In a recent interview with National Public Radio, occasioned by the publication of his new book, World Order, Henry Kissinger made a curious and seemingly counterintuitive assertion about the long-term strategic threat to American interests in the Middle East.
”There has come into being,” he noted with uncharacteristic bluntness, ”a kind of a Shia belt from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut. And this gives Iran the opportunity to reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire, this time under a Shia label.” With a confrontation with Iran aimed at checking its imperial ambitions looming, Kissinger adamantly stated he considers ”Iran a bigger problem than ISIS.”
Far from a minority opinion, this line of thought has in fact been an object of bipartisan obsession since the onset of the Iraq War in 2003. The so-called ”Shia revival” – testifying to the greater autonomy of Shia political actors after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-Ba’athist regime – has been routinely invoked by Washington’s Beltway elite as a euphemism for Iranian domination of the region.
Such arguments are factually incorrect and extremely dangerous.
To begin: ever since the Sunni-Shia split in the wake of Prophet Mohammad’s death, varying concentrations of Shia Muslims have inhabited Arab lands to the west of Iran’s borders. The existence of a semi-contiguous Shia crescent from Iran to Lebanon merely testifies to a historical fact. It is not, as Kissinger seems to infer, a recent political development spurred by an aspiring regional hegemon.
Furthermore, arguments about the resurgence of Shia Islam in the politics of the region superimpose sectarian identities over ethno-linguistic or national ones. One only has to recall the bloody memory of the Iran-Iraq War, in which Iraqi Shia soldiers fought against Iran with as much patriotic intensity as their Sunni brethren, to fully appreciate the priority of national over sectarian identity that continues to this day (a major reason why, in spite of their close alliance with Tehran, Iraqi Shia have insisted on their autonomy and have routinely resisted Iranian pressure).
It is certainly the case that the Islamic Republic has been a considerable supporter of the Shia political and paramilitary organization Hezbollah in Lebanon and of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. But in each of those cases, Iran’s support is more an expression of its myriad security dilemmas in the region than its desire to become a hegemonic power.
Since the founding of Hezbollah in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Iran’s chief objective in nourishing it with weaponry and money has been to back its revolutionary mantra with material support for groups resisting Israeli occupation. The Shia communal base in Lebanon may have provided Iran with the excuse to establish a foothold in the wider conflict with Israel, but the Islamic Republic has since provided funds and armaments to Sunni resistance groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well. It is Iran’s desire to be viewed as a proactive backer of anti-Israel groups that accounts for its continued support of groups like Hezbollah.
The rationale behind the Iran-Syria relationship is even more straightforward: to avoid domination by other states in the region. In the case of the Assad regime, this has meant ensuring its survival against other Arab regimes with rival ideologies (such as Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party) and securing its strategic interests in Lebanon and vis-à-vis Israel (especially regaining the Golan Heights). For Iran, Syria was an especially important Arab ally during its war against Iraq, providing it with crucial diplomatic and military support at a time when nearly all Arab states backed Saddam. Syria has also been an important facilitator of Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Beyond these strategic interests, however, there is little more to the alliance. Although the ruling elite in Syria are Alawites – a mystical branch of Shia Islam – their political ideology is secular-socialist in orientation and devoid of any Islamic percepts.
There is a plausible question about Iran’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in all these territories since at least 2005, not to mention the expansion of its nuclear program over the past decade. But this behaviour would only be worrisome if we ignore the impact of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars on Iran’s national security calculus. Encircled by a ring of instability, and no doubt bewildered and emboldened by the sheer incompetence of American post-war planning, in equal measure, Iran set about fortifying its interests and positioning itself as a stakeholder in the future of the region.
However menacing these actions may in retrospect appear to the likes of Kissinger, they are not by any means indicative of a determination to ”reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire.” As even a most perfunctory accounting of the Islamic Republic’s regional behaviour would show, it is the wish to mitigate a precarious security environment, and not naked imperial ambition, that drives Iran’s strategic thinking in the wider Middle East.