Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a commitment that has drawn them into conflicts throughout the region. In Syria, they are propping up a failing state that has resorted to the use of nerve gas weapons and chlorine “barrel bombs” against its own population. In Lebanon, they are backing Hezbollah, which is now involved in a two-front war against Israel and ISIS. In Iraq, their network of Shi’a militias has begun to bog down against ISIS, yet has provoked a resistance movement led by Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. In Yemen, Iran is backing a movement that overthrew the central government but struggles to control the country, and which is drawing air strikes and troop movements from the Gulf States. The flood of cash and investments that may come if Congress approves the Iran Deal may be the very thing to save Iran from the consequences, and help them evolve into a regional power instead of being pulled apart by its commitments.
There’s a genuine danger of ‘imperial overstretch’ in Iran attempting to undertake all of this at once, even though they are doing it via a highly successful unconventional warfare outlet. The Quds Force, led by Qassem Suleimani, has proven extremely capable in past conflicts. In Iraq, a new book reveals how Quds Force moved freely with the protection of the Iraqi government against America’s elite counterterrorist units. They are suspected to have helped arrange the deaths of perhaps a thousand of the Americans lost in Iraq. Yet Iran was able to keep clear of belligerent status in the war, just as today it is not officially “at war” with anyone. And it was able to fight mostly through proxy forces, just as today it is mostly not Iranians who are dying in Iran’s wars.
Still, the core of the Revolutionary Guards — of which Quds Force is the elite unconventional warfare wing — is an aging band of veterans who cut their teeth fighting Saddam in the 1980s. They have lost a number of these veterans lately. And the cost of the wars is rising, even for a power that has learned how to fight wars on the cheap.
There is no shortage of commitment: at least seven IRGC generals have died on the frontlines, primarily in Syria but also in Iraq, taken down by snipers’ bullets, bombs, and even an Israeli airstrike…. “[Proxy warfighting] worked well when it was low cost, but now it is high cost.… There is no Saddam Hussein who insulted the Iranian nation as a whole” as a national motivating factor, as in the 1980s, says Mr. Posch. “This is a war of their own liking, for the purpose of power projection. But they’ve been too ignorant of the fear of the small Gulf countries; too ignorant about the fears of the Saudis.”
In the meantime, Iraq’s Shi’ite population has begun to have second thoughts about Iranian power over their government. While thousands of Iraqis still join Shi’ite militias that are ideologically aligned with Iran, a coalition of Iraqi Shi’ites who prefer independence has begun to form around the most powerful cleric in the country: Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani of the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.
Sistani called on [Iraqi Prime Minister] Abadi last month to respond to the protest movement’s demands in a message delivered in an important Friday sermon…. And Abadi has responded, eliminating a number of government positions — including that of vice president, costing Maliki the job he gained after U.S. pressure and opposition at home led to his resignation last year. In the Iraqi parliament, there have been calls for Maliki to face trial over his loss of the city of Mosul to Islamic State forces.
Fortunately for Iran, they stand to receive a vast flood of cash and investments should Congress approve the Iran deal. Everyone expects them to devote at least part of this influx of money to its network of proxy fighters across the region, including President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. What is under dispute is just how much of the influx will be diverted to Iran’s unconventional warfare efforts across the region.
The escalating challenges facing Iran suggest that the answer to that question will be “more” rather than “less.” The successful passage of the Iran deal through Congress will mean sponsorship of wars throughout the region as Iran seeks to shore up its efforts to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Iran is in a struggle of its own making right now, being committed on so many fronts. The sanctions relief and investments that the Iran deal provides them may be the lifeline that saves Iran from itself, and helps it to emerge as the power it seeks to become.