As Nuclear Talks Drag on, How Iran is Slowly Encircling Israel - Tehran no longer even bothering to hide its aggressive expansion throughout the Middle East, even as nuclear negotiations continue - 2 March 2015
In the background of this week’s dual drama of US-Iranian negotiations regarding its nuclear program and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high profile speech aimed at influencing them, Iran has continued to encroach on the fabric of the Middle East. In the last year, Iran has deepened its involvement in Iraq, aided Yemen’s Shiite Houthis in conquering their country’s capital, and facilitated Hezbollah’s most expansive deployment in its history.
Iran has been applying a peripheral strategy against its primary rivals in the region: not just Israel, but also Saudi Arabia. With Israel, that strategy depends on Hezbollah and Hamas. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Michael Segall of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who specializes in Iranian military strategy, describes that approach as a “pillar” of Iran’s plans for the Middle East.
“What’s different about the recent attack is that Iran is no longer afraid of revealing themselves. They have shifted from covert action, to in the example of the Golan to overt action. They seek to have a presence all along the Israeli border: in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and even from the West Bank – Judea and Samaria.”
Judea and Samaria are the next major project for Iran in this regard. Whereas investment is obviously pervasive in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria present a much more complicated area for any penetration by Iranian agents.
“There have been attempts to smuggle weapons into the area, but as of yet there is no indication of Iranian-made rockets in the West Bank.”
That is because of not only the IDF, but also Mahmoud Abbas’ security forces, who despite rifts with Israel are loathe to allow Hamas a foothold that could repeat the Gaza coup against the Palestinian Authority a decade ago.
Encircling Saudi Arabia
The same peripheral strategy against Israel is being applied against Saudi Arabia. Iran’s influence on Baghdad has grown year to year since the US invasion in 2003. Along with Saudi Arabia’s large Shiite minority and the crisis in Yemen, Iran has managed to build a string of concerns all along Saudi Arabia’s border. Yemen’s fall recently to Shiite rebels could not have been done without Iranian help, says Segall.
“The Houthis could not have done what they did without Iranian help. Iran has been invested there with advisers and resources, interested in creating trouble for Yemen’s northern neighbor.”
What should not be lost on people is that Yemen’s Shiites come from a different branch of the faith, the Zaydi Shiite denomination, as opposed to Iran’s major denomination, Jafari Shiite Islam. When asked if this could have any bearing on the relationship, Segall says he is certain that it doesn’t:
“That doesn’t matter for them. They will work with anybody that will further their agenda.”
For Iran, the particulars of the religious denomination are not so important. That is a critical insight for Israeli and Western strategists. While Sunni fundamentalists the likes of ISIS are murderously specific on what brand of Islam they will tolerate, Tehran has an eclectic set of allies in Hezbollah, Sunni Hamas, Alawite Syria and now Zaydi Yemen.
What should not be overlooked, says Segall, is how critical Hezbollah is as a component of this strategy. Hezbollah has recently admitted to deploying forces to Iraq, in addition to the significant number of its fighters deployed throughout Syria in defense of the Assad regime.
While it is unclear if Hezbollah’s men in Iraq have actually seen action or hung back in an advising role for local Shiite militias, they are deploying further than ever before and doing so at the bidding of the Iranian government.
“What is important to remember – and I say this often – is that Hezbollah is not truly a Lebanese organization. We say it (is), but it really isn’t true. It’s primarily an Iranian organization. Its resources are primarily from Iran. Nasrallah answers to Khamenei (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran).”
Segall doesn’t mean to imply that its membership has suddenly become more Iranian than Lebanese, rather that the relationship between Hezbollah and Tehran is the development of Hezbollah’s raison d’être as an export of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, as well as being primarily an organization used to serve Iranian policy designs around the Middle East. While Hezbollah has not been as forthcoming about deployments outside Syria and Iraq, Segall emphasized that Hezbollah advisers are aiding the Iranian effort for Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
When asked if Hezbollah’s wide deployments and weapon upgrades from Iran matched Israel’s preparedness for a future confrontation, he wasn’t prepared to give Hezbollah too much credit.
“Israel is more prepared for worst-case scenarios than Hezbollah. I think that despite the extra experience, Israel is still more advanced than they are.”