by Eldar Mamedov
The Trump administration has used rolling back Iran’s “malign” influence in the Middle East as a mantra to justify its aggressive approach to the country. The US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is couched in the language of denying Iran benefits it allegedly uses for “destabilizing activities in the region.”
Yet recent elections in two of the few countries of the region that hold them at all produced fresh setbacks for this policy.
First, on May 6 the Lebanese elected their new parliament. The Shiite alliance of Hezbollah and Amal came out as a clear winner, even if it fell far short to justify alarmist comments about “Hezbollah and Iran taking over Lebanon.”
A week later, in parliamentary elections in Iraq, the joint list of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi Communist party came out on top. It was closely followed by Fatah, led by Hadi al-Amiri, a top commander of Hashd Shabi, often inaccurately referred to in the West as the “Shiite militias.” Al-Amiri is close to Iran and has personal ties to the commander of the al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani. Although the level of allegiance of these disparate actors to Iran ranges very widely – from Hezbollah’s unquestionable loyalty to the Islamic Republic to al-Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism – they are certainly not pro-Western, pro-Israeli, or pro-Saudi forces in any sense.
By contrast, the forces that the US and its allies tacitly support performed poorly. Saad Hariri, the notionally pro-Saudi Lebanese prime minister and the leader of the mostly Sunni “Future” bloc, lost a third of his parliamentary seats. Hariri’s Sunni challenger Ashraf Rifi, who attacked him for being too accommodating to Hezbollah, failed to win a parliamentary seat, and therefore suffered a major blow to his ambition to become the next strong Sunni figure in Lebanon.
Results in Iraq, on the face of it, offer a bit more comfort to the anti-Iranian strategists. Saudi Arabia courted Sadr’s victorious movement as a potential Shiite bulwark against Iranian influence. Yet as an Iraqi nationalist, Sadr is also staunchly anti-American. No doubt the Saudis too will learn quickly that he is uncontrollable. Current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whom the U.S. view favorably, finished third, although he might yet emerge as the coalition-maker. But then he is also close to Iran. The weak performance of one real pro-Western party that could move Iraq out of the Iranian shadow—al-Wataniya of the former Prime-Minister Ayad Allawi—reflected a lack of grassroots support and its leader’s fading influence.
Against this backdrop, attempts to meddle in Lebanon and Iraq to tilt the balance of power in favor of anti-Iranian forces are likely to be counter-productive. The poor result of Hariri’s party in Lebanon is partly explained by the fact that many of his potential supporters failed to turn out to vote, disgusted with the heavy-handed Saudi treatment of him in November 20 17. The current US-Israeli offensive, epitomized by the controversial opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and the ensuing repression of protesting Palestinians, makes matters more difficult for the pro-Western forces. Unlike the Saudis and other regional autocrats, politicians in Arab countries with a modicum of electoral democracy cannot afford to ignore the Palestinian plight. Any political force seen as colluding with the US—and, by extension, Israel—is bound to pay a heavy political price. Iran and its allies/proxies like Hezbollah, by contrast, stand to gain from these reckless policies by reinvigorating their anti-Israeli “resistance” discourse. This also allows them to recover some of the soft power lost on the Arab Sunni street as a result of their support for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, all the while assailing their Saudi adversaries as subservient to Israeli interests.
As the political track to roll back Iranian influence fails to produce desired results, Washington and its regional allies are debating whether to mirror what the Iranians did: build up proxies capable of challenging them militarily. This, however, is a daunting task. Organizations like Hezbollah, for example, are not just military groups acting on Iran’s behalf. It is a genuine Lebanese grassroots organization. Armed struggle is only one dimension of its activities. The rest is focused on social and political work, all of which integrates the holistic concept of “resistance”. By contrast, as the Syrian war has shown, the most militarily capable Sunni militant groups are in the orbit of al-Qaeda, pursuing a global jihad through means of nihilistic terrorism. And those Sunni militants that are outside this orbit, like Hamas, are in many ways allies of Iran and Hezbollah.
So, the notion of openly supporting al-Qaeda/Islamic State-type proxies against Iran/Hezbollah would be politically costly for the US and its allies and inevitably backfire, like it did on September 11. Kurds are not considered plausible proxies, given their own dynamic and complex relationships with Iran. There is, of course, an option of hiring an army of mercenaries paid by mainly Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. But in the long term, mercenaries are always at disadvantage when confronted with highly motivated and capable local foes.
Taken together, these aggressive efforts to counter Iranian influence would only stiffen the resolve of Tehran and its allies/proxies to protect their positions and contribute to the destabilization of countries like Lebanon and Iraq. In such a climate, any talk of Hezbollah giving up its arms and becoming a “normal” social and political Lebanese actor would be an obvious no-go. In Iraq, consensus-minded politicians like Abadi would find it difficult to retain power, while figures like Hadi al-Amiri would be on the ascendant. Any prospect of security sector reform, involving the demobilization of the Hashd Shabi militias or their integration into the official security forces of the state, would be rendered impossible. To the contrary, there will be ample incentive for Iran and its allies in Iraq to transform Hashd into an Iraqi version of Hezbollah.
Thus, Trump administration’s anti-Iranian offensive is likely to make the Middle East even more violent and unstable than it already is. There was no need for that. The JCPOA opened the way for engaging Iran, also on regional issues. None other than Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recognized as much when he said that the JCPOA was a test that, if successful, could lead to opening up conversation between the US and Iran on other issues. That could have provided an opportunity to address and perhaps even remove the more objectionable Iranian policies in the region. The utterly unnecessary crisis manufactured by Trump precludes that possibility. The result is likely to be not so much Iranian rollback as more chaos and destabilization in the Middle East.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.