Piece by piece, Iran moves towards a ‘new empire’
Iran’s takeover of Iraq’s strategic city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields in a show of force underlined how Tehran is steadily expanding its power from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean to create a modern-day version of its ancient empires.
At their height in 475BC, the Persians ruled over an estimated 44% of the world’s population, more than any other empire in history.
The Iranians are turning Iraq, their long-time Arab foe delivered into their hands by US President George W. Bush’s invasion of March 2003, into an Iranian satrapy.
This was a system of governance that was based on the loyalty and obedience of regional monarchs to the central power that was devised by Cyrus the Great, founder of the first great Persian empire in 530BC, which was ruled by the Achaemenid dynasty.
The Iranians’ armed intervention, using the US-trained and -armed Iraqi Army supported by powerful Iranian proxy militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), to crush Kurdish moves towards independence emphasised Tehran’s assiduous penetration of all levels of Iraqi society, particularly since 2003, as part of its ambitious strategy of dominating its Sunni Arab neighbours.
Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the strategist behind the Iranian expansion, warned the Kurds not to have an independence referendum, which produced a clear majority in favour of a breakaway republic in northern Iraq.
The Kurdish leadership defied Soleimani and he could not let such audacity go unanswered. In several hours of fighting on October 16, the forces he controls overwhelmed the Kurds in Kirkuk.
“We appear to have witnessed a masterful exploitation” of long-time divisions within Iraq’s Kurdish population, “a sudden and decisive turning of the screw… with hardly a shot fired,” observed roving analyst Jonathan Spyer on October 18.
“This deal was only feasible because of smart investments that Iran made in the politics of both Shia Arabs and Iraqi Kurds during previous decades, plus the judicious mixing of political and military force, an art in which the Iranians excel.
“Indeed, Iran’s influence in Iraq, both political and military, goes beyond the PMU” and the schism between the pro-Western Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Iran-aligned Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Spyer wrote in the American Interest.
“The fall of Kirkuk confirms the extent to which Iraq today is an Iran-controlled satrapy and it vividly demonstrates the currently unrivalled efficacy of the Iranian methods of revolutionary and political warfare, as practised by the IRGC throughout the Arab world,” Spyer declared.
The Iranians’ swift acquisition of Kirkuk underlined the sharp increase in Iranian operations across the region since the Tehran regime signed the July 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other global powers.
There does not seem to be any reason to believe that will slow down. On the contrary, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led Arab alliance in Yemen have begun firing ballistic missiles, supposedly supplied by Iran with crews trained by the IRGC, deep into Saudi Arabia.
That will escalate a messy war that began in March 2015 over the Arab world’s poorest country and that could ignite the smouldering confrontation between the two Gulf titans into a full-scale conflict that could eclipse the other wars ravaging the region.
Iran’s success in Iraq was clearly a critical setback for the Americans, who face the Iranian takeover of the northern tier of the Middle East and the consolidation of Iran’s emerging land bridge between Tehran and the eastern Mediterranean.
In war-ravaged Syria, the Iranians extended their control over that country’s energy resources by driving the Islamic State (ISIS) out of much of Deir ez-Zor province in the north-east, where most of Syria’s major oil and gas fields are located and which borders Iraq.
This area is a key link in the land bridge that Tehran has been assiduously establishing across Iraq to Syria to create a Shia-controlled corridor from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Israel’s northern border.
Iran stands to gain economically from its massive investment of troops and treasure in keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and has amassed formidable investment in infrastructure that will keep Syria dependent for decades.
These imperial-style machinations mean that Iranian influence extends to Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sana’a — approximately one-fifth of the Arab world.
Iran’s efforts at extending its frontiers have invariably been helped by history, particularly when the Middle East is in turmoil — as it is today, arguably the worst turbulence since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war — and it is able to manipulate internal divisions to its advantage.
For now, much of the fighting involves heavily armed proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. The swelling confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, leader of Islam’s dominant Sunni sect, is the most worrying flashpoint.
Their military face-off in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour which dominates the strategic Bab el Mandeb Strait, is steadily escalating, with Houthi rebels firing ballistic missiles into the kingdom in a power struggle that has engulfed other countries in the region.
Lebanon, a Saudi dependency and a sectarian minefield, was also gripped by alarm as the Iran-backed Hezbollah consolidated its military and political dominance and talk of war, possibly between Hezbollah and Israel, is on everyone’s lips.
The island state of Bahrain in the Gulf, which has a Shia majority ruled by a heavy-handed Sunni monarchy, is another flashpoint.
Much of the turmoil convulsing the region is the consequence of the United States’ ill-advised invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to get rid of Saddam Hussein and then, eight years later, withdrawing its troops, leaving the ancient land gripped by Iran-fuelled turmoil.
The Americans’ bungled occupation and its bewildering failure to understand the Arab world sowed the seeds of Islamic jihadist power in its fumbled attempt to impose Western democracy on the Middle East.
All this played into Tehran’s hands. By ousting Saddam, Iraq’s strongman since the 1970s and for decades the Arab bulwark against their ancient enemies, the Persians, the Americans allowed Iraq’s long-downtrodden Shia majority to seize power.
That opened the way for Tehran to launch its long-held ambition to hold sway over the whole region, empowering Shia Islam after nearly 1,400 years of Sunni supremacy.
Iran had been working towards that end since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in February 1979. The founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s was the first real step towards achieving a new Persian Empire and provided the model for future armed proxies.
With the Arab world in decline after the revolutionary convulsions of the “Arab spring,” along with the perceived betrayal of the United States’ disengagement in the Middle East by Barack Obama’s pivot towards countering China, the Tehran regime saw its chance to strike.
Analysts say the clerical regime in Tehran had been planning its expansionist strategy since Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, which he vowed to extend across the Muslim world.
Omer Carmi, an Israeli analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted: “Iran has invested a great deal of money and effort into developing a complex network of allies, partners and surrogates worldwide in hopes that such a network would deter its enemies from attacking the Islamic Republic while simultaneously enabling it to project influence throughout the region and beyond.”
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.