Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tehran may have been unwise to start this fire

Whatever happens in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, the mainly Sunni Arab states, backed by Turkey and Pakistan, have begun a struggle to prevent Iranian regional dominance, one reminiscent of the Arab cold war during the 1950s and 1960s. Tehran may have bitten off more than it can chew.

The situation in Yemen illustrates this. While there has been disagreement over whether the Houthis are agents of Iran, with the Houthis denying a link, Tehran has armed and assisted the group. Arab regimes view the Houthis as an extension of Iran, provoking the recent military reaction against them. This can only guarantee Iran’s continuing assistance.

The outcome of the Saudi-led counter-offensive in Yemen is far from clear. Yemen is a notoriously tricky country for outsiders, as the Egyptians could attest. In 1962 they embarked on a disastrous military campaign there in support of republican forces against the royalists under Muhammad Al Badr, imam of the Zaydis and king of the Mutawakkilite kingdom of Yemen in the north of the country.

At the time the Saudis backed the royalists. They viewed Egyptian intervention as an effort to surround and undermine the kingdom, at a moment when the Middle East was divided between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and other Arab nationalist regimes and the conservative monarchies in Jordan and the Gulf. Indeed, the Saudis must view events today as an echo of that past, an effort by a regional powerhouse to make inroads into its backyard.

That the Saudis have rallied the Arab League, most Gulf states, Egypt and Pakistan, shows that the Sunni countries have aligned against a perceived Iranian, Shia regional threat. Tehran has behaved with great hubris and will face hard times ahead as it becomes entangled in increasingly costly military ventures abroad.

Nowhere is this truer than in Syria, where the Iranian-backed regime of president Bashar Al Assad has faced two major setbacks in the past week, namely the loss of Idlib in the north and of Busra Al Sham in the south. That both defeats came on the tail of failed Iranian-backed offensives around Aleppo and near Daraa and Qunaitra several weeks ago only added to the bitterness.

What was even more disturbing to the Iranians is that it was Iranian combatants and Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan that were involved in the fighting, not the Syrian army. In other words, Iran is now directly implicated in the battle, and all the signs are that it is not making headway.

The offensives in the north and south were, in part, designed to cut rebel supply lines to Turkey and Jordan, and in that way remove both of Syria’s neighbours from the military equation. Mr Al Assad accused Turkey of helping the forces that took over Idlib. There was no way to confirm this, but Turkish support for the president’s foes is well established, and Turkey has considerable interest in thwarting Iran’s domination of Syria.

To alter the momentum, Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hizbollah, is expected to soon mount an offensive in the Qalamoun district of Syria, alongside Lebanon’s eastern border, to push rebel groups out. The Lebanese army is expected to play a role in this effort by taking the higher ground and blocking the cross-border movement of combatants. Yet, with the region split and the rebels in Syria making gains, there are those in the military who may push for doing less, putting additional pressures on Hizbollah.

Iran and its allies have awakened a giant, namely Sunni hostility to Iranian, Shia hegemony in the Middle East. That formulation may sound simplistic, but that’s how the current confrontation is being portrayed regionally, and how it is being fed.

Even in Iraq, where Iran has influence, it has stumbled lately, with pro-Iranian militias having to rely on American air power to progress in the battle for Tikrit, while refusing to admit this. The country’s sectarian antagonisms have highlighted how Tehran can advance only in fragmented Arab societies.

In other words, while Iran can exploit divided societies in the pursuit of its regional agenda, it is much more difficult for it to build durable foundations of control on such unstable sands. Instead, Iran’s allies usually have to use intimidation to keep their rivals in line, only generating greater animosity and facilitating further mobilisation against Iran or its sympathisers.

Iran’s resources are stretched to the limit, as are its regional allies. That is why Tehran will find the struggle with the Sunni world hard to sustain. A nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions in the future may mean more funds for Iran to pursue its regional projects. But if that does not happen over the course of the year, the renewed mood of confrontation with the West will heighten the desire to weaken Tehran. Either way, the conflict between Sunni states and Iran will continue.

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