The statement was made in the wake of a clash last Saturday between Israeli forces and defenders of the Assad regime in Syria, during which one Israeli fighter jet was downed and a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets were destroyed.
The Free Beacon indicated that the growing “fog of war” in that region has been allowing the Islamic Republic of Iran to secretly move advanced weapons among militant proxies including but not limited to its longstanding Lebanese patron, Hezbollah. In recent years, various reports have suggested that the Hezbollah model was being emulated among groups such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the diverse networks of Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq. In an article in The Atlantic analyzing Iran’s regional goals, Sam Dagher noted on Wednesday that Hezbollah has used the recent flare-up with Israel to brag about supposed unity among the various organizations affiliated with Tehran.
“We are witnessing a strategic transformation on the ground,” said one commentator on a Hezbollah-run television network. “From now on, we can’t speak about [the] Syrian army, Hezbollah, Yemeni army, Iraqi army, and Iranian army. We must speak about one resistance axis operating in all theaters.”
Dagher went on to observe that Iran seems to be threatening the mobilization of this entire axis in order to secure its own aims in the region, namely a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Iraq leading to the development of a “Shiite crescent” under hegemonic Iranian leadership. Israel’s recent attacks on Syria reportedly came after the incursion of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace, an act that arguably underscores Dagher’s observation that Tehran “seems to be daring the world” to test the pro-Assad axis.
The Islamic Republic has a long tradition of using conflict with Israel as a rallying cry for the unity of Muslim entities under an Iranian banner. Toward that end, Iranian institutions have hosted anti-Israeli cartoon contests and conferences on Holocaust denial, as well as soliciting donations from throughout the Muslim world aimed specifically at arming Palestinian terrorist groups. The Atlantic article suggested that this phenomenon was recurring in the current circumstances, for the sake of solidifying a regional axis that would also serve Tehran’s broader foreign policy goals.
The article quoted Ali al-Amine, a Beirut-based expert on Shiite affairs, as saying, “Iran is now mainly preoccupied with Syria’s future and cementing its share of influence and power in the Arab world. The enmity with Israel is simply the card it will use in negotiations to achieve its goals.”
These goals have been the subject of numerous warnings by the administration of US President Donald Trump since he assumed the Oval Office last year. Those warnings were predictably reiterated in the wake of last weekend’s Israeli strikes. On Thursday, the website Bridges for Peace called attention to a statement that had been presented to the United Nations Security Council by US Ambassador Nikki Haley in the wake of the incident.
The statement declared that the Iranian drone incursion should serve as “a wake-up call for all of us” regarding Iran’s long-term designs for Middle Eastern hegemony. Haley also called attention to Iran’s status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and she observed that “instability always follows” when Hezbollah or other Iran-backed forces establish a foothold in a given area. As well as blaming the Islamic Republic for increasing the risk of broader escalation in the now seven-year Syrian conflict, Haley’s statement recalled attention to human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by the Assad regime and said that advisers from Iran and Hezbollah were guilty of “helping direct those atrocities.”
While the White House presumably did not need the recent clash as an excuse to repeat its longstanding criticisms of the Iranian regime, there may have been a more significant impact of the recent developments in the form of justification for renewed criticism among America’s European allies. And to the extent that the Iranian drone incursion has had this effect, the subsequent rhetoric from Hezbollah and its affiliates can be expected to further extend this phenomenon.
Although the nations of Europe have been somewhat at odds with the White House over the future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the more general European tone toward the Iranian regime has seemingly grown more confrontational in recent months. The government of France in particular has moved closer to the American positions on matters like Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and its missile program, both of which were simultaneously highlighted by the recent rhetoric from Hezbollah and also from Iranian officials themselves.
On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron once again made public statements calling for international monitoring of Iranian activities related to the development and testing of ballistic missiles, some of which would be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Macron also addressed the issue of Iran’s provision of missiles to entities in Yemen and Syria, noting that this was a security concern for French allies.
The Iran Project reported that Bahram Qasemi, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, responded on the following day by reiterating Tehran’s rejection of any discussions over the country’s military capabilities. Qasemi even went so far as to boast of the supposed effectiveness of the nation’s military in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, among other regional threats. “Undoubtedly, [other] countries should appreciate the efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said.
These sentiments were repeated this week by other Iranian officials. For instance, Ali Akbar Velayati, a leading advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, spoke to the media on the topic of Iranian missiles following a meeting in Tehran with the head of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. According to Fars News Agency, Velayati said that such issues were “no business of foreigners,” who would not be allowed to “interfere” in matters related to Iran’s military development.
The same report quoted Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the lieutenant commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as disregarding any connection between the missile issue and the nuclear agreement. Although restrictions on Iranian ballistic missiles were left out of the text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at Iran’s insistence, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution at the time of that deal’s implementation calling upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on all nuclear-capable weapons.
The weak language of that resolution, combined with its distance from the JCPOA itself, has been a major point of contention for Western critics of the nuclear deal. President Trump has given the US Congress and European allies until mid-May to finalize parallel agreements that would put more pressure on Iranian missile activities and regional interference. In absence thereof, Trump has promised to halt the renewal of economic sanctions suspended under the deal.
Hezbollah and Tehran’s recent boasting about missile capabilities can be expected to strengthen the criticisms that are so closely associated with assertive White House policies. But those same remarks are indicative of Iran’s persistent refusal to compromise. When nuclear negotiations were nearing their end, it was widely reported that Supreme Leader Khamenei had barred his subordinates from negotiating with Western powers over anything other than the Iranian nuclear program. This posture of non-cooperation was reiterated last Saturday by Salami, who said that because the Iranian missile program is unrelated to the nuclear deal, Tehran “will never hold talks about it.”