Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff 

INU - On Monday, Reuters reported that Iranian officials had responded harshly, albeit predictably, to comments from US Secretary of Defense James Mattis affirming that the Islamic Republic of Iran remains the world’s leading exporter of terrorism. Tehran used the verbal confrontation as an opportunity to shift attention toward its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia by accusing the US of ignoring terrorist-supporting activity by the Sunni kingdom, a long-standing American ally.

But Reuters underscores the fact that Tehran’s argument disregards the fact that Saudi Arabia has taken at least some actions to weaken Sunni terrorist elements, cutting them off from financial channels and arresting individuals operating inside of Saudi territory. By contrast, Iran has only increased its sponsorship of familiar terrorist elements like Hezbollah, as well as promoting new organizations in other territories, many of which have reportedly been modeled on the Hezbollah model as it exists in Lebanon.

During the latter half of March, it was widely reported that Iran had increased its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are arguably foremost among the emerging Hezbollah-like entities in the broader region. These reports emphasized the acquisition of weapons capabilities that the Yemeni rebel group could not have acquired without foreign assistance. Furthermore, it was already well established that Iran had been committed to providing this assistance since the beginning of the Yemeni Civil War.

Several weapons caches had been intercepted by Western powers enforcing the international blockade, and smaller shipments are believed to have broken through the blockade using fishing boats, thus providing the Houthi with missiles that have penetrated deep into Saudi territory as well as targeting at least one US Navy ship.

On Monday, the concerns about the escalation of these activities were broadened to emphasize Iranian influence in Bahrain as well as Yemen. The Washington Post published an in-depth article based on the release of information from Bahraini law enforcement agencies regarding the various weapons caches that have been seized and linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran over the course of the past three years.

While the Post noted that the repressive track record of Bahrain’s Sunni-minority government make these accounts questionable in their own right, it also pointed out that the information had been independently verified. Some explosives that had been found within the extremely large weapons seizures were still in Iranian military packaging, and Western experts highlighted a connection between seized bomb components and the explosive devices used against the US military by Iraqi insurgents who were known to be affiliated with Tehran.

The Post report also noted that Western and particularly American officials had come to view the massive weapons caches as part of an escalating Iranian effort to destabilize the region. These officials have in turn come to show more willingness to confront those efforts, as evidenced for instance by German and American arrests and sanctions of persons affiliated with the al-Ashtar Brigades, the most prominent Bahraini militant organization affiliated with Iran.

Various commentators on American foreign policy have also urged the US and its allies to expand upon these confrontations, as by deepening American influence over the Abadi government in Iraq, in order to counterbalance the ongoing Iranian effort to acquire a permanent foothold through direct political influence and the operation of Shiite paramilitary groups that have become difficult to distinguish from the Iraqi military.

Tehran routinely denies that it is backing the Houthi rebels or otherwise asserting control over regional power-players. But sometimes these denials seem contradictory in their own right. For instance, the English-language Iranian propaganda network Press TV quoted Foreign Ministry Bahrem Qasemi as saying that Iran is committed to Iran’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. But these comments came in the context of clear intervention in Iraq’s domestic affairs, with Tehran declaring that it would not accept the display of provincial flags alongside the Iraqi national flag.

These statements reflected a decision made by the Abadi government regarding attempts to display the provincial flag in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Kirkuk, where there is a prominent separatist movement. An analysis that appeared in Riyadh Vision on Monday can be seen as adding context to this story, insofar as it connects the issue of Kurdish separatism not only to Iran’s efforts to wield power over Iraqi affairs, but also to efforts to preserve or salvage relations between Iran and Turkey.

The Riyadh Vision article highlighted the fact that Iranian controls over that separatist movement have apparently helped to prevent the escalation of a similar movement inside Turkey’s own Kurdish population, which has in turn given Turkey more incentive to retain positive relations with Iran. But the broader phenomenon of Iranian imperialism has seriously challenged this incentive, particularly in light of Iran’s success in saving the Bashar al-Assad government from overthrow in Syria, where the Turkish government supports moderate Sunni rebels.

Consequently, the article describes Iranian-Turkish relations as being at a historically low point. It also concludes that this situation is a simultaneous response to the divergent foreign policy interests of the two countries and to the reemergence of US leadership in the Middle East following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The new administration’s apparent willingness to confront Iran has given Turkey an opportunity to draw closer to the West and break away from both Iran and Russia, which had formerly been seen as part of a tripartite alliance that might have presented a serious challenge to Western interests.

Al Monitor commented further upon this situation in an earlier article which stated that both the US and Saudi Arabia had adopted a policy in Syria that involved promoting Moscow’s and Ankara’s roles in negotiating a political solution to the Syrian Civil War, thereby exploiting the differences that Iranian officials have acknowledged between their interests and those of Russian counterparts.

While Al Monitor indicates that this strategy would push Iran even further to the sidelines of the existing political process, it also notes that in absence of further constraints it would only embolden the Islamic Republic to focus on persistent military objectives. The evident Iranian view is that it has no option other than military victory in Syria, and the recent reports of ongoing arms transfers to Yemen and Bahrain suggest that the same perspective applies throughout the region.

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