by Vishal Rajput – 28 April, 2020
In International Relations and Foreign Policy, Geostrategy, a subfield of geopolitics, is a type of foreign policy guided principally by geographical factors as they inform, constrain, or affect political and military planning and security algorithms (Evans, 1998). There are many geostrategically significant countries wherein concerning with Middle East region, Iran is one of those geostrategic locations adjoining with the Persian Gulf along the Strait of Hormuz, having the potential to push varied asymmetric shifts in the course of international politics.
Before the clandestine turmoil in Iran went underway, Saudi’s royal family had established a convivial strategic relationship with United States (US) and enjoying the unavowed domination of the US at the expense of the latter’s security umbrella and considered itself as mover and shaker in the Persian Gulf. (KEITH JOHNSON, 2020). For the United States, at that point of time, Soviet Union was the immediate threat to its national interest and hence, it was appeasing and wielded over both Saudi Arabia and Iran, two major heavyweights of the region.
With respect to Iran, it witnessed certain upheavals in pursuit of the attainment of power. During the Cold War, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came at the helm of Iran (Byrne, 2004, p. 261) which experts consider him as the puppet of US and allied powers.
Ayatollah’s Iran and cleric order
However, the year 1979 was the watershed moment in Iranian history where Shah’s government encountered initially massive protests and resentment from overwhelming distressed people which later transformed into the infamous “Green Revolution” under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Hoveyda, 2003). The event culminated in the overthrown of his government and paved the way for the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Felix Heinzer, 2017, p. 229) with the theocratic outlook in its governance. All of a sudden, it has completely changed the strategic and political landscape of the Persian Gulf. Iranian Revolution has produced the seismic geopolitical shifts and the immediate threat to the United States. Not just the international community reacted to this, both pessimistically and optimistically, but particularly, Iran has received a strong rebuke and disapproval of its legitimacy from its adversary, Saudi Arabia, especially after Khomeini’s 1987 speech (PRESS, 1987).
Over a period of time, many confrontations and hostilities erupted between them, however for Iran, Saudi Arabia was never the primary adversary, but a marionette of the United States (US). Post-revolution period, Iran faced severe backlash and confrontational response from the United States because of former’s occupation of ‘American Embassy in Tehran’ (Cumming-Bruce, 2019) and the direct threat in hampering its regular oil supply which the US considers its priority to protect from all sorts of threat in the Persian Gulf.
The straining intersection of US national interest with Iran could not be pursued and therefore, the US tried every possible attempt, covertly or overtly, to topple the government. Some of the infamous ventures were succour to the Iraqi government in Iran-Iraq War, launching Operation Praying Mentis, shooting down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, imposing economic sanctions several times, illustrating Iran as an ‘axis of evil’ and the recent withdrawing from Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA). It is not exceptional that the United States doesn’t support Iran because of its clerics led oligarchy, yet paradoxically it supports Saudi Arabia. The present Islamic oligarchy of clerics in Iran sees America as the “Great Satan” and rallied behind the call of Muslim Ummah in creating an alliance against Saudi and Israel (after its creation), in particular, and the United States in general. Over a short period, Iran becomes more assertive in the region and witnessed remarkable stability with the dawn of new Ayatollah.
Post-Khomeini Milieu and military assertiveness of Iran
After the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei came at the helm in 1989 which the US perceives his ascendancy with great wariness. Though for American leadership he is a wicked and immoral person, but domestically for Iranians enlarge, his authority has been welcomed with the complete accord. Under his leadership, Iran solidifying its stranglehold over the Persian Gulf and strategically proliferated its influence over other countries in the Middle East.
Being aware of the military superiority of Israel reflected in the Six-Day War, Iran gave rise of several proxies in the region which nowadays giving a tough challenge to its adversaries and especially Israel. Proxies are the distinct element in Iranian Foreign Policy and therefore relevant to be briefly discussed thereupon.
Hezbollah in Lebanon (Figure 3): It is considered as the most powerful proxy of Iran in the Middle East. Iran assists the local Lebanese fighters in resisting the Israeli forces in its occupation in South Lebanon. It provides both arms and training to them and in return, sought its allegiance in case of any external aggression against Iran or its national interest.
Hamas in Palestine: It is another militia organization involved in deep conflict with Israel. It is believed that Iran’s Quds Force regularly trains Hamas militants and assists them with all sorts of military equipment to keep check Israeli Defense Force. The increasing Israeli offensive deep into Palestinian land is arm-twisting Palestinian youths close to Hamas and becoming suicide bomber for them.
Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq: This militant organization was at the forefront in fighting ISIS in Iraq. However, with the former’s retreat, PMF is consolidating its mobilization in carrying out attacks against the US interests in Iraq. On 3rd January, while visiting Iraq, General Soleimani of Quds Force along with Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, one of the top leaders of PMF, was also killed in an American airstrike.
Houthi Rebels in Yemen: To counter the Saudi’s strategic influence and its support to Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has provided rebels with arms, ammunition, short-range missiles, and leadership support. It has controlled significant strategic locations in Yemen and posing a direct threat at the gates of the Royal family which helps Iran in keeping engaged Saudi in dealing with this immediate threat.
For Iran, proxies have strategically benefited in exploiting deep fault lines with both the US and Israel without initiating any military confrontation. On many occasions, Iran leveraged the proxy card, where one of its reflection is in Lebanon Hostage Crisis. Under this, the US offered to provide illegal arms supply for hostage swap with Iran which brought to light as Iran-Contra Affair. However, in the domestic sphere, the Iranian government faced tough opposition from its unrecognized civil society on varied issues ranges from conservative control upon women’s rights, high unemployment rate, touch Islamic laws and several others (team, 2020). However, at the same time, Iranians want these issues to be resolved within the domain of its domestic affairs and need not any sort of foreign interference in it. At the pretext of Humanitarian intervention, the United States attempted several times by indulging in domestic Iranian affairs, yet non-militaristically. This strive has received overwhelming backlash towards the United States.
More often, Iranians in toto see the prevailing hardship upon them only because of arbitrary sanctions imposed by the US which deprive them of necessities of survival. The prevailing public perception helped the Iranian regime and clerics in diverting their attention towards the US’ oppressive policies from its governance shortcomings. Nevertheless, the public discontent is an inevitable challenge to political apparatus, but it will consistently help until the US refrain from creating an undesirable threat to the ayatollah regime.
In conventional security structure, Iran ascended to a more sophisticated ladder by developing conventional military and para-military forces to respond to any sort of threat to its sovereignty, territory and its national interest. Moreover, according to some reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has developed a nuclear enrichment program to the level of developing nuclear weapons, though Iranian leaders deny such allegations. However, after the withdrawal of the US from JCPOA, IAEA reported that Tehran’s stockpiles of low enriched uranium far exceed to 300 kilograms, the limit set by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Research, 2020).
Furthermore, Iran has grabbed worldwide attention by placing military satellite–Noor in the
higher orbit at a height of 425 km (Borger, 2020). The launching happened on the same day Trump ordered US Navy “to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea” following the encounter of Iranian gunboats with US warship in the Persian Gulf (News, 2020).
With its entry into elite countries having military satellite, Iran has shown its military prowess to US, Israel and Saudi in general and to all those who’re sceptical of Iranian military capabilities. The usage of solid propellant would make the enemy’s intelligence agency oblivious of receiving attack. “This accentuates the military aspect of the system,” says Dr Uzi Rubin, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy (JISS), and is considered one of the most distinguished missile analysts in the Middle East (Melman, 2020). In conventional security per se, Iran has an effective counterbalance influence to keep in check US military strength in the Persian Gulf.
Persian Gulf: The Theatre of Operations
In geopolitical discourse, the Persian Gulf is an important geostrategic location in the Middle East. It’s the Mediterranean Sea which passes through ‘Strait of Hormuz’ and joins the Indian Ocean at the ‘Gulf of Oman’ (Nations, 2006). In core strategic terms, the Persian Gulf and its surrounded coastal areas provide the largest petroleum resources all over the world (Northrup, 2013), and therefore it’s a theatre of confrontations and often, navies of adjoining countries get caught in skirmishes.
In the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf was the battlefield where both the countries attacked each other’s oil tankers and incurred heavy losses in their economies. In earlier times, several incidents happened like shooting down an Iranian airliner by US warship Vincennes in 1998, attach on a Japanese Oil tanker in 2010, firing on Singapore Tanker by Iranian ships and numerous misadventures by either side (Reuters, 2019). If any conflict erupts in this volatile region, it will hamper the supplies of oil resources to major powers and particularly the US was concerned in maintaining the status quo. Hence, US reinvigorated its infamous “Fifth Fleet” in 1995. According to senior Navy commander aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, America’s growing presence in the region is about deterrence, and not war (2019). However, if one takes a look at its past deeds, his comments appear quite contradictory to US Navy’s previous course of action, identical to military operations taken in the guise of humanitarian intervention in Libya and Iraq, and uncustomary manoeuvre.
Moreover, a few days back, the skirmish occurred in Persian Gulf between Iranian gunboats and US warship has led Donald Trump, on the one hand, to caution the Iranian regime and on the other, he instructed the US Navy to shoot down Iranian vessels if they threaten its warships in the region. Such sort of hostile and intimidating reaction will inevitably compel the adversary to devise its strategy in the backdrop of “Defensive Realism”. This ordeal will usher an instability in Balance of Power.
Conclusion: Future Trajectory of the Middle East
If we analyse the whole set of developments and progress in the military capabilities of Iran, any welcoming sort of foreign involvement will escalate the tensions and will risk millions of lives and assets in this nuclear age. Indeed, the Iranian regime is facing enormous challenges from its civil society which the tussle would conclude with some positive reforms soon. The pursuit of its democratic reformation should be handed over to Iranians themselves. However, the ‘humanitarian intervention model’ of US-led western block will perhaps jeopardize the regional security balance. At the same time, the US should initiate and engage in dialogue with its counterpart, rather than intimidating Iran, as it shares a greater responsibility in establishing the ‘Balance of Power’. Its military assertiveness in the Persian Gulf will inevitably be perceived as a direct threat to the adversary’s national interest. Undoubtedly, Iran cannot compete in military and economic capabilities with the US, and therefore there is an urgent need for the US to revise its Middle East Foreign Policy. In contemporary times, China ascendancy and its assertiveness on the world order is the greatest challenge to the Pax Americana. China is taking the utmost leverage of COVID-19 epidemic especially in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region. Its self-centred ambitions will quietly replace American dominance not completely but perhaps partly or overwhelmingly from International World Order. On the other hand, the Iranian government needs to address socio-political discontent which certainly does not correlate with US sanctions. Iran efficaciously securitized the women’s rights, prevailing corruption and recently the inefficiency to control the rapid outbreak of novel coronavirus, which exposed inadequate medical infrastructure and resulted in the loss of millions of innocent lives. It’s already going through great tribulation due to all-time low economic trade and perpetuating corruption. In addition to it, the stern response from conservative elements and religious leaders to fall in with strict religious laws will add to the hardship of common people. In statecraft per se, the government needs to call the shots in defending its survival and national interest from external threat or aggression as every nation does, but at the same time, but their efforts to make some political and social reforms domestically. If the society will be strong enough from inside, it will safeguard its national interest from external threats and cope up with unforeseen circumstances.
Author is pursuing Masters in International Relations and Area Studies from MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is also working as Research Assistant on Study Project of National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India with Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation of United Service Institution of India.