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The Return of Imperialism: The Islamic Republic of Iran

avatar by Hillel Frisch

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Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures before delivering a speech in Mashad, Iran, March 21, 2018. Photo: Leader.ir / Handout via Reuters.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama, in a widely publicized book, announced the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy and, with it, the prospect of a longstanding democratic peace. He called it, in a moment of hubris, the end of history.

The wars in the Balkans (the first to take place on continental Europe since World War II) and the wide-scale ethnic and religious massacres that accompanied them, followed by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, severely dented this vision. It was probably laid to rest altogether with the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 1999, the return of geopolitics on Europe’s fringes in the war with Georgia in 2009, Putin’s assault on eastern Ukraine in 2014, and his troops’ bold annexation of Crimea the same year.

Putin has contributed greatly toward pulling the world back to the 20th century. The same can be said of China, as its policy of peaceful engagement gave way to an assertion of naval power. Both Russia and China have seriously alarmed their neighbors and other states.

It seems, however, that the world might be reverting further backward than one century. In fact, the world is regressing back to the Age of Imperialism, only this time the major catalyst is Eastern, not Western; Muslim, not Christian; Shiite, not (predominantly) Protestant; “radical,” not conservative.

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The Islamic Republic of Iran, which ranks only 17th in terms of economic output in the world, is hardly a major power. It hovers somewhere around the same score in terms of scientific contributions (barring patents, which it largely keeps in-house for military purposes). Yet it is demonstrating, almost daily, its imperialist reach in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza — and it is developing ballistic missiles capable of threatening Europe.

The reader may be puzzled. How is Iran different from Russia, China, and the US?

The answer lies in focus, capabilities, and responsibility. China and Russia’s assertions of power are focused on land and sea contiguous with their borders. Relative to its capabilities, Russia’s recent foray in Syria is a minor affair, justified in part by a desire to fight jihadists, many of whom came from the Caucasus, which are part of the Russian Federation.

Russia is also a player in the great power game. If the US felt compelled to fight ISIS, Russia had to take part to check American power in the region. All three powers, especially the US and China, have far-flung interests that necessitate a presence worldwide. It is the role of the US in preserving the freedom of the seas, so indispensable to global trade, that leads to tensions between China and the US and its allies. These three powers, however, have the responsibility and capabilities (one hopes) to resolve their many issues of contention.

Iran is different in that it is the only country whose focus is on political, military, and terrorist intervention, as well as involvement in areas beyond its contiguous borders against states that have not struck the homeland.

Israel, the state it vows to destroy, never wanted a fight with Iran. Not only is it not in the Jewish tradition to tell other states how they should be ruled, but a strong lobby within Israel believed for many years that Iran would renew ties for mutual benefit, as it did in the days of the Shah. So strong was this conviction that Israel allegedly sold weapons to Iran during its protracted war with Iraq.

Yet it was the Islamic Republic of Iran that created Hezbollah in faraway Lebanon to fight Israel, and which today threatens the Jewish state with 100,000 missiles. Hezbollah has placed its launching sites in the homes of Lebanese villagers and townspeople. Naturally, these villagers, along with the Israeli civilian population, are at great risk.

Prior to the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime — while allied with Iran — placed limitations on an Iranian military presence in Syria. Now that the Assad regime has been weakened, Iran is exploiting the new dynamic to transform Syria into another Lebanon. Imported Shiite militias under Iranian guidance and command, create missile sites similar to those in Lebanon. Terrorist activity is being increased, and munitions factories and forward bases are being established inside Syria and along the border of the northern Golan. Israel vows to stop Iran and is probably behind the “unidentified” air attacks, the most recent being a massive one, to prevent Iran from realizing its immediate objective.

Though Saudi Arabia is not entirely innocent regarding Iran, it did hugely support Saddam Hussein’s war against the new Islamic Republic, along with other Gulf States, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The kingdom’s hope was that Saddam would contain Iran. But Saudi Arabia has not massively supported and armed proxy groups the way Iran has done in Lebanon and Yemen.

The Saudis were in fact instrumental in the Ta’if agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. The agreement disbanded the Sunni and Druze militias in Lebanon and allowed only Hezbollah to remain armed. Since then, Hezbollah has become the strongest fighting force in Lebanon, stronger even than the army. The Saudis no doubt greatly regret that concession to Iran. It was Hezbollah, Iran’s creation, that in 2005 assassinated Saudi-backed Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and three years later effectively took over the government in a massive show of armed strength in the streets of Beirut. Lebanon has effectively become an Iranian puppet state.

Instead of the triumph of liberal visions of globalization, which include the dismemberment of imperial powers, we are seeing the return of imperialism in the form of Iran’s violent foreign interventions. Unfortunately, many allies of the US prefer material interest — the prospect of profits in the Iranian market — over the principle that they themselves enshrined of putting an end to imperialism.

Professor Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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