This marks the start of an exploration of the Middle East. It may take a couple of weeks. In the course of it, I shall focus on each of the major actors in the ongoing conflicts. The region is that central to the comfort of the rest of the world. The intention is to bring clarity to the cloud of confusion that covers that end. For where outsiders see chaos, those involved know exactly what they’re doing in a conflict that they too have mildly tagged “complex”. Actors in this arena are many, few are determiners. Without them, nothing gets done and the conflict can’t ever be resolved. Iran is one. I start with this country not only because it’s on the easternmost end of the region, but because it’s a regional power and it’s not ashamed to flaunt it. I admire nations that are bold, nations that have the upper hand and don’t timidly look at anyone’s face before they call the shots when it serves their interests. Late August, Iran officially said its forces would be in all the nations in the Middle East where chaos reigned. This is what I call bold, and it shows Iran in several lights.
Iran isn’t a trouble maker, not with its latest announcement and never with the manner it promotes its own brand of Islam – Shia. With my background in Political Science and International Relations, being of the realist school and a firm believer in power as the most important determinant on the international stage, my view about Iran is bound to elicit different views from people from diverse backgrounds. Yet, anybody outside reading Iran’s actions in the power relations context on the global stage amounts to giving vent to emotion-laden sentiment. Of course, there’re elements of power, there are mediums for projecting the same in the pursuit of national interest.
Iran uses its own brand of Islam to extend its reach and influence. Every nation extends its reach and influence, including Saudi Arabia that expends billions of petro-dollar in aid, from Africa to Europe and to the Americas, where it gives funds for the construction of mosques and promotes its own brand of Islam – Wahabism. Israel isn’t left out, and it especially likes nations with Christian population because Christians support it against Arabs, and of course they bring funds into Israel’s coffers as tourists. The same considerations are at play whenever America extends help through USAID, and the British deploys UKAID. These are reasons I smile when some get touchy whenever Iran gives funds to groups it chooses outside its borders. For what I see is power play, means for winning friends deployed by every nation.
Those who play the power game aren’t always popular though. But they know that popularity matters little where national interest must be served and their nations need to be secure; the Israelis are an example, the Americans are another.
Back to Iran. Why is Iran keen to have its hands in every pot of hot soup in the Middle East? Interest. Occurrences in the region indicate there’re opportunities for Iran to consolidate its presence in nations where it has one, assist collaborators to dislodge opponents from power in nations that hate Iran’s gut, and position itself as a player when heads are steady enough to consider talking peace wherever war is taking place. The French, the Americans, the British, the French, the Russians, the Saudis and the Turks are doing the same in the places where Iran recently declares it wants in – Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Iran had been involved in Iraq from the outset of the chaos there. A Sunni government was once in power. With the unofficial assistance of Iran, a Shiite-dominated administration is now in place. Iran loves that; its sphere of influence is extended. Incidentally, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Iraqi government had jointly battled Islamic State or IS in Iraq long before IS moved into Syria to seize territories for itself. It’s because IS is a threat to Saudi Arabia’s ruling class, its founders being of Sunni religious persuasion.
One shouldn’t ignore the point that no nation has it all. Iran has its internal issues, and some of its citizens don’t give the government the thumb-up. The US and its allies have their internal issues too.
However, these nations have enough understanding to realise that just as what’s internal propels a nation to achieve positively on the international stage, so does what it’s able to do externally propels greatly what happens internally. An example of where a nation ignores its externalities to its peril is the situation whereby Nigeria fails to exert itself to the point that we’re now at the mercy of a nation like the Republic of Benin on the matter of smuggling.
As I pointed out on this page last Friday, so much rice was being smuggled from neighbouring nations such that Nigeria’s economy was at their mercy. If we aren’t firm with our neighbours because we want to be good neighbours, the same neighbours may wreck us. Iran won’t have such nonsense, and it doesn’t mind which nations it makes unhappy in the pursuit of its own happiness. Every nation that cares about itself, and has leadership with gut thinks this way. It’s a reason Iran gets its act together internally, strengthens itself in needed areas in order to project its power, and monitors activities in its backyard like a hawk. It wants to have a say in what happens in its neighbourhood; it’s ever in its interest to so do. Interestingly, this is one nation that has almost the same features that Nigeria has – Iran has over 80 million citizens, and it depends on oil too.
The other day, Iran allowed Russian fighter jets to take off from its airbases to bomb locations in Syria where battles raged. Why? Iran is good being the friend of Russia that’s not in good terms with the West at this time. The friendship strengthens Iran’s regional importance too, and what about Russian arms whenever it needs them. Why does Iran want Syria bombed? Syria’s government is pro-Iran. That’s one important nation in Teheran’s pocket, so Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda-allied Nusra Front, are Iran’s enemies. Iran must prop up the current Syrian leadership, or be part of the selection of another that will be friendly with Teheran in a likely post-Bashar al-Assad era.
Syrian armed rebels had set out in 2011 to remove Assad from power. They took territories, causing Damascus to lose grip of a large part of Syria; then IS came in from Iraq to take advantage of the chaos. Every nation involved in the conflict in Syria says eliminating IS is its focus. Iran says the same, but it isn’t telling the entire story.
It goes after Syrian rebels too, and in fact it recruits refugees from Afghanistan to fight in Syria. There are other reasons Iran fights on the side of Assad. Syria is its pathway to Lebanon where it is a friend of the Hezbollah Organisation that’s a pain in Israel’s neck.
Iran enjoys aggravating any pain in Israel’s neck, since the Jewish nation never hides its intention to bomb Iran at the slightest whiff of Teheran’s uranium alleged to be for the development of nuclear warheads. Iran wants to continue to have a hold on Hezbollah, and because Damascus is influential with Hezbollah, Iran losses the influence if Damascus losses in Syria.
So, why was Iran’s recent announcement to be involved in every conflict in the Middle East important? It’s because its involvement in most conflicts in the region had previously been covert. This has changed.
Saudi Arabia is one of the reasons. Middle East is Iran and Saudi Arabia’s playground, each nation promoting its influence using firstly the Shia-Sunni religious ideologies as platforms, each pumping funds, men and materials to their allies wherever they may be found. The Saudis have never been this overt in conflicts in neighbouring states.
Iran wants to match the Saudis, force for force. I see nothing in this but one. The pursuit of national interest, and doing it with gut that’s so much needed in power relations on the international stage.
The West has always acknowledged Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Teheran’s latest steps raise the bar. It means nations that aren’t timid to flaunt what they’re capable of are the ones that earn respect.