Last week’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is better known simply as the “Iran Deal” is – quite correctly – being touted as a diplomatic achievement of historic proportions. The P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) and EU have succeeded in bringing both America and Iran’s chief diplomats together at one table as equals while hashing out an agreement that will significantly hamper the possibility of Tehran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Although imperfect, it would be naïve to disregard the gravity of this deal in an often stagnant region. However, it would be equally naïve to overlook Iran’s malignant influence in the Middle East, and the extent to which this deal will strengthen Iran’s wider strategic role as a fermenter of sectarian chaos and terrorism.
Although a gross over-simplification, it is practical to divide the Middle East’s key players into Sunni and Shia axes. The Sunni Axis comprises of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and America. The Shia, or “Resistance” Axis is formed by Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Iraq. Although each Axis is subject to infighting and competition (e.g. the antagonism between Qatar and Israel), each is broadly willing to set aside internal divides to combat their primary opponents. An excellent example of this is how although Egypt allies with Israel against Hamas, all three parties are united by their opposition to the Assad regime. Across the Middle East, Iran has championed members of the Resistance Axis and supported them in their struggles against members of the Sunni Axis. The result is often ethnic violence, local sectarianism, and even terrorism.
In the power vacuum of post-Saddam Iraq, various Iranian-backed militias have been particularly active in pursuing an anti-Sunni sectarian agenda. The US-backed government in Iraq has been dominated by Shia politicians such as Nouri Al-Maliki, many of whom allowed co-religionists virtual impunity in their anti-Sunni violence and terrorism. At the peak of Iraqi Civil War (2006-07), a favourite tactic of the government-backed and Iranian-supported death squads was to erect flash checkpoints in Baghdad where Sunni men would be arrested and then would “disappear”, often later found to have been shot and buried in mass-graves. Iran was also responsible for groups such as Jesh al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) obtaining particularly sophisticated weaponry which was used to devastating effect against British and American occupying troops.
Fast forward to 2014 and the collapse of the Iraqi Army against ISIS’ northern offensive. Only the reconstituted Shia death squads and militias were able to stem their southwards tide. However, in doing this, more waves of brutal anti-Sunni violence followed. Indeed, an Amnesty International report entitled “Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq” details the abductions, summary killings and extortion of Iraqi Sunnis at the hands of Iranian-backed groups such as Badr Brigades, Jesh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Although merely based on speculation, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Iranian special forces are deployed in Iraq and training such groups.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s survival may be attributed to the support of Iran and its regional proxy Hezbollah. As Syria’s conventional forces decrease in efficiency through a combination of combat fatigue and defections, Hezbollah’s war-hardened Lebanese troops have entered the fray in key battles which have ultimately served to relegate the FSA into irrelevancy. Hezbollah troops have also been implicated in various war crimes. Despite their widespread regional security commitments, Iran has still managed to continue its struggle against Israel. In 2014, pictures showing Iranian special forces on Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon were leaked on Twitter. In January 2015, an Israeli helicopter attack killed members of a joint Iranian-Hezbollah “field reconnaissance mission” near the Syrian Golan Heights town of Quneitra. Amongst them were Hezbollah field commander Jihad Mughniyeh and Abu Ali al-Tabtabai: an Iranian general.
A similar situation also exists in Yemen. Now gripped in a civil war, the nation saw Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels overthrow the central Sunni-led government in Sanaa while capturing other key cities such as Aden. Although the activities of Saudi Arabia and the former government forces which it backs should be investigated (e.g. the use of air strikes in civilian population centres), actions taken by the Houthis, for which Iran undoubtedly bares a certain amount of responsibility, are equally unacceptable. These include: using lethal force to disperse protestors, sending child soldiers into battle, holding aid workers hostage, and murdering civilians in areas under their control. Iranian planes are also thought to be flying much-need supplies into Houthi-controlled Yemen multiple times a week, thereby perpetuating the local conflict and civil war.
These developments are all made even more alarming when viewed with the knowledge that conventional arms embargoes have been lifted as part of last week’s deal. An increased flow of weaponry to Iranian proxies can certainly be anticipated over the coming months, which may re-sway the Syrian Civil War back in favour of a flagging Assad regime. A longer-term threat, albeit an unlikely one, is Iran passing nuclear weaponry to a group such as Hezbollah who could then use it against Israel. Although Tehran has fallen out with both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a rekindling of relationships is far from impossible. Both groups are excellently suited to striking at Israel – arguably more so than Hezbollah currently – and with a repeat of last summer’s bloodshed inevitable sooner or later, investing weaponry in them would be wise strategic decision from Iran.
To conclude, the Iran Deal is inherently flawed in the sense that it fails to take into account the real threats Tehran poses to the Middle East. While the prospect of a nuclear Iran is indeed worrying, there are far more imminent and short-term threats that should be addressed. Of these, the proliferation of conventional weaponry to Tehran’s proxies and allies, may be regarded as the most dangerous. Being deliberately ignorant demonstrates extremely poor judgement from Western diplomats. And, until a more comprehensive policy shift occurs, the Middle East will be a more chaotic and dangerous region for many years to come.