14 May 2020
Overreach in the Middle East.
By Neil Tidmarsh
In recent weeks there’s been a dramatic increase in tension between the US and Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian gunboats harassed US navy ships and coastguard vessels; President Trump responded by Tweeting that he has “instructed the United States navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea”; an Iranian major-general responded to that by announcing that the Iranian navy has been “ordered to hit any military ship of the US terrorist army that tries to endanger the security of the Iranian military or civilian vessels”.
The Strait of Hormuz separates Iran from the Arabian peninsula. It’s one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and a vital corridor for the export of the Middle East’s oil. Iran, allegedly, has repeatedly attacked and seized commercial shipping and harassed Western navies here in the last year. Its continued and increasing defiance of the US and the West in this strategically important but dangerously volatile stretch of water suggests that the Islamic Republic is no longer a David confronting a global Goliath but a confident and mature power. It appears to have achieved many of its recent strategic aims in the region: saving Assad through its military intervention in Syria; turning neighbouring Iraq into a vassal state by dominating its Shia politicians and populace; becoming the power behind the scenes in Lebanon through its sponsorship of Hezbollah; creating a “Shia crescent” all the way from Tehran to the Mediterranean, a corridor of access and influence across the Middle East allowing it to dominate the whole region; weakening and humiliating Saudi Arabia (its main rival in the regional superpower stakes) by backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war who regularly fire missiles towards Riyadh and even (according to most intelligence agencies) facilitating a devastating attack on Saudi oilfields. Could it have won regional superpower status for itself at last?
No. Far from it. Appearances are deceptive. Other stories in the news this week tell us that Iran is on the back foot throughout the Middle East. It’s suffering from a classic case of overreach. Its achievements in the region are rapidly unravelling.
Its influence in Iraq appears to be fading: this week a pro-Western, US-backed, British-passport-holding politician, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, became prime minister in Baghdad, filling the position vacated by the pro-Iran prime minister Adel Abdul-Abdul Mahdi. Tehran is grinning and bearing it, but Mr al-Kadhimi can’t have been Iran’s first choice. One of his first acts was to re-instate Lieutenant-General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who was dismissed last year for attacking government corruption and criticising the influence of Iran.
Its influence in Syria also appears to be fading: this week, Israeli intelligence reported that Iran is pulling its troops out of the country, even though the civil war continues and even though a military presence would be necessary to maintain influence after the war. About two thirds of the expeditionary Quds Force has been withdrawn and most of its bases have been abandoned; arms shipments from Tehran to the Assad regime and to Hezbollah in Syria have been reduced; support for Shia militias is drying up. Israeli defence officials say that Russia has displaced Iran as Assad’s saviour, and Tehran’s hopes for commercial rewards and concessions from his regime have been disappointed.
Such is Iran’s regional withdrawal that the USA felt confident enough this week to begin moving Patriot missile systems out of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, to redeploy two jet fighter squadrons from the Gulf and to consider reductions to the US navy presence in the region.
There were even signs this week that Tehran is reaching out a conciliatory hand to the Great Satan. Tehran announced that it was considering sending home the jailed US navy veteran Michael White. This offer seemed to be part of negotiations for the release of two Iranians held in the USA; later in the week, however, an Iranian government spokesman said that Iran was ready for a full prisoner exchange with the USA “with no preconditions”.
This is all far from the defiant and blood-curdling rhetoric employed by Tehran in its time of apparent triumph less than a year ago. What has happened in the meantime?
First of all, Iran’s economy is on its last legs. Already hit hard by renewed US sanctions following Washington’s withdrawal from the anti-nuclear treaty, by corruption, by declining oil prices and by severe droughts and water-shortages, it has been devastated by the recent sudden collapse in the price of oil. The massive cost of military adventurism across the region was never really affordable; now it’s ruinous.
Second, mass protests against the regime’s corruption and repression – which regularly break out within Iran itself and are regularly suppressed with great brutality – are now widespread across the region. Iraq and Lebanon have been engulfed in massive anti-Iran demonstrations for months. In Iraq, Tehran-style brutality has proved counter-productive; widespread disgust at the appallingly high number of protesters killed by the security forces and by other more shadowy agencies has forced the resignation of a pro-Iran prime minister, the installation of a pro-Western prime minister and the reinstatement of the anti-Iran general whose dismissal sparked the protests in the first place. That Shia crescent of Iranian power and influence across the region has disappeared (if it ever existed; it was probably a geo-political impossibility from the word go).
Third, the strains and pressures of overreach have revealed humiliating, demoralising, confidence-draining and credibility-busting levels of incompetence and inefficiency. Earlier this year, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps fired missiles at what they thought was an American airstrike on Tehran; it was in fact a Ukrainian passenger jet, which was shot down with the death of everyone on board (167 passengers and a crew of nine). Initial government cover-ups and denials were blown away by western intelligence agencies and the regime had to come clean and admit an “unforgivable mistake”. Last month armed men, believed to be a contingent of the Revolutionary Guard, boarded and seized a Hong Kong flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, only to promptly release it – presumably when an irate Beijing got on the phone to Tehran. This apparent cock-up must have been highly embarrassing for Tehran and highly infuriating for its powerful and possibly last-remaining ‘friend’. This week, nineteen Iranian navy sailors were killed and fifteen injured by ‘friendly fire’ during a training exercise off the port of Jask, between the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. A supply ship towing targets out to sea was accidentally hit by a cruise missile fired from another Iranian ship, the frigate Jamaron.
Fourth, Iran has been hit badly by the coronavirus. Its rates of infection and the death tally are the worst in the Middle East.
Fifth, and last, and perhaps most crucial, Iran’s attempts to make itself the region’s superpower have only succeded it making it the region’s bully; and two members of the international community have recognised this and dished out the tried and tested treatment for bullies – stand up to them, give them a taste of their own medicine and see how they like it. Iran’s withdrawal of military power and political influence from Syria is due in no small part to Israel’s determination to prevent it from establishing a base there (Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have, after all, sworn to destroy Israel). The two Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria last Monday were the fifth and sixth of the past two weeks alone and only the latest in a campaign which has continued almost from the moment Iran ventured into Syria.
But the single most significant single blow against Iran was the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the powerful and revered Revolutionary Guard general, last January. This is now recognised as a turning point in Iran’s fortunes; at a stroke, it fatally weakened and discouraged the more aggressive and militantly expansionist factions in the regime and gave their rivals in Tehran a chance to persuade the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to invest the country’s dwindling resources in its dire domestic problems. It seems that President Trump can take the somewhat questionable credit for Soleimani’s death, even though Trump’s reaction to Iranian provocation up until January had been surprisingly and admirably restrained (refusing to take reprisals because they would result in civilian casualties, insisting that the USA did not want war and urging Tehran to talk to him; the contrast with Tehran’s rhetoric and violence made even Trump look statesmanlike and humane).
Stand up to the bully, give him a taste of his own medicine and see how he likes it. No doubt more civilised, judicial and diplomatic measures, if they could have been as effective, would have been preferable. And we could say that it takes a bully to know how to deal with a bully. But sometimes, perhaps, it pays to have a bully on your side.