More than two years after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu infuriated then-US president Barack Obama and many Democratic lawmakers by addressing Congress at the height of the debate over the Iranian nuclear deal, 19 Democratic congressmen crammed into Netanyahu’s office on Monday for a meeting that dealt with... Iran.
Not only Iran, obviously. But a lot about Iran, although this time the focus was not only on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions but also its hegemonic ones.
To prove his point, Netanyahu – as is his wont – took to a map and showed Iranian areas of penetration in the region. And these areas of penetration are large and foreboding, extending from Yemen, through Iraq – even into Afghanistan – Syria and Lebanon. Just this week, Hamas also said that it was opening a new chapter in its relations with Tehran.
But this time it is not only Netanyahu sounding the alarm bells. Even The New York Times
– which cannot be accused of a pro-Netanyahu bias, and which strongly supported the Iranian nuclear deal – has in the last month run lengthy features about how Iran has essentially taken control of Iraq, and is moving into the vacuum being created by the American drawdown in Afghanistan.
To say nothing of Syria.
In Syria, the prime minister told the lawmakers, the Iranians are moving Shi’a militias – Shi’a fighters from places like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – into the southern part of the country, from where they can threaten both Israel and Jordan. Embedded in these militias are Iranian soldiers, with one government official putting the ratio at about one Iranian soldier for every 12 militiamen. If the estimates Netanyahu has spoken of – about 20,000 militiamen in southern Syria – are correct, that would mean there are currently nearly 1,700 Iranians soldiers within mortar range of Israel and Jordan.
No surprise, therefore, that Israel adamantly opposes any cease-fire arrangement in Syria that does not call for the removal of all Iranian forces there.
That the US agreed recently with Russia to a cease-fire arrangement that would keep Iranian influence in the country in place, according to Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren, nourishes theories in the Arab world maintaining that since the attacks of September 11, 2001 – carried out by the Sunni fundamentalist al-Qaida organization – the US has by design or default been working to replace Sunni dominance in the region with what it believes is a more stable alternative: Iran.
Oren said a surprisingly large number of Arab leaders and opinion-makers believe that Iran’s rapidly growing footprint in the region is the result of an explicit US-Iranian alliance.
“I don’t believe it, but they do,” he said. “What do they cite? It begins with [former president George W.] Bush, who took down Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, who were the major checks on Iranian expansion and their two primary enemies. It continues with Obama and the nuclear deal, and his refusal to intervene to take down [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, allowing the Russians to come in and strengthen the Iranian position in Syria.”
And now, he said, the argument is that this trend is continuing with US President Donald Trump and “recent attempts to reach a cease-fire in Syria that will leave all the Iranian interests there in place.”
This is a “compelling argument,” he said, and one that is “difficult to refute.”
But why in the world, Oren was asked, would the US want to cooperate with a fundamentalist theocratic regime like Iran, which has been its sworn enemy since the revolution there in 1979?
Oren, who served as ambassador to the US from 2009 to 2013, said that the year before he took that job, he was on a sabbatical at Georgetown University in Washington. During that period he had a great deal of contact with former State Department people.
“They proffered a thesis that I thought was remarkable and astonishing,” he said. “The thesis went like this: The US had traditionally backed two horses in the Middle East – the Sunni horse and the Israeli horse. The Sunni horse took down the Twin Towers in 9/11 and then gobbled up a trillion dollars of US military money. The Israeli horse built settlements, spit in America’s eye and poisoned America’s relationship with the Muslim world, in return for tens of billions of dollars of aid.”
But there was a “third horse,” in the Mideast, Oren said of Iran. And, he continued, there were those in the State Department who thought it was an “able, ascendant and kind of democratic horse” that the US should be backing.
“I actually heard this,” he said. “The first time I heard it, I about fell off my chair and said that no one can actually believe this. But when you get deeper into the Obama years, you began to hear the president himself talk about an Iran that can be a responsible regional actor, an Iran that can help bridge the gap between Sunnis and Shi’a. And then you learn retroactively that Obama began contacts with Iran’s regime in his first week in office, and you have a hard time gainsaying that thesis.”
Asked if he believes that this thesis informed US policy in the region, he said: “There were definitely people in decision-making positions who thought that Iran was a partner, and that for an America that wanted to disengage from the Middle East and leave it in some kind of stable hands, they thought the Iranians could do it.” Elements of this thesis, he argued, found its way into US policy.
Former ambassador to the UN and Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, who heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said he has heard similar concerns about American policy from Arab leaders as well.
He said that in 2009 he flew to London and met with a member of the royal family of one of the Arab nations in the Persian Gulf, which he would not identify.
“When we started the conversation, I asked, ‘How do you see the region?’ He said, ‘Dore, we have two challenges.’ I said, ‘What are they?’ He said, ‘Iran and Obama.’”
Gold said that many in the Sunni Arab world see the region now through glasses similar to those of Israel.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “The Iranians have applied a policy of encirclement toward Israel. They built up Hezbollah to a force bigger than most armies, and now they are expanding Hezbollah into Syria. And at the same time they have been working with Hamas.”
By the same token, he continued, the Iranians are currently trying to encircle Saudi Arabia. They have trained Shi’a militias in Iraq, to the north of Saudi Arabia, and are seeking to penetrate through Bahrain to its east, through the large Shi’a population there.
And to the south of Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, they have built up the Houthis, who have launched missiles into the country aimed for Riyadh and Mecca.
“That puts them in a position very similar to Israel,” he said. “The Iranians are using an insurgency force of Yemenite Shi’ites and creating a platform in Yemen for launching rockets into Saudi territory.”
This can be called the “Hezbollah paradigm,” he agreed, as the parallels are striking with how Iran has used Hezbollah in Lebanon to hit Israel.
The Iranians, Gold said, are currently very carefully watching the standoff between the US and North Korea, and not only because how Washington responds to the North Korean nuclear threat will have enormous implications when it comes time for Iran to make decisions about where to go with its own nuclear program.
Rather, how the US responds now to North Korea will also impact on Iran’s hegemonic designs, even though the North Koreans – unlike Iran – do not have dreams of, for instance, invading the Japanese islands.
“If Iran sees that the US stood strong against North Korea, and North Korea blinked first, then the Iranians will have to think twice about escalating their own challenges to Washington in the future.” And these challenges are emerging all over the Middle East.
Israel, Gold said, has been talking about Iran’s regional hegemonic goals for years.
At the time that the nuclear deal was being pushed in Washington, he said, there was a school of thought there that argued that if the deal was signed, Iran would become a more moderate actor in the region.
But Iran’s recent moves in the region – in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and even Afghanistan – have proven that the exact opposite has occurred, he maintained.
The Trump administration, Gold argued, “understands the hegemonial ambitions of the Iranians.”
But if that is the case, he was asked, how did it agree to the cease-fire deal with Russia, which will keep the Iranians in place in Syria?
“They did, but they have also expressed themselves against the idea of Iran turning Syria into a satellite,” he responded. The US has a lot of global challenges right now, Gold said, in reference to the North Korean crisis, but they understand the Iranian hegemony problem.
And in his mind, that very understanding “is a shift from the Obama days, when they thought that American and Iranian interests were aligned.”