The Iranians, heirs to the ancient civilization of Persia which stretches back into the mists of time, have inherited both its ruthless and its subtle and devious ways of achieving its purposes. Persia was once the superpower of the ancient world, and Iran’s current repressive Islamist rulers seek again the hegemony the nation once enjoyed. Undeterred by apparent reversals of fortune, they are relentless in their pursuit of their objectives – jihad against western values in general, and the US and Israel in particular; jihad against Sunni states and peoples whom they regard as apostates against the true faith of Islam, namely the Shia tradition of which they claim to be the standard-bearers; and jihad against any of their own citizens who challenge or flout the repressive Islamist way of life they have established in their country.
In their single-minded determination to achieve their aims, the current Iranian regime continuously initiates, facilitates or supports, regardless of the death and destruction caused, a succession of terrorist activities. This ruthless and amoral single-mindedness brings results, at least in the short term. Time and again Iran seems to triumph in the face of adversity, and bounce back from reversals of fortune.
Just consider its position in world politics in mid-2016. Uniquely, Iran has succeeded in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Not only is Iran courted and deferred to by the United States and much of the West who are dedicated to removing Syria’s President Bashar Assad from power, but it is an active battlefield ally of Russia fighting to support Assad’s bid to regain power. Moreover, it is benefiting from a highly advantageous trade deal with Russia which guarantees it delivery of the long-range S-300 missile system – the most advanced in the world.
As far as the US in concerned, Iran’s current “favored nation” status, unreciprocated though it is, is the result of nifty Iranian footwork in the diplomatic area.
The evidence is now pretty overwhelming that President Barack Obama came to the presidency in 2009 with a pre-determined strategic plan for the Middle East, based on ideas contained in the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a congressional commission co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.
At the time the major jihadist enemy of the West was al-Qaeda. The report advanced the clever-clever notion that if the US made allies of Iran and the Assad regime in Syria – the heartland of Shia Islam – America could step back, and those states could be relied on to combat the Sunni-led threat to the world, al-Qaeda. The Study Group’s conclusions lined up very well with Obama’s declared intention of reducing America’s direct involvement in the Middle East.
Obama began his presidency with a great weight of guilt on his shoulders. He renounced the concept of America as the world’s champion of democracy and freedom, prepared to fight if necessary to maintain its values. Early on he asserted that any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail; that “problems must be dealt with through partnership”. His new doctrine emphasized diplomacy to promote its aims, and downplayed military might; it aimed at adopting a more humble attitude in state-to-state relations, and playing a more restrained role on the international stage.
It is certain that none of this escaped Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. He undoubtedly perceived the golden opportunity this new approach provided for Iran to advance its own interests.
The good times started in June 2013, with the election as President of the candidate blessed by Khamenei – the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani. Also blessed, without a doubt, was the deliberate change of tactics from the confrontational stance of ex-President Ahmadinejad, during previous attempts by the UN to induce Iran to control its nuclear program. Henceforth all was to be charm and sweet reason – and indeed, immediately after his election, Rouhani immediately agreed to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.
World leaders swallowed the bait. A succession of negotiations followed, but with Iran convinced that the Obama administration had discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal – a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons in the fullness of time. That was precisely the eventual outcome, while in return for simply talking, Iran was rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions.
The authors of the Iraq Study Group report were either ignorant of some of the realities that rendered their conclusions basically flawed, or deliberately chose to ignore them. They set aside the fundamental philosophy underlying the Iranian Islamic Republic – to oppose, and eventually destroy, Western political and cultural values, and to achieve political and religious dominance in the Middle East.
For the past eight years the Obama administration has ignored Iran’s clearly signaled political priorities, and has failed to respond adequately to its continued terrorist activities and its support for terrorism. Instead, it has engineered a deal which has enormously enhanced Iran’s clout and alienated, or at least disillusioned, its erstwhile allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom have good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. Washington may well have initiated a nuclear arms race in the region, for it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia, for instance, would stand idly by while Iran turned itself into a nuclear power.
Has Obama’s placatory approach resulted in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’,“ proclaimed Ayatollah Khamenei just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”
For the moment Iran seems to hold a winning hand, but the recent concatenation of circumstances which have favored it are unlikely to last indefinitely. It faces formidable political and religious foes in the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia, as well as jihadist opponents such as Islamic State (IS). Much of the Western world seems to have woken to the dangers posed to its way of life by IS, but seems unaware that Iran is as implacable an enemy. One can only hope that realization does not dawn too late.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. Pre-publication copies of his forthcoming book, “The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016” can be obtained at a discount from: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3960. He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com