The Islamic world’s Thirty Years War
Even as Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries were toppling the Shah in 1979, at the core of their thinking was that their Shia revolution should not be limited to their homeland but expand to the entire Muslim world. This approach would not only secure Tehran’s dominance but would also keep the United States busy so it could not topple the new and aggressive regime.
That’s probably more true now than ever as the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or Pasdaran, casts long shadows over the Middle East from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
Its extraterritorial operations arm is tellingly named the “Quds Force,” invoking the immense religious symbolism of Jerusalem in the cause of revolutionary expansion.
The Pasdaran is the vanguard of this campaign; and its slogan of “liberating Jerusalem” serves the purpose of helping Shia Iran transcend Islam’s sectarian divide and seize the mantle of leadership in the Muslim world.
In spite of the symbolism and slogans, and Iran’s energetic efforts to export its revolution, Arab, particularly Sunni, resistance has largely prevented the “Quds Force” and its clerical patrons from succeeding.
During the 1980-88 Gulf War, Iraqi nationalism trumped sectarian identity: the Shia constituted the rank and file of Saddam Hussein’s military and Shia religious leaders in Iraq kept their distance from the Tehran regime.
The late Hafez Assad’s regime in Syria masterfully played the role of mediator between Tehran and the Arab world and was certainly no client of Tehran’s. The majority of the Shia in the Gulf region remained loyal citizens of their respective countries.
Had it not been for the civil war in Lebanon, the Lebanese Shia too may have maintained a pluralistic political culture rather than submitting to Hezbollah’s hegemony.
In recent years, however, the “Quds Force” has become the most influential force in the region, in large measure thanks to assistance from an unexpected quarter: the United States.
US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq brought about the collapse of Taliban rule and Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. Later, the hasty US military withdrawal from Iraq and Washington’s indecisiveness over Syria’s civil war emboldened Tehran. This created a power vacuum, which the “Quds Force” and its highly effective commander, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, exploited.
Soleimani has skilfully manipulated the Arabs against each other, thereby securing a decisive role for himself and his elite force, which has become the primary instrument of exporting Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution.
In Iraq, the “Quds Force” helped bring Shias to power in the post- Ba’ath era and marginalised the Sunnis, while simultaneously undermining the US military presence by supporting Shia proxies.
Those proxies inflicted heavy US losses, which deterred military action by Washington against Tehran. As Iraq’s marginalised Sunnis rebelled after the US pullout in December 2011, Tehran emerged as the big winner. Abandoned by the Americans, the Iraqi Shia had nowhere to turn for support against the jihadist offensive but Tehran, with Soleimani emerging as the liberator of Tikrit.
In Syria, Soleimani’s expressions of unreserved support for Bashar Assad have made the Alawite ruler complacent. Rather than seek compromise and co-existence, Assad brutally suppressed the largely Sunni civil protests and provoked a popular uprising. The regime’s survival now depends heavily on the support of Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Assad has been reduced to a pawn on Soleimani’s regional chessboard.
While the “Quds Force”’s strategy can easily be deciphered, the US strategy is more difficult to discern. Washington does not seem concerned about the “Quds Force”’s growing influence in the region and has at times provided air support for it in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq.
Meantime, Iran’s tentative nuclear deal announced on April 2nd is likely to further boost the power and prestige of the “Quds Force”. The framework agreement allows Tehran to preserve its nuclear infrastructure and removes financial and economic sanctions.
The US administration’s strategy appears to be aimed at creating a new balance of power in the Middle East. While disentangling itself from the troublesome region, Washington hopes Iran and Saudi Arabia will keep each other in check.
But the “Quds Force”’s proxy warfare is spreading fast. In Yemen, Soleimani has opened a new front against Saudi Arabia, and the large number of Afghan Shia casualties in Syria indicates he’s looking to open yet another front in Afghanistan following the US military withdrawal there.
Absent serious efforts to contain the “Quds Force”, Ayatollah Khomeini’s dream of exporting Iran’s revolution may well be realised. It would intensify the rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbours and extending the cycle of sectarian violence which already resembles Europe’s medieval religious conflict, the Thirty Years War.