The chattering class has spent months bickering about whether or not the United States should sign on to a nuclear deal with Iran, and everyone from the French and the Israelis to the Saudis has weighed in with “no” votes. Hardly anyone aside from the Saudis, however, seems to recognize that the Iranian government’s ultimate goal is regional hegemony and that its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end.
The Middle East has five hot spots—or “shatter zones,” as Robert D. Kaplan called them in his landmark book, The Revenge of Geography—which are more prone to conflict than others, where borders are either unstable or porous, where central governments have a hard time keeping everything wired together, and where instability is endemic or chronic.
Gaza, where Hamas wages relentless rocket wars against Israel, is one such shatter zone. The Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah does the same on a much more terrifying scale, is another. Yemen, which is finally falling apart on an epic scale, has been one for decades. Syria and Iraq have merged into a single multinational shatter zone with more armed factions than anyone but the CIA can keep track of.
What do these shatter zones have in common? The Iranian government backs militias and terrorist armies in all of them. As Kaplan writes, “The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.”
That’s why Iran is a problem for American foreign policy makers in the first place; and that’s why trading sanctions relief for an international weapons inspection regime will have no effect on any of it whatsoever.
Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and its Islamic leaders have played an entirely pernicious role in the Middle East since they seized power from Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, and held 66 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
In 1982, they went international. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon to dislodge Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Army, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders forged a network of terrorist and guerrilla cells among their coreligionists in Lebanon’s Shia population.
Hezbollah, the poisoned fruit of these efforts, initially had no name. It was a hidden force that struck from the shadows. It left a hell of a mark, though, for an organization of anonymous nobodies when it blew up the American Embassy in Beirut and hit French and American peacekeeping troops—who were there at the invitation of the Lebanese government—with suicide truck bombers in 1983 that killed 368 people.
When Hezbollah’s leaders finally sent out a birth announcement in their 1985 Open Letter, they weren’t the least bit shy about telling the world who they worked for. “We are,” they wrote, “the Party of God (Hizb Allah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran . . . We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih [jurist] who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!”
The Israelis fought a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah for 18 years in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000, and they fought a devastating war in 2006 along the border that killed thousands and produced more than a million refugees in both countries. Hezbollah was better armed and equipped than the Lebanese government even then, but today its missiles can reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and even the Dimona nuclear power plant all the way down in the southern part of the country.
Until September 11, 2001, no terrorist organization in the world had killed more Americans than Hezbollah. Hamas in Gaza isn’t even qualified as a batboy in the league Hezbollah plays in.
Hezbollah is more than just an anti-Western and anti-Jewish terrorist organization. It is also a ruthless sectarian Shia militia that imposes its will at gunpoint on Lebanon’s Sunnis, Christians, and Druze. It has toppled elected governments, invaded and occupied parts of Beirut, and, according to a United Nations indictment, assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hezbollah is, for all intents and purposes, the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The parts of the country it
occupies—the northern Bekaa Valley, the Israeli border region, and the suburbs south of Beirut—constitute a de facto Iranian-controlled state-within-a-state inside Lebanon.
After the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003, Iran’s rulers duplicated their Lebanon strategy in Iraq by sponsoring a smorgasbord of sectarian Shia militias and death squads that waged war against the Iraqi government, the American military, Sunni civilians, and politically moderate Shias.
Unlike Lebanon—which is more or less evenly divided between Christians, Sunnis, and Shias—Iraq has an outright Shia majority that feels a gravitational pull toward their fellow Shias in Iran and a revulsion for the Sunni minority that backed Hussein’s brutal totalitarianism and today tolerates the even more deranged occupation by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The central government, then, is firmly aligned with Tehran. Iran’s clients don’t run a Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state in Iraq. They don’t have to. Now that Hussein is out of the way, Iraq’s Shias can dominate Baghdad with the weight of sheer demographics alone. But Iran isn’t content with merely having strong diplomatic relations with its neighbor. It still sponsors sectarian Shia militias in the center and south of the country that outperform the American-trained national army. They may one day even supplant Iraq’s national army as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has more or less supplanted the Iranian national army. Iraq’s Shia militias are already the most powerful armed force outside the Kurdish autonomous region and ISIS-held territory.
When ISIS took complete control of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, in May of 2015, the Iraqi soldiers tasked with protecting it dropped their weapons and ran as they had earlier in Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah. So Iraq’s central government tasked its Iranian-backed Shia militias with taking it back.
On the one hand, we can hardly fault Baghdad for sending in whatever competent fighting force is available when it needs to liberate a city from a psychopathic terrorist army, but the only reason ISIS gained a foothold among Iraq’s Sunnis in the first place is because the Baghdad government spent years acting like the sectarian dictatorship that it is, by treating the Sunni minority like second-class citizens, and by trumping up bogus charges against Sunni officials in the capital. When ISIS promised to protect Iraq’s Sunnis from the Iranian-backed Shia rulers in Baghdad, the narrative seemed almost plausible. So ISIS, after being vomited out of Anbar Province in 2007, was allowed to come back.
Most of Iraq’s Sunnis fear and loathe ISIS. They previously fought ISIS under its former name, al-Qaeda in Iraq. But they fear and loathe the central government and its Shiite militias even more. They’d rather be oppressed by “their own” than by “the other” if they had to choose. But they have to choose because Iran has made Iraq its second national project after Lebanon.
It doesn’t have to be this way. At least some of the tribal Sunni militias would gladly fight ISIS as they did in the past with American backing. If they did, residents of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul would view them as liberators and protectors rather than potential oppressors, but Tehran and Baghdad will have none of it.
“All attempts to send arms and ammunition must be through the central government,” Adnan al-Assadi, a member of Parliament, told CNN back in May. “That is why we refused the American proposal to arm the tribes in Anbar. We want to make sure that the weapons would not end up in the wrong hands, especially ISIS.”
That may appear reasonable on the surface, but ISIS can seize weapons from Shia militias just as easily as it can seize weapons from Sunni militias. The real reason for the government’s reluctance ought to be obvious: Iraq’s Shias do not want to arm Iraq’s Sunnis. They’d rather have ISIS controlling huge swaths of the country than a genuinely popular Sunni movement with staying power that’s implacably hostile to the Iranian-backed project in Mesopotamia.