Iran's Encroaching Regional Hegemony
By Steve Schippert
As Iranian President Ahmadinejad was leaving Kuwait after meeting with the new emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaredei’s Iran report was making the perfunctory leaked rounds among chosen members of the media ahead of the March 6 Board of Governors meetings. A virtual swarm of reporting ensued.
But there was nothing new revealed in the media reportage of ElBaredei’s words, indicating that there is likely nothing much new in the remaining filler pages of the IAEA’s 12-page Iranian nuclear assessment. Cited by ElBaredei and eventually the various news outlets were key facts already commonly known: That Iran has fed uranium gas into a 10-centrifuge cascade and begun enrichment , that the IAEA has not unearthed irrefutable evidence of weapons production and that the IAEA still doesn’t know what Iran is doing with their nuclear program. Why ElBaredei could not produce this apparently less-than-groundbreaking report when it was originally requested just weeks ago only ElBaredei himself truly knows, leaving the United States and Europe to make an educated guess.
But, typically, the nature of the Iranian nuclear program is not revealed by the UN agency tasked with investigating the crisis, but rather by the swirling events that continue to define it. And while the world remains affixed on the state of the Iranian nuclear countdown and the IAEA as it haplessly tries to get a fix on a moving target, the nature of the Iranian crisis transcends developments on the atomic front.
After reacting negatively to the scare of a nearly successful bombing attempt at the massive Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities in Abqaiq, the ever-fickle world’s oil commodities markets reacted positively to the non-story of the Iranian-peddled word of a potential agreement with Russia on the Russian Proposal for enriching Iran’s uranium on Russian soil.
The Russian Proposal is going nowhere, as Iran continues to tie demands of eventually enriching their own uranium to the heart of any deal. The development was widely reported as an Iranian agreement to a renewed moratorium on enrichment. However, a clause that allows for ‘future Iranian enrichment’ makes any such deal as voluntary, temporary and unpredictable in shelf-life as the previous voluntary moratorium. For all of the agile nuance and occasional internal contradiction that the Russian posturing has provided, and for all the interest they have in the $800 million contract to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant, Vladimir Putin is increasingly wary of the Iranians and has little interest in seeing key supporters of the Chechens engage in loose control of nuclear weapons on his southern border.
But there is far more to the Iranian developments than the nuclear issue. The Iranians are engaged in several fronts that become obscured behind the nuclear screen that draws so much attention.
The Iranians are currently engaged in a diplomatic counter-offensive by sending delegations to states - including major American allies in the Middle East - ahead of the IAEA meetings, possible Security Council sanctions and/or US military strikes. Ahmadinejad made a rare visit to Kuwait, liberated by the US in 1991, to assure them that there was no disagreement that they could not work out amicably (past conflict history notwithstanding, of course). Iran and Kuwait have had the same border disputes that Saddam Hussein attempted to resolve through invasion.
In the city that was the theater operations center for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami is meeting with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani while in Doha, Qatar, to speak at a `Unity among Civilizations' conference. This is ironic, considering his current president’s stated desire to ‘wipe’ one of those civilizations ‘off the map’.
Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, addressed the European Union parliament (note the headline of the Iranian state-run media’s article) and explained that Ahmadinejad was simply misunderstood and taken out of context when he said Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’. He then jetted to Tokyo to meet with Japanese foreign minister Taro Aso to convince the Japanese of Iran’s peaceful intent and right to nuclear technology.
On the heels of Iran's pledge to fund Hamas, Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, spoke plainly when he said that Iran wants to turn Hamas into Hezbollah and transform it effectively into yet another terrorist arm of Iranian foreign policy. The more Iran funds Hamas and alleviates their financial crisis, the more beholden to Iranian direction (and coordination) Hamas will be.
Crumpton also highlighted one of the West’s greatest fears regarding any Iranian nuclear capacity when he openly referred to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a “delivery system” for any weapons developed. Any discussion of the current state of Hezbollah and Lebanon cannot be complete without considering the Aoun-Hezbollah agreement, where Christian Lebanese presidential hopeful (and former Prime Minister) Michel Aoun has returned to Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal.
The long time anti-Syrian leader has since aligned himself with pro-Syrian figures, including the Iranian-directed terrorist group, Hezbollah. Aoun has effectively split the Lebanese Christian vote and now enjoys the support of the broad southern Shia base through Hezbollah’s graces. If the calls to oust Lahoud are successful, imagine the implications of a Hezbollah-allied Lebanese President after all that transpired in 2005. (There are murmurs that Secretary of State Rice indicated during her visit to Beirut that the dogs could be called off Syria if Assad simply recalled Lahoud and terminated the un-elected extension, which expires in November of 2007. With the present Aoun-Hezbollah [and thus, Iran] context, this could be an ill-fated move with even more troubling consequences.)
And, any friend of Hezbollah is a friend of Syria and a friend of Iran. This brings us to Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq, just to complete the geographic circle of Iranian influence and Iranian regional gains. Just three weeks ago, in a road trip that carried him to Assad’s Damascus, Hezbollah’s Beirut and Ahmadinejad’s Iran, al-Sadr pledged that he and his militia were 'at the service' of Syria and Iran, saying in Damascus, “I am at the service of Syria and Iran. I will defend all Muslim countries with all means.” Would those means include the precision demolition of the 9th-century al-Askariya mosque, ‘The Golden Mosque’, in Samarra, where the tomb of the 12th Imam was left undamaged by the massive destruction? It is at least curious. [Ed. Note: The 12th Imam has no tomb. The shrine of the Mahdi adjoins the al-Askariya shrine to the 10th and 11th Imams (Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari) and was left undamaged in the attack.]
While the Iranians are seemingly making little progress convincing the world of their ‘peaceful nuclear power program’ save for buying time, they are making considerable progress elsewhere throughout the region with visible, tangible gains in the Palestinian Territories, conditions inexplicably favorable in Lebanon, constant bloody tinkering in Iraq (especially through Basra) and a regional diplomatic ‘charm offensive’ ongoing.
Meanwhile, where it appears Iran is employing a short to mid-term regional strategy, the United States seems entrenched employing long-term strategies of seemingly endless UN-centered wrangling and funding supportive broadcasts into a largely immobile internal Iranian opposition.
There seem to remain no palatable alternatives to remove the threat that the Iranian regime poses, both directly to US security and indirectly through an ever more apparent regional hegemony by the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.