Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. REUTERS Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. REUTERS

KSA, Israel & Iran: The battle of the Middle East

Wed, Nov. 22, 2017
It is truly harsh to allow Iran to control the entire Middle East, but we cannot continue to lose our dignity. We are losing our territories one by one. What else can we do?” – Herdi, translator in the disputed city of Kirkuk, to Egypt Today.

CAIRO – 22 November 2017: At an emergency meeting of Arab League representatives, which took place in Cairo on Sunday, the issue of Iran sat at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The meeting of Arab foreign ministers took place in the midst of unprecedented regional tensions between the Arab states and Iran.

Saudi Arabia requested an emergency meeting of the Arab League following the launch of an Iranian-supplied ballistic missile at Riyadh from Houthi militia-held territory in Yemen two weeks ago, and an explosion at a Bahraini oil pipeline which was also blamed on Iran.

Iran is consolidating its sphere of influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon towards the Mediterranean, and notably in Yemen also. While the two old rivals – Saudi Arabia and Iran – are at loggerheads, Saudi Arabia is proving increasingly capable and justified in spreading anti-Iranian awareness amongst its Arab allies.

“Showing leniency toward Iran will not leave any Arab capital safe from those ballistic missiles,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said. “We are obliged today to take a serious and honest stand to counter these belligerent policies so that we can protect our security.”

Saudi Arabia will not stand idly by in the face of Iran’s “blatant aggression.”

Iran has not fought a war in the traditional sense – that is since its inter-state conflict – since the 1980s and the destructive war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. However, they sit in the middle of a complicated game of power politics which dominates the region, and there is rarely an incident of conflict which does not smell of Iranian influence.

Pushed forward by the Quds Force, the special forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp responsible for Iran’s extraterritorial operations, Iran is growing ever skillful at entrenching support links beyond Tehran’s legitimate reach.

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Members from the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) hold a portrait of Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Headed by the infamous Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force appeals to Shiite sympathies throughout the Middle East, inflating sectarian tensions in the already unstable region.

Since 2003 Iran has sponsored, through training and funding, Shiite militia in Iraq to counter the extremist Sunni groups who emerged after the disbandment of the Ba’ath Party. Groups including Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq served Tehran’s interests during the U.S.-led occupation and continue to do so to this day under the auspices of Hashd al-Shaabi – sometimes referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Iran’s clear ideology favors Shiite domination as the mechanism to oppose the perceived threat coming from Saudi Arabia. Tapping into the memories of many Iraqis who suffered under Saddam’s sectarian polities and Sunni favoritism, Iran seeks to ignite tensions in a push towards regional hegemony.

Al-Amiri, alongside the administrator of the PMF, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, wield the greatest power in the PMF. Their relationship with Tehran is closer than that with al-Abadi and Baghdad, and they channel the PMF’s state-allocated finances to their chosen Tehran-allied groups.

While Iran provides a deep well of military and financial support, Baghdad provides the essential political legitimacy to these groups. Reducing Tehran’s influence in Iraq is a fundamental and complex challenge for Prime Minister al-Abadi since Hashd al-Shaabi elements provide much needed support to the Iraqi Army. Most recently, Hashd al-Shaabi participated in the ousting of Kurdish forces from the disputed Kurdish-held territories in Iraq’s northern region – most notably Kirkuk.

With the 2011 so-called Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the region, Iranian officials looked out over a jagged field of conflicting loyalties, and tendencies towards conflict. Whether in desperation or a calculated drive to improve their situation, countless groups have opened their palms to Iranian assistance.

In Bahrain and Yemen, channels of assistance were opened up reaching all the way to Tehran. While Saudi Arabia was successful in stopping these channels from flowing to Bahrain, in Yemen it was far less successful. In Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, Iran has provided the essential support to the Houthi rebels to maintain their struggle against the authoritarian Yemeni government, and caused instability on the Kingdom’s border. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a brutal campaign in support of the Yemeni government.

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Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), commonly known as Hashd al-Sha'abi, march during a parade marking the International Quds Day, in Baghdad, Iraq, June 23, 2017. REUTERS

As the first waves of revolution blew across the Middle East in 2011, Iran was initially supportive and drew comparisons with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. However, once the seeds of revolution blossomed in Syria, it’s rhetoric changed.

Sharing a long-standing alliance with Assad, the Iranian leadership refused to accept the toppling of the Syrian government and has sent thousands of soldiers from their allied groups throughout the region – including Hezbollah – to uphold the position of the Syrian government. Ruthless and armed to the teeth, the support of Iran’s brutal allied militias has helped turn the battle in Assad’s favor in Syria. With this, another close and influence ally of Iran will maintain control of a vast territory, and allow Iranian influence to penetrate through it borders.

Hezbollah remains the most significant example of an Iranian proxy in the region, and has been the source of severe tensions in recent months. A Shi'a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s influence has followed periods of highs and lows.

Hezbollah was founded in the early 1980s during the height of the 15-year Lebanese civil war. The group formed as part of an Iranian effort to combine a variety of militant Lebanese Shi'a groups into one coherent block.

Although unofficially, Lebanon has transformed into a state controlled by Hezbollah. Abiding by Lebanon’s confessional political system, Lebanese President Michael Aoun is a Maronite Christian, however his alliance with Hezbollah exemplifies its influence in all spheres of government. This explains Saudi Arabia’s reason to summon Lebanese Prime Minister and ally, Saad Hariri, to the Kingdom and exert influence over the signing of his resignation. Hezbollah have developed into a dominant political party and a ruthless fighting force which transcends national borders.

Hezbollah’s military and political actions are far removed from what is perceived to be acceptable, and thus Saudi Arabia and the majority of the region believe that now, enough is enough. Lebanon’s position as a breeding ground to spread Iranian interference is to the detriment of the region’s stability, which now it needs to face head on.

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Israeli military vehicles are seen burning following a Hezbollah missile strike across the border on January 28, 2015. Two IDF soldiers were killed in the attack. AFP/ Maruf Khatib

The political story seems to be following “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mantra. Traditionally, and by this I mean since 1948, stability and thus instability has been upheld by the three pillars in the region: Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Each tower has its own following, however, Iran’s increasingly successful regional power aspirations are helping distort this convoluted balance of power.

The Middle East as we know it today is a playground for the rich and powerful; the daring and aspirational; the bold and capable. As long as the conscience takes a step back into the shadows, innocent blood will be spilled on sand as rivals struggle to control the land which lies at the center of the earth.

A wise man, by the name of Edmund Burke, once said that: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." There are a few men on the planet with the evil intolerance of Qasem Soleimani. While it is common for individuals to place their state aspirations above others, the line drawn by Qasem Soleimani and his Quds force will not be permitted by the other major regional players. The Middle East is at a crucial point in modern history as the powerful players involved stand in the face of head-to-head conflict, with the desire to maintain security given precedence above all else.


Joseph Colonna

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