By Michael J. Totten
The chattering class has spent the last couple of days pontificating on and bickering about the so-called nuclear “deal” with Iran, but largely missing from the conversation is a recognition of the Iranian government’s ultimate goal—to become the regional hegemon. Its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end.
Last month Ali Youseni, former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, made that perfectly clear at a conference in Tehran. “Since its inception,” he said, “Iran has [always] had a global [dimension.] It was born an empire.”
A nuclear deal isn’t beside the point, exactly, but at best it’s more of a patch than a solution, and the truth is we don’t yet have a deal anyway. What we have is a “framework” for a deal that may or may not be agreed upon in the future, and it’s not clear that Washington and Tehran even agree on the framework. The US, for instance, says Iran has agreed to cease and desist using advanced nuclear centrifuges, yet Iran says “work on advanced centrifuges shall continue on the basis of a 10-year plan.”
The Iranian government is more patently dishonest than the American government, of course, and may be selling a face-saving bill of goods to its exhausted population, but Washington has never been and never will be above political spin, and it’s entirely possible—and perhaps even likely—that each side genuinely perceives the results of the talks so far differently.
Much of the pontificating and bickering among those in the chattering class is a bit premature, but one thing at least should be clear: the Iranian government is and will continue to be a pernicious force in the region regardless of any agreement. Even with a good deal from our point of view, replacing a rapid expansion of Iran’s nuclear weapons program with sanctions relief and economic growth will at best be a wash.
Many in Washington seem unbothered by Iran’s ultimate ambitions and are only concerned with Iranian nukes. In an interview on NPR in December, President Barack Obama said a deal could break Iran’s isolation and enable the country to become, as he put it, “a successful regional power.”
Iran, though, is already a successful regional power. It has been an on-again off-again regional power since the Persian Empire ruled much of the ancient world, and it has been more culturally and politically sophisticated than most of the Middle East for thousands of years. The current era, which began in 1979 with the installment of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary clerical regime, is a but a rough patch—a mere blip—in all that history.
But we’re not past that blip yet. The elderly “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei will pass from the scene soon enough. The Guardian Council and Revolutionary Guard Corps may eventually reform themselves out of all recognition as the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties have done, or they may be overthrown like the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe in 1989, but we’re not there yet. Iran could eventually become a force for good if and when a new government reins in or dismantles its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and beyond, but for now the regime is aggressively projecting power beyond its borders into the Arab world in ways that are entirely detrimental to both the West and the Arabs.
Zoom out and look at the rest of the region. One Middle Eastern state after another has disintegrated into schismatic abstractions controlled by rival armed groups. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen are all, as scholar and analyst Jonathan Spyer put it, “living in the time of the militias,” many of which moonlight as international terrorist organizations.
Iran backs armed factions in four out of five of those countries—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, undisciplined Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The only reason it has no footprint in Libya is because Libya has no natural Shia constituency for Iran to throw its weight and power behind.
Tehran’s most effective project so far is Hezbollah, which has dominated Lebanon for decades and is expanding into its range of operations deep into Syria. Its Iraqi proxies just burned and lootedSaddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, and its Houthi clients in Yemen are well on their way to conquering the city of Aden, one of the country’s largest cities, after seizing control of the capital Sanaa a couple of months ago.
One could argue that Iran’s influence isn’t entirely negative since its proxies are fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS wouldn’t have gained much traction there in the first place if it weren’t for the vicious depredations of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, both Iranian clients. Besides, the world’s largest state sponsor of international terrorism is the last country on earth we should want as a firewall between us and international terrorist organizations.
Iran’s ability to disrupt the Middle East is unmatched by any other state in the region, but it couldn’t conquer and rule the whole area even if it did have nuclear weapons. It can, however, foment fragmentation, chaos, terrorism, and war, and will continue to do so whether or not its government signs and adheres to an agreement with the US. A deal that allows Iran to grow stronger through sanctions relief without addressing any of that, alas, will almost certainly make the Middle East a worse place than it already is.