To say that 2020 has been a maelstrom of epic proportions might be an under-statement. With Iran and the US going toe to toe at the beginning of the year, the ongoing battle between Turkey and the Syrian Regime in Idlib, the riots in Delhi and the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic causing panic around the globe, a decade’s worth of geopolitical shifts have taken place.
While the current COVID-19 pandemic has occupied the minds of the majority of the world’s population, Qassem Soleimani’s assassination at the beginning of the year brought the world to the brink of a major military conflict, one that had the potential to spiral into yet another deadly regional war. Soleimani was the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military unit that directly answers to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini. Its raison d’etre is solely to protect the ethos of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Separate from the regular Iranian Army, the IRGC is the spear that Iranian powerbrokers use to promote its regional proxy wars while also being the shield that protects the Iranian Regime from internal threats.
The Iranian power structure can loosely be categorized into two segments. One group are the die-hard revolutionaries, whose main goal is to ensure that the existing Iranian regime continues to exude the most influence in the nation. This group of Iranian politicians, close to the IRGC and the Supreme Leader, are more hawkish and less amenable to indulging in exercises such as the now defunct 2015 Nuclear Deal. The second group, those who were responsible for pushing the Deal through, are the moderates led by the likes of current President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It is this second group that had started to gain a greater foothold in the nation over the past decade. However, with Soleimani’s death, the gains that were painstakingly achieved by this section of the Iranian government have been completely upended. Critics of the moderates point to the American drone strike that killed Soleimani and other high-ranking leaders of the Hashd-al-Shaabi as proof that Iran’s enemies do not abide by any peace-making deals and hence, war is the only option.
One clear example of the eroding influence of Rouhani’s camp can be seen through the appointment of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, as the central coordinator in charge of directing and facilitating all of Iran’s proxies in the Middle East. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia-cum-political party holds great sway over the internal mechanics of Lebanon. Used by Iran to further their goals of creating a bulwark against Saudi and Israeli influence in the region, Hezbollah have been at the frontlines of the wars against ISIS in Iraq and Syria while also giving Israel a bloody nose in the month-long July 2006 skirmish. Due to these recent battlefield victories, the group’s military and political capital has shot up. Thus, the appointment of Nasrallah as head of Iran’s proxy operations in the region points to a deeper shift in the trajectory that the Khamenei regime is choosing to pursue. The days of deals are over, the hour of overt action is nigh.
While observers may read this move by Khamenei and co. as something of an over-reaction, the recent uptick in Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria vindicate those in Tehran who do not believe peace to be the way forward. While Israel has kept a close eye on the war next door, it has for the most part been loath to directly involve itself in the inferno that continues to rage. However, in May 2018, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Leiberman stated that Israel will never allow Iranian assets to take a foothold in Syria and use the war-torn nation as a buffer zone-turned-launching pad against Israel. Since then, Israel has been less averse to conducting airstrikes against both Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah as well as regular Syrian regime forces. If there were any misconceptions regarding Israeli designs in the region, the past two years have cleared them.
Finally, one of the biggest and clearest indications that point to Rouhani losing clout in the Iranian political ecosystem are the recent parliamentary elections that took place. The first-round results showed the conservatives took home 76.2% of the seats as opposed to the 6.89% that the moderates sealed. A damning indictment that the powers that be have lost patience with the Rouhanis and Zarifs and are now instead putting their eggs into the more aggressive baskets of the Iranian government. We can expect chants of “Marg bar Amrika, Marg bar Israel” (Death to America, Death to Israel) to become more commonplace in the coming years, perfectly fitting in with Trumpian and Israeli plans to take a less conciliatory stance against Iran.
We’ve looked at the internal changes taking place in Iran however the reasons behind this change, both promoted by internal power struggles and external designs, are less clear-cut. One obvious reason can be seen through the recent convergence of interests by the GCC bloc (Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Israel. Historic adversaries, the Gulf countries and Israel seem to have put most of their ill-will behind them for the simple reason of stopping Iranian expansion in the Middle East. The so-called “Shia Crescent”, a notional stretch of land in the region covering Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan and Yemen taking direction directly from Iran, is the biggest geopolitical threat for both the GCC and Israel. Moreover, Saudi Arabia fears that the population in the conservative Kingdom may be inspired to undertake an Islamic revolution akin to the one that took place in 1979 Iran. The Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca of December 1979 was the seminal moment in history after which the royal family initiated a policy of appeasement towards Saudi hardliners in an attempt to pre-empt any sort of revolution similar to the one that took place in Iran. As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran were destined to be at odds with one another, the Ummah be damned. An interesting point to note is that KSA were purported to have agreed to meet with Soleimani prior to his assassination. This may have been fueled by the economic worries that have taken both nations hostage hence a détente between the Sunni and Shia blocs may have been on the cards. Alas, any such warming of relations were quickly decimated with Soleimani’s death and the regional free-for-all continues.
Asides from this, the economic motivations for a regional security threat in the region are immense from the perspective of both the USA and Israel. Israel receives approximately $3 billion annually from the USA, primarily because Israel is surrounded by nations hostile to it. If Iran were to settle into a more docile arrangement, these grants may be at risk of being reduced or outright terminated. With no military threat, there would be no need for Israel to prop up its state-of-the-art defense systems. Moreover, the military industrial complex in the US thrives on conflict. By stamping out the flames of Iranian belligerence, this sector of the American economy would take a sizable hit. As a result, doves in Tehran being side-lined would cause executives in Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to jump with joy. While they celebrate, the Middle-East continues to burn and its people continue to pay the price.