Iran’s Machiavellian calculations may not work in Libya

Iran may expand its interest in what is going on in Libya but the accumulated experience confirms that it will not enjoy full freedom of movement.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Foreign threats.  A member of the Libyan Coast Guard on patrol off the eastern port city  of Misrata.  (AFP)
Foreign threats. A member of the Libyan Coast Guard on patrol off the eastern port city of Misrata. (AFP)

Some say the Iranian ship spotted off the coast of Misrata recently was the first and last to sail to Libya or that it represents Iran’s stubbornness on breaking the sanctions levied against it and that’s all there is to it.

The reality is that the ship is likely the first trickle of a flood of ships, aeroplanes and land convoys headed towards Libya soon. The Libyan crisis could be a new haven for Tehran, nourishing its appetite for more hostile operations, taking advantage of the chaos that it hopes to expand in Libya.

The Iranian regime has always exploited regional tensions to pursue its goals. Most of the successes of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were carried out riding the wave of internal conflicts that have become the perfect opening through which Iran can stick its nose in other countries’ affairs, believing that the short-term benefits of a soft approach embodied in spreading Shiism will have tremendous returns in the long run.

Iran’s influence in Lebanon increased with the Lebanese civil war and the growing role of Hezbollah. In Iraq, Tehran became the master puppeteer after the US-led invasion and the outbreak of sectarian fighting. Its behind-the-scenes meddling in Yemen became evident when the Houthi rebels engaged in battles with forces of the legitimate government and its supporters. The crisis in Syria became more complex because of Tehran’s meddling that allowed it to entrench itself on several fronts.

Today, Iran’s policies in Syria are being rejected and the world can no longer afford to ignore or allow its arms development programmes. Tehran’s insidious use of hot spots and crises around the world is less and less tolerated, putting it in the spotlight and resulting in more political, economic and, possibly, military pressures against it.

The Libyan scene certainly looked like a tasty morsel to Tehran since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011 and the outbreak of civil strife and armed divisions. At first, Tehran’s approach to the Libyan crisis was a bit shy because the Syrian crisis was more urgent and still in its infancy and the situation in Yemen needed attention. There was also the harassment Iran was encountering in Lebanon and Iraq. All of Tehran’s political and military subversive teams were being kept busy around the clock.

Until now, Iran has not resorted to blatant intervention in Libya and refrained from direct confrontation with Egypt because Cairo considers Libya its vital backyard and hidden scores may surface should Iran dare play with it.

However, now that the very fate of the Iranian regime is at stake, all political restraints can be overcome. This is what Tehran is doing in Libya. Iran knows that it is defying Egypt in Libya and that Egypt might forget its indulgent attitude towards Iran if the latter continues its meddling.

Iran has started violating many of the givens of the world order. The ship heading to Misrata was no accident. It was a message to regional and international powers that Tehran has tools that it can use to embarrass them, confuse their agendas and be a thorn in their side.

Tehran wanted to emphasise that squeezing it into a corner would lead to extending its arms to Libya and mess up arrangements for the elimination of extremists and armed militias, in addition to undermining pledges made by the Libyan Army not to fiddle with the flow of oil and gas to Western countries.

Of course, Tehran’s strategy can only find the needed political, security and economic support from Turkey and Qatar, which both consider Libya open terrain. The three countries would be cooperating and coordinating their strategies in a triangle of influence that had emerged during the Gulf crisis and led Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to boycott Doha. The four countries have escalated their condemnations of Ankara’s and Doha’s meddling in Libya.

Tehran’s approach in Libya seems to be based on cooperation with Turkey and Qatar but with a specifically Iranian twist. Iran apparently believes that the Syrian crisis is ending and the general trend is towards clipping Tehran’s wings there. The consequence of that step would be to undermine Tehran’s role in the region and allow international powers to go after Iranian interests in places where it has devoted major efforts to plant its roots.

The Iranian regime has examined the situation in Libya and decided that its interests could be served by prolonging the war in Tripoli between the Libyan National Army and the Government of National Accord, which is backed by Islamic extremists, an array of armed militias as well as Turkey and Qatar. Tehran is hoping that, when the situation in Libya becomes confused again and the paths to peace disappear in the heat of the battles, perhaps the international community will ease its pressure on Iran.

Iran may expand its interest in what is going on in Libya but the accumulated experience confirms that it will not enjoy full freedom of movement. The extremist organisations in Libya are aware that alliances with Tehran are not guaranteed and might change any time and the regional and international forces that have been working tirelessly to undermine its presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen will not allow it to play in and with Libya and its neighbouring countries.

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