If the Bush administration needed another reason to look beyond Baghdad in its war on terrorism, it has just been given one. In late February, Iran’s defense minister, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, embarked on a whirlwind tour of Syria and Lebanon. The resulting tightening of ties between Tehran, Beirut, and Damascus marks the birth of an ominous new alliance, deeply threatening to American interests.
Shamkhani’s diplomatic offensive commenced with a two-day tour of Syria. There, Iran’s defense minister held a very public summit with his Syrian counterpart, Lieutenant General Mustafa Tlas, at which the two hammered out a landmark strategic accord. The new “memorandum of understanding” establishes a joint working group on bilateral military and security, paving the way for deeper defense-industrial cooperation between Tehran and Damascus. More significant still, the agreement contains an unprecedented Iranian commitment to defend Syria in the event of either an Israeli or an American offensive, formally making the Baathist state a part of Iran’s security.
From Damascus, Shamkhani traveled to Beirut, where he held court with the upper echelons of the Lebanese government. In meetings with the country’s president, Emile Lahoud, as well as Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Army Commander Michel Soleyman, he pledged closer military ties with Beirut–and an active Iranian role in Lebanon’s emerging military modernization.
The Iranian defense minister also made a point of meeting with the leadership of Lebanon’s Shiite terrorist powerhouse, Hezbollah, to whom he confirmed that the newly minted security guarantees between Syria and Iran would extend to their country. The message was unmistakable–the Israeli and American “enemy” would now “think a thousand times before attacking Lebanon.”
Tehran’s full-court press is already paying dividends. In an outright show of support, President Lahoud has publicly praised the regional importance of the emerging “Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut axis.” And Syrian officials–under fire abroad for their government’s deep support for terrorism–have similarly made no secret of their enthusiasm for the nascent alliance’s deterrent potential.
But these stirrings reflect more than simply a broadening of political bonds between Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. They are indicative of a larger realignment now underway in the Middle East, where the political vacuum created by overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime has begun to be filled.
And Iran is rapidly emerging as the biggest beneficiary of the new regional status quo. Over the past two years, American efforts in the war on terrorism have successfully eliminated Iran’s most immediate strategic adversaries–Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan–while effectively de-clawing the principal terror threat to the Islamic republic: the radical, Iraq-based Mujahedeen e-Khalq organization. These moves have left the United States Iran’s principal remaining regional challenger. It is no wonder that Iranian policymakers like Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai have begun to view their country as the natural “center of international power politics” in the post-Saddam Middle East.
Tehran has wasted no time translating this vision into action. In recent months, the Islamic republic has gravitated toward a new, more confrontational strategic doctrine–one that includes a major expansion of Iran’s military capabilities and political presence in both the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus. This aggressive agenda has only been solidified by the sweeping victory of regime hard-liners in the country’s recent, hotly contested parliamentary elections.
The trilateral alliance just crafted in Damascus and Beirut is a big part of these plans. Iran’s leaders hope that such a radical coalition will blunt the impact of the U.S.-led transformation taking place in Iraq on their own restive population, and derail larger American plans for a sea change in the region’s political balance–an initiative they view as a “serious threat to the security, independence, and stability of the Islamic countries.” Simultaneously, Tehran is seeking an answer to pro-Western constructs, like the Israeli-Turkish strategic partnership, capable of supplementing American efforts. And, in the midst of the war on terrorism, the Islamic republic is working hard to ensure the continued relevance of its most potent regional proxy, Hezbollah.
If it manages to accomplish these objectives, Washington might just find that U.S. Middle East policy has become a victim of Tehran’s success.
–Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.