Mini Teaser: Iran is becoming a superpower. Funding proxy armies, controlling vital energy hubs and winning the heart of the Arab street, Tehran has created a sphere of influence on an imperial scale. If we don’t do something—and soon—Iran, not China or Russia
HOLDING SWAY over a third of the Middle East and blackmailing 55 percent of the world's oil reserves, Iran is looking more and more like a superpower. Tehran has not achieved this through classic imperialism-invasion and occupation-but rather through a three-pronged strategy of proxy warfare, asymmetrical weapons and an appeal to the Middle East's downtrodden. If Tehran's ascendance continues, it will not be a rising China or Russia that challenges the United States for global supremacy-it will be Iran.
Right now, Tehran's proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is the de facto state. With friendly governments in Damascus and Baghdad, Iran intends to put the rest of the Levant under its thumb. The power of America's traditional allies, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, is diminishing at a time when Iranian influence is spreading across the Palestinian territories and the Gulf sheikhdoms. Iran is quietly but inexorably building an empire, securing territory, resources, raw economic power, military strength and the allegiance of the "oppressed." If Iran's rise continues, it will find itself at the heart of Middle East oil and at the apex of power.
Yet, American Iran-watchers tend to dismiss Tehran as a serious power. They point out that Iran spends only 2.5 percent of its GDP on its military, its air force is antiquated, and even its relatively new Russian and Chinese arms are in disrepair. Iran does not represent a conventional military threat to the United States, they believe, and Tehran's military forces would succumb to a Western attack almost as quickly as did Saddam's. Iran is seen as a remote enemy, little more than an irritant, one we could easily dispatch given the political will.
Americans' views are colored by the belief that Iran is on the edge of revolution. With double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment, the mullahs there cannot hold on very much longer, or so goes conventional analysis. It's only a matter of time before the Iranian revolution collapses completely and we will, at long last, find relief in a pro-Western Iranian government, one as compliant as was the Shah's on national-security issues.
A comforting delusion. In reality, Tehran is expanding and consolidating its power in unstable parts of the Middle East. The military balance with Iran is clearly worsening vis-à-vis the Gulf Arab states, as well as more distant countries like Egypt. America views Iran's military capabilities as limited; Iran does not pose a military threat to either its neighbors or the West. This is a laughable proposition to those between the Strait of Hormuz and the Mediterranean Sea. Though Iran may not be strong in terms of the laundry list Washington uses to calculate power-tanks, guns, armor, aircraft carriers-Iran has developed a different sort of mastery in projecting power. It possesses effective military strength, in the sense that it controls popular and lethally efficient guerilla groups. And in Lebanon and Iraq it manipulates sovereign armies. Iran's military might, through its proxies and allies, in fact vastly eclipses that of its neighbors.
What all of this means is that even if Iran were to miraculously stop its nuclear program, the region would still be faced with a formidable Iranian proxy in Lebanon-Hezbollah-which is being replicated in Iraq, Gaza, the West Bank and even in Jordan among the Palestinians. Tehran does not consider Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms to be beyond its reach.
Iran has evolved from a state with a third-rate military and a first-rate terrorist apparatus to a modern-day imperialist power. Tehran has carefully, systematically and cunningly built up its influence in the region. With a monopoly on violence and Islamic ideological credentials, pulling the strings in Lebanon and enjoying more political influence in southern Iraq than the coalition, Tehran fully intends to take advantage of its newfound power and bring the Arab side of the Gulf into its sphere of influence.
IT ALL started with Hezbollah. At the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Iran was locked in a savage and unwinnable war with Saddam Hussein: the Iran-Iraq War that carried on from 1980 to 1988. The fact that Iran was fighting another Muslim country put Khomeini's revolution at stake. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was, after all, supposed to unite Muslims against outside oppression and colonialism rather than shed Muslim blood. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon then was a heaven-sent opportunity for Iran to regain its revolutionary credentials fighting a non-Muslim enemy. Various Lebanese Shia groups, remnants of the PLO and fanatical clerics had already started to form a national resistance against Israel. Iran immediately recognized in them a cause larger than itself, a vehicle to reignite Khomeini's Islamic Revolution-as well as weaken Israel in the bargain. It helped Iran's cause that it had historical ties to Lebanon's Shia going back more than three hundred years, and that poor Lebanese Shia were receptive to Iran's appeal to the downtrodden.
Out of a scattering of Lebanese Shia incensed by the Israeli invasion and inspired by Khomeini's revolution, Iran was able to assemble an extraordinarily disciplined and dedicated guerilla force: Hezbollah. With the guidance and money of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran exported its revolution to Lebanon. Iran never talked about empire but imperialism this was.
On November 11, 1982, the threat posed by Iran's proxy Hezbollah became tragically clear. That morning a young Shia man drove an explosive-laden van into Israel's military headquarters in Tyre, killing seventy-five Israeli soldiers and fourteen Arabs. A suicide bomb. Yet not unlike the United States at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, the Israeli army's initial reaction was to downplay the attack, calming Tel Aviv's nerves by claiming that their opponents were merely a small, isolated resistance group that got lucky-dead-enders, as the Bush administration would call them. But it was not long before Israel realized what it was up against in Lebanon: a guerilla force more lethal than any other of the twentieth century. The Palestinians had never been able to mount an attack with this precision, let alone recruit someone to take his own life. The Israelis were surprised, too, when they learned that Iran, supposedly bogged down with the war in Iraq, was willing to divert enormous resources to Hezbollah and fund what would turn out to be an eighteen-year war.
The Tyre attack was the opening shot in a new form of warfare that Iran and Hezbollah would set in motion with stunning success, warfare that defies easy definition. It was an innovation in classic guerilla tactics-small, mobile units capable of operating with lightning speed, taking the enemy by surprise and inflicting extreme violence. Iran and Hezbollah also learned to integrate advanced weapons and terrorist tactics, including suicide bombers and car bombs. The small-unit tactics were based on what naturalists call "mobbing," in the sense of dozens of crows "mobbing" a cat and driving it away. By attacking an armored column from multiple angles, with relatively small weapons, sometimes involving suicide bombers and sometimes not, Hezbollah could destroy a stronger conventional opponent. Iran's tactics and weapons stymied the Israeli army's absolute advantage in arms, training and manpower. Israel's predominance in the field of battle was no longer a given.
It was in Lebanon that Iran learned how to create order out of chaos, even in the middle of a sectarian civil war. In 1987-I was in Beirut at the time-Hezbollah and Amal (a more secular Lebanese Shia organization) were fighting a battle that threatened to permanently tear the Shia apart. Rather than throwing its weight behind Hezbollah, which was the inclination of the radicals in Tehran, Iran spent the next four years reconciling the two sides. At one point Iran cut off money and arms to Hezbollah as a reminder of who really called the shots. And it is thanks to Iran's mediation that Amal and Hezbollah work almost as a bloc today, turning the Shia into Lebanon's most powerful sect. Their two militias combined are stronger than the Lebanese army.
Israel has fought Iran through these proxies and-let's be blunt-lost. Those losses have been seriously underestimated in the United States because they happened during wars barely covered in the American media. And as proxy wars, there were no victory parades in Tehran, Iranian soldiers served in the dark and Iranian support to Hezbollah, while an open secret, was still clandestine. To Americans, the war looked like a series of skirmishes rather than the decisive battles they were, ones that undermined Israel's overwhelming military superiority.
Over the course of a long and savage war, Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah or even set up a security zone to keep northern Israel from being shelled. Iran and Hezbollah continually adapted and battle-tested their new form of guerilla warfare. When the last Israelis crossed back into Israel from Lebanon in 2000, for the first time in Israel's history it ceded land under the force of arms. And there is no doubt who it was that won the war-Iran. The foot soldiers may have been Lebanese, but they were armed, trained, inspired and guided by Iranians, almost all from Iran's hard-line, cultlike Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.Essay Types: Essay