The new Iran

The new Iran
Comment: The regional power has developed an effective global relations campaign that has included western academics, DC lobbyists and powerful international actors under a counter-terrorism banner, writes Laith Saud.
6 min read
08 Oct, 2015
Iran's regional intervention has proved to be pivotal in reshaping Middle East power balance [Anadolu]

The "fight against IS" is the central campaign slogan of the Iranian makeover. 

Iran's version of the "War on Terror" is not merely tendentious rhetoric, it is also strategic cover for Iran's ethnic cleansing of Iraq and Syria. And should this campaign slogan go unchallenged, the region could remain consumed by sectarian conflict and an arms race - where the US and Russia are the only winners.

Neo-War on Terror 

Since 2001, the US-led "War on Terror" has verifiably destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the dimensions of its immorality are not limited to the number of poor souls tragically lost to what - in hindsight – clearly was a tactical campaign pursuant to changing the region, after all, the neocons wanted to intervene in Iraq in the late 1990s.

     The US-led 'War on Terror has verifiably destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan

Rather, the real challenge to regional stability and political development is the legacy of such campaigning itself.  There were far more terrorist attacks, particularly directed at the US in the 1970s, but policy then was to suppress news of terrorism.

Naturally, publicising terrorist acts had several bad consequences for governance; it demonstrated the inability of the state to protect, spread fear amongst the populace - which is, after all, the point of terrorism - and gave terrorist groups the attention they initially sought. 

The Bush administration used the reality of terrorism to invent a myth called the "War on Terror". And this myth could be invoked for domestic political reasons or the invasion of oil-rich countries such as Iraq; all of the liabilities associated with publicising terror were converted into assets. 

Orwell's world was resurrected. The US' effective use of the "War on Terror" narrative was not lost on other actors on the world stage. Russia, China and India have all used the reality of terrorism to promote strategic interests - leading to a new type of "War on Terror".

Iran and Egypt are the latest states to invent their own "War on Terror" for domestic and regional purposes. Sisi is using it to consolidate his power, destroy political opposition and bolster his relationship with Israel. He has also entered talks with Russia to cooperate in this regard. 

Nothing has destroyed the prospect for grass-roots democracy building in Egypt more than the terror-mongering of the Egyptian state. 

Iran's aims in the region are much, much more ambitious - and the "War on Terror" features prominently in its military action in the region. And since al-Qaeda and the stranger IS is everyone's enemy, how can one argue with Iran - or Russia - when Tehran claims to be fighting terrorists?

The problem is that Iran is not fighting terrorists; Iran is bolstering its support of Bashar al-Assad (who verifiably works with IS) and literally changing the make-up of Iraqi and Syrian society under the pre-text of "terrorism".

Meanwhile, while Iranian policy is committed to the violent control of Iraq and Syria through sectarian cleansing, on the global stage Iran has more advocates than ever.

The New Old Iran 

Iran's international image is based on two corresponding characteristics: On one hand, Iran is a state-sponsor of terror and reactionary force in the world. On the other, Iran is a friend to freedom fighters and resists imperialism.

These views are clearly related, but both equally simplistic. 

In terms of terrorism, one nation's designation is as good as the next and regarding "resistance", Iran's support of the Palestinian cause is naturally subject to Iranian interests in the region at large. 

And Iranian interests have changed due to events in 2003 and 2011 - but their enemies have not. 

It is clear that to Iran, Arab Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are seen with greater hostility than the Israelis.  

In fact, Iran has been open to sharing intelligence with the Israelis and accepting their lobbying efforts in Washington – all of which is documented in Trita Parsi's excellent book Treacherous Alliance.

Iran's actions in Syria have severely damaged its image in the Arab world; Hezbollah and Iran, once respected for strong pro-Palestinian positions, are now seen as expedient and sectarian, thus their image no longer carries the same weight.   

The new Iranian public relations campaign wants to transcend the dichotomous view spelled out above and normalise relations with the international community. But Iran cannot do so by abandoning the Palestinians in any official way, as they would lose whatever small shred of credibility and leverage they have. 

So Iran is doing the next best thing - it is joining the "War on Terror". IS is the central prop to this new campaign, giving cover to the fomenting of sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria, while tying the hands of international actors who accuse Iran of being a terrorist state.

"Look, they are leading the fight against IS, how can you criticise that?" - or so goes the rhetoric. 

     Iran's strategy is sectarian consolidation. In Iraq, this means cleansing central and southern Iraq of its Sunni population

This new "terror-fighting" Iran has two tactical objectives pursuant to a larger regional strategy. 

Iran's regional strategy is sectarian consolidation. In Iraq, this means cleansing central and southern Iraq of its Sunni population, which Iran has started with vicious force - eventuating Iraq's break up. 

And in Syria, should Assad fall, Iran has helped lay the groundwork for a potentially similar outcome. But the question is why? Why would Iran cleanse Iraq and Syria of Sunnis? 

The answer is simple - it makes those lands easier for Tehran to control. And IS has now become a pretext to target Sunnis in the same way that de-Baathification once was - all while Iran staunchly supports the Baath regime in Syria, which is also targeting Sunnis in a regional genocide.

The Iran deal is a by-product of this make-over. But Iran may not be the ultimate winner. Setting sights on cleansing the region of Sunnis is as preposterous as IS' barbaric attempts to cleanse the region of the Shia. 

And it is no surprise that IS and Iranian militias bear resemblance to one another; yet now Iran is empowered to buy more weapons from Russia, while the US will sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia "to accommodate their concerns" aurrounding Iranian empowerment. 

The US and Russia will be winning in the region for some time to come, while the people - including those in Iran - will continue to lose.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Twitter handle: @laithsaud.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.