Iran’s Hegemonic Quest

Iran’s Hegemonic Quest · by | The Cipher Brief · June 6, 2018

The Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization is putting the IAEA on notice that Tehran is likely to begin producing centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium.

According to the Fars news agency, Ali Akbar Salehi says the move does not violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Agreement, which allows Tehran to build the parts needed to enrich uranium, but Iran is not allowed to put centrifuges into operation.

The move highlights potential fallout from the announcement last month that the U.S. will withdraw from the JCPOA.

To understand what this means, it’s important to note Iran’s hegemonic quest and how this move could be moving Tehran closer to its broader regional goals.

Bottom Line: The Iranian regime has adopted an aggressive foreign policy doctrine, claiming to serve as the defender of the world’s Shiite Muslim minority sect while concurrently pursuing hegemonic status in the Middle East. Through its strategic use of proxy warfare, Tehran has extended its regional influence, with what has been characterized as a longer-term objective of carving out an Iranian-led Shia crescent across the Middle East.

Background: Iran’s contemporary foreign policy approach is shaped by a worldview introduced by the 1979 Islamic revolution.

  • Iran’s hardline Shia regime rode a tidal wave of popular support into power during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Mass demonstrations in February 1979 led to the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former Iran leader known as the Shah, and the return of exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who claimed the title of Supreme Leader in December 1979 and served in that capacity until his death in June 1989.
  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as Iran’s Supreme Leader in June 1989 and has since served as the country’s most powerful figure.
  • Other key figures in the Iranian regime include President Hassan Rouhani, who was reelected to a second four-year term in May after campaigning on the success of the Iran nuclear agreement. In addition, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal and Maj. Gen. Qasem Soulemani is the head of the elite Quds Force, which operates as the external wing of Iran’s ideologically driven, preeminent paramilitary force known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or the “guardians” of the revolution.

Issue: Through its strong support of proxy groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the Iranian government has asserted itself in the domestic affairs of several Middle Eastern countries, destabilizing central governments across the region.

  • “The Islamic Republic of Iran remains an enduring threat to U.S. national interests because of Iranian support to anti-US terrorist groups and militants, the Assad regime, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and because of Iran’s development of advanced military capabilities.” – 2018 World Wide Threat Assessment
  • Lebanon: Iran’s most notorious proxy group, Hezbollah, meaning “Party of God,” is based in southern Lebanon and was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. in October 1997. The movement has received significant funds and weapons from Tehran, which are often transferred through Syrian territory.
  • Syria: Throughout the Syrian civil war, Iran and Hezbollah have stood behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces, sending in military units to help combat rebel offensives. Tehran has also used Syria as a strategic passage route to ship weapons and cash to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
  • Iraq: Iranian-aligned Shia militias comprised of more than 60,000 troops, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), played an important role in ousting the Islamic State (ISIS) from Iraq. The PMF were formed in June 2014 when several pro-Iranian militia groups – including the Badr Organization, the Hezbollah Brigades, the Martyrs of Sayyid Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Jund al-Imam – joined together to form a unified front to battle ISIS. Although the Iraqi government now provides funding and has nominal control of the PMF, the militias maintain close ties to top Iranian commanders – most notoriously, the IRGC’s Qasem Souleimani.
  • Yemen: Iran has been accused of supplying weapons and finances to Houthi rebels who launched a bloody insurgency in August 2014 against Yemen’s internationally recognized government. In December 2018, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed an array of singed missile remnants and other parts that she said constituted “concrete” evidence that Iran had illegally supplied weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen in direct violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231.
  • Iran’s naval activity also presents a threat to U.S. geostrategic interests in the region by seeking to inhibit U.S. freedom of navigation and engaging in potentially escalatory encounters with U.S naval vessels in critical waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for some 30 percent of the world’s oil supply. The actors primarily responsible are the IRGC’s Navy, and to a lesser extent, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, both of which seek to modernize through the development of armed drones, ballistic missiles, advanced naval mines, unmanned explosive boats, submarines, torpedoes and anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles.

Norm Roule, Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, ODNI

“The Iranians have enhanced their strategic posture throughout the Middle East by developing a Shia militancy numbering in the tens of thousands and capable of fighting with Iran’s support in different countries and against different adversaries at the same time. Within a space of only a handful of years, Iran has gone from a regional pariah to claiming that it should have a role in the destinies of four Arab capitals. Iran also remains a state sponsor of terrorism, detains a growing number of Americans on ludicrous charges, openly claims to target its unreasonably large missile force against American bases in the region, sponsors most of the terrorist groups in the region and supports a war criminal in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who uses chemical weapons against his own people. Recently, the world has watched as Iran openly oppressed its own people.”

James Jeffrey, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey

“It’s Iran’s firm intention to lock Iraq into its growing regional empire as a second Lebanon by using the same Hezbollah-like tactics and relying on local surrogates more loyal to Iran than Baghdad to undermine an independent Iraqi State. If this occurs, the impact on the United States’ position in the region would be devastating. In essence, it could put the lie to Trump’s ‘anti-Iran’ policy by turning a country with two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and the second largest oil production in the region – as well as a population larger than that of Saudi Arabia’s – over to “the enemy” after the U.S. intervened repeatedly to save it from Saddam Hussein, pro-Iranian militias, al Qaeda and of course ISIS.”

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Guy C. Swan III, Former Chief of Staff and Director of Operations, Multi-National Force Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom

“Iran will always have an influential role in Iraq. However, the level of influence and what form it takes going forward will be the issue. The U.S. and other coalition partners will have to balance that influence to enable Iraq to sustain a level of independence as it looks to the post-ISIS period. The Iraqi government reluctantly accommodated the Iranians, especially the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), in order to defeat ISIS. The continued presence of these forces must be dealt with either through integration into Iraqi government forces or by disbanding.”

Admiral (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, Former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“The greatest threats Iran’s navy poses are perhaps: long- and medium-range ballistic missiles, mining the Strait of Hormuz or attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in the Arabian Gulf to the east.”

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel and Suzanne Kelly contributed to this report. Read more on Iran’s Hegemonic Quest and how the Trump Administration is poised to address it in The Cipher Brief’s 2018 Threat Report. · by | The Cipher Brief · June 6, 2018

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