Tehran is in a des­per­ate bat­tle to keep its in­flu­ence over Le­banon and Iraq

The National - News - - OPINION - CON COUGHLIN Con Coughlin is the Tele­graph’s De­fence and For­eign Af­fairs Ed­i­tor

For all Iran’s ef­forts to es­tab­lish a pow­er­ful net­work of al­lies through­out the Mid­dle East, Tehran’s at­tempts to achieve its long-held goal of re­gional dom­i­na­tion are cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their most se­vere chal­lenge in years as a re­sult of the anti-gov­ern­ment protests that are tak­ing place in Le­banon and Iraq.

A de­fin­i­tive re­port pub­lished in Lon­don this week by the in­flu­en­tial In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies think tank sets out in de­tail how Iran has spent decades build­ing what it calls “net­works of in­flu­ence” through­out the Mid­dle East in an at­tempt to gain an ad­van­tage over its many ad­ver­saries.

But while the IISS’s re­port, “Iran’s Net­works of In­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East”, pro­vides wor­ry­ing de­tail about the ex­tent of Iran’s malign med­dling in the af­fairs of neigh­bour­ing Arab states, Tehran now finds it­self in a des­per­ate bat­tle to main­tain its in­flu­ence over Le­banon and Iraq, coun­tries which, un­til the re­cent wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests erupted, were key tar­gets for Ira­nian at­tempts to con­sol­i­date its grip over vi­tal ar­eas of the Mid­dle East.

Ac­cord­ing to the IISS, the net­work of al­liances Iran has built in re­cent years means that it has a dis­tinct ad­van­tage over other coun­tries in the re­gion when it comes to fight­ing wars.

This is be­cause Iran re­lies heav­ily on prox­ies such as Hezbol­lah in Le­banon and Shite mili­tias in Iraq to do its dirty work while most other coun­tries rely on con­ven­tional fire­power to pro­tect their in­ter­ests, and any ac­tion they take is gov­erned by the in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised laws of war.

This has led the IISS to con­clude that the bal­ance of power in the Mid­dle East is mov­ing in Iran’s favour.

It con­tends, more­over, that Iran’s abil­ity to fight and win wars in the Mid­dle East with­out re­sort­ing to con­ven­tional mil­i­tary forces has been al­lowed to de­velop be­cause there has been no ef­fec­tive in­ter­na­tional re­sponse to Iran’s ac­tiv­i­ties in the re­gion.

The US and its al­lies still re­tain mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity over Iran in terms of con­ven­tional forces, but Tehran has proved to be more ef­fec­tive in wag­ing war in what is de­scribed as the “grey zone” of con­flict.

This means Iran is able to avoid risk­ing tra­di­tional “state-on-state” con­fronta­tions, which it would be likely to lose. In­stead, by build­ing what the re­port calls “net­works of in­flu­ence” with prox­ies through­out the re­gion, Tehran has suc­ceeded in gain­ing a dis­tinct ad­van­tage over ri­vals in the re­gion, such as Saudi Ara­bia.

“Iran is fight­ing and win­ning wars ‘fought amongst the peo­ple’, not wars be­tween states,” the re­port con­cludes.

The re­port cites Iran’s re­cent suc­cess in help­ing the As­sad regime to emerge tri­umphant in Syria’s bit­ter civil war, as well as its in­volve­ment in Iraq and Ye­men, where it has backed the Houthi rebels, as re­cent ex­am­ples of con­duct­ing war through third par­ties.

But while it is un­doubt­edly true that there has been a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in Iran’s at­tempts to spread its in­flu­ence through­out the Arab world, es­pe­cially since Tehran signed the 2015 nu­clear deal, there is ev­i­dence that re­sis­tance is grow­ing through­out the Arab world to Iran’s at­tempts to med­dle in their af­fairs.

The most vivid ex­am­ple of this new trend of anti-Iran sen­ti­ment can be seen in Iraq, where the anti-gov­ern­ment protests that have rocked the coun­try are in­creas­ingly be­ing di­rected at Iran’s pres­ence in the coun­try.

Iran’s at­tempts to ex­tend its in­flu­ence in Iraq date back to the sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence that af­fected the coun­try in the af­ter­math of the over­throw of Iraqi dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003, when Iran funded, armed and sup­ported nu­mer­ous Shia mili­tias in the coun­try. More re­cently it has ex­panded its in­volve­ment in Bagh­dad’s af­fairs through Tehran’s sup­port for the so-called Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces (PMF).

A clear sign that all is not well with Iran’s mil­i­tary in­vest­ment in Iraq has been the ap­pear­ance in Bagh­dad of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Quds Force.

As the man who is per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for ex­port­ing Iran’s rev­o­lu­tion through­out the Arab world, Mr Suleimani ’s pri­mary mis­sion was to pre­vent Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi from re­sign­ing.

Mr Suleimani ’s re­cent ac­tiv­i­ties in Bagh­dad re­flect just how much in­flu­ence Tehran has come to ex­ert over how the Iraqi gov­ern­ment con­ducts its af­fairs.

The day af­ter the protests be­gan, for ex­am­ple, Mr Suleimani is re­ported to have chaired a meet­ing with top Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in Bagh­dad, a role that is nor­mally ful­filled by the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter.

The fol­low­ing day more than 100 peo­ple were killed at the hands of uniden­ti­fied snipers and mem­bers of Iran-backed mili­tias such as the PMF.

Un­for­tu­nately for Iran, its stron­garm tac­tics have made lit­tle im­pres­sion on the pro­test­ers, de­spite the fact that the death toll from the protests in Iraq now is at least 267.

Last week saw the big­gest protests in Iraq since the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein, with thou­sands gath­er­ing in cen­tral Bagh­dad.

Else­where, pro­test­ers at­tacked the Ira­nian con­sulate in the city of Kar­bala, where they scaled the con­crete bar­ri­ers sur­round­ing the build­ing be­fore re­mov­ing the Ira­nian flag and re­plac­ing it with an Iraqi one.

There have also been at­tacks on PMF mili­tia bases in Nasiriyah and Di­waniyah, where 13 demon­stra­tors were killed when the head­quar­ters of the Ira­nian-backed Badr Or­gan­i­sa­tion was set alight.

In Le­banon, mean­while, there have been re­ports of Hezbol­lah fight­ers at­tack­ing peace­ful pro­test­ers as Iran tries des­per­ately to pre­vent los­ing its stake in its most im­por­tant Mid­dle Eastern ally.

There are even re­ports of anti-Hezbol­lah protests tak­ing place in his­toric Hezbol­lah stronghold­s such as the city of Baal­bek, which has been an Ira­nian bas­tion in Le­banon since Iran first es­tab­lished its proxy mili­tia in the coun­try in 1984.

Thus, no mat­ter how Iran tries to build its in­flu­ence through­out the re­gion, the mes­sage that is com­ing loud and clear from all quar­ters of the Arab world is that Iran’s at­tempts to med­dle in their af­fairs is deeply un­wel­come.

Through­out the Arab world there is a grow­ing re­sis­tance to Iran’s at­tempts to med­dle in their af­fairs

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