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Iran’s Ultimate Middle East Power Play

Yossef Bodansky

There was little doubt by late September 2019 that Iran’s clerical leadership was truly in command of the dynamic of the transformation of the Persian Gulf region.

The crux of the Iranian regional strategy – including the Iran-sponsored rôle of the Houthi pre-dawned unmanned aerial vehicle strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities on September 14, 2019 – became increasingly clear as the shock of those strikes began to be absorbed.

Tehran was playing a masterful game, delicately balancing between its publicized confrontation with the US in the Persian Gulf and its real quest for a regional power status.

The Iran-proxy strike on Saudi Arabia and the ensuing threats to the US served both as a demonstration of the impotence of Saudi Arabia and its guardians, and as a diversion of attention away from the crucial and successful Iranian surge westward to the Mediterranean.

The Iranian declaratory threats of escalation remained focused on the Persian Gulf and particularly on warning the US against intervention. The Houthi strike reiterated anew the inherent vulnerability of Saudi Arabia, as well as its inability and unwillingness to act unilaterally against Iran. Tehran has long insisted that the US is reluctant to act against Iran, and every passing day reinforces the veracity of the Iranian message.

Hence, Tehran argues, all regional states and entities should take notice of the inherent power of Iran and Iran’s proxies, as well as of the absence of US protection. Iran urges these states and entities to use the Houthi strike as an excuse to bring the current crisis to an end under conditions favorable to Iran.

Iranian Pres. Hassan Rouhani introduced the concept in the cabinet meeting of September 18, 2019. He explained that the Houthi strike was “a warning to the enemies to end war and conflicts in the region”. There was, he indicated, an urgent imperative to exploit and capitalize on the current shock. “Enemies of the region should take lesson from this warning and should be after extinguishing the fire of war in the region to let the people live in freedom and welfare,” Rouhani said.

In a major speech delivered on September 22, 2019, Rouhani elaborated on the theme and now urged all the Persian Gulf states to reconcile with Iran and reject US intervention. Iran was ready to “extend the hand of friendship and fraternity to all of its neighboring states” in the current “critical and historic” juncture. “In this regard, we are even ready to forgive their past mistakes, because today we are faced with conditions in which the enemies of the region, particularly the US, the arrogance and the Zionism, are seeking to exploit the gap, rift, and division among the regional countries,” Rouhani said.

Time was of essence because “enemies of Islam and the region seek to make the most out of our division”. “The presence of foreign forces can be dangerous for the region, international waters, as well as the security of shipping lines and energy, but [Iran’s] path is to create unity and coordination with regional countries.”

Rouhani questioned the sincerity of the US claim to be pursuing regional peace. “If they [the Americans] are telling the truth, they’d better not turn the region into a stage of arms race,” he said, “if they are after [establishing] security, they’d better get out of the region.” He further reminded the US of Iran’s steadfast stand during the debilitating war with Iraq. Rouhani concluded that “today’s enemies of the country [should] think twice before deciding any attack on our soil and imposing another war on our nation. They don’t have the courage to make a move against Iran’s great armed forces and nation and will never find that courage.” 

As before, Tehran relied on HizbAllah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to deliver the more explicit and threatening message.

In a sermon on September 20, 2019, Nasrallah analyzed the situation in the Persian Gulf. He noted that the world reaction to the Houthi strike “clearly showed how expensive is oil once compared to blood. Saudi warplanes continue to kill Yemeni children, but no concrete action is taken (to stop the onslaught).” He stressed the futility of Riyadh’s policies. “Saudi Arabia is highly advised to stop the war on Yemen instead of seeking to purchase advanced air defense missile systems. All costly weapons purchased from the United States cannot protect you from drone attacks.”

He warned Riyadh of US duplicity, explaining that “Trump has commenced a new process of milking the Saudi kingdom. Trump is desperately seeking for a bilateral meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.” Nasrallah emphasized the futility of confronting Iran and its allies. “Continuing the war against Yemen with no [political] solution is pointless. You are starting to pay the price,” Nasrallah warned the Saudis. “One strike knocked out half the oil production, and another strike, you can imagine what it will do,” he taunted.

“Don’t bet on a war against Iran because they will destroy you. Your house is made of glass and your economy is made of glass. Like the glass cities in the UAE. ... You have already begun to pay the price of the war against Yemen.” Saudi Arabia “should think well, as a war with Iran will mean their destruction.” Nasrallah concluded by reiterating the regional ramifications of the Houthi strike. “This attack shows the strength of the Axis of Resistance,” Nasrallah said.

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In a September 22, 2019, interview with Al-Alam TV, Nasrallah raised the ante by insisting that HizbAllah had its own reasons for confronting the House of al-Sa’ud. He explained that the “ruling regime of Saudi Arabia has got very old and is spending the last stages of its lifetime”. Riyadh should not complain about its plight because this is a natural outcome of its long-term policies. “In fact, Saudi Arabia was the initiator of hostility against Iran, and its problem with Iran was the same problem it had with other Arab countries, namely, [over] supporting the Palestinian issue and regional resistance movements,” Nasrallah said.

Given this background, Nasrallah said, “this is not a proxy war and we believe that Saudi Arabia is hostile to [the] Lebanese resistance forces, regardless of Iran’s position, so our problem with Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with Iran”.

The next day, September 23, 2019, Iran’s Press TV also published an interview with Nasrallah. He repeated his observation that “the al-Sa’ud regime may be in the final stages of its life, and the incumbent rulers are expediting the regime’s demise through their policies. ... [The] al-Sa’ud regime is old and may be in the final stages of its life because of natural reasons like its cruel measures over the past 100 years and the systematic corruption in the regime, suppression of people, and totalitarianism of its rules.” Nasrallah pointed to the growing anti-Saudi sentiments throughout the Arab World. “We currently see for the first time that ‘Death to al-Sa’ud’ slogan is being chanted in several Arab countries, and we see political and popular powers and governments that take explicit stances toward al-Sa’ud and its interference in the region.”

He reiterated Tehran’s long-term grievances against Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia started its hostility toward Iran after the victory of the Islamic Revolution [in 1979] and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which supported the issues of Arab and Islamic countries.” Hence, Saudi Arabia should not be surprised by Iran’s determination to triumph in the Persian Gulf region to the detriment of Saudi interests.

On September 23, 2019, Kayhan published an interview with Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, the Deputy Chairman of the HizbAllah’s Executive Council. He noted that the Houthi “operation against the Saudi oil facilities ushered in a new era in the region, which [is] not favorable to the US and its regional client states”. Consequently, “Saudi Arabia is in despair, because it has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to purchase weapons and gain US support, but all to no avail.” Meanwhile, “the US Administration is now embarrassed and distraught”.

Qaouq further noted that “the occupying regime of Israel” is also “alarmed by the severity and accuracy” of the Houthi strikes, and is now “fearing similar strikes on Zionist targets”. This Israeli dread, Qaouq explained, had an overarching adverse impact on the US posture in the region given Israel’s importance.

“The US axis in the region is retreating now as it admits its defeats in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, the besieged Gaza Strip, and Lebanon, and also against Iran.” With the pro-Iran regional camp rising, the US and its proxies “receive new defeats every day, while the Axis of Resistance continues to add to its achievements and victories”. Qaouq focused on the plight of Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia now faces two prospects, either humiliation or defeat. ... If the Saudi regime stays longer in Yemen, it will be humiliated. And if it pulls its forces out of Yemen, there will be a heavy defeat for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Army, and the Arab Kingdom’s status in the region,” Qaouq said. Under such circumstances, he concluded, there was no alternative but to accept the new regional posture: that of the ascent of Iran and the Shi’ite allies.

Meanwhile, Tehran started to introduce stronger and more explicit aspects of the evolving Iranian grand strategy.

On September 20, 2019, the authoritative Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a protégé of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, discussed Iran’s new regional posture in a Friday Sermon. He stressed the Iranian regional dominance because “Iran is the resistance in the region”. Iran was, he said, no longer limited to a “geographical location” because all of Iran’s proxies throughout the region were “all Iran” now.

“Iran, today, is not only Iran and not limited to a geographical location. Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, Lebanon’s HizbAllah, Yemen’s AnsarAllah, Syria’s National Defense Forces, Palestine’s Islamic Jihad and the Hamas are all Iran,” Alamolhoda stated. “Do you even know where Iran is? Isn’t [the] south of Lebanon Iran? Isn’t HizbAllah Iran? The drones sent by the Yemenis that caused such damage to Saudi Arabia: wasn’t that Iran? You say that (these drones) came from the north and not from the south. South or north, what difference does it make? Iran is both to your south and to your north. Today there is an alert Muslim in every part of this region, (and any place) where a fighting movement exists is Iran and its Imam is Iran and its leader is Iran.”

Also on September 20, Maj.-Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the top military aide to Khamene’i, delivered a sermon in Tehran to a select group of senior officials and officers. He analyzed Iran’s emerging regional and global posture. “With the grace of God and thanks to the vigilance and patience of the great Iranian nation and the unforgettable sacrifices of 200,000 martyrs ... the Iranian nation has become an invincible regional power in West Asia,” Safavi said.

“The Islamic Republic has turned into a major and invincible power in West Asia and if the Americans are planning any plots in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea or the Indian Ocean, Iran will not leave them unanswered. ... If the Americans think of any plots against Iran, the Islamic Republic’s will respond from an area extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean,” he warned. “Any anti-Iranian move will overturn the region.”

Safavi explained that one of the key factors facilitating the ascent of Iran was the ongoing global transformation along the principles pursued by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. Consequently, he stressed, “[the] US’ policies in West Asia and its hegemony are defeated as the world is moving towards multilateralism”.

These emerging circumstances enabled Iran to expect conducive regional dynamics while seeking a favorable regional posture. “Our policy is to create lasting peace and security in the region and (seek) the withdrawal of foreign forces, and we hope that our trans-regional enemies would know that Iran does not intend to invade (other countries) or expand its territory,” Safavi said. As for more remote nemeses like Israel, Safavi reminded them of the assertion by HizbAllah Leader Nasrallah that “any move against Tehran will throw the whole region in a great turmoi”.

Other senior officers elaborated on these themes over the next few days. On September 21, 2019, IRGC Commander Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami addressed a select group in Tehran. He assured them that Iran was “ready for any type of scenario” the US and its allies might contrive. Iran was preparing to fight the war on enemy territory. “Our readiness for giving response to any aggression is definitely assured. Now, whoever wishes to turn its land into a battleground is free to start it. But we will never allow the war be dragged into our land,” Salami stated.

He stressed Iran’s commitment to a decisive victory. “We will stand till the end because the response to a limited strike will not be limited. We will pursue any aggressor. We are after punishment and we will continue until the full destruction of any aggressor. ... We are result-oriented and good at follow-up. We have proven it. We won’t spare any secure place [for our enemies]. So be careful and don’t make a strategic mistake,” he advised Iran’s enemies.

Also on September 21, IRGC Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi emphasized the new stature of Iran: “Today defending the values of [the] Islamic Revolution does not know any geographical boundaries and many people want to sacrifice their lives in the path of truth.” The next day, September 22, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi also warned Iran’s enemies of the dire consequences of attacking Iran. “In case of any miscalculation and aggression by the enemy, [the] Army’s Navy, along with other armed forces of the country, will give the most crushing reaction in the shortest time possible,” he claimed. “Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense power is at its highest possible level and [the] forces of [the] Army and [the] IRGC are ready to defend [the] marine borders of the country.”

Khanzadi belittled the threat posed by the US and its allies. “No one should worry at all about the theatrical and fake coalitions that they form under the pretext of regional security. This region’s security is established by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the regional states’ naval forces.”

Addressing the Iranian Parliament on September 24, 2019, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Bagheri articulated Iran’s Persian Gulf strategy.

He differentiated between efforts to reconcile with the regional Arab states and the possibility of a major war with the US to the detriment of the US’ local allies. Tehran saw no difference between economic sanctions and the use of force.

“Today, enemies, who are fearful of a war with Iran, have taken the path of economic terrorism,” Baqeri said. The only viable issues were the specter of escalation and the Iranian response. “We have repeatedly told our enemies that we will stand strong against acts of aggression and the same response that was given to the intruding (US) drone, and intruding UK fleet and ship will be given to any other aggressor. [The] result of aggression against Iran will be destruction and captivity,” Bagheri asserted.

Bagheri contrasted the Iranian resolve to defeat any US and allied forces with what the Iranian clerical leadership claims was the absence of animosity toward any of Iran’s neighbors.

Iran was convinced that “Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are leading conspiracies against [Iran] in the region, are Islamic countries and have lost their path. They should return to the path of Islam and come closer to Iran. That is when we will have a secure and prospering region.”

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This would surely happen once the Arabs states pulled away from the US influence and became true to their Islamic selves. Bagheri offered military cooperation to the Arab and Muslim worlds as part of mutual security arrangements and agreements. “(Now that) we have an independent defense industry in Iran today, these (military advances) belong to the Muslim world and everyone should know that regional security is provided by the cooperation of regional countries,” Bagheri stated. Tehran was eager to bring the Persian Gulf crisis to an amicable solution, which must include the banishment of the US and its Western allies, so that Tehran could focus better on the implementation of Iran’s regional surge.

For Tehran, the Persian Gulf is but a component in Iran’s true regional strategy and aspirations as articulated by Khamene’i on September 11, 2019. On September 22, 2019, the powerful Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, put everything in context, combining the Persian Gulf strategy with the surge to the Mediterranean strategy. Larijani stated that the formation by the US of “a coalition to create so-called security in the Strait of Hormuz” was “a new means for plundering the region”.

Iran would not permit this to continue. “The security of the Strait of Hormuz finds meaning with the security of other international waterways. Iran won’t let the Persian Gulf become a playground for adventurism. Iran believes that this measure [the US-led coalition] is the start of an operation to destroy regional security,” Larijani said. Tehran was urging the Arab states across the Persian Gulf to adopt a mutual security regime which would replace the US. “The regional countries, themselves, are capable of establishing security and the Islamic Iran’s Armed Forces do not allow the Persian Gulf to be played with [as a tool] to create insecurity in the region.”

However, Larijani emphasized that the primary source of threats to Iran and its allies was not the US operations in the Persian Gulf but rather the US-Israeli cooperation in Syria and Iraq. The US objective was “to prepare [the] domination of the occupying regime in Tel Aviv over regional states”. A major instrument in this conspiracy were the US-sponsored jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq which operated against Iran and its local proxies.

“America is now helping terrorists and this is not a secret to us. But they should know that Iranian forces gave a heavy blow to terrorists in the region. Terrorists endangered the lives of Muslims. But the West should know that terrorist groups like ISIL will one day fly at them.”

Ultimately, however, Iran considered Israel to be the main threat to Iran’s regional interests. “Tel Aviv is acting as the main enemy of the countries of the Middle East,” Larijani said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a friend and brother of all regional countries while the Zionist regime is a major enemy of Muslims.” This determined Iran’s security priorities. “We know that our main duty today is to defend the oppressed Palestinian nation”: that is, to fight Israel.

Larijani concluded by highlighting Iran’s achievements to-date.

“Our armed forces are stronger than ever. Security of Islamic Iran and the region is provided by our forces which are great assets for the region. When Iraq and Syria had been plagued by terrorism, it was our armed forces which defeated them. Despite the authority and power that the Iranian military has, Iran has never invaded a country in the past 40 years.” Larijani repeated Tehran’s urging for the entire Arab World to build new relations of friendship, cooperation, and confidence with Iran.

“We emphasize that Islamic and Arab countries are our brothers and we wish to have good ties, in areas of culture and economy, with our neighbors.” The mutual challenge was in evicting all “foreign entities” from the region, starting with the US and Israel. “It is necessary to use [all] our energy power to counter outsiders and Zionists,” Larijani asserted. 

The possibility that Israel would support the US operations in the Persian Gulf raised the urgency of confronting Israel to a higher level. On September 21, 2019, the Commander of the Iranian Army Maj.-Gen. Sayyed Abdolrahim Mousavi stressed the point. “The Persian Gulf is our home and we will not allow a regime like the Israeli regime to enter our home.” He warned that “any wrong move by Tel Aviv will even shorten its life.” Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda warned that any attempt to “trespass [Iran’s] border” would lead to “Israel becoming dust in half a day.”

However, as repeatedly stressed by Khamene’i, the top Iranian priority was to sustaining and strengthening the “Axis of the Resistance” and particularly the on-land access to the Mediterranean it provided. The struggle over this access, rather than the Persian Gulf, was the most explosive clash point.

Iranian and Shi’ite officials have reiterated that Israel was the primary concern in this context. This was because it was Israel which was actually challenging the consolidation of the on-land access to the Mediterranean through repeated bombings and raids. And, as reiterated by Safavi, Nasrallah, and many other leaders, any move against Tehran and/or its vital interests “will throw the whole region into a great turmoil”.

With tensions rising quickly, the Hashd al-Shaabi immediately started to implement the concrete resolutions reached during the secret visit to Baghdad of Qods Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani on September 16, 2019. Two days later, on September 18, Hashd al-Shaabi launched Operation The Will of Victory under the command of Col. Qassem Masliyah of the Qods Force.

The objective of the operation was to have sizeable units of Hashd al-Shaabi seize Iraq’s borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, on top of the Iraqi border with Syria which it already controlled. In key points along both borders, Hashd al-Shaabi was to build staging facilities for surges by Shi’ite forces against Riyadh from the north and Jerusalem from the east. The actual seizure of the entire border with Saudi Arabia and Jordan was completed on September 21, 2019. Hashd al-Shaabi deployed several thousand mechanized troops with artillery and support units. The local Iraqi units withdrew peacefully.

Meanwhile, the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] started to transfer dozens of ballistic missiles to Hashd al-Shaabi. Initially, these missiles would be deployed in Diyala province. To reduce their vulnerability to Israeli strikes, the missiles were dispersed among numerous bases and concealed sites. These missiles were intended to both replace the losses caused by the recent Israeli bombings and to increase the arsenals in accordance with the contingency plans for the forthcoming surge and escalation by the Axis of the Resistance.

The Iranians also started delivering supplies for the newly announced air force of Hashd al-Shaabi. The first weapons delivered were “anti-drone weapons” and a wide variety of anti-aircraft guns.

Official Baghdad was not oblivious to both Operation The Will of Victory and the massive resupply effort.

Hence, on September 22, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi announced a new “restructuring initiative” for Hashd al-Shaabi which would expedite and smooth their “ongoing integration into the Iraqi Army”. Abdul-Mahdi appointed Falah al-Fayyad of Hashd al-Shaabi to be in charge of implementing these steps. Baghdad’s rhetoric notwithstanding, the real objective of the new initiative was to provide fig-leaf legitimization for the surge of Hashd al-Shaabi, the dramatic changes along Iraq’s borders, and the Iran-controlled war preparations. 

Politically, Tehran continued focusing on stocking anti-US sentiments in order to compel the US out of the greater Middle East.

The September 14, 2019, Houthi strike on the Saudi oil installations was a major contribution to this effort.

However, the focus remained on the surge of Iran and its Axis of Resistance to the Mediterranean, and the struggle with Israel to make this happen. The two foci of Iranian operations are intertwined, however.

Iran seems convinced that once the US withdrew from the greater Middle East then Israel would no longer enjoy a free hand to strike with impunity against Iranian and Iran-proxy targets throughout the region. Until then, Iran would keep consolidating the Shi’ite Crescent and escalating the push westward despite Israel’s strikes. At the same time, Iran simultaneously intensifying the challenges to the US where it hurt: striking the US’ Persian Gulf protectorates and their hydrocarbon infrastructure.

If this dual track approach failed to deliver the anticipated results quickly, Tehran would escalate further, ordering Iran’s proxies to strike US forces and vital interests throughout the greater Middle East.

Iran has indicated that it was adamant on winning, and that it was ready to pay whatever price it would take. And presently, Iran’s strategy is succeeding.

By Yossef Bodansky via GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

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