The Islamic Revolution’s Impact On Political Islam And The Middle East
by Antonino Occhiuto
The reviewed article is available here
The Tehran Enigma
As Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Islamic revolution–which overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty and gave birth to the Islamic Republic–Emile Nakhleh, (former Senior Intelligence Service Officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Programme at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)), published, on Lobe Log, an article which looks at the impact that the revolution had in reshaping the Middle East. Using a subtle and careful approach, Nakhleh acknowledges some of Iran’s nefarious activities in the region while arguing that Iranian foreign policy is largely a reaction to foreign provocations rather than an hegemonic design.
The author’s conclusions are unequivocal: he makes the case for Western powers to accept the new dominant position that Iran has carved itself in the region and engage with the Islamic Republic accordingly.
In his analysis, Nakhleh points out to the legitimate fear that Iran’s neighbours had with regard to the spread of the revolution. Such fear, for instance, motivated regional support for Iraq’s military action against the Islamic Republic. However, It is more difficult to understand why the author links the fear of the revolution to a supposed ‘revolutionary pro-democratic zeal appealing to Shia and Sunni Muslims globally’, instead of pointing out to the more realistic risk of religion being used to mobilise the masses and overthrow governments in the Gulf and the wider region–in the same manner it happened in Tehran.
Worryingly, the author suggests that the Iranian revolution had a positive impact on political pluralism and democratisation across the Middle East. For instance, he supports his argument by adopting Lebanon as a case study, a country in which ‘Hezbollah (Party of God), the only Iran-supported Shia political party, scored impressive electoral victories over the years and has remained, until this day, a major power-broker in Lebanese politics.’ In this article, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics is represented purely as a sign of democratic development. No attention is given to the fact that Iran financed the creation and development of the group as part of its plan to state-capture and control Lebanon. Hezbollah is a political party with allegiance to Tehran’s clergy rather than to the Lebanese people. Furthermore, it comprises a very well-armed militias which has been fighting wars in coordination with and directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
In the second part of his analysis, Nakhleh states that it was only when Saddam Hussein ordered Iraq’s military to begin operations against Iran that the Islamic Republic forged ‘relations with some unsavoury radical groups that were prone to revolutionary zeal and violence.’ Such a statement, which is not backed up by further explanation, confuses the reader. The rising importance of the IRGC and the Basij within Iran, due to war time necessity, is certainly a radicalising factor. However, this should not neglect that the Ayatollahs used the war to strengthen their position in Tehran and that they planned to export the revolution, across the Muslim world, even before Iraq’s dictator ordered the attack.
The author confirms the West’s worst fears regarding Iran’s relationship to some of the most infamous terrorist organisations, including: Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah (and its many franchises in Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia), Hamas, the Taliban and even Yemen’s Houthis. Nakhleh, unexpectedly from a former US intelligence officer, endorses the Iran-terrorist cooperation and presents it as a self-defence strategy motivated by the need to counter the United States (US), Israel and Saudi Arabia. Arguably, this is a whole sale exaggeration.
Moving on to how the West should confront Iran’s current regional activities, the article does consider how Iran’s intervention in Syria and Iraq was strictly related to Tehran’s regional hegemonic plans and how the Syrian war ended with Iran supporting the suppression of the opposition by Syria’s regime. Iran’s involvement in Syria is therefore against any form of democratic developments and in contrast to Western interests. Problematically however, the author concludes that attempting to roll-back Iran’s influence in the Arab Levant is counterproductive. Nakhleh suggests that policymakers should overlook and accept Iran’s involvement in the internal affairs of other countries, its support for sectarian militias in the Gulf and the wider Middle East and decries states to uphold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
According to the author, the resolution of current regional crises, and preventing future crises, is related to the West’s ability to coordinate with and accommodate the interests of three key states: Iran, Israel and Turkey. Such an approach would relegate the aspirations of GCC states, which have been increasingly active regional players. Furthermore, it would legitimise Iran’s sectarian and divisive agenda throughout the Arab Gulf and the Levant and external attempts aimed at weakening a number of Arab states in the region. Weak and fragile states present a number of characteristics which would favour new conflicts in the already war-torn Middle East.
Regional turmoil across the Middle East and the resurgence of ethnic–based terrorist and separatist groups within the Islamic Republic — both the Balochistan and Khuzestan regions have experienced a wave of terrorist attacks targeting Iran’s security forces — are evidence that Tehran’s sectarian agenda is detrimental to both regional stability and to the security of the people of Iran. Articles such as Nakhleh’s, dangerously suggest cooperation with a regime that will continue to favour a status quo of turmoil for the foreseeable future.
14 February 2018