In 1977, in a televised interview, former US president Richard Nixon described how the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid I. Brezhnev, was seeking world domination, following a dictum by Vladimir Lenin: “Probe with bayonets. If you find mush, proceed. If you find steel, withdraw.”
“That’s the way Communist leaders will be all over the world,” Nixon said at the time, explaining Lenin’s thinking about waging a war of indirect aggression. “That’s what they believe. They want not just a Communist Russia, or what have you; they want a Communist world.” Lenin’s words became popular with political scientists and American foreign policymakers, who called for steely resolve in the face of the Soviet Union. Communism did not take over the world and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, yet Lenin’s words are still being used to call for steadfast determination in the face of today’s Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin – or to criticise those who show mush.
But Lenin’s adage resonates well beyond the US–Russia arena in ways that seem to escape American foreign policymakers. Nixon repeated the maxim in his autobiography, published in May 1978 – just as the Iranian revolution was in full swing. Barely a year later, the Shah went into exile and in his place rose a taciturn, authoritarian, dogmatic radical who hijacked an ostensibly secular leftist revolutionary movement and turned Iran into an Islamic republic.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s deep contempt and enmity for the United States was apparent early on. Latching on to widespread anti-imperial leftist sentiments of the era, he declared in a speech in 1980 that “the most important and painful problem confronting the subjugated nations of the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is the problem of America … America is the number-one enemy of the deprived and oppressed people of the world.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been prodding America with a bayonet ever since, with quite some success. Although world domination is certainly not within Iran’s reach, its ability to frustrate, irritate and even kill extends all the way to Berlin and Argentina. Within the Middle East, Iran does have expansionary ambitions and has made indirect confrontation with the United States a fundamental pillar of its foreign policy and a defining element of its domestic identity. This has been – and remains – the central tenet of the Iranian revolution.
Now, more than four decades after Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic, opposition to the United States is as much about ideology as it is about survival, power and ambition. The Iranian regime’s survival depends on having an external enemy, and it has perfected the art of standing in opposition to the United States to maintain and solidify its grip on power. Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader in 1989, believes that compromising on any revolutionary principles – compulsory veiling for women, for example, or the slogan “Death to America” – could dilute the regime’s power and hasten its demise, just as Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost brought down the Soviet Union.
But what does Iran actually want to do with that power?
The answer depends on how one views Iran. There are those who empathise with Iran’s lists of grievances against the West and even its Arab neighbours; others take a hard line on Iran’s expansionist policies and its declared enmity against Israel. Then there are those who listen to Iran’s grievances to better understand its ambitions and devise policies to contain them, and stuck in the middle are those who live at the sharp end of Iranian power, from Baghdad to Beirut. But whether Iran is driven by grievances or pure power, the end goal is the same: cutting back US influence in the Middle East, by any means possible, and expanding its own influence in the region.
“Iran challenges the US as an end in itself; it’s a core interest,” Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute and a former senior director at the National Security Council, told me. “Their ultimate goal is to usher the US out of the region so they can be top dog. They see the US as their only rival.”
Iran’s strategy is to eat away at American power, while legitimising its own role as a regional power with nuclear ambitions. It has been doing so longer than most people remember. As early as 1979, Iran’s supreme leader and his acolytes identified Lebanon – a small, diverse country with a sizeable Shia minority – as the most propitious terrain for his grand plans. Lebanon, never a player, always an arena, provided Iran with the perfect foothold on the Mediterranean, and became the place where the greater United Sates–Iran showdown began.
Shifting sands and killing fields
In 1982, Lebanon was five years into a civil war. The summer of 1982 had seen a paroxysm of violence with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut; the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect and friend of Israel, Christian Phalangist Bashir Gemayel; and the retaliatory massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila by Gemayel’s militia. The US Marines had deployed to Lebanon to oversee the evacuation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Palestinian guerrillas from Beirut, and left when their mission was complete – only to redeploy within days, following the assassination and massacre in the Palestinian camp.
There had been a lull in the ferocity of the fighting in the fall with the return of the US Marines, who, along with the French and the Italians, were keeping the peace as part of the Multinational Force (MNF). By early 1983, the MNF had settled into its peacekeeping mission. The marines were on the receiving end of the occasional mortar shell or stray bullet but the fighting across Lebanon had abated to its lowest level since 1975. On 18 April, however, a large car bomb exploded at the US embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people, including seventeen Americans. Seven of those killed had been CIA employees, including the head of the Middle East region, Robert Ames, who happened to be at the embassy. A group calling itself the Islamic Jihad (IJ) claimed responsibility. US intelligence had picked up chatter between the Iranian foreign ministry and its embassies in Beirut and Damascus, talking about striking US targets in Beirut. Although circumstantial, the evidence seemed to point to Iran, with the IJ as a proxy or ally. Washington saw this as an isolated incident.
Until then, the Lebanese civil war, in its most stripped-down version, had been an ideological fight between the radical left, supporting the Palestinian cause, and the radical right, dreaming of a Christian nation in Lebanon. Piling on top of the country’s own domestic problems from corruption to sectarian divisions, the war had been triggered by the presence of Palestinian guerillas, who launched strikes against Israel, in turn bringing Israeli retaliation against Lebanon. The Palestinians laid down the law with their guns within Lebanon, undermining the already shaky central state authority and bumping against right-wing Christian Phalangists who were also taking up arms.
After the evacuation of the PLO in 1982, the nature and scope of the conflict in Lebanon changed; the ideological sands had shifted. Khomeini had made clear he wanted to export the revolution. Since 1982, there was a growing Iranian presence in Lebanon, mostly in the eastern Beqaa Valley, which had attracted the attention of officials in Washington. Yet its significance was still unclear. The Cold War was in full swing, Eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain and Ronald Reagan was singularly focused on confronting Communism by helping the mujahedin in Afghanistan fight against the Soviets. The world was divided into good and evil; whatever Iran was up to felt like a sideshow. But the warning signs were everywhere.
The twenty-third of October, 1983, began as a quiet Sunday morning in Beirut – typical in a war-torn country, where a civil war had been raging since 1975. Sundays were often quiet. Beirutis would go for lunch to their favourite restaurant, stroll on the seaside promenade or drive to their home town for lunch with the extended family. Fresh-faced marines were getting an extra half-hour of sleep in their barracks near the airport – the 6 a.m. staff meeting had been cancelled. The night before, they’d eaten pizza, entertained by a country and western band. A couple of marines were standing guard in front of the barracks, within walking distance of the Mediterranean. Another had sneaked out early for a jog and was on his way back. At 6.22, a speeding yellow Mercedes truck laden with explosives rammed through the fence of the compound and crashed into the atrium of the building. The resulting blast turned the building into a heap of concrete, with charred, dismembered bodies and body parts strewn within the wreckage. Two hundred and forty-one American servicemen were killed – the worst loss of life for the US Marine Corps since Iwo Jima in 1945.
The Reagan administration had been worried that by trying to shore up the Lebanese central government and its Christian president, Amine Gemayel, brother of the assassinated president-elect and Phalangist leader, America was becoming a party in a local feud between Muslims and Christians. The attack against the Marines barracks has always been seen in that light. That perspective is not wrong, but it is not the full story either. Iran was using a much wider lens, looking at the whole regional chessboard.
In 1983, the Iran–Iraq War was in its third year. America’s allies in the Gulf, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, had just poured more than US$20 billion into Iraq’s war coffers to help Saddam Hussein fight Khomeini’s Iran. America was also aiding Saddam, directly and indirectly. For Khomeini, this meant that America was a target, everywhere. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the wider confrontation between Iran and America was now playing out in Lebanon.
The Iran–Iraq War was a defining decade for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Saddam’s invasion of Iran was a gift for the still tenuous hold that Khomeini had on the country. Rallying Iranians around the flag and forcefully closing the ranks helped him solidify his gains and entrench his rule. But the isolation Iran faced during these years as the West and a majority of Arab countries sided with Iraq, arming and funding Saddam, while over a million Iranian soldiers and civilians died, was a painful experience, seared in the psyche of the Iranian population and the leadership. This helps explain the lengths to which Iran goes to build up its defences, including with a nuclear programme and influence in the neighbouring countries it uses as forward bases – more on that later.
And so, far away from Iran’s borders, in a Machiavellian asymmetrical move, Tehran dealt a blow against America in Beirut and awaited the response. For days, the Reagan administration debated how and how forcefully to retaliate. Military plans were drawn up for air strikes against Iranian assets in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. There was talk of a joint military strike with the French, who had also been targeted in Beirut on that fateful October Sunday and lost fifty-eight paratroopers. In the end, they did nothing. In his book The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year War with Iran, David Crist delivers a scathing verdict on Reagan’s handling of the aftermath. “Despite his repeated public statements promising to punish those who had perpetrated the attack, Reagan had quietly decided to do nothing in response to an attack that killed more servicemen in a single day than any other since the Second World War.”
The lesson was not lost on Khomeini, his entourage and his allies in Lebanon. They had stared down America and won, proving they were a worthy adversary. How much farther could the bayonet go?
Kidnappings and amnesties
In this duel, Iran sees America’s allies in the region as rivals for influence, such as Saudi Arabia, or outright enemies, such as Israel. One of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s professed ambitions is to help Palestinians liberate land from the “Zionist usurpers” and it pours money into groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to help advance that goal. Supporting an Arab cause is a convenient ploy to shore up Iran’s popularity in the mostly Sunni Arab world. Although there have been periods of secret cooperation and trade between Iran and Israel since 1979, particularly during the Iran–Iraq War, inflammatory anti-Israeli rhetoric reached fever pitch during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and chants of “Death to Israel” were heard again at the funeral of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard colonel assassinated in Tehran, allegedly by the Mossad, in May of this year.
Iran views Saudi Arabia more as a rival, an extension of America’s reach into the Arab world. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia – which had been allies and twin pillars in the US policy to contain the Soviet Union – turned into mortal enemies, deploying religion and sectarian identities, Sunni and Shia, to fight each other by proxy from Pakistan to Egypt. The shift was provoked by the rise of Khomeini, who saw himself as a leader not only of Iran, not simply of the Shia community, but of the Muslim nation as a whole, one who could replace the House of Saud – even literally, as Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques, in Mecca and Medina. Historically insecure in its role as leader of the Muslim world, the House of Saud decided to use all means necessary to push back against Khomeini and contain his efforts to export the Iranian revolution. The result has been devastating – not only physically, with violence from the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s and the war in Yemen that continues today, but also culturally.
The radical version of state-led Shiism that Khomeini exported into Shia communities transformed them beyond recognition. Meanwhile, as Saudi Arabia tried to outdo Iran in a holier-than-thou competition, the kingdom began feeding a trend of Sunni intolerance and extremism that gave birth to a generation of radical Sunni militants who wreaked havoc – not only in the region, but all the way to the United States, with the attacks of 9/11. The difference between the two camps is that Sunni militants are not state-led entities and see the House of Saud as a target to be deposed, whereas Shia radical militants are vanguards of the Islamic Republic of Iran and answer directly to the Iranian supreme leader.
There would be further tests of American mettle by these Iranian vanguards. On 18 January 1984, Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut, had just stepped out of an elevator on campus when two assassins, one holding a gun with a silencer, shot him in the back and ran away before anyone could react. Kerr died almost instantly. Soon after, the local office of the French news agency, Agence France Press, received a telephone call from a man claiming to speak for the Islamic Jihad. “We are responsible for the assassination of the president of the American University of Beirut, who was a victim of the American military presence in Lebanon,” said the man. “We also vow that not a single American or Frenchman will remain on this soil.” This was the same group that had blown up the US embassy and the Marine barracks – a precursor to Hezbollah. They were now coming after soft targets and cultural symbols of America. President Reagan was still vowing not to be cowed in the wake of this latest anti-American attack – but one month later, every single marine was pulled out of Beirut.
What ensued was a kidnapping spree of Westerners throughout the 1980s – ninety-nine in total, including seventeen Americans. Some were held for eight years; many were tortured or held in horrific conditions, chained to radiators. Their names were in and out of the headlines, from American journalist Terry Anderson to the Anglican church envoy Terry Waite. Some died in captivity, such as William Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut. The trail always led back to Damascus and Tehran. Some of it was connected more directly to the Saudi–Iran rivalry, like the kidnapping of the Saudi consul in Beirut. In exchange for his release, the Iranians demanded the release of four of their diplomats who had gone missing in Beirut.
A first, seemingly isolated kidnapping had taken place in July 1982, a month into the Israeli siege of Beirut, when the acting president of the American University of Beirut, David Dodge, was snatched off campus in broad daylight. He was released a year later. It’s not clear what Iran or Damascus got in exchange, but Tehran had tested the tactic and clearly established that the taking of hostages was a useful pressure tool – if only to dominate the airwaves and American collective consciousness, as they had done for 444 days during the embassy hostage crisis in 1979. Even as the Marines came under attack and then withdrew from Lebanon, the Reagan administration thought it was still dealing with one-off incidents and disparate groups. In fact, there was method behind the apparent madness: a pattern was being established.
In December 1983, Hezbollah and the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia Da’wa group had carried out a coordinated series of bombings in Kuwait against a variety of targets, including the American and French embassies. The goal was in part to dissuade Kuwait from supporting Iraq in the war against Iran. Seventeen men were put on trial in Kuwait and charged in connection with the bombings; some were sentenced to death. In Lebanon, Hezbollah threatened to kill the Western hostages they were holding if Kuwait carried out the death sentences. Hezbollah abducted more Westerners in Beirut and carried out repeated hijackings during the 1980s, demanding the release of the “Kuwait 17”. Kuwait would not relent. The men unexpectedly regained freedom when Iraq invaded Kuwait and emptied the prisons in 1990.
That year also brought the end of Lebanon’s civil war. Washington had quietly acquiesced to a full Syrian takeover of Lebanon in exchange for token Syrian participation in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait. There were now 35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon. The price of this Pax Syriana in Lebanon seemed worth paying for Washington: the civil war had been going on for too long and its violence and chaos did not fit into the new post–Cold War era and the “new world order” that George H.W. Bush had declared with the liberation of Kuwait. Syria also agreed to participate in the 1991 Madrid peace conference – the first time Syrians had ever sat down for direct talks with Israelis. President Hafez al-Assad posed as the generous facilitator in the release of the remaining Western hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a group operating in a territory he controlled, answering to Iran, his closest ally. Syria and Iran had hoarded chits; now was the time to cash them in exchange for Lebanon, a coveted prize, a playground where they could continue to negotiate with the West by proxy.
As the guns fell silent and Syrian troops took up positions across the country, Lebanon’s warlords donned suits and got a blanket amnesty in return for handing in their weapons and sending their militiamen home. The Saudis oversaw the process via the Taif Agreement. There was an asterisk in the fine print, however, that would turn out to be a Trojan horse: everyone in Lebanon had to disarm, except the resistance groups fighting the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. In the dissipating fog of war, the real extent of Hezbollah’s hold on the Shia community was still unclear. Traditional Shia notables believed the group was just an expression of the chaos of the conflict and would disappear in peacetime. Leftists and communists were still part of the resistance movement against Israel, and there were protests calling for the end of Iranian influence and the departure of its Revolutionary Guards. But dissent was snuffed out: Hezbollah imposed itself as the only fighting force against Israel, eliminating everyone else. So, despite all the anti-American attacks and internal violence that Hezbollah and Iran had carried out during the 1980s, the Shia militia kept its weapons.
The group grew as a military and political power over the decades, with its members elected to parliament and serving in the government. Hezbollah provided services from healthcare to education to its members and the wider Shia community, keeping them beholden to it. Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, every round of Israeli–Syrian peace talks was accompanied by a few Hezbollah rockets lobbed at Israel, a convenient way for Syria and Iran to raise their price at the negotiating table. Until Israeli troops withdrew in May 2000, Hezbollah enjoyed wide support from other Lebanese communities, including Christians, for its tenacity in fighting Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon.
But the group did not lay down its weapons after Israel withdrew. Hezbollah had grown into a state within a state, armed to the teeth outside the purview of the central authority, which it was slowly undermining. Crucially, Hezbollah answered to the leader of another country – the supreme leader of Iran, now Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, Iran’s ambition went beyond a few square kilometres of land in southern Lebanon.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, and Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed, providing Tehran with the opportunity to aim higher and further, using the playbook it had perfected in Lebanon – hostages and militias.
Axis of misery
Until the 2003 invasion, the 1990s and early 2000s had been the era of engagement and a unipolar world led by the United States, where the values of a liberal global order seemed universal and the progress towards democracy around the globe inevitable. From engaging Russia and paving the way for China to join the World Trade Organization to secret American overtures to Iran’s reformist president Mohammad Khatami, diplomacy was everywhere. Even Saudi Arabia and Iran had made up, suddenly united in their fear of Saddam Hussein’s follies. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had resumed, the détente ushering in an era of relative quiet and prosperity to the region. Khatami introduced the concept of a Dialogue Among Civilizations, to contrast Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.
But on June 1996, a powerful blast ripped through the Khobar Towers in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen American Air Force personnel being housed there and wounding more than 400 people. The fingers pointed first at al-Qaeda but suspicion quickly turned to a pro-Iran Shia group, Hezbollah al Hejaz, affiliated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and several Shia operatives from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Iran had struck two goals in one: the near enemy, Saudi Arabia, and the far enemy, America, conveniently available as a target on Saudi soil. Despite this, the Saudis were reluctant to condemn Iran, and engagement continued. US president Bill Clinton made a secret overture to President Khatami in 1999 but was rebuffed.
Mohammed al Sulami, a Saudi expert on Iran, told me that, in hindsight, it was clear that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was biding its time. The paramilitary group was using this period of détente to continue entrenching its networks across the region, including in Lebanon, but also as far away as Africa, often in the guise of cultural and religious activities, hiding behind the moderate face of Khatami. It was also during this period that Iran began to build its secret nuclear programme.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran was unleashed – its western border nemesis, Saddam Hussein, was gone. Barely two years earlier, its enemy to the east, the Taliban, had also been removed. America had unwittingly provided Iran with the space and opportunity to spread its wings across the region. Iran set out to change the score of the Iran–Iraq War, which had essentially ended in stalemate in 1988, with an unsatisfactory ceasefire that Khomeini had described as a poisoned chalice. Iran could now work to take over Iraq’s politics, economy and society in an effort to turn Iraq into a vassal state. In doing so, it would achieve another goal: thwarting American power.
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, America and the West’s focus was on the Sunni insurgency. The Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda, run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was carrying out spectacular attacks, starting with the October 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed the UN special representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one others. Although Iran and al-Qaeda are ostensibly enemies, Iran saw an advantage in facilitating al-Qaeda violence in Iraq, including by giving refuge to some of Osama bin Laden’s relatives and providing the group with technical expertise. Meanwhile, Syria allowed jihadis from around the world to cross through its territory into Iraq, feeding the fire of the insurgency. More than 4000 US troops have been killed in Iraq since 2003, and over 30,000 wounded. “Given Iran’s fear that the US planned to use a successful, democratic Iraq as a platform to subvert or threaten Iran, the Islamic Republic sought to turn Iraq into an inferno,” said Karim Sadjadpour from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The IRGC was also busy training and arming Shia militias in Iraq, leveraging the networks within the Iraqi Shia opposition that had been in exile in Iran during the Saddam years and had returned home after the fall of the dictator. An estimated 500 of the American soldiers killed in Iraq died in attacks carried out using Iranian weapons or improvised explosive devices made by Iran or Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. “For years, the US saw Iran as a straightforward terrorist threat, not as a regional threat. The aftermath of the Iraq War in 2003 changed that,” said Michael Singh.
Tehran’s first lesson from its Lebanon playbook was that it could push American troops out of a territory if it used enough violence to make the deployment costly, and difficult for Americans to stomach. The pressure on America to withdraw from Iraq grew as the casualty toll rose and in 2008, President Obama campaigned on a promise to end the war in Iraq.
“What Iran’s leaders learned in Lebanon in the 1980s,” said Sadjadpour,
was that killing American soldiers in the Middle East has a profound impact on American public opinion, which then diminishes American resolve to maintain its presence in conflict zones. If you attack Americans in New York City, the American public will support a retaliation; if you kill American soldiers in the Middle East the more common popular reaction is “why are our boys dying in these dangerous faraway places?”
Obama withdrew all combat forces in 2011. Meanwhile, Iran was overpowering Iraq, funding and arming Shia militias, evading US sanctions by siphoning off Iraqi oil, and pushing its friends into key positions across all sectors of Iraq’s politics and economy as well as into the religious seminaries.
In 2014, Obama was forced to send American troops back to Iraq to lead the coalition against the Islamic State, which had taken over large swathes of western Iraq and north-western Syria. Iran perceived the instability ISIS created in Iraq as a direct threat, in part because of ISIS’s avowed anti-Shia and anti-Iran positions and the associated danger for the Shia holy sites of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. Iran reacted by positioning itself as part of the wide effort against ISIS and was briefly seen as unofficial partner in the coalition – US planes fought ISIS in the air and Iranian-backed Shia militias fought on the ground, under the leadership of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
Najaf’s leading clerical authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had called on Iraqis of all faiths to take up arms against ISIS, under the umbrella of the national army. Iran seized on the movement and took over, resulting in a parallel Shia army, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, grouping several dozen militant groups, with anywhere between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters. ISIS is (mostly) gone but the PMF remains, answering for the most part directly to Tehran and the supreme leader. Across the border in Syria, the IRGC and Hezbollah control territory in support of President Assad. Hezbollah also controls many of the levers of political and economic life in the diverse, multi-sectarian Lebanon, which has been slowly strangled by the group’s power and its alliance with a corrupt ruling establishment.
As American administrations come and go, and policies towards Iran change, from calling for engagement and understanding Iran’s grievances to exerting maximum pressure, Iran stays the course, working diligently to gain ground and expand its reach. Today, Khamenei presides over what Sadjadpour describes as an axis of misery, from Yemen to Iraq, Syria to Lebanon – countries which, as Iran’s control over them grows, have become mired in violence and unrest, with militias running amok, power cuts and bread lines, and a massive brain drain.
In November 2021, I spoke to an Iranian professor who lives in Tehran and is close to the regime’s thinking. He shared his thoughts candidly, preferring to remain anonymous. I asked him: what was Iran’s vision for these countries, what was Tehran offering? I expected the usual rhetoric about Iranian support for the oppressed with funding for schools and healthcare, or the defence of Shia shrines in Iraq and Syria, or even the usual propaganda about the valiant militias defending Muslim rights against attacks from the Zionist enemy. Instead, I got the most honest, straightforward answer I had ever heard from an Iranian: Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, he said, “serve as forward defence bases for Iran”, a way to ensure the survival of the Iranian regime by providing a protective ring around its territory, with weapons and loyal foot soldiers that keep Iran’s enemies busy far from its own borders.
The second part of Iran’s Lebanon playbook was that taking hostages allows it to hoard chits in advance of any negotiations. No matter how Iran characterises the imprisonment of Iranian dual citizens in its jails – charging them with espionage or other trumped-up accusations, for example – the only word to describe these prisoners is “hostages”. From Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian to British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was released as part of a larger deal that included the release of Iranian funds, to Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, who continues to languish in jail along with many others, the tactic of holding prisoners/hostages has become state policy, part of the toolbox Iran uses to negotiate with the West.
One further lesson Iran has learnt to ensure regime survival came from watching the downfall of Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi: give up your weapons of mass destruction and you lose leverage, protection and deterrence. The isolation and destruction wrought on Iran in the 1980s during the war with Iraq has not been forgotten, and the fear of Western designs for regime change in Iran explains Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear programme. One could also look at Ukraine today – if it hadn’t transferred Soviet nuclear weapons and stations on its territory to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin might have thought twice about invading. There is a counter-argument, of course: that the mere suspicion of the presence of weapons of mass destruction or a nuclear programme can provide a casus belli, as in the case of Iraq in 2003. Iran is likely betting that neither the United States nor Israel will do more than sabotage operations, including the assassination of scientists.
Iran’s forward bases also provide necessary resources and territory to feed its coffers, whether from Iraqi oil or illicit trade across Lebanon and Syria, including drugs. Tehran has an almost uninterrupted territorial corridor, through Iraq and Syria all the way to Lebanon, to facilitate the flow of arms to Shia militias. It’s in these forward bases that those who do not subscribe to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s worldview attempt to forge a different path – often at great risk to themselves.
Killing the alternative
The list of assassinations that have been blamed on Iran and its proxies is long – from Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafic al-Hariri, killed in 2005 in a massive blast, to Hisham al-Hashimi, Iraqi historian, security researcher and adviser to Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, shot dead in 2020 in Baghdad. A string of assassinations in Lebanon from 2005 to 2006 seemed designed to pick off enough anti-Hezbollah MPs to change the majority in favour of the Shia group.
In late 2013, Mohammad Chatah, former ambassador of Lebanon to the United States, former finance minister and an adviser to the prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, son of the murdered Hariri, was pinning his hopes on diplomacy and engagement. Hassan Rouhani had just been elected president in Iran, secret talks between Tehran and the Obama administration had been revealed and the interim nuclear accord had just been reached in Geneva. There seemed to be an opportunity for a new, more positive relationship between Iran and the West, and a softer Iranian approach to the region. Chatah penned an open letter to Rouhani, appealing to him to chart a new course for Iran in its relationship with his country, Lebanon – one that allowed state institutions and national unity to thrive. “Hezbollah continues to maintain an independent and heavily armed military force outside the authority of the state. This is happening with the direct support and sponsorship of your country,” wrote the veteran politician. “As we are sure you would agree, [this] is not only in conflict with the Lebanese constitution, but also with the very definition of a sovereign state – any state.”
At the beginning of 2013, Hezbollah had begun to send fighters across the border to Syria to assist President Bashar al-Assad in his efforts to crush the rebellion against him. The uprising had started in 2011 as a peaceful movement against an oppressive dictator but it was descending into a chaotic civil war. Chatah called into question Hezbollah’s unilateral decision-making on matters of war and peace, saying it endangered Lebanon’s stability and risked dragging the country into the war. In addressing Hezbollah’s sponsor in Tehran, Chatah laid out four steps to help shore up Lebanon’s stability and sovereignty, starting with a declaration of Lebanese neutrality and the end of all armed participation by Lebanese groups, including Hezbollah, in the Syrian conflict. Even more daringly, he called for full control of the Lebanese army over the border with Syria, across which Hezbollah fighters flow into Syria and weapons from Iran flow into Lebanon – all through illegal crossings. Finally, he called on the UN Security Council to declare the interim cessation of hostilities with Israel a permanent ceasefire, effectively eliminating the reason for Hezbollah to remain armed under the guise of resistance against Israel.
Chatah was looking to gather signatures from members of Lebanon’s parliament for his letter to present it to Rouhani. On 27 November 2013, he tweeted: “As Iran ends its nuclear winter & promises an economic spring should Lebanon languish as host to the Levant Subsidiary of Iran’s Resistance?” On 27 December, at 9.40 a.m., Chatah was killed when a bomb exploded in a parked car in downtown Beirut. The site of the attack was barely a five-minute walk from where Chatah’s previous boss, Rafic the father, had been assassinated on Valentine’s Day 2005 in a massive, sophisticated car bomb. Chatah had been prescient: after 2013, Hezbollah’s role expanded further into a regional paramilitary force with foot soldiers deployed as far away as Yemen.
By 2019, Iran’s power had expanded considerably when a wave of protests erupted in Iraq and Lebanon. The target was the corrupt sectarian establishment in each country, which was driving up unemployment, draining resources, leaving citizens in the dark – literally – allowing militias to thrive, filling their pockets and giving jobs to their friends while generally failing to deliver for their citizens. In Lebanon, it was the start of one of the worst financial and economic crises in the world in the last 150 years, according to the World Bank. In both countries, the target of the anger was also Iran’s hold on their politics and economy and Iran’s support for armed groups that undermine and hollow out the state. The anti-Iran anger was most vocal in Iraq and included Shia clerics taking to the streets with banners demanding an end to Iranian interference. In Lebanon, where Hezbollah had long posed as a rightful resistance movement – an opposition party fighting corruption and upholding the rights of the poor and the Shia community – the facade no longer held. The party benefited from the corrupt system and protected it. This eruption of popular anger, in parallel with protests in Iran itself, was likely one of the most complex challenges that the Islamic Republic of Iran had faced in years, the clearest sign that, four decades into exporting Iran’s revolution, the project requires constant force to be maintained.
Lebanese and Iraqi protestors were met with violence from the local Iran-backed Shia militias or, in Lebanon’s case, their front men and local thugs. “We in Iran know how to deal with protestors,” Quds Force commander Soleimani reportedly told Iraqi officials when the protests started. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.” More than 500 Iraqis were killed, many shot dead by snipers, men in black operating outside the purview of state authority and most likely answering to the IRGC. In Lebanon, the violence was more measured but just as effective. Hezbollah stayed in the background but relied on an entourage of loyal thugs to go out with clubs, shoving and beating protestors and burning down the tents they had erected in downtown Beirut. The start of the pandemic in March 2020 was a convenient excuse to send the protesters home. As Iraq and Lebanon geared up for parliamentary elections – October 2021 for Iraq and May 2022 for Lebanon – a string of assassinations targeted promising candidates, journalists and activists who were putting forward an alternative vision for their country. In Lebanon, the prominent Shia intellectual and writer Lokman Slim was shot dead in February 2021.
Although Iran’s allies in both Iraq and Lebanon ended up losing their parliamentary majorities in the elections, Mahmoud Sariolghalam, an Iranian political scientist and adviser to Iranian officials such as Rouhani, believes there is very little in the domestic political mechanisms of countries like Iraq and Lebanon that allows people to outmanoeuvre Tehran. Even as a minority group in parliament, Hezbollah has enough power that it can be a spoiler, blocking the formation of a cabinet or the election of a new president, and stalling any reforms that don’t suit its agenda. Challenging Iran’s grip will have to be part of a regional and international approach, through a concerted pressure campaign on Iran combined with assertive diplomacy, which would require close cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Ronnie Chatah, son of the assassinated Chatah and a friend of Slim, once told me that there had to be a way, through diplomacy, to convince Iran that Hezbollah was not essential to the survival of the regime in Tehran. No one has cracked that code yet.
When Iranian officials boast that Iran controls four capitals – Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana’a – it is a statement not only about the failure of Arab leadership but also about the failure of America to support its allies and shape the course of political events. Prodding with a bayonet around the region, Iran encounters a combination of disorganised, disunited Arab regional polity, Israeli military and covert actions, and American policymakers who often see Iran purely as a terrorist threat, rather than a regional player, and are focused on the danger of its nuclear ambitions. In between these three poles lies wide spaces for Iran to chip away at American power in the region, including through nuclear talks. ▤
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