US-Iran Relations
Foreign Policy, International News, News

A Cold War Heats Up

By Michael St. Michael

5 minute read

The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27 threw gasoline on an already volatile Middle East. Allegedly killed by Israeli agents, the murder, conducted by a hit squad and car bomb, was another shot fired in the ongoing cold war between Israel and Iran. The Israeli action against the Islamist regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was intended to incite the Iranians to action at an already precarious time on the international scene. With Donald Trump, a staunch supporter of Israel and open enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran defeated in the US election, Jerusalem wanted to strike before the inauguration of President-elect Biden and to further sour US-Iranian relations. For their part, the Iranians are deeply embarrassed by the incident and thus have exaggerated the complexity of the attack to deflect their own internal troubles. Several intelligence analysts have suggested that Tehran’s insistence that the attack was extremely sophisticated and done through a remote-controlled machine gun, is an attempt at damage control. The Iranian government must explain to their own citizenry how such a high-profile individual, one of their most treasured state assets, could be hunted down and murdered. In fact, the Iranians appear to be trying to hide their own security breaches, which include Israeli moles at high-levels inside the intelligence apparatus.

US-Iran Relations

Since the assassination, the Ayatollah’s men have made several arrests, but it is unclear if these are people with legitimate ties to foreign governments, or simply political scapegoats for an incident that has palpably shaken the regime. For several years now, the Iranians have been unable to protect their top scientists and military elites from being targeted by foreign governments. On 3 January, 2020, a US drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport killed Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and one of the driving forces behind Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. The assassination of Soleimani was directly preceded by the murder of an American contractor in Iraq, followed by US airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored militia in Iraq and Syria. The Iranians responded to this attack by using proxy forces to attack the US embassy in Baghdad. An oft-forgotten chapter in this tit-for-tat bloody cold war is the spate of Israeli killings of four Iranian nuclear scientists from 2010-12. These, alongside the hit on Fakhrizadeh have underscored the lengths to which Tehran’s enemies will go to meddle in Iranian affairs and further highlights the growing intensity and complexity of the escalating conflict between Iran and Israel and the allies of both.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the brutal, pro-Western Pahlavi dynasty, the Islamic Republic established Islamism as a political ideology on the world stage. Against the backdrop of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the revolution of 1979 had as its goal freedom from imperialist meddling and the expansion of Shia political ideology throughout the Middle East. The main targets of this expansion were the secularist and Salafi-based governments of its Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, and, in Tehran’s view, the imperialist proxy in the region – Israel. Since 1979, western governments have consistently failed to understand the goals and scope of the Iranian revolution, which wedded Persian political ambitions with particularistic Shia-based Islamic religious expression. 

The first blow struck abroad in the name of the Revolution was the bombing, on April 18, 1983, of the United States Marine barracks in Beirut, where US forces were established on a peacekeeping mission amidst the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War. The bombing killed 220 Marines and 21 other military personnel. A separate suicide attack killed 58 French paratroopers. It took years to determine that the attacks had been conducted by the then little-known militia, Hezbollah, who has since emerged as the principle cat’s paw of Iranian military power in the region. Hezbollah, funded by Tehran and drug profits from opium and cannabis grown in Lebanon’s lawless Bekaa Valley, deftly employed charities, including schools and hospitals, to rise to dominance in Lebanese politics. After the 2006 defeat of the 34-day invasion of Lebanon by Israel, Hezbollah has entrenched itself as a champion of Lebanese sovereignty and the only military force capable of protecting the borders of the tiny, politically fractured, country. The 2006 war, the first defeat suffered by Israeli ground forces since their pyrrhic victory in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, stunned Israel and sounded the claxon throughout the capitals of Sunni majority pro-western capitals like Amman and Riyadh.

In 2004, on the heels of the ill-conceived and ruinous US invasion of Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan warned his allies of the growing menace of Iran, which sought to extend its influence throughout the Middle East at the expense of Sunni Arabs and the west, over a belt of territory that included Iraq. The latter, now devoid of its brutal dictator and staunch champion of the Sunni, Saddam Hussein, lay prostrate before a constellation of Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia armed groups. The Ayatollah’s men skillfully used the chaos and employed a strategy that had proved so successful in exporting the Revolution to Lebanon: funding of Shia militias under the control of the Quds Force and using charitable outreach to spread goodwill among the majority Shia population of Iraq, who had been rendered second-class citizens under the dictatorship of Hussein. Iranian reach extended through Syria, whose leader Bashar al-Assad, in the face of weakness and disinterest on its old Cold War backer, Russia, needed allies in its ongoing conflict with Israel. Assad turned ever more toward Tehran and today, after a ten-year civil war and despite the re-engagement of Russia, remains a crucial Iranian proxy. The Iranians, for their part, have invested heavily in propping up Assad’s regime, sending thousands of Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah fighters to provide manpower and technical assistance and have, by one estimate, spent more than $30 billion in Syria.

In Yemen, the Iranians support the Houthi minority and their military forces against those of the central government. Iranian involvement in Yemen has alarmed Riyadh, and the Saudis have spent billions backing the Yemeni government of Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and in military intervention aimed at crushing the Houthis. The Houthis routinely conduct nuisance rocket and bomb attacks into Saudi territory.

Recent years have seen the Iranians extend their grip on Iraq, where they support a number of heavily armed, politically powerful Shia militias that the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is powerless to contain. Since the explosive rise of ISIS (or Daesh), the security situation in Iraq has remained precarious, with the central government facing threats to its authority in the form of Kurdish and Shia separatist politicians, militias, and terror groups. Thanks to the US invasion of the country in 2003, Iranian influence in his country is stronger than ever.

For its part, Iran has generally preferred to avoid direct confrontation with its enemies. The missile attack launched against US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the death of Soleimani was a rare, head on strike against a bitter foe and one which national honor called for in light of such a flagrant disregard for its sovereignty. Soleimani was such an important prop in Iranian aggression from Syria to Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula and the attack was such an egregious assault that the Revolutionary Guards and other decision-makers in Tehran deemed as acceptable the risk of widening the conflict with the United States with such a response. The attack left more than 50 US troops with serious brain injuries. Ironically, President Trump delivered no counterpunch. To Iranian hawks this message was clearly read for what it was: for all its bluster and posturing, the Trump administration did not have the stomach for another open Middle Eastern conflict.

The Biden administration inherits the weeping sore of the Iranian-Saudi/Israeli conflict. In addition to the Fakhrizadeh assassination, other events have riled the Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 81, in the third decade of his rule, and reported to be in ill health. As he casts about for his successor, at the moment reported to be his second son, Moktaba Khamenei, the Ayatollah faces a series of grave challenges which will likely result in attacks by Iranian proxies throughout the region against Western and Sunni high profile targets. In addition to the Fakhrizadeh assassination, for which he has promised stern retribution, Khamenei has watched with growing concern as his Sunni neighbors draw closer with the deadly Israeli enemy. Saudi has openly acknowledged rapprochement with Israel which comes in the wake of the normalization of relations between Jerusalem and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco.

As 2021 looms, there can be little doubt of an Iranian reaction to these events. Given the threat sensed by Tehran, there are likely to be multiple, disproportionate, violent strikes through which the Ayatollah’s men intend to make a statement while averting wider military conflict with the US. As with their attacks on the Khobar Towers in 1996, the likelihood is that the principal victims of the next round of this cold war violence will be innocent civilians.

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