Lately, Iran has made headline news in a variety of ways. The Jewish entity regards Iran as an existential threat, the West continues to fret over Iran’s nuclear programme, the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) bitterly complains about Tehran’s interference in Bahrain and Yemen, and Syrians blame Iranian forces for the slaughter of civilians. Yet there is one piece of news that has only attracted a cursory mention and that is Iran’s influence in the region is waning.
The Levant and Iraq is where Iran’s influence is diminishing at a spectacular speed and eroding Iran’s ability to influence regional politics. The pivot for this transition is Syria. At the beginning of the revolution Iran staunchly stood by its ally Assad. Tehran bolstered Syria’s economy with enormous amounts of aid and strengthened Assad’s forces with the elite Iranian commandoes to brutally suppress the uprising. On October 1st 2012, The “Times” newspaper reported that Tehran had given $10 billion to prop up Assad and his floundering regime. The revelation clearly demonstrates the value Tehran places on supporting Assad despite the huge economic toll of international sanctions against the Iranian people. In the summer of 2012, Tehran struggled to keep a lid on its clandestine military activities in Syria, and eventually the activities of the Quds Force became so pronounced and widespread that Tehran finally acknowledged its military operations in the country. In September 2012, Guards commander Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari said, “A number of Quds Force members are present in Syria and Lebanon… we provide (these countries) with counsel and advice, and transfer experience to them.”
As the Syrian jihadists draw near towards surrounding Damascus, Iran’s billions of dollars and military assistance in propping up Assad appears insignificant-a wasted effort. Amongst Sunni jihadist Iran has negligible influence and this is worrying the Iranian leadership as it struggles to grapple with the situation. It is faced with a strategic choice whether to continue to embrace the Alawite faction and their militia the Shabiha after falling from power or to embrace the Sunni Jihadists who deeply despise the Iranian regime. An article entitled “Syria’s Fate Hinges on Whom It Hates Most, U.S. or Iran?” in Bloomberg on February 6th 2013, aptly summed up the strategic dilemma for Tehran as: ‘Thereafter Iran will face a strategic decision: whether to continue supporting a predominantly Alawite militia that represents only a small fraction of Syrian society, or to engage the Sunni Islamists who are poised to wield power in Damascus once Assad falls. Iran’s leaders will try to embrace the Sunni radicals, and if that fails they will work with the Shabiha to prevent the formation of a stable, anti-Iranian order in Syria.’
Equally troublesome for Iran is the spillover of Syria’s instability into Lebanon and Hezbollah’s precarious position. At the outset of the Arab revolution, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah and its surrogate leader Nasrallah publicly cheered the fall of autocratic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but openly supported Assad and sent armed men to suppress the Syrian people. The hypocritical stance of Hezbollah jeopardized its ability to garner support amongst the Lebanese populace, especially amongst the Sunnis. Furthermore, the movement was despised by Syrians as aiding and abetting Assad against them, and this prompted the jihadists in Syria to openly warn Nasrallah of dire consequences should he continue to support Assad. Subsequently, Hezbollah’s power has weakened both at home and across the Arab world. A weaker Hezbollah also implies the weakening of Iranian influence in Lebanese politics.
The weakening of Hezbollah-Assad-Iranian axis has been dealt a further blow by the rising wave of protests in Iraq. Sunni dominated areas in Iraq are witnessing a late Arab spring that is threatening Al-Malki’s grip on Iraqi politics. Al-Malki who has close relations with Tehran is struggling to contain the Sunni hinterland after Iraqi soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians.
Between 2004 to 2008 Iranian influence and power in Iraq was at its apex. It evoked King Abdullah to comment on the reach and magnitude of Iranian power by using the term Shia Crescent which described Iranian influence stretching from Damascus to Tehran passing through Baghdad. The other side of the crescent passes through Bahrain, Eastern Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Today, the long reach of Iran is facing an existential threat in Syria, which surely spells the end of the Iranian efforts to create the Shia crescent and ends her ambitions to dominate the Middle East and its supplies of hydrocarbons.
Nonetheless, Iran is not the only loser in the political reconfiguration that will ensue in aftermath of Assad’s demise. The real loser is America. For the past four decades, America has secretly collaborated with Iran in a desperate bid to create a Shia Crescent that would eventually place oil away from the hands of Sunni despots into the hands of the Shia autocrats and mullahs who in turn would be more loyal subjects to America than Sunnis. This also explains why America has been so reluctant to punish Iran over its interference in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, even though Washington has had ample opportunity to chastise Tehran. Similarly, America has gone out of it way to assuage Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme. America knows full well that if Iran is subject to any sort of military attack, Iran’s influence that stretches from Yemen to Lebanon will fade. By doing so, America’s capacity to fashion political solutions and maintain her hegemony in the region would be severely impaired. Brzezinski has warned about such consequences for America should it choose punish Iran. He said, “A war in the Middle East, in the present context, may last for years. High inflation, instability, insecurity…probably significant isolation for the United States in the world scene. In effect, the American taxpayer should be ready to pay $5 to $10 a gallon for the pleasure of having a war in the Strait of Hormuz.”
Hence, America has little choice but to use Iran to prop up Assad and hope that its long-term plan of using Iran to control the hydrocarbons of the Middle East via the Shia crescent remains intact.
26 Rabi’ II 1434