Last week, Hezbollah became a defining factor for choosing whose side you are on: the side which thinks that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization or…the other side. And of course, if you happen to think that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, then it’s just a skip and hop away to designate its patron, Iran, as a supporter of terrorism.
But what’s at stake here is much more than the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization or not: it defines who are whose allies in a regional conflict which might embroil the superpowers in the not-too distant future.
Saudi Arabia decided to make Hezbollah a defining factor – now everyone has to choose sides and it could get very ugly.
Tehran redefines terrorism
For the past two years, since President Hassan Rouhani launched his War Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative, the identity of a terrorist became a slippery notion. Timing is everything and Rouhani’s timing was perfect: ISIS redefined terrorism by upping the level of atrocities and sharing them with the world through the media and youtube. The terror incited by Qods/IRGC forces of Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, Hamas etc… and local Shiite militias suddenly looked all too tame.
Add to that the fact that Iran/Hezbollah sided with Bashar al-Assad to fight his civil war against a myriad of legitimate rebels, terrorist militias and…ISIS. Add to this the fact that the US and its regional allies had both played a critical part in the development of al-Qaeda and…once again, ISIS. Washington decided to take a step back/out of the conflicts in Syria and in Yemen and Moscow took a step forward/into the battlefields of Syria.
Qassem Suleimani, the chief of Iran’s elite Qods unit in charge of conflicts outside the borders of Iran, not only seemed in control of Syria/Iraq/Lebanon, he was even supported by Russia and many Westerners as the guy who will destroy ISIS.
Rouhani’s WAVE made sense to a lot of people who held anti-US sentiments: the war on terror moved away from Tehran/Shiite-based terrorism to Wahhabi/Sunni-based terrorism. Rouhani’s second initiative took a long time but it ended in a nuclear agreement which supposedly “solved” the nuclear issue, lifted sanctions, opened Iran for business and, most importantly, strengthened Rouhani’s image of Iran/Syria/Russia/Hezbollah as the “good guys” to the US/Israel/Saudi Arabia “bad guys”. The road from being a terrorist state to a partner/champion seemed complete. But not completely…
Tehran’s meddling kindles doubts
The rebranding of terror obviously was a great success in many parts of the world judging from the number of diplomats who compliment Iran on its efforts to eradicate ISIS. But the rest of the world remained doubtful. Old accusations of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in Argentina, Nigeria, Thailand, Bulgaria etc… still bothered many people and new accusations of subversive efforts to overthrow or control governments in Yemen, the Gulf States and lately even Iraq, Lebanon and Nigeria fanned the flames of suspicion.
Tehran’s Modus Operandi in meddling is actually relatively simple: Identify Shiite fundamentalists, organizations and militias critical of their governments and support them under the guise of Shiite cultural centers and military/political “advisers” to take control or to strengthen their control of the local governments. This happened long ago in Lebanon, as Iran backed Hezbollah into taking over the government. It then happened in Iraq and in Syria as Iran backed the local governments against local opposition. It temporarily succeeded in Yemen as the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the Yemenite government. Spy-rings were busted in most Gulf States, Baghdad made a big deal of creating a distance between itself and Tehran and even Beirut suddenly became hostile to its patron. Clashes between the Nigerian army and Shiite militants, backed, of course, by Iran, showed an expansion of Tehran’s meddling ways.
The accusations of Tehran’s meddling were met with obvious denials and counter-accusations of sectarian violence based on Iranophobia and anti-Shiite sentiment as well as “juicy” descriptions of racism, radicalism, genocide, propaganda etc…It became harder to decide who was the real “terrorist”. Who was worst? Tehran or Riyadh? Moscow or Washington?
Back in Syria, a big row erupted when the P5+1 tried to make a list of terrorist organizations vs. legitimate Syrian rebels and the US pushed to include Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Tehran countered that the CIA should also be designated as a terrorist organization and the list got stuck and the world looked still undecided who to believe.
Riyadh called Tehran’s bluff
Riyadh watched on as the nuclear negotiations brought Tehran out of the cold into the warmth of the approval of the P5+1, and most of the world. Riyadh watched on as delegations from all over the world landed in Tehran in the rush for the golden opportunity of doing business in Iran right after the lifting of sanctions. Riyadh watched on as Tehran continued to support Shiites in Syria (Hezbollah and Assad who is an Alawite, closely related to Shiism), in Iraq (Shiite government), in Yemen (Houthis) and in Lebanon (Hezbollah).
Riyadh watched on…and then called Tehran’s bluff and declared war on the Houthis in Yemen, effectively neutralizing Tehran’s influence there. Suddenly there were two mirror wars in two countries: Iran was actively helping Assad in Syria to fight Saudi-backed Sunni rebels, but the Saudis weren’t fighting in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was actively helping the Yemenite government to fight Iranian-backed Houthi/Shiite rebels, but the Iranians weren’t fighting in Yemen.
The busting of Iranian-backed spy rings and terrorist cells in the Gulf states increased and then Riyadh executed 47 “terrorists” including one prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and all hell broke loose: Tehran denounced the execution, Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Riyadh cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran followed by a coalition of Gulf States and other Islamic states supported by Riyadh who did the same. Tehran went on a campaign to delegitimize Riyadh in any way it could and even tried to call for Muslim Unity in an effort to isolate its regional rival.
Riyadh’s next move pointed to Damascus but although it warned that it would send Saudi troops to fight ISIS (and help legitimate rebels against Assad), Saudi boots have not hit Syrian soil yet. Instead, Riyadh decided to hit Tehran at its weak link: It led its allies to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Westerners might not want to accuse Tehran of terrorism, either because they want to make money or because they hold anti-US sentiments, but Hezbollah remained a terrorist organization with or without Tehran’s support. To drive this point home, Riyadh also withdrew its financial support for Lebanon, effectively under Iranian/Hezbollah rule, which led to a number of Lebanese leaders who openly accused Beirut’s Hezbollah government of serving Tehran before the Lebanese people.
Another blow hit Tehran as Israeli intelligence managed to convince Moscow that the S-300 missiles to be sold to Tehran would make their way to Hezbollah to be used in a war against Israel and the deal was frozen because Moscow may want to be associated with Tehran but not with Hezbollah.
For two years, Tehran had successfully mixed up the definition of terrorism for many. Now Saudi Arabia wants the world to choose between Hezbollah being a terrorist organization (and Tehran a supporter of terrorism) and between Hezbollah being a freedom fighter (and Tehran a supporter of freedom). It’s an “either, or” time to choose sides. Not only you as a reader, but all the heads of states involved either in Iran or in Saudi Arabia or both.