viernes, 25 de marzo de 2011

The Iranian strategy

In my previous article I wrote about the power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. In the comments section of the Spanish version, my dear and loyal reader Terox posed a very good question: how do the Shiites pretend to dominate the Middle Eastern scene, being that they represent no more than 15% of the Muslims of the world? For the sake of answering the question, allow me to re-state it: how does the Islamic Republic of Iran pretend to become the dominant force in a region many times its own size and largely hostile to it?  The answer to both questions lies in the strategy, geo-politics, and the fact that the Middle East conflict is a lot more complex than a simple confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites or another one between Palestinians and Israelis.

In addition to the Shiite-Sunni divide, clashes between Muslims are common for a multitude of reasons. There is evident hostility between radical Islam and the more moderate versions of it. This confrontation does not allow for sectarian distinctions, applying in all its glory that old dictum that goes more or less like this: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. This explains the sometimes close collaboration between radical Shiites and fundamentalist Sunnis in order to fight they’re perceived common threats: civil liberties, the United States of America, Arab secular nationalism, Israel, etc.

To provide some context, we must remember that, as I said in my previous article, the Arab world is a laboratory for all kinds of satrapy. Even if Muslim the countries are politically organized according to a diversity of arrangements, all without exception have managed to create some of the most authoritarian and oppressive regimes in the world. This creates the conditions for discontent and resentment, which trigger the most outlandish alliances. According to the 2010 Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, a division of the British magazine The Economist, the Saudi absolute monarchy came in at number 160 out of 162 countries analyzed; the theocratic republic of Iran came in at 158, the socialist and dynastic republic of Syria occupied number 152 in the ranking, the “republics” of Yemen and Egypt came in at 146 and 138 respectively, and the “moderate” (according to Oscar Arias) constitutional monarchy of Jordan fared only a bit better, at 117 out of 162. As benchmarks for comparison, allow me to mention that Cuba came in at 121, Venezuela at 96, Nicaragua at 89, México at 50, Costa Rica at 24, the USA at 17, and Norway came in on top of the list.

Some of the autocratic regimes of the Middle East and Northern Africa are of a secular, non-religious nature.  Such was Mubarak’s in Egypt, Khaddafi’s in Libya, King Hussein’s in Jordan, and Bashar Assad’s in Syria, to mention just a few. Most of these strongmen are (or were) sworn enemies of radical Islam, regardless of the Shiite-Sunni divide.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, is a fundamentalist Islamic organization from Egypt – a country almost 100% Sunni – which fought against the Mubarak regime, although with a motivation different from that of the protesters of Tahrir Square, which desired democracy, freedom, and respect for their human rights. The terrorist organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip since 2007, arose from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and, as such, is a Sunni movement. However, its cooperation with the Shiite regime of Iran is nothing short of full and complete, especially in regards to fighting Israel.

Iran has been very clever at taking advantage of the nature of these intra-Islamic differences. Its strategy for domination is based upon four pillars.

1. Islamic unity

The Shiites, knowing they are in the minority, have made it standard practice to issue calls to put aside the differences between the Muslim sects, in order to confront the perceived common enemy of Islam, whatever the flavor of the month. Such unity, of course, would be more attractive and convenient should its leadership be taken up by a Shiite regime, which is exactly what Iran pretends to do.

Considering the enormous political differences between Shiites and Muslims, and having so much blood run under the bridge that alternatively unites or separates both sects, achieving such unity will be no easy task. In fact, historically the Shiite calls for unity have been largely ignored by the Sunni leadership. This explains, to a large extent, the blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Iranian regime. The easiest way to amalgamate the Muslims is to do it around an idea that is equally as abominable to both sects, as is the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. It is on this visceral hatred of everything Jewish that the first pillar of the Iranian strategy is built, and President Ahmadinejad has clearly taken the leadership role in this regard.

2. Military might

Iran’s nuclear program is the culmination of a military strategy designed to accompany and make possible the domination dreams of its political and religious leaders. Its ballistic capabilities long ago surpassed the “needs” for attacking Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are, quite literally, just around the corner. Nowadays, and since many years ago, a good chunk of the European continent is within reach of Iran’s conventional missiles. What they are looking for now is the ability to fit their rockets with nuclear heads, which would turn Iran into a real threat to the entire Western world.

Interestingly, Iran is applying to Saudi Arabia a strategy similar to the one being applied against Israel for many years now: creating threats along its borders. In the last two pillars of the Iranian strategy the reasons and nature of their animosity towards the Saudis will become clearer.

Iran was able to “penetrate” Israel’s northern border by forming an alliance with Syria and practically taking control of Lebanon through Hezbollah, a radical, Shiite, terrorist organization which receives most of its funding and logistical support from Syrian and Iran.  In the south, its cooperation, funding and logistical support for Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, represents another serious threat to Israel. In case of a future war, Israel, a country of roughly 20.000 square kilometers and under 7 million inhabitants, will have at least two fronts to defend, aside from the threat of missiles raining down directly from Iran.

Something similar, as I said, is happening to Saudi Arabia. On the northern end, Iran has already established a presence in Iraq, taking advantage of the fact that the US invasion of that country left the doors wide open. It is estimated that 65% of the Iraqis as Shiite Muslims, and thus Iran exerts great influence over that population and over the insurgency against the US military presence there.

It is evident that the protests in Bahrain and Yemen, both abutting Saudi Arabia, have been encouraged from Tehran. Bahrain is an island of barely 750 sq. km., joined by a 25 kilometer bridge to Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf coast. The total population of the island is estimated at 1.25 million, of which only 46% are citizens. Given these figures, anyone could be excused for thinking that Bahrain is irrelevant to this story. Be they would be wrong.

It is estimated that two thirds of the Muslims of Bahrain (the non-Muslim are almost all migrant workers) are Shiite, yet their royal family is Sunni and take up 80% of the Cabinet posts. From a geopolitical perspective, the strategic importance of Bahrain cannot be exaggerated. The country is a member of the Persian Gulf Countries Council (GCC), which groups Saudi Arabia and other relatively minor countries (Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the UAE). More importantly, Bahrain hosts the most important American military base in the region and, being just across the Gulf from Iran (and under 300 kilometers away), its presence is very uncomfortable for the development of Iran’s dominance plans. Should Iran succeed in bringing about the downfall of the pro American Sunni rulers of Bahrain, and replace them with a Shiite regime more sympathetic to the Iranian cause, it will send Uncle Sam packing in a hurry and losing its foothold at such a strategic location. That is why the United States went silent when Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC countries sent troops to shore up the Bahraini monarch.

With regards to Yemen, let’s not forget it shares a long border with Saudi Arabia. It is a country of 28 million inhabitants, 46% of which are Shiite and 52% are Sunni. What is most interesting is the geographical distribution of the population: the Shiites are concentrated on the north and northeast of the country, along the border with Saudi Arabia. On the Saudi side of the border is concentrated the Shiite minority of that kingdom, estimated at between 10% and 15% of the population.  Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the region, and it is believed that may become the first country in the world without fresh water in less than 20 years from now. An Iranian-backed popular uprising among the significant Shiite minority of Yemen could be joined by important segments of the Sunni majority and, as if this were not worrying enough, could easily overflow into Saudi Arabia though the porous common border, into the Shiite regions which are rich in oil. All of which forces us to explain the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the last two pillars of the Iranian strategy for regional domination.

3. Control of important trade routes

The takeover of Yemen is also of vital geopolitical importance to Iran, above and beyond the troubles it may cause Saudi Arabia. The southwestern coast of Yemen sits opposite the eastern coast of Africa, forming the strait of Bab el Mandeb. It is less than 50 kilometers what separates Djibouti from Yemen, and that narrow passage represents the exit from the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea, which is nothing if not an extension of the Indian Ocean. At the other (northern) end of the Red Sea. The Suez Canal allows direct passage to the Mediterranean. In other words, the shortest and fastest route from Europe to the Indian subcontinent and the Far East is through the Red Sea. If only Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo had known this, they would have avoided many a peril.

By gaining control of Yemen, Iran will be in a position to decide if and when to close the Red Sea to the cargo ships that cruise it on a daily basis. In fact, it is estimated that between 30% and 40% of world trade transits through the Suez Canal every day. This would give Iran the ability to completely disrupt the markets for all kinds of products, preventing or at the very least hampering and making European imports and exports from and to India, the Pacific Rim and the Far East more expensive at its will. Controlling Yemen, in sum, provides Iran with the ability to put the entire world economy in check.

4. Control of oil production

Saudi Arabia, with 25 million inhabitants, is the largest oil producer and exporter in the world. In addition to that, the holiest places for Islam are located in Saudi Arabia. Mecca, in particular, is the site of multitudinous annual pilgrimages. Every Muslim is obliged to make the journey to Mecca at least once in his lifetime and, if he has the means, should do it every year. The Saudi regime, promoter of one of the most radical branches of Sunni Islam (Wahabism), exerts absolute control over its territory and has one many an occasion caused unease – we are being very diplomatic in calling it this – by applying a restrictive visa policy aimed at making it difficult for Shiites and non-Arab Muslims to make the pilgrimage. Finally, the Saudi monarch is considered one of the United States’ most important allies in the region.

For all of the above mentioned reasons, Saudi Arabia has become a strategic goal for Iran. With a solid Sunni majority, a Shiite regime is not likely to be installed there. Iran bets, in this case, to the abolition of the monarchy and/or its substitution with another Islamic fundamentalist but anti-USA regime, hopefully more willing to coordinate its foreign policy with Iran. If, in addition to that, Iran obtains or develops nuclear weapons and reliable outposts in the northern, southern and eastern borders of Saudi Arabia, it will increase its leverage over the internal and external affairs of the kingdom.

In terms of the game of chess, if controlling the trade routes meant that Iran could put the world economy in check, adding control over Saudi Arabia’s vast oil riches would give it the opportunity to checkmate the world.


Iran cannot, nor does it need to, establish Shiite regimes in every Arab or Muslim country in its neighborhood. It will suffice to dominate certain geopolitically strategic points of interest to alter the course of contemporary history. With the ability to:

  1. disrupt the global economy by closing the oil valves of the Arabian dessert,
  2. interrupt world trade by closing one of the most traveled shipping routes, and
  3. reach the heart of Europe with nuclear missiles,
radical Islam’s dream of establishing a Caliphate ranging from Spain to Persia and further East to include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan should not be out of reach.  Sadly, Barack Obama has not come to realize that.

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