Iran may have come out of global isolation as a result of the nuclear deal but its expansionist ideals are increasing its isolation within the region. As was outlined in previous posts, Tehran’s dedication to “Export the Revolution” has led it to meddle in local politics of its neighbors. Tehran’s efforts have been vigorously resisted by the Gulf States but the resistance now includes countries which were once content to accept Tehran’s rule. Specifically, calls to thwart Tehran’s meddling are now emanating from two allies who fear that their countries are de facto “provinces” of Iran: Lebanon and Iraq.
Tehran may have discounted the resistance from countries who are siding with its regional arch enemy, Saudi Arabia, but it must have been taken off-guard from the resistance from its staunch allies. But both Lebanon and Iraq have finally come to understand that being a “province” of Iran could be detrimental to their countries’ future if they have to choose between Iran and the support of the rest of the Arab world. In fact, the resistance is becoming sectarian in its nature pitting the loyalty to Iran against loyalty to other Arab nations, or in other words, the centuries-old Shiite-Sunni divide. This development is all the more extreme in view of Tehran’s continuous calls for Islamic unity and a Global Islamic Awakening with Tehran as the role model.
What was long denied by Tehran is finally coming to light: Iran’s neighbors may or may not want to be allies with Tehran but they certainly do not want to become an extension of Tehran’s regime.
The Arab-Iran Divide
The catalyst for this growing divide is based on four developments over the past few years: 1) Tehran’s ever-growing involvement in Syria by backing Bashar Al Assad in his civil war, 2) Tehran’s backing of Houthi rebels to overthrow the Yemenite government, 3) the signing of the nuclear deal with the P5+1 which successfully opened the doors of Iran to the world and 4) Tehran’s self-acclaimed war against terrorism. Saudi Arabia was frustrated by all three developments since the first meant that Damascus was de facto under Tehran’s rule, the second was an attempt to do the same in Yemen, the third because a large part of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies were now siding with Iran and the fourth because it is simply an excuse to send in military aid to Syria and Iraq.
The Arab-Iran or Sunni-Shiite rift is growing despite Iran’s repeated calls for Islamic unity and the rhetoric that had once been nationalistic is now becoming more sectarian. Shaikh Rashid Bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, the Interior minister of Bahrain spells it out clearly: “Bahrain is an Arab state and will remain an Arab state“.
Saudi Arabia decided to stop watching from the sidelines and came to the aid of the Yemenite government against the Houthis and has stated that it plans to send Saudi troops to fight in Syria. And then, Riyadh made another dramatic move by retrieving its $4 billion military aid to Lebanon and here too, the sectarian rhetoric is clear: “The GCC regretfully believes that Lebanon’s decision (to ally with Iran) became hostage to foreign regional interests and goes against the Arab national security“. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia made it clear that it clearly views Hezbollah as a terrorist militia fighting under the auspices of Tehran and that it will not allow Hezbollah’s impact on the Syrian civil war backing Bashar al-Assad nor Hezbollah’s backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen to repeat itself in other states.
The reactions from Lebanon quickly picked up this theme as prominent Lebanese politicians blasted the overbearing influence of Hezbollah/Iran in the country since it has led to Lebanon being isolated from its Arab allies. Lebanon’s Justice Minister, Ashraf Rifi, resigned claiming that “there is an armed party (Hezbollah) that is dominating (Lebanon’s) governments decisions“. Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora made it clear that “we refuse to turn Lebanon into a base to be used for animosity of Arab states or to interfere in their internal affairs”. Notice, once again, how he pits Iran against the Arab states. Another former prime minister of Lebanon echoed this sentiment: “We will not allow anyone to pull Lebanon to the camp of hostility toward Saudi Arabia and its Arab brothers. Lebanon will not be, under any circumstances, an Iranian province. We are Arabs, and Arabs we shall remain“.
Criticism against Iran is also emanating from much closer quarters, from within Hezbollah itself: Subhi al-Tufayli, Hezbollah’s first secretary-general blasted Hezbollah chiefs for “serving the interests of Tehran and “the Russian conqueror” rather than the Lebanese people“. He called on Hezbollah to leave Syria immediately but acquiesced that such a move would be highly unlikely since it is against the agenda of Iran in Syria.
Another unpleasant surprise for Tehran came from Baghdad, one of its staunchest allies: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, a Shiite himself, spoke out against Tehran’s military interference in Iraq. Technically, Iranian troops and “advisers” are operating in Iraq in an effort to wipe ISIS out but Al Abadi wasn’t pleased by the fact that this fight was managed by Shiite militias in Iraq and not by Iraq’s army. Furthermore, he took offense to Iranian Qods Chief Qassem Suleimani’s “bossy manner as if Iraq was an Iranian protectorate”. In fact, he even objected to Suleimani’s landing in Baghdad without prior permission. The result of Al Abadi’s frustrations is that Suleimani hasn’t been to Iraq for the past six months and his pictures and posters in the battlefield have been removed.
The extent of the antagonism felt by the Arab states neighboring Iran in regards to Tehran’s expansionism is spilling over into the rest of the Arab world: Morocco was supposed to host the Arab League summit but decided to cancel it because such a summit would “falsely imply unity and solidarity among Arab states” when crucial answers are needed to address events in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Palestine.
The power struggle initiated by Tehran’s expansionism is rapidly coming to a boil and Tehran has to plan its next move wisely. For now, Tehran continues to deny its meddling efforts to create a “Shiite Crescent” in the region and is content to maintain its course by repeating its support for Assad and for the Houthis and by offering Lebanon military support. To make matters worse, Tehran continues to deny deploying Iranian troops in Syria (“no Iranian boots” on Syrian soil says FM Javad Zarif, only “advisers”) when a) the number of Iranian casualties keeps rising and is estimated at 300 and b) Hezbollah is simply Iran’s version of a “foreign legion”.
Instead, Tehran should seriously defuse the tension in the region by curtailing its expansionist attitudes to its neighbors and it should begin by ditching Assad because as long as Tehran is backing Assad, neighboring Arab states will continue to view Iran as an immediate threat. The bottom line is that Iran may have come out of isolation vis-à-vis the West but it is finding itself isolated by its Arab neighbors and its own allies.