Wednesday, 27 February 2002

HAS IRAN EMBARKED ON A STRATEGIC TURN?

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By Stephen Blank (2/27/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Iran ostensibly supports the war against terrorism.  Yet President Bush calls it a member of the axis of evil, i.e.

BACKGROUND: Iran ostensibly supports the war against terrorism.  Yet President Bush calls it a member of the axis of evil, i.e. a supporter of terrorism and proliferators.  In spite of the typically anxious and appeasement-oriented European criticism, Bush’s remarks are factually correct.  The State Department’s annual report on terrorism cites Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism.  While it did provide assistance against the Taliban, Iran seems to be following a deliberate strategy to use or threaten to use force and terrorism to expand its influence abroad.  This coercive diplomacy involves either Iranian forces or enhanced and more overt sponsorship of foreign terrorism and strongly suggests Iran’s decisive strategic choice.   Given that Iran is clearly building a nuclear weapons capability against Israel, if not Europe and the United States and already possesses chemical and biological warfare stocks, understanding the nature and implications of its strategic choice is urgent. In the last six months, Iran has forcefully threatened Azerbaijani exploration of Caspian oil and gas; it has resumed running guns and money to its Afghan clients in Heart; given sanctuary to members of Al-Qaida; signed a new deal with Russia to obtain high-grade conventional weapons; begun an anti-American rapprochement with Baghdad; and most dangerously resumed intimate collaboration with the Palestinian Authority in its war of terror against Israel.  This pattern of activity actually predates September 11 and subsequent developments. In July 2001, Iran began using coercive diplomacy against Azerbaijan in order to stems from its efforts to force Azerbaijan to relinquish claims to the Araz-Alov-Sharg oil deposits in the Caspian Sea which Iran also lays claim to. Iran’s Deputy foreign Minister lodged a formal protest with Baku, and on July 23, two Iranian Air Force fighters overflew a BP/AMOCO ship exploring the area. Later that day, an Iranian warship entered Azerbaijan’s territorial waters and threatened in no equivocal terms to fire on an Azerbaijani oil exploration ship unless it departed the area.

IMPLICATIONS: These moves clearly indicated Iran’s unhappiness about the forthcoming division of rights to the Caspian Sea and its territorial waters and fears of being excluded as more pro-Western forces seemed to be influencing Russian, Azerbaijani, and Kazakhstani policies regarding exploration of the Caspian. Thus it employed force and threatened more force, angering Russia but also getting its attention. In Afghanistan, Iran opposed the Taliban because the latter had outflanked it religiously, smuggled drugs through and into Iran, and threatened Iranian designs upon Afghanistan.  Thus it  modestly though visibly contributed to the war against the Taliban.  But once that war ended, it started pouring agents, money, and weapons into the Herat province, now controlled by Iranian client Ismail Khan.  By supporting and promoting warlordism, this policy serves to directly weaken efforts to establish a stable Afghanistan.  By sending weapons, Iran showed that it could and would sustain Ismail Khan even if that meant war.  Moreover, Tehran gave sanctuary to several members of he Al-Qaeda network, clearly betraying a desire to use their experience and know-how. Although Iran has committed terrorist acts abroad, in Europe  and elsewhere, it focuses support for terrorism in Lebanon and Israel where it supported Hizballah, and now Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.  Israel’s capture of a ship carrying fifty tons of Iranian weapons worth $10 million bound from Iran to the PA’s forces, and the nature of the weapons involved that would have materially expanded the PA’s capabilities to threaten Israel’s interior and population, indicates Iran’s heightened support for terrorists despite the American-led campaign against terrorism and its increasing brazenness. Nor were these the first such deliveries.  At least two such deliveries occurred in 2001 indicating that increased reliance on force and terrorism.  Earlier, in 2000-2001 Iran had announced its willingness to extend deterrence to Hizballah if Israel retaliated against Hizballah’s attacks from Lebanon onto Israeli targets.  Thus the decision to support terrorism predated September 11, as did the contacts between the PA and Iran that led to the capture of the gun-running ship in January, 2002. Since this decision and the decision to threaten Azerbaijan predated the war on terrorism, they indicated Iran’s strategic purpose. 

CONCLUSIONS: A twofold explanation can explain Iran’s strategic turn. Iran has increased support for terror and violence in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, concomitant with the apparent domestic victory of its hardliners. Anti-Semitism and war against the United States or its policies are long-standing tactics toward that end.  As they employ ever more violent and repressive tactics internally to break the challenge of domestic reformers, including arrests and assassinations, the incitement of violence against their enemies is a useful card to play.  Undoubtedly their growing arsenal also emboldens the radical elements that still rule Iran.   Furthermore, the war on terrorism has diffused American influence everywhere around them. This reinforces their well-known paranoia concerning America and the desire to strike at it rhetorically and asymmetrically to demonstrate its weakness.  Internal and external factors converge to create an atmosphere favoring incitement and violence including even the threat of nuclear war against Israel and support for terrorism.  It seem that despite President Bush’s warnings, Iran is unlikely to depart from this violent course anytime soon.

AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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