A few days ago, a senior Iranian military official described Lebanon, or more precisely the southern part of that country, as Tehran’s first line of defence. One wondered whether such swank was consequential at a time when Iran was engaged in negotiations with leading world powers over its potential nuclear military might.
In the words of Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad, and beyond its humorous features, the February 2014 announcement that “Iran’s military fleet” intended to approach “the US maritime borders,” was nothing more than bravura. Still, the proclamation was nothing new, as Iran’s top naval officer, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, first flagged the planned Atlantic voyage several years ago, ostensibly to respond to “arrogant powers present near [Iran’] maritime borders”. According to the Fars News Agency, Sayyari pledged that Tehran would “also have a powerful presence close to the American marine borders,” even if the Sabalan — which was nearly sunk by US Navy in 1988 — was no match to American military power. Where Sayyari and others erred was in making poor comparisons, given the international community’s interests in the Gulf region. Indeed, one was reluctant to ignore Iran’s often-repeated threats to close the strategic Straits of Hormuz and, even worse, to topple Arab Gulf regimes. Under the circumstances, it was safe to state that Iran thrived on increasing regional tensions, which raised various questions regarding the current regime’s peaceful intentions.
The latest pronouncement, made by Yahya Safavi, a senior military aide to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, trampled on Lebanese sovereignty even if President Michel Sulaiman was apparently coy to criticise Tehran during Monday’s closed-door National Dialogue session. Safavi maintained that Iran’s “front-most line of defence was no more in Shalamcheh [in Southern Iran]”. He insisted that Tehran reevaluated its strategic depth and affirmed that henceforth such goals “stretched to the Mediterranean coasts and just to the North of Israel”.
Sulaiman apparently was livid and reiterated that the Safavi comments “contradicted Lebanon’s sovereignty,” though he only promised to “contact Iranian authorities to get a clarification over such reports”. He did not escalate it even if the Safavi assertion nullified what was left of Lebanon’s autonomy. Only a Tripoli deputy, Mohammad Kabbara, urged Prime Minister Tammam Salam to file a formal complaint both with Iran as well as the United Nations Security Council. Kabbara added that Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil ought to summon the outgoing Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, and inform him of his government’s strict objections to the Safavi assertion that south Lebanon was now Iran’s first line of defence. Bassil was in Berlin last week, promoting wine exports that, in all likelihood, was a greater priority.
Since Safavi was speaking to a group of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps veterans in Isfahan, one could, presumably understand the context in which he spoke or misspoke although his declarations confirmed that Iran’s primary ambition was to create a Greater Iran (that mimicked the Greater Israel idea so often argued by Tehran), which would include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Such a design, which would stretch from the Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, would significantly threaten the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It would further endanger Turkey and Egypt as well as global powers that depended on the area’s energy resources. Indeed, while assisting the embattled Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his Baath regime enhanced Iran’s influence, and while western powers preferred to muzzle Arab states in favour of “Greater Iran,” one wondered how the preponderance of Iranian power served western strategic interests?
To be fair, it was critical to raise several additional questions, including the one that every Iranian ought to ponder: Given that Sunnis outnumbered Shiites by at least 10 to 1, how would the emergence of a divine Iranian alliance with Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon prevent a perpetual regional war? Will the international community, led by the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany further acquiesce to Iran’s nuclear programme after the six-month freeze ended in early June 2014?
Beyond a foray into the Atlantic Ocean, or even hackneyed declarations that its borders stretched to southern Lebanon, Iran’s robust ballistic missile programme ought to clarify genuine strategic goals for all concerned, even if naivety prevailed among pliant western powers. Although the country’s capabilities were extremely limited and its economic conditions in dire straights, one wondered whether Tehran was best served by myopic visionaries who endangered others just as much as themselves. In mid-February 2014, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi — who was also a senior Iranian nuclear negotiator — reportedly said that defence-related issues were a red line for Iran and that Tehran would “not allow such issues to be discussed in future P5+1 talks”. Did this mean that Iran considered itself to be America’s or Russia’s or, indeed, any number of countries’ equals?
May 7, 2014