The image of the invariably smiling Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif purring at the side of world leaders, together with the election of the so-called “reformist” president, Hassan Rouhani in 2013, have cultivated an image of the Iranian regime as modern, civilized, reasonable and a welcome antidote to the barbarism of IS and other Sunni jihadists. But a closer examination of the regime’s regional designs and behaviour reveals a dangerous malevolence.
Under President Rouhani, state executions in the Islamic Republic have continued at their usual rollicking pace. Iran ranks first in the world when it comes to executions per capita. Human rights groups reported 239 executions in Iran in the first half of 2017, some involving minors, others conducted in public. In August 2016, the Iranian regime announced the execution of a group of 20 men (believed to be Sunni Kurds) on the charge of “enmity to God.”
Iranian industrial workers have been flogged for protesting the firing of their fellow employees. Children identified as LGBTI are subjected to electric shock therapy to “cure” them. Adults accused of sexual deviancy are hanged from cranes. The Baha’i people are systematically denied basic human rights, including closure of their businesses, and exclusion from employment and education, and they are subjected to arbitrary arrest, often for many years.
Abroad, Iran’s hand can be seen in every theatre of war in the Middle East and in major terrorist attacks against civilian targets further afield. An Argentinian government investigation into the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people and wounded 300, found that “the decision to carry out the attack was made, and the attack was orchestrated, by the highest officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that these officials instructed Hezbollah – a group that has historically been subordinated to the economic and political interests of the Teheran regime – to carry out the attack.” In 2012, Hezbollah operatives murdered six people in a bus bombing at the Burgas airport in Bulgaria.
In Iraq, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), led by Qassem Suleymani, is widely believed to have killed 500 US servicemen by supplying Shiite extremists with advanced roadside bombs, rocket-propelled explosives and other munitions. In 2011, the United States uncovered a plot by the Quds Force to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, and to do so on American soil.
The Iranian regime spends more than $800 million a year supporting Hezbollah, an armed Shi’íte group based in Lebanon, four senior members of whom have been accused by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon of organising the assassination in 2005 of Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri. Iran has pumped billions into sustaining the Assad regime in Syria.
Little wonder that the recent civil unrest in Iran was partly fueled by a view that Iran cares more for establishing regional supremacy than the needs of its people. Chants of “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” were heard at demonstrations throughout the country.
Since concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 - the deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and inducements – Iran’s belligerence and provocations have actually increased. Aside from upping its involvement in Syria and Yemen, Iran has rapidly increased its ballistic missile activities and harassment of the US fleet in the Persian Gulf. This indicates that the nuclear deal, rather than having a reforming effect on Iran’s international conduct, is in fact being used by the regime to allow greater room to maneuver in pursuit of its long-term regional ambitions.
What then does Iran want, and why has it sought to inject itself into regional conflict and international terrorism?
The regime has been explicit about its motivation and its strategy. Its immediate goal is a land corridor across the Levant, linking Iran to the Mediterranean, hence its “at-all-costs” support for Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The ultimate purpose of this is to establish a presence in the Golan Heights, as a forward base in a direct confrontation with Israel. Iran’s strategy is therefore to prepare for war, not to establish peace, and to fracture states rather than to unite them. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has spoken of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as being Iran’s forward defence. Their populations, generally hostile to Iran’s brand of jihadism for its Shiite character - are seen as wholly dispensable. Assad and Hezbollah have so far managed to subdue their domestic rivals with unsparingly brutal force.
Hezbollah for its part, far from being a potential ally in the war on Sunni jihadism, remains a terrorist organisation of rare sophistication and ruthlessness. It has deepened its presence in both Europe and South America. In recent years, Hezbollah terror cells have been disturbed in Peru and Panama, while the group’s main source of financing comes from illicit business and drug smuggling through Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
The assertion, frequently advanced, that Hezbollah should be regarded not only for its terrorism but its social work, or that a distinction should be drawn between its international terrorism arm (the External Security Organisation) and its political and social operations, is a fantasy. The ideology and objectives of Shi’a supremacism, backed by brute force, suffuse the entire organisation.
Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassam, has himself made this point:
“Some [in the West] try to distinguish between the military wing and the political wing [of Hezbollah]. This is because they are convincing themselves of a necessity, gradually compromising [toward recognising Hezbollah], because as they will learn, every member of the resistance [i.e. Hezbollah] is a politician, and every politician is a member of the resistance. You won’t find with us a political stance and a [separate] position of the resistance. We are all the resistance and we are all policy makers.”
In their desperation to come to grips with Sunni jihadism – identified as the primary threat to international security – policy analysts and makers have become increasingly willing to entertain the idea of embracing Iran and its surrogates as a partner in the struggle. This is a dangerous self-delusion. Sunni extremists can only be fought with Sunni moderates. One brutal fundamentalism may for a time fight another, but the notion that this will bring long-term peace and stability is foolish. It will only ever result in more war and bloodshed.