Big funds to boost Iran’s proxies
Beirut - Critics of the July 14th Vienna agreement, particularly Saudi Arabia, Israel and every US Republican presidential hopeful, are convinced that Iran will use a substantial amount of the unfrozen assets and increased oil revenues coming its way on its regional proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
These groups, funded, trained and armed by Tehran, are the spearhead of its regional subversion campaign across the Levant, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, an offensive that is likely to expand as the confrontation between Shia and Sunni Islam, led by Tehran and Riyadh, heats up, in large part because of the agreement that is part of US disengagement in the region. The critics’ assertions, so far unsubstantiated, are part of the strident campaign by these players to wreck the agreement, which they say will intensify the upheavals in the Middle East rather than diminish them by curtailing Tehran’s contentious nuclear programme.
British commentator Edward Luce argues that even if Tehran does throw a bundle of money at its regional proxies, “So what?… Hezbollah is a restrained actor. Its theology is absolutist and it has carried out terrorist attacks. But it is not a death cult.
“In a world of bad choices,” he observed in the Financial Times on July 19th, “boosting Hezbollah’s clout is an acceptable price to pay for a deal that delays — and possibly dispels — the spectre of a Middle East nuclear arms race.”
Be that as it may, bear in mind that the Vienna agreement contains no provision that stipulates Tehran must curtail its support for proxy groups that are destabilising Arab states to achieve its regional ambitions and gain supremacy over Shia Islam’s oldest enemy, the mainstream Sunnis who have dominated the Muslim world for 1,300 years.
The scale of the Iranian windfall is still not clear, but some estimates — and they’re the more cautious projections — are that at least $100 billion-$150 billion in assets will be released under a phased undoing of the draconian sanctions in exchange for verifiable curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme.
How much of that will be allocated to Iran’s campaign of subversion against the Sunni Arab states is anyone’s guess. But with the Islamic Republic’s credibility as the regional power it aspires to become greatly boosted, it could be a considerable amount.
One Gulf Arab official voiced dismay at how Tehran’s sponsorship of armed groups is about to become “turbo-charged”.
Indeed, Tehran’s ability to secure an end to sanctions and the United States’ willingness to make such a deal dismayed the Arab states. “They’ve managed to trade an imaginary asset that does not exist for hundreds of billions of dollars in real assets that they’ll use to reinforce all their bridgeheads in our lands,” mused one incredulous Arab politician. The Arabs, stunned by what they see as a US betrayal, fear the worst. Saudi officials have vowed Riyadh will launch a pre-emptive offensive before Tehran starts pumping money into its armed proxies, with Yemen the most likely battleground.
“An Iran without sanctions will pump billions of dollars to its proxies, which are destabilising Yemen, Syria, and Iraq,” cautioned Jasser al-Jasser, managing editor of the pro-government Al Jazirah daily in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran to take advantage of this deal.”
But that could give Iran further justification for boosting support to its proxies.
Many analysts and commentators say that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will focus the windfall from unfrozen assets initially on giving succour to millions of poor Iranians who have borne the brunt of the sanctions.
But it should be noted that in President Hassan Rohani’s recent budget proposals funding for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was increased by 48% while the allotment for the Ministry of Intelligence and Security rose 40% and overall defence spending rose 33%.
The IRGC, and in particular its elite foreign operations wing, the al-Quds Force, controls Hezbollah and other paramilitary proxies and handles all the funding for them, usually off the books.
Some analysts say Khamenei will have to pacify the IRGC, the regime’s Praetorian Guard and ideologically opposed to the nuclear deal, by boosting financial support for its regional operations to undermine the Arab world and make the Islamic Republic the Middle East’s paramount power.
Ramping up those operations will be an expensive proposition. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran’s defence budget is estimated at $12 billion-$15 billion, although Obama noted recently it was around $30 billion. Tehran’s annual support for the embattled Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad is an estimated $6 billion-$15 billion. Before the Syrian war, Hezbollah, created in Lebanon in 1982, was receiving as much as $200 million a year from Tehran, despite sanctions. But since it’s now a vital element in the Damascus regime’s survival, and taking severe manpower losses because of that, the stipend has undoubtedly increased considerably.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, observed recently that “a rich and strong Iran… will be able to stand by its allies and friends… more than at any time in history.”
“This is a very favourable context for Hezbollah,” said Lebanese analyst Qassem Qassir.