That the current Iranian regime poses a problem for the free world is a fact of life. It even poses a problem for Russia, its de facto ally in the Syrian conflict. But the Iranian dilemma comes into even sharper focus following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, and the escalation of long-standing tensions between Iran and Israel into open military skirmishes.
Today’s difficulties stem back to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which chased the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, from the Peacock Throne. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution, believed fervently that he was on a holy mission to rid Iran – and possibly the world − of what he saw as Western corruption and degeneracy, and to return his country, under an Islamic theocracy, to religious purity.
Khomeini and his radical Shia Muslim regime was viscerally opposed to 80 percent of the Islamic world − the Sunni branch of Islam − and in particular to its leading state, Saudi Arabia. Rejecting Sunni Islam as apostasy, Khomeini claimed to be the leader of the entire Muslim world, a claim rejected by the Sunni Muslim rulers of the Middle East. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Khomeini declared that Mecca − which with Medina, two of Islam’s holiest shrines, lies within Saudi Arabia − was in the hands of “a band of heretics” and should be liberated by true Muslims.
Khomeini’s burning belief in the uncontestable validity of his mission led him to undertake and to commission acts of terror against Sunni Muslims and the West, regardless of the loss of life involved. Starting in the 1980s, a wave of kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations were carried out across the world, maintained after his death in 1989 by his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. These include the blowing up in 1983 of a van filled with explosives in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 58 Americans and Lebanese, and the bombing in the same year of the US Marine and French Drakkar barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers. On May 30, 2003, a US federal judge ruled that Hezbollah carried out the attack at the direction of the Iranian government.
In 1989 Khomeini put a fatwa on Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie because of his novel The Satanic Verses, and the Iranian government offered $2.5 million for his murder. A bombing in London in August 1989 was assumed to be a failed Hezbollah assassination attempt.
In 1992 Hezbollah operatives boasted of their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people. Two years later Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina and the subsequent death of 85 people. Argentinian courts concluded that Iran was behind the attacks.
And so the list continues, spanning the globe – 21 people, including 12 Jews, killed in an airplane attack in Panama in 1994; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing inside Saudi Arabia killing 19 US servicemen; the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria killing 6; on and on…
The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of ex-US President Barack Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility.
In the event the opposite has been the case. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have spent the billions of dollars they have acquired in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Over the past three years Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression.
In Syria, Iran has used its alliance with Assad to build what amounts to a state-within-a state, just as it did in neighboring Lebanon in the 1980s when it set up Hezbollah. Until Israel’s recent air attack which disabled much of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, the Guard had its own airfield, underground command and control facilities, thousands of missiles, its own dedicated drone base, and an estimated 20,000 Iranian-trained militiamen at its disposal. The purpose of this investment, it seems clear, was to increase Iran’s ability to confront Israel across the Golan Heights, while Hezbollah – armed and equipped by Iran – tackles Israel from south Lebanon.
It is doubtful if Iran’s strategic objectives have the backing of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. It was widely reported that Israel’s airstrikes on Iranian positions within Syria had been the subject of an understanding with Russia, and that in consequence there was never any danger of a military confrontation between them. In fact a day or two later, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, flew to Moscow for face-to-face discussions with Putin.
Moreover, Iran’s regional ambitions, both religious and political, lie well beyond Russia’s aims for Syria. Putin intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 in order to secure Russia’s military foothold in western Syria. This he has achieved, gaining the additional bonus of a vastly enhanced political presence in the Middle East. Now he is looking to secure some sort of political compromise and to back out. Putin understands perfectly well that any final settlement cannot leave Iran entrenched inside Syria as a permanent military and political force. Netanyahu must have made it quite clear that Israel, with whom Putin seeks a close relationship, would not permit it, and would itself destroy any military infrastructure if need be.
Meanwhile the problem of how to deal with Iran remains. Trump favors bankrupting it with sanctions, in the hope, perhaps, that deteriorating economic conditions will induce the population to rise up and overturn the regime − or that perhaps, in line with his interchange with the North Koreans, the Iranian leadership would respond to determined opposition by agreeing to recast the nuclear deal. Alternatively, there is the course that remains the bedrock of Obama’s and the Europeans’ policy – to attempt to bribe the Iranian regime by continuing to lift sanctions and encouraging lucrative trade deals, letting the nuclear consequences take care of themselves.
Which is more likely to yield an effective and lasting result?