The west must stop normalisation with Iran

Thawing of relations with Tehran’s Arab neighbours is emboldening a dangerous regime


Cruise missiles on the background of the flag of Iran. The concept of a military conflict in the Persian Gulf. The threat of war.

July 06, 2023 15:58

The diplomatic landscape is again shifting in the Middle East, with the Iran-Saudi Arabia deals marking the ongoing normalisation of Iran’s role. A key ally, Syria, is on the same path. It’s in the process of re-admission to the Arab League despite being accountable for some 300,000 civilian deaths. But to seek rapprochement with Iran is to gloss over and facilitate a darker side of Iran’s geopolitical operations embodied by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxy organisations, whose reach extends far beyond the near East.

Iran has adhered to a persistent ideology since the 1979 revolution: to undermine the post-war international settlement, to defend Shia Islam, to become a beacon for 1.9 billion Muslims and to establish itself as the key regional power. This is defined by a pathological opposition to the US, Israel and the Jewish faith. America is the “great Satan” whom Iranian clerics and congregations denounce at Friday prayers.

Protesters in late 2022, following the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, after being arrested for not wearing a headscarf, were branded “moharebeh” (waging war against God) and brutally crushed, with 15,000 arrested and a number facing execution. Israel is viewed as an “impostor Zionist regime”, in the words of the commander of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami. Antisemitism is, of course, deeply rooted in the regime. For decades Iran has been in the business of revisionism, both about the territory of Israel but also the extent and even existence of the Holocaust. It has minced no words in its intentions to destroy Israel.

A principal function of US strategy with its regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been to tie up Iranian resources. The more the West is able to force Iran to commit itself to stalemates in areas where the US holds the advantage, the fewer resources there will be for Iran to funnel into terrorism, unconventional warfare, and cyber-attacks against the US, Israel and Nato allies. Conversely, a weakening of US and allied resolve and appeasement with the regime will mean a stabilised home theatre for Iran, from which it can renew its unconventional warfare overseas.

Yet the US finds its regional partners thawing relations with Tehran. This weakening of foreign policy will embolden Iranian offensives.

It is in this light that we must understand the IRGC’s operations, particularly in Latin America. These are underpinned by a vast criminal networks involved in drug trafficking, the proceeds of which fuel IRGC’s militant and terrorist activities, and those of proxies, chiefly Hezbollah. The narcotics network allows the IRGC to generate massive revenues. But it is also a means of extending IRGC and Hezbollah influence, cementing power relationships, and furthering the political and social destabilisation that drug addiction brings to societies.

The suicide bombing that struck the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires on 17 March 1992 saw ramifications throughout the Jewish community in Argentina. Both Argentinian and Israeli authorities saw it for what it was — an attack on Argentina’s Jewish populace — and the writing on the wall for future attacks. In 1994, when a truck laden with explosives detonated at the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (Amia) building, the death toll rose to 85 and the injured to more than 300. The message was clear — to stop doing business with Israel, and to beware that Tehran can reach its enemies anywhere.

The exploitation of diplomatic immunity plays a pivotal role. Mohsen Rabbani was assigned the role of cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy for the diplomatic protection which facilitated his role in orchestrating the intelligence machinery that enabled the Amia attack. Rabbani led recruitment of local Shia scouts for reconnaissance of Jewish and American targets in Buenos Aires from 1983 onwards.

A crucial factor underpinning the operational success of Hezbollah is the criminal network and web of front companies established by Iran that enable the circumvention of conventional security measures to smuggle explosives and other materials, demonstrated by the case of Mohammad Amadar in 2014. Political assassinations are also a part of Iran’s strategy. By eliminating critics and demonstrating its capacity to kill, Iran attempts to silence dissent and foster a culture of fear. Attempts on the lives of US national security adviser John Bolton, Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a former US administration aide, Brian Hook, all on US soil, show Iran’s true menace.

Pressure must be maintained. Regional allies including Saudi Arabia and the UAE must remain resolute. Yet the US is allowing Iran to buy more influence in the Sunni Arab world and raising the cost of future sanctions for its allies. It must focus minds and remind its allies, and itself, of the massive global security risks they are inviting.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College

July 06, 2023 15:58

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