National and International Issues

The Geopolitics of Containing Iran

Since the Iranian Revolution in February 1979, four decades back, Iran has faced war, sanctions and international isolation. The fall of Reza Shah Pahlavi, a strong regional ally of the United States put to rest the regional security regime and the post-War geopolitical order. About that time, the U.S. was actually shaping Iran as the guarantor of regional security. Ambitious and seemingly powerful, the Shah was very much willing to play the American game with the flow of petro-dollars after the oil prices quadrupled in the wake of Arab oil embargo in 1973. The military muscle that Iran was building was intended to complement the American strategy in the Gulf. The pro-West Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, were another pillar of American policy in the region. The Iranian Revolution pulled the most powerful pillar out of the American power structure in the region. The American policy suffered the gravest blow of credibility sending shudders throughout the region with another catastrophic event, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, merely ten months after the loss of Iran as a bastion of its influence. 
Revolutions – from the French Revolution in 18th to the Bolshevik in 20th century – have a history of sprouting destabilising ideas and ideologies challenging the existing social, political and security orders. Embedded in an ideology, the impact of these revolutions was never confined to the national territory. Actually, the professed objective of every revolution – even democratic – was to shape the world according to its own image. The Iranian Revolution had a more powerful appeal than revolutions with liberal or communist underpinnings because of religious and emotional content. However, there is a big difference between the European and Iranian revolutions. While the Europeans proclaimed a universality of aims, objectives and applicability of their ideologies, the Iranian Revolution aimed at inspiring and even supporting similar revolutions in Islamic countries. Neither the character of the Islamic regime nor its revolutionary foreign policy focusing on certain Islamic groups within the Muslim populations was reassuring for the neighbouring Islamic countries. The revolution generated fear, insecurity and serious concerns in the Arab Middle East.
At the same time, the Islamic regime which was in the crucial stage of consolidating itself adopted a confrontation posture by taking American diplomats hostage and running a daily show of parading them for more than a year. The U.S. and its regional allies responded by prompting trigger-happy Saddam Hussein to engage Iran in the longest war in Arab-Iran rivalry. Instead of weakening either the resolve or the revolutionary spirit, the war with Iraq further promoted patriotism, adding to the power grip of the regime and its popular appeal among the poor sections of the population.
There are some other important lessons for Iran to survive as what it saw in the sea of enemies around it. In my view, the Iranian leadership embraced offensive defence as its strategic doctrine. It had many elements but for brevity I would like to mention two here. The empowerment and mobilisation of allied sectarian factions within the region has been the most critical element in its strategy. It has worked wonders for Iran, as it has now Houthis as its allies in Yemen fighting the Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition and Hezbollah in Lebanon that has carved out a state within the state. More importantly, its trained, funded and led militias have been fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and against every faction taking up arms against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The other major feature of Iran’s strategy was development of covert nuclear capability for security, prestige, and in pursuit of a much larger ambition of reviving older dreams of Persian power and influence. Remarkably, it developed a nuclear capability against all odds and in the face of regional and international opposition. Whichever way you look at the defining elements of the Iranian strategic doctrine, it aims at challenging the two fundamental factors of regional security – the balance of power and regime stability.
Being the most sanctioned country in the world for decades, Iran finally decided to defuse its tensions with the West by negotiating a settlement of nuclear issue on April 2, 2015 which culminated in the landmark agreement i.e., Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed on July 14, 2015. It did so to recoup from the crippling effects of sanctions on its economy and society, threatening internal cohesion and stability. The nuclear deal was a win-win situation for the West and Iran, and a symbol of great foreign policy success for the Obama administration. To clarify here, it is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the U.S. It is between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the Security Council, Germany and the European Union. The Iranian programme was capped with some elements of it under strict international watch and some placed under forced retardation. With major powers backing the agreement, Iran would not become a nuclear power. The Obama administration was confident that it had achieved its objective of imposing sanctions – getting Iran out of the nuclear business. This is also the view of overwhelming majority of the nuclear experts around the world.
What is then the reason for the U.S.’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal, slap reviving old sanctions and imposing a new one against Iran? It is safe to say that it is not about the Iranian nuclear programme which was a settled issue. It is a ruse for something more sinister; more economic pressure on Iran to blunt and reverse the regional diplomatic gains it has achieved during the past forty years. It has created a corridor of Iranian influence from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon to the shores of Mediterranean. Besides, it has a long-war scenario for its regional rival, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies in Yemen. Whether or not Iran has overstretched its power begs many questions, but the evolving regional geopolitical order presents multiple threats to American policy and the stability of its regional allies. Also, what has Iran got to do with the collapse of the Arab states, and how much internal stagnation, repression, and American war against Iraq have contributed to the instability in the Middle East are some of the questions that cannot and shouldn’t be brushed aside. 
Apparently, the U.S. and its regional allies wish to prevent Iran from stretching its strategic reach within the region through proxy militia and punish it severely for doing so. They hope to raise the cost of Iranian support to the proxies by sanctions on its oil supplies to the world. The less money it has, the less it is likely to funnel into the proxy wars. Crippling Iranian economy – a long-term goal, and having been pursued for a long time – aims at creating rift within the Iranian polity, hoping for a regime change. Actually, there are many tactical games being played within the singular strategic goal of containing, crippling and mainstreaming radical Iran.
 Contrary to the expectations of an apocalypse, the regime has not only survived against all odds and challenges but has made significant gains.
The fact is, the Arab world has rapidly lost its strategic centrality even with its enormous oil wealth as the world begins to embrace green technologies, and several of these states have collapsed or are confronting internal strife. Rather, the non-Arab periphery, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are in the process of emerging as new powers because of numbers, stability and military power.
Iran may survive sanctions but not a war if the U.S. goes for that dreadful option, which it says it will not. As the mysterious attacks against the oil tankers and the drone strike on pipeline in Saudi Arabia suggest, the flames of war will engulf the entire region. Iran will fight back not only from its own territory but also from every spot in the region where it has garnered an overt or covert proxy force.
Make no mistake, war against Iran is one major offensive and all will be over. It will be a long war. It will be a question of national survival, and no cost is high enough when it comes to ensuring it. The lessons of America’s war in Afghanistan shouldn’t be lost on anyone, especially the Americans: getting in tanks and under the thunder of bombs is one thing, getting out of the mess that war creates is another. If a rational argument works, America may not go to war with Iran to avoid bleeding financially and militarily for decades to come. But we are living in dangerous times — the Trump-age rife with war mongering, hostility, confrontation, and uncertainty.

The writer is an eminent defence/political analyst who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. Presently, he is on the faculty of the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at LUMS.
E-mail: [email protected]

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