On November 21, in the heat of the Hamas–Israel conflict, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius noted that “Iran bears a heavy responsibility” for the unrest in Gaza “since there are long-range weapons . . . and these are Iranian weapons.” What Fabius failed to point out, however, is that it is not the weapons that hoist the burden of responsibility onto Iran’s shoulders. It is the Islamic Republic’s exploitation of Palestine and its sacrifice of Palestinian lives for its own political ends.
But this is not the most important issue, because the Gaza violence was actually a sideshow, a sheath to conceal a more pressing struggle: Syria.
More than 40,000 casualties and no end in sight. Syria’s civil war has been prolonged by enormous financial, military, and political support from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies. The al-Quds Force has assumed control of Syria’s security apparatus, and Hezbollah is waging a counter-guerrilla war because Iran cannot allow the Assad regime to collapse; it has invested too much political energy. Victory by the opposition would undermine Iran’s geopolitical position, fracture its lines of communication with Hezbollah, reduce its ability to pressure Israel, eliminate a vital link in its “Shia crescent” (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon), diminish its ability to outflank its true targets (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman), and deny it projection into the Mediterranean.
This is why Iran is hedging its bets and mounting pressure on Bahrain, the most vulnerable Arabian Gulf state and the smallest, both in territory and in population. Not only is Bahrain’s opposition on Iran’s payroll, but its leaders, Ali Salman and Qasim al-Hashimi, take their orders from the Grand Ayatollah: orders that concern when and where to “demonstrate,” the level of sociopathic behavior (tame or riotous) that “demonstrators” should practice, and, most important, when to escalate to clandestine paramilitary operations, such as the multiple-bomb attacks in early November.
Iran is also calling up its old partners for producing Bahraini instability — the Military Wing of Hezbollah Bahrain (MWHB) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) — and is supporting the rise of new, more entrepreneurial saboteurs such as Sacred Defense in conducting bomb, arson, and small-arms attacks against civilians, police, and civil authorities.
Iran is responsible for an assortment of regional convulsions. Just how many people will die to satisfy its superpower lusts we cannot know. What is certain is that far too much blood has already been spilt, and it is time to confront the Islamic Republic before its influence is magnified and reinforced by nuclear weapons. If the road to peace in Jerusalem, Damascus, and Manama runs through Tehran, it cannot be the road less traveled.
In Washington, Obama’s reelection campaign froze the administration’s conduct of foreign affairs while the clouds of regional conflict gathered. Now the U.S. is rapidly losing its regional credibility, and it has yet to develop a strategic awareness to finally constrain Iran.
Here is a five-point proposal for doing just that:
First, empower Turkey. This means cutting the red tape and bolstering Turkey’s land, sea, and air defenses. If NATO drags its feet, go around it. Turkey needs to be ready to countervail Iran.
Second, using an empowered Turkey, fully arm the Syrian rebels and facilitate the liberation of Syria, even if this entails a Turkish invasion of northern parts of the country and a likely set of skirmishes with Iranian forces.
Third, act comprehensively to isolate Hezbollah politically, economically, and militarily — not just Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the entire organization. They are a proxy of Iran and follow Iranian doctrines. They have been deployed to suppress Iranian dissidents in 2009, have organized violence in Bahrain, and are a vital element in Assad’s arsenal.
Fourth, fully engage and empower Hamas at the expense of PIJ by working to establish a functioning national dialogue between the PLO and Hamas. Hamas needs to be removed from terror lists and to have channels of communication with it established. This should also involve inducing Israel, Hamas, and the PLO to sit down and negotiate a final settlement. There are bigger issues at stake; Israel and Palestine need to be aware of them.
Finally, Bahrain must be protected from Iran. For too long Bahrain’s allies were content to allow the small kingdom to bear the brunt of Iranian aggression. Now, however, the stakes are too great and the pressure too pronounced for the U.S. to sit on the sidelines of Arabian history.
— Mitchell A. Belfer is editor of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, Metropolitan University, Prague.