.