Iran’s game of grand strategy

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Sunday thousands of IDF and police forces began streaming to the border with Gaza. In a massive show of force, they successfully deterred Gazans from participating in Hamas's first attempt to assault the border with Israel on Monday morning.

Israel's successful response to Hamas's provocation stemmed from the IDF's understanding of the doctrinal source of Hamas's call for tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians to approach the border together.

Just before Israel's precipitous withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hizbullah launched a similar attack on a South Lebanese Army base at Taibe. Back then, Hizbullah organized a crowd of thousands which marched on the base and threatened to overrun it. Not wishing to kill civilians, SLA forces abandoned their post. The move precipitated the collapse of the SLA's lines throughout South Lebanon.

All of Hamas's moves today – from its mortar and missile campaign against Israel, to its use of mass protests, to its weapons buildup, to its political and military humiliation and hamstringing of Fatah, to its tactical doctrines – have Hizbullah written all over them. And when you say Hizbullah – you say Iran.

Any lingering doubts about Hizbullah's intimate connection to the regime in Teheran were dispelled in the aftermath of Imad Mughniyeh's assassination in Damascus this month. The same Hizbullah leaders who for years had denied any connection to Mughniyeh and even denied that he existed – suddenly bemoaned the death of their operational commander. The same Iran which denied any connection to Mughniyeh, sent its foreign minister to his funeral in Beirut. The near identical vitriol calling for Israel's annihilation and likening the Jewish people to pestilence flowing from the mouths of Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah exposes the simple, self-evident truth that a thousand denials sought to hide: Hizbullah is an Iranian organization.

IN THE WEST, public discussion of Iran is compartmentalized. Most discussion of Iran is focused on its nuclear weapons program. And Iran's nuclear weapons program is presented as separate from its other strategic policies in the region. This compartmentalization of the West's treatment of Iran is the result of the US's misdiagnosis of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs ahead of the 2003 invasion of that country. And while it is understandable, it is also self-defeating and dangerous because the danger posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program, and the obvious intentions of Iran's nuclear efforts can only be fully understood when seen in the context of the war that Iran is waging against the US, Israel and the West through its regional policies.

The linkage between Iran's nuclear program and its other strategic policies in the Middle East was made clear in July 2006. Then, as the G-8 met in Russia and was poised to develop a joint policy for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Iran ordered Hizbullah to attack Israel, kidnap soldiers and so precipitate war.

That is, as the world powers were scope-locked on Iran's nuclear weapons program, to divert international attention away from that program at a critical juncture, Iran ordered its proxy to go to war with Israel. Rather than understand the ploy, by and large the international media, and with it, the international policy community completely ignored the connection between Iran's regional policies and its nuclear program. Consequently, in the discussions leading up to the war's inconclusive conclusion, no attention was paid to how the war's outcome would affect either Iran's willingness to set aside its nuclear program or the developments in other Iranian sponsored battlefields in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Afghanistan. The Israel-Hizbullah war's impact on Iran's escalating domination of Syria was similarly not taken into consideration at the time or since.

IN AN attempt to break through the post-Iraq invasion compartmentalization of Western discourse on Iran, the American Enterprise Institute published a 68-page report last week that sets out Iran's actions in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq and Afghanistan. Authored by Frederick Kagan, Kimberly Kagan and Danielle Pletka, the report, "Iranian Influence in the Levant, Iraq and Afghanistan," shows in copiously documented detail how Iran is strengthening its regional posture at the West's expense not only through military actions but also through economic, cultural and infrastructure projects that build bilateral and multilateral relationships with states and terror groups based on dependency on Teheran.

In November 2006, Syria's parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al Abrash said, "Damascus considers consultation and cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a major rule and principle of its foreign policy." The report's authors explain that since Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced his father as the country's leader in 1999, Iran has worked steadily to transform its relationship with Syria from a strategic partnership between two equals to a master-vassal relationship.

Assad has allowed the Syrian economy to become dependent on Iranian investment. Iranian cultural domination of Syria is similarly rising as Iran builds cultural, religious and educational institutions throughout the country. At the same time, Iran has essentially asserted control over the Syrian military and Assad has allowed Iran's Revolutionary Guards not only to operate throughout the country, but to open training bases outside Damascus. As the authors' conclude, "Th[e] growing economic interdependence (with Iran at the center of the dependency network) and the increase in military aid from Iran to Syria risk reducing Damascus to a vassal state that is so tied economically and militarily to its more powerful patron that disobedience may become unthinkable."

SOME ANALYSES of Hizbullah's position in Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel argue that its decision to go to war weakened its popularity in Lebanon. The destruction caused to Lebanese infrastructure by IDF operations made many Lebanese who had previously supported Hizbullah turn against the organization they believed sacrificed Lebanon's well-being to advance Iran's interests.

While Hizbullah may have suffered some political setbacks as a result of the war, its determined fighting then and Iran's open support for its rearmament since have successfully intimidated its foes in Lebanon. Hizbullah today, acting openly as Iran's agent, has paralyzed Lebanon's political system by blocking the election of a president for three months.

Iran's sponsorship of Palestinian terror groups is longstanding. Islamic Jihad was established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1988. Hamas leaders have been trained in IRGC camps in Iran since the early 1990s. After Israel temporarily deported 415 Hamas leaders to Lebanon in 1992, the operational connection between Hizbullah, Iran and Hamas deepened. And of course, IRGC officers received their first terror training at PLO camps in Lebanon in the early 1970s as they prepared the Khomeinist revolution.

AHEAD OF the January 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas together with Hizbullah and Iran decided to transform Hamas into a Hizbullah-like political and military force in Palestinian society. As the AEI report notes, since Hamas's electoral victory, it has received some $400 million from Iran. Thousands of Hamas fighters have undergone advanced military training in Iran and IRGC and Hizbullah trainers are also active in Gaza. The report's authors explain that Iran's economic assistance to Hamas is not simply aimed at enabling military operations against Israel. Rather, "as
in Lebanon, Iran appears to be insinuating itself into the social and economic fabric of the Palestinian areas, making itself an indispensable ally."

IN IRAQ, both through Hizbullah proxies and through its own IRGC command structure, Iran has set out not only to sponsor both the Sunni and Shi'ite insurgency, it has also worked to destabilize the Iraqi government while engendering Iraqi dependence on Iranian economic ties and fragmenting Iraqi society.

The report documents that not only is Iran financing, training and arming the Shi'ite militias, it is also sponsoring elements of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Sunni Ansar al Islam group. In al-Qaida dominated areas in Baghdad for instance, 15-20 percent of improvised explosive devices were made in Iran. The report concludes, "There can be no question that Iran is actively supporting multiple insurgent and terror groups in Iraq, that its efforts began even before the American invasion, that Iranian elements have included the provision of direct support in the form of weapons and advisers, and that they have been involved in the growth of a solid relationship between Lebanese Hizbullah and Iraqi Shi'ite militias."

AS THE report notes, Iran's multilevel policies aimed at promoting dependence on Teheran play out in Afghanistan as well. In 2007 alone, Iran made low-cost but vital infrastructure investments in Western Afghanistan that worked to economically tie the region to Iran and cut it off from Kabul. It destabilized the Karzai government by forcibly removing more than 100,000 Afghan migrant workers from Iran in a three month period and so fomented the resignation of two Afghan cabinet ministers. It gave sufficient military support to the Taliban at critical junctures to sow Western demoralization and military instability. And it topped off its efforts with information operations aimed at alienating the Afghan people from the West and engendering sympathy with Iran.

What the report shows is that Iran engages in a concerted, multilevel policy of containing, deterring and defeating America, Israel, the West and moderate Muslims throughout the region. At the same time, by refusing to acknowledge the comprehensive and well-considered nature of Iran's strategic policies, the US, Israel and the West bar themselves from constructing a similarly well thought out, comprehensive strategy for containing, deterring and defeating Iran. And as deterrence theory shows, when both sides of a struggle are not equally aware of what is happening, the chances of full-blown war rise.

ISRAEL WAS right to mass its forces along the border with Gaza on Monday. But that was just one small battle in a long war. As one Iran analyst in Washington recently noted, "Iran is playing chess and we're playing backgammon. We have to understand the game they're playing."

The AEI report provides the factual basis for understanding the game. It is the responsibility of policymakers and political leaders to use that understanding to construct a comprehensive policy towards Iran before it is too late.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post. 

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  • Marc Handelsman, USA 02/26/2008 at 23:26

    Iran wants to destroy Israel and Western Civilization, and replace them with a global caliphate. Once Iran has nuclear weapons, they could launch missiles on Israeli, European, and American targets. The Persian nuclear genie is almost out of the bottle, and Israel needs new leadership to defeat it. Israelis should demand that Shas leave the government, and bring on new elections. And America sorely needs Senator John McCain’s qualified experience to thwart ominous Iranian plans.

  • Jeremy Jacobs 02/26/2008 at 23:52

    Didn’t hear about this in the UK press. I wonder why?

  • Art Glick 02/27/2008 at 23:17

    You are always expecting too much from the U.S. administration, when it comes to foreign policy, Caroline. On the one hand, they are totally clueless about the motivations of the Islamic religionists, perhaps because a large number of them are Christian religionists, and on the other hand, the remainder of them are privateers and Iran’s actions increase their stock. Ahmadinejad plays right into the hands of these privateers. Without their fear mongering (not to say that there is legitimate reason to fear all religionists), it would be harder for them to control U.S. politics.
    Clearly, it is a grave situation, but I would not look to the U.S. for wisdom and guidance in dealing with it, if I were you. At least not until after our next elections.

  • U Mahesh Prabhu, India 02/28/2008 at 20:52

    Caroline, you are simply marvelous when it comes to articulating thoughts, facts and data. Your article, that which we are publishing in India is simply an eye opener for the Indian administration here. Indians, thanks to their minority (read Muslim) vote bank politics, first wooed first Iraq and now Iran. I wish that they spend some time in a week your weekly columns, like this one, and enlighten themselves.
    Apart from this, I would also like to seek your interest in writing on the possibilities of joint cooperation between India and Israel, which, I am sure, time will prove imminent in the short future. Though there exists some sort of understandings, I feel that’s still not enough.


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