“It’s the Shiite Era Now”

Tracking Iran’s steps to dominate its neighbors

“Iran has never been so powerful in the region,” says Najaf Ali Mirzai, an Iranian attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon. It is hard to disagree.

In Syria, for example, Iran has worked aggressively to extend its political and religious influence.

Last year, Iran campaigned to undermine and cast suspicion on Syrian Baath leaders known to be opposed to Iranian Khomeinism—an effort that drove hundreds of leaders into retirement or exile. Those men were replaced, largely, by men with Iranian experience and training. As a result, Syrian President Bashar Assad himself is increasingly relying for his personal security on the Iranians and the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Last June, Syria signed a defense pact that “gives Iran direct access to the Syrian military at middle and senior levels, provides for joint staff conversations, harmonization of weapons systems and training, and military exercises” (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 1, 2006). Since the pact was signed, Iranian military and security personnel in Syria have quadrupled. Trade between the two nations is also mushrooming. A former member of President Assad’s cabinet warns that “Iran is trying to play the role that the Soviet Union played in Syria during the Cold War” (ibid.).

Though Syria is mostly a Sunni Muslim country, President Assad has assented to Iran spreading the Shiite brand of Islam in his country—lifting bans on Shiites proselytizing, on Iran building cultural centers in Syria, and on Syrians attending Islamic seminaries in Iran. Now, Iranian-supported charities are popping up nationwide; Geostrategy Direct reports that 11 centers for Khomeinist indoctrination have opened in Syrian cities, with 17,000 Syrians enrolled in classes. Some reports accuse Iran of providing schools and social services essentially to pay whole villages to convert to Shiism.

Iran has used this increasing clout to undertake a sinister joint project with Syria: swallowing Lebanon.

For a long time, Iran has nurtured and funded the Hezbollah organization’s soft conquest of southern Lebanon. This area is strategically important because of its common border with Israel, a nation Iran has pledged to destroy. Last summer, Iran used Hezbollah to launch a war against the Jewish state. After fighting and surviving that war, Hezbollah emerged with iconic status in the Arab world and unprecedented popularity among a large portion of Lebanese. That status rocketed even higher as Hezbollah quickly rebuilt damaged Lebanese infrastructure. In August, the New York Times revealed that a major reason for Hezbollah’s reconstruction superstardom was “a torrent of money from oil-rich Iran.” Essentially, Iran took the opportunity after the war to accelerate its infiltration into Lebanon, even under the noses of UN overseers (see page 7).

Mirzai says the whole affair highlighted just how strong Iran has become: “The war made the world take notice of the extent of Iran’s regional and international role.” It also put Israel on the defensive, exposing before the world how dangerously vulnerable it has become and setting the stage for Iran’s next offensive against the Jewish state.

Since that time, Iran—with help from Syria and Hezbollah—has stepped up its efforts to eliminate the democratically elected, West-friendly Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora. In November, six Shiite cabinet ministers abruptly resigned, throwing the government into turmoil. November 21, anti-Syrian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was gunned down in what is widely viewed as a Syrian-orchestrated assassination. The subsequent anti-Syrian demonstrations gave way to massive Hezbollah-led protests against the U.S.-backed government. Should Iranian-aligned forces succeed in taking control in Lebanon, it would represent a massive victory for radical Islam and another sign of America’s waning global power.

And Iran is working to project its power even further.

“Treated as Visiting Royalty”

Many Sunni-ruled states in the region worry that—given the Shiites’ control over Iraq and Hezbollah’s victory over Israel—Iran’s rising star is igniting their Shiite populations with power lust. “They believe their time has come; it’s the Shiite era now,” says Abdullah al-Shayji, a Kuwaiti university professor (Daily Times, Pakistan, Dec. 11, 2006). Two Arab states illustrate the point: Bahrain and Kuwait.

Shiites in Bahrain, who have felt sidelined from politics in the past, make up over half the populace. After having boycotted the last election, Bahrain’s main Shiite political party—which has connections to Iran—took national elections by storm on Nov. 25, 2006. Grabbing a huge 40 percent of the vote, it made virtually a clean sweep, winning 16 of the 17 parliamentary seats it sought (out of 40 total in the parliament). Within a week, the Information Ministry announced it would start implementing Islamic codes—banning alcohol near mosques and schools, shutting down discos and live entertainment. Bahrain “fears that the country’s Shiite population—given its size and political configuration—could serve as a fifth column for Tehran,” Stratfor wrote on Nov. 14, 2006. “The ruling al-Khalifa family very much fears a Lebanon-type situation for Bahrain ….”

Tehran is also trying to romance Kuwait, opecSSRqs third-largest oil producer behind Saudi Arabia and Iran, away from its traditional alliance with the U.S. In addition to conducting official business—jointly developing a shared offshore oil field, discussing the expansion of ties in other areas—Iran has undertaken a strategy similar to the one it used in Lebanon: shipping in Shiite militants, linking up with the local Shiite population, and setting up Iranian sleeper cells.

Iran’s ambitions extend even further out. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development efforts. In December, Iran’s cabinet approved signing security cooperation agreements with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Oman. Iran also urged neighboring Arab states to drive the United States from its military bases in the Middle East and join Tehran in a regional security alliance. Associated Press reported, “The audacious offer was the strongest sign yet of Iran’s rising assertiveness in its contest with the United States for influence in the region” (Dec. 5, 2006).

The speed and aggression with which Iran is moving shows how unprecedentedly confident in its position it has become. And the region is adjusting—sometimes fearfully—to this developing reality.

When Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani came to Arab World Strategy 2006 to deliver the regional security alliance proposal, “the Arab audience parted like the Red Sea,” wrote Middle East Newsline. Larijani “was treated as visiting royalty and his message at the Dubai seminar greeted with utmost respect” (Dec. 7, 2006).

“Iranians are playing with so many variables and they have so many trump cards,” says al-Shayji. “We are completely vulnerable. We don’t want to antagonize the Iranians and at the same time we don’t want to upset the Americans” (Daily Times, op. cit.). That is precisely what Iran intends—to force Middle Eastern states to choose whether to remain allied with the U.S.-Israeli camp, or to join, in AP’s words, “an anti-American, anti-Israel alliance led by Iran.”

It is not difficult to see which of these two powers is gaining the most leverage. The Islamic Republic clearly represents the future of the Middle East.