Iran Nuclear Deal: Impact on Asymmetric Warfare in the Middle East
Middle East Briefing/May 22/16
The rise of any kind of a moderate Iranian outlook, as was expected, creates a stiffer resistance from the traditionalists and hardliners in Iran. This tension will ultimately reach its breaking point. The content of what emerges after this breaking point depends on many factors like the timing of the face-off and the respective strength of each side. That makes things more complicated for all external parties. We face the risk of tilting towards a policy that calls for more patience than ought to be given, under the pretext of giving the moderates a chance to rise faster, and we also face the risk of following a tough policy that undercuts those moderates and enables the hardliners to expand their influence.
The right mix of the two approaches can be located through examining thoroughly how the two different camps in Tehran behave. In other words, this is not only a theoretical issue. Unless we examine the way each view in Tehran is structured and how it behaves in detail, the debate will lead nowhere.
We will examine one aspect of Iranian behavior that crystallizes the differences in Tehran, even as it reveals the difficulty of formulating a policy towards those differences: asymmetric wars and Tehran’s ties to non-state actors in the Middle East.
This aspect gives a clear view of what should be done about the two conflicting trends of the hardliners and the moderates in Iran. It also manifests in practical terms how theoretical assumptions about Iran’s foreign policy are limited.
Asymmetric warfare is a tool of Tehran’s foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. The reason Iran’s foreign policy is relevant to our subject matter is that it is not merely an outward attitude of the regime towards the world, but it also has a deep inward impact on the competition between the moderates and the hardliners.
Furthermore, asymmetric warfare has turned to be the dominant form of military conflicts in the Middle East since the last major regional war in 1991. The domain of this particular strategy and its available tools is almost exclusively under the direct command of the hardliners. This does not mean necessarily that the moderates do not approve of both the strategy and its tools, but they do not control either.
As it is under the disposal of the hardliners, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is not merely Iran’s headquarters of regional asymmetric warfare, it is also a powerful player in domestic policies and in shaping Tehran’s overall behavior internally and externally. This entails that any reduction in IRGC clout in any of the two spheres of its activities, domestic and foreign, will impact the other sphere.
The equation is as follows: Iranians moderates have a variety of responses that differ from those of the IRGC, to variable extents depending on the questions. When the general environment in Iran becomes conducive to a more moderate attitude, this results logically on a more aggressive pushback by the hardliners. Those hardliners exist in both domestic social and political structures as well as foreign policy apparatuses.
This leads us to ask the central question: How would it be possible to further the cause of moderate politics in Iran?
The nuclear deal was promoted as one important step in that direction. We have argued repeatedly on previous occasions that while this may be one of the intentions of the promoters of the deal, by making it a stand-alone step and separating it from the general behavior of Iran, the deal may turn into a factor in achieving the opposite of this very intention. It may reinforce the hand of the hardliners.
This argument is based, among other factors, on the fact that the deal will mobilize the hardliners to defend their views and increase their pressure to continue the country’s current behavior unabated. We already see this happening. It is also based on the fact that the hardliners may actually benefit from the deal in terms of increased funds, arms, and new openings to the global community; we also see this happening.
In other words, while the deal’s Western signers may have hoped that the consequences would provide the moderates with a more favorable environment to increase their clout, the net result could be an intensification of the hardliners’ domestic influence, be it economic, military, or political.
We admit that proving either interpretation of the impact of the deal will have to wait longer and be based on more empirical evidence. The one thing that should be urgent however is how to confront the IRGC asymmetric warfare in the Middle East, hence offsetting the expansion of the hardliners as we see it now. (We do not consider the Presidency or Parliament accurate reflections of the balance of power. This balance is better reflected in the economic, security, and decision-making circles).
Aspects of power should not be reduced to the number of tanks and planes or to the physical presence of a moderate or a reformist in the seat of the presidency. The power of the IRGC is multifaceted. And those who defend the nuclear deal as a facilitator of a long-awaited Iranian shift in behavior do not understand that this shift in behavior will not happen solely as a result of the nuclear deal. In fact, the nuclear deal, as we have said, may turn out to be an amplifier of extremism so long as it is taken as a standalone tool to influence Tehran’s behavior.
Abandoning this strategy will go down in history as part and parcel of what should have been done to prove to all Iranians that the hardliners should not be the future of Iran, and to deprive them of gaining more influence in the their domestic conflict with the moderate and liberal forces. In other words, it will minimize any negative impact that may occur due to the nuclear deal.
It should be clear that signing the nuclear deal, then sitting passively to wait for Tehran to change its behavior, or worse, cooperating with this behavior on the basis of admitting it has “legitimate” military-political aspirations in the region, does not create the right conditions for the nuclear deal to bear any fruit vis-a-vis Iranian behavior globally. The hardliners should not be appeased. They should be confronted.
Let us imagine, for example, a clear defeat of the IRGC in one of its regional adventures. This would naturally lead to a weakening of its grip and positions inside Iran.
The clearest proof of this is that we detect an increase, not a decrease, in Iranian involvement in asymmetric warfare in the last couple of years. The ability to finance proxy forces has increased while Iran is moving to get the world to deal with it as a “normal” country despite its large-scale subversion and ties to terrorism. Iran, in other words, is pushing to legalize intervention in other countries’ affairs in global relations. Worse, it is seeing successes in that.
On the other hand we hardly see any changes in Iranian domestic policies. The main valves of power are still under the control of the IRGC. Only political facades and discourse change in marginal ways. And even those superficial changes allow the hardliners to regroup and mobilize. At the end, we will discover that this post-nuclear-deal-Iran may be even more defiant and its hardliners more resilient than ever before.
There are two things that are usually mixed up and confused one with the other. To focus singularly on the nuclear deal is not equivalent to criticize the context in which the deal was signed and its consequences. While the deal in and of itself could be justified, notwithstanding flaws related to delivery systems, it should have been integrated into a global strategic approach capable of preventing the current limbo and zigzag which only allows the hardliners to consolidate their powers and “contain” any favorable impact of normalizing ties with Tehran.
Instead, the Obama administration believed that the mission was accomplished when the deal was signed and rushed to open a “new page” with the Ayatollahs, all the while waiting for those favorable results to happen by themselves. The administration instead got a more defiant Iran and wider-scale asymmetric warfare. More waiting will bring more of the same.
As for US allies in the Middle East, the US has put in place a condition that enhancing security cooperation does not mean help in solving internal crises. This calls for a deep study of the relation between internal troubles and insurgencies. The US’s condition, as stated by President Obama, looks on the surface to be logical and understandable. However, it raises the issue of Iranian intervention using domestic forces and assisting those forces in waging an insurgency, as is happening in Yemen.
Iran’s strategy is structured by one organizing principle: to weaken the US’s regional presence and American allies in the Middle East. The IRGC generally uses several methods to achieve this, among them inflaming internal disputes in regional countries to exploit any domestic conflict in order to have a pretext for intervention. Iran has never shown any interest in preserving the national unity of the countries it targets, from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen. On the contrary, all Iranian subversive efforts, by their nature and definition, aim at weakening the national state as such. This places Iranian asymmetric warfare in the Middle East squarely in the context of jeopardizing the existing world order. Iran believes that this order does not allow its ambitions the proper space to come to fruition. In that, they have an identical position, with varying intensities and focuses, with Russia.
We detect that the security arrangements negotiated currently between the GCC countries and the US, for example, are focused on enhancing Arab retaliation against conventional Iranian aggression. But we think that the focus has to include a strategy for combating asymmetric warfare based on a clear definition of the relation of this tactic with “normal” internal grievances not helped or exploited by Iran’s IRGC.
Only through such a step, the US would be able to look seriously at methods to confront the IRGC’s expansion of its asymmetric warfare in the region. Confronting this tactic naturally redefines military conflicts in the Middle East in the first half of the 21st century. But what is more important is that it will also shift to combating the IRGC, hence it will be an important factor in weakening its domestic position inside Iran as well.