How does Iran keep getting away with it?

Iran has a habit of inserting itself into other countries, wrapping itself around their polities and then claiming that any attempt to disentangle it will cause “instability.”

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The UN secretary general, British foreign secretary, president of France, former US secretary of state John Kerry – everyone seems to be going to bat for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran deal. Iran’s chief explainer, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, doesn’t even need to do his job anymore. He has a whole line of people in the West who speak on behalf of Iran, who put forward Tehran’s talking points. “If there is no deal there could be war,” they say. The French defense minister claimed Tuesday that weakening the deal might “aggravate the region.” The deal is a “source of peace.”
Meanwhile Iran’s regime is celebrating what it calls the “victory” of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s elections. The only armed party to participate in the elections and the only major party not to include any women on its list enjoyed unprecedented privileges at the ballot box. So while Western leaders were praising the “peace” and “stability” of the Iran deal, Iran was supporting the equivalent of a KKK-style armed organization running in the Lebanese election.
After the results came in, Hezbollah’s fanatics paraded in the streets, burned the posters of rivals and even danced next to the monument for murdered Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. Hariri was allegedly assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005. That’s “stability” and “peace” in the Orwellian worldview of those who excuse the Iranian regime’s action: the more guns and far-right religious chauvinist fanatics win elections, the more stability and peace there are.
How does Iran do it? How does it always win?
It’s not just in Lebanon. In Iraq, Iran has quietly built up a network of political proxies and armed groups. Iran successfully exploited the war against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq to place its allies in the Badr Organization at the head of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. They, in turn, got their Shi’ite militias, called the Popular Mobilization Units, enshrined as an official paramilitary force. Between 2016 when the Iraqi Parliament passed a law and 2018, the PMU have become an official arm of the government. What was supposed to be a militia organized to defend Baghdad in its darkest hour against the ISIS blitzkrieg became even more mainstreamed in Iraq than Hezbollah is in Lebanon. Leaders of the PMU are running in Iraq’s elections.
You might say, well, why is that different from other military leaders running in elections? Touche. But in other countries they need to take off their uniforms first. The Iranian model is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That means full-time soldier of the Islamic revolution, part-time politician. In October 2017 Zarif reminded us of this with a tweet: “we are all IRGC.”
Iran has also won in Syria and Yemen, in different ways. In Yemen its rhetorical support and technological know-how have aided the Houthis in their war against a Saudi Arabian-led alliance. One could argue that in Yemen the Iranians are merely countering Riyadh. In Syria Iran would also argue it is just being invited by the “legitimate government” to fight “terrorists,” or what Iranian regime media and fellow travelers call “takfiri” extremists. Ok, but Iran isn’t just helping Assad’s brutal regime, it is setting down roots.
Demographic change is taking place. Pakistani and Afghan Shi’ites are being sent in as cannon-fodder, often under misleading guises, to die for Syrian President Bashar Assad so their families can hear stories of their poor sons’ martyrdom on a battlefield they’ve never heard of, to defend Shi’ite shrines they can’t afford to visit.
Iran also wins by suppressing its own people while sending its tentacles into its near abroad. At home it bans Twitter and social media, while its own regime members use Twitter to spread propaganda. Abroad it expects people to honor it and treat it with dignity, laughing and enjoying its time at Western think tanks and college campuses. This regime that crushes the rights of women and hangs innocent Kurdish men, that guns down those so poor they were forced to turn to smuggling to survive, gets a platform at the centers of higher learning and freedom of expression in the West.
This is the ultimate hypocrisy, and there never is any pushback. No critics of the regime get hosted in Tehran. Of course not. We have to listen to Iran’s propaganda; the regime never has to allow our views to be aired in its society.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t always have to be blackmailed by this regime with its threats of crises and war. We don’t have to give it a venue on social media. Our societies created social media and we can ban the Tehran regime’s far-right hate speech. We can empower and give a platform to average Iranians who detest the shackles theocrats have kept them in for decades.
There’s no reason for the constant red carpet for Zarif. Iran has a habit of inserting itself into other countries, wrapping itself around their polities and then claiming that any attempt to disentangle it will cause “instability.” This is like saying ships needs giant squids wrapped around them, pulling them down, for stability.
Iran is the destabilizer. It supports far-right political parties in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere and then pretends that the extremists who respond to them require more Iranian presence to “defend stability.” No. What the region needs is less Iranian involvement. What Iran needs is more pluralism and a more open society so its people can finally have a say, like Iraqis and Lebanese do, in their own politics. Iran likes to meddle. It’s time to meddle back.