Iran’s regional aspirations are a manifestation of its Shia ideology and a passion to maintain Persian legacy drawn out of centuries-old civilisation.
By Brig NK Bhatia
In a little over four decades of its existence post Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Iranian regime has shown an amazing tenacity and resilience to survive in the backdrop of multiple challenges that it has been confronted with, some of its own making and others consequence thereof.
Iran’s regional aspirations are a manifestation of its Shia ideology and a passion to maintain Persian legacy drawn out of centuries-old civilisation. Its animosity with the US and anything distantly related to America resulted in inheriting rivalries with Israel and US allies in the Gulf and middle-east. Ideological differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia led Islamic bloc, mostly monarchies, have kept the relations between Islamic countries cold.
Post stabilisation, the Islamic regime began nurturing and exploitation of Shiite militias in Lebanon by unifying them under Hezbollah and extending a helping hand to militarily challenge Israeli influence. It equipped Hezbollah with rockets and missiles making it a force more powerful than Lebanese Army. It found an ally in Syrian leadership of Hafez Sayeed, an alliance that continues till date. US invasion of Iraq and elimination of Saddam Hussein presented fertile ground for Iran to exploit. It nurtured predominantly Shia population and created proxies to facilitate its interests in Iraq which till date pose a formidable challenge to US forces. In Gaza Iran nurtured Hamas to extend its sphere of influence.
Post Arab Spring movement it was able to destabilise situation closer home in Bahrain and threaten other monarchies by widespread sectarian unrests. Its support to Shia Houthi’s in Yemen continues to pose a formidable challenge to Saudi interests.
Iran’s belief in its ability to counter US and Israeli interests is exacerbating conflict. Its ambitions to develop a nuclear and missile programme is seen as a direct threat to regional peace. The withdrawal of the US from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 and imposition of stringent sanctions further set Iran on a path of confrontation, leading up to increased attacks on US forces and their entities in the region. Prominent among them the attack on Saudi refinery and killing of US defence contractor in Iraq in January this year escalated the confrontation. The role of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or Quds Force led by General QasemSolemani was apparent in these attacks. The IRGC has been overseeing operations of its all external proxies and missile programme.
The US chose to eliminate General QasemSolemani in a missile attack in January this year to send across a message to the Iranian leadership to desist from challenging US interests in the region and put a leash on proxies.
However the killing of General Solemani seems to have forced Iranian leadership to adopt a more belligerent attitude against the US and its interests. Iran continued with an attack on US interests without causing much damage, but nevertheless sending a message of its limited capability.
The launch of Iranian missile ‘Noor’, claimed by IRGC’s Aerospace Force, in no way helped to soothe tempers in the region. To the contrary, it reflects an attitude of extreme over confidence to withstand the pressures of economic sanctions and an extremely precarious domestic situation.
Iran’s regional ambitions are forcing Iranian masses to question the spending of billions of dollars on missiles and rockets to equip Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Assad, Islamist groups in Gaza and Shia proxies in Yemen.
Internally the socio-economic situation is worsening by the day leading to widespread protests. In November 2019, new protests erupted across Iran, sparked by a surprise tripling of fuel prices. These were suppressed with a heavy hand leading to deaths of up to 1,500 protesters, 2,000 wounded and arrests of about 7000 protesters, mostly young. The suppression of riots was overshadowed by the developments relating to the killing of General Solemani and follow up actions of Iranian responses.
Economically Iran is facing a recession. There is high inflation and a loss of currency’s value. Oil exports have collapsed due to sanctions in place. Iran is battling unemployment due to lack of job creation. Economically Iran is crippled.
Iran is faced with the crisis of battling Corona Virus pandemic. At last count, it had close to 95,000 people who had been infected with over 6000 deaths due to the spread of virus. It faces a shortage of medicines and equipment to tackle the situation. India, once a close friend of Iran could have helped by sending a supply of medicines and equipment, but strained bilateral ties post-Iranian comments on Indian internal affairs seem to have closed that option.
There appears to be no let-up from the USA to continue to pressurise Iran to step back from the present state of affairs. But Iran continues on it’s a path of confrontation with the USA and its regional allies, emboldened by some Russian military prodding and Chinese economic help, oblivious to its domestic state of affairs and economic crisis.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)