Written by Fakhrul Islam
“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” The great American geostrategic thinker who outlined the geostrategic future and predicted the conflicts that the United States will face in the centuries to come was not far off, rather on point, when he remarked the above about the Indian Ocean in the late 1800s... ...
The recent escalation and rising tensions between the United States and Iran involves one of the four most important gateways to the Indian Ocean and oil trade in general. Two gateways, if you count the presence of the Iranian proxies in the Yemeni Civil War. A point to note here is that according to the data of the US EIA, the top four chokepoints imperative for energy stability of the world are the gateways to the Indian Ocean, in order of the volume of oil that is passed through, namely the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline, and lastly Bab el-Mandeb. Iran claims control over the Strait of Hormuz and virtually has its hold on Bab el-Mandeb thanks to its Yemeni Houthi proxies.
Here we must explore how Iran, over time, has developed a network of proxies, which is now known as The Radical Front, and has surrounded its declared enemies with them by what is now being called the Shi’ite Crescent.
Iran, since after its Islamic Revolution in 1979, has used the image of America as the “big bad” justifying a hardline anti-Western policy and declaring capturing the Al Aqsa Mosque from Israel while establishing Palestine was declared as the raison d’etre of the newly born theocratic Islamic Republic. To that end they found allies in the impoverished Shi’ites in Lebanon and President Hafez Al Assad in Damascus, who agreed to supply, train and facilitate the Shi’ite militia group hailing from Lebanon which came to be known as Hezbollah, whose only mission since the very beginning is the destruction of the only democracy in the region. They partially succeeded to put a dent on Israel which quickly recovered. President Assad who at first reluctantly was helping the Iran-Hezbollah axis now jumped in to have a larger bite of the cake cause to him it tasted like revenge, of the defeats he and his allies have suffered in battles and wars against Israel. Hezbollah with such active unrelenting support grew up to be one of the most formidable non-state actors in the region and around the world. At one point, Iranian-backed Hezbollah became more capable of conducting terrorist attacks than al-Qaeda ever was. With three decades of experience fighting the Israelis in Lebanon and northern Israel, suspected ties to Latin American drug cartels, and a global network, Hezbollah is an international network that is able to conduct large-scale attacks against the United States and its interests abroad.
In fact, Hezbollah cells are believed to be active in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere, making the organization more than a hypothetical threat. With the U.S. Marine Barracks bombing (Beirut,1983), Argentine Israelite Mutual Association bombing (Buenos Aires,1994), Khobar Towers bombing (Saudi Arabia,1996), and many other attacks under their belts, Hezbollah has a mark of distinction in terrorism and terrorist tactics to employ on behalf of its masters in Tehran. Should the U.S. military attack Iran, Hezbollah is likely to launch a series of terrorist counter-attacks that will not be as localized as the al-Qaeda ones but would rather adopt an ISIL like approach and launch attacks in multiple countries scattered across multiple continents which will make it harder to trace and track and harder to prevent or counter, allowing them to easily dissipate an aura of fear and terror all across the world.
Hamas pretended to be naïve and innocent in its founding years, pretending to be a rather innocuous social movement, it even conned the Israeli authorities and convinced them that it is to be a viable alternative to the violent narrative of the PLO and out of that belief the Israeli authorities in a way funded it’s founding not aware of what a monster they are watering to growth. The true colors came to be known, but it was already too late. The offensive against Hamas proved to be difficult and expensive in terms of human lives and as Israel respected the norms of human rights in its engagements it was rather forced to send them to exile. More than 400 members of the PIJ and Hamas ended up in exile in Southern Lebanon. This changed the course of Hamas forever. Even though it was founded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood to raise a local counterpart to PLO as Muslim Brotherhood refused to confront Israel directly, it was at these dire times for Hamas that the Iranians saw a chance to court it to its cause and transform it into a deadly proxy in the war against Israel. Before this exile, Hamas operated with high efficiency but conducted its operations in a comparatively less deadlier fashion as it lacked proper training on bomb making and also didn’t know how to employ suicide bombing as an effective tool against the Israeli forces; second of which was something that Hezbollah was notorious for as it has employed suicide bombers and bombing as a means to hurt its enemies thanks to the evil ingenuity of Imad Mughniyeh. So, the Lords of Tehran ordered its Lebanese proxy to approach and establish relations with Hamas. Even though the Hamas members were Sunni and Hezbollah a Shi’ite organization they started working well together as the latter started to train the former in tactics and imparted skills in bomb making and suicide bombing specifically; this has since served Hamas well as it had received many a shipment of explosives from Hezbollah as it provided Hamas with weapons and explosives to attack Israel from Gaza. Since this alliance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the blessing of the Mollahs in Tehran had been relentless in terms of funding and accommodation. It was only after the sanctions on Iran that they stopped funding Hamas directly, but yet still Hamas serves as a very reliable proxy for Iran.
Iraq, led by the despotic Saddam Hussain, acting on the desires of its American and Arab friends attacked Iran immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution in order to nip the nascent theocracy in the bud. The opposite happened. Even though the entire upper rank of the Iranian Army that the theocrats inherited from the Shah was executed on charges of being counter revolutionary, the new Revolutionaries held the Iraqi forces at bay with stiff resistance! It is to be noted that Iran would not agree to give up its regional ambitions cause after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Tehran adopted a new military doctrine which aims to move the war into enemy territories and never fight on Iranian soil again. It views its military involvement and proxy operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon as a way to keep confrontation away from its borders. Iraq which was then a Sunni led country with a Shia majority also went to multiple crackdowns to quell the engrieved Shia populace and committed atrocities which still haunts them, so naturally when the Saddam Regime fell due to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq the Shias were ready to take over the ruling of Iraq and even though Iran with its IRGC was supplying and training Shia militias to engage and resist the American forces on the ground and resulted in more than 80% casualties to these IRGC supported proxies, the US government’s tacit approval to targeted killings, kidnappings and extra-judicial killing along with marginalization of the Sunni population in Iraq gave Iraq in a way to the Shias and, thanks to the proxy militias which were never totally disbanded, to Iran.
Syrian Civil War expanded the Iranian reach in a physical manner as their expeditionary forces and IRGC personnel deployed to crush the rebels in the name of protecting the Assad regime in order to keep their so called “axis of resistance” alive and keep the supply lines open to their Lebanese allies, the Hezbollah, which actively deployed its military arm into Syria to aid the pro-government forces along with other Iranian “volunteer militias” due to the heavy involvement of the IRGC in the Iraqi theater to contain and crush the ISIL forces which was, strategically speaking, breathing down the neck of Tehran. This extended the influence of Iran from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and gave them a big advantage as they played a role in controlling two of the eight major chokepoints for oil, which is their main export as they, due to the US sanctions, still remains an oil-based economy. It is also to be noted that IRGC has extended its reach into Africa as well, as the Director of the MOSSAD, Mr. Yossi Cohen announced somedays back that militias from Central African Republic were trained under the supervision of the IRGC advisers in Syria. A Shia presence is Nigeria should also be taken into account.
The last pin on the coffin of Saudi patience in this proxy war waged against them by the Iranians was Yemen when the Houthis marched into Sanaa and took over both the the government and the capital. Saudi-UAE led alliance felt insulted and started a war that still continues to the peril of the people of Yemen. The IRGC shipped advanced missiles and drones to these ragtag militias whom they have trained since 2009 and to some extent designed this war in order to engage the Saudis deep inside their own territories and it showed when multiple times Riyadh and Jeddah came under attack from ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis. Even though most or all of these missiles were shot down before they could make an impact, but the fear and the sense of vulnerability prevailed. The Houthis even fired anti-ship missiles at ships at sea, and to no ones surprise they were Iranian in origin. This specific group gave Iran the control over the second most important oil trade route in the Middle East, the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb.
Now, as these proxies are listed, we must also calculate the innate capabilities of Iran. Iran possesses what is likely the most capable military the United States has faced in decades. Iran is no Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan or Iraq. In all of these examples, the U.S. military defeated an adversary incapable of competing with superior American land, naval, and air forces. The Iranian military is far more competent and capable, and after watching the war in Iraq for a decade has a good understanding of U.S. tactics and strategy. Also, their involvement against ISIL in Iraq and Syria ensures that they are battle hardened for any such encounter.
Iran's regular navy is somewhat adept (or assumedly so) at littoral combat and may be capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz for sufficient duration to wreak economic havoc. The recent naval exercises by the Iranian navy illustrate a clear strategy that would seek to close the strait while attempting to sink American combat vessels that enter the area. This would result in a significant loss of commercial shipping and cause the price of oil to skyrocket. This would also mean that the economies of other countries like China, Russia and the ones in the Far East are also affected economically which will drag them into this war rather against their will.
If it comes to war, the proliferation of advanced air defense systems that Iran possess may give it one of the best integrated anti-aircraft defense systems the United States faces in combat. They may be capable of inflicting casualties on American airpower not seen since Vietnam. And with a declining bomber force, losses could be unacceptable. Unlike Iraq, Iran’s regular Army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps won’t lay down their arms at the first sight of U.S. ground troops. They, more than any other element of the regime, watched Afghanistan and Iraq for lessons on how to defeat the Americans. The capabilities of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (VEVAK), Iran’s espionage service, is also to be taken into account as it has proven itself to be among the most competent in the world. Over the past thirty years, VEVAK agents have successfully hunted down and assassinated dissidents, former officials of the Shah's government, and real or perceived threats to the regime. VEVAK is still capable of carrying out assassinations, espionage, and other kinetic attacks against government and civilian targets. The spy service is also likely to have covert agents in the United States. While information is incomplete, there’s reason to believe that Manssor Arbabsiar, the Iranian who allegedly attempted to hire the Zeta drug cartel to assassinate a Saudi ambassador on American soil, was tied to VEVAK. While the effort failed, it demonstrates the lengths to which VEVAK will likely go. It has also been known to target Iranian expatriates, imprisoning their family members and causing bodily harm. A small number of the 1-1.5 million Iranian-Americans may very well become targets of such tactics and might work at the behest of the Iranians in case of a war.
With all these proxies and deterrents Iran in case of a conflict will not sit on its hands rather start engaging US, Saudi and Israeli assets in its reach and the strikes will be both counterforce and countervalue in nature. To Iran, victory is of importance regardless of the human cost and for that they are more than willing to commit to a scorched earth policy, especially in the Sunni populated regions/countries. The consequence of launching a direct offensive in the Iranian mainland is going to be very costly in comparison to the air strikes that Israel carries out against the Iranian assets and personnel in Syria on a regular basis due to the fact that the retaliation will not be from Iran alone, in the form of unleashing its ballistic missile arsenal or carry out air strikes or naval strikes on US bases/assets only but the proxies will strike with their force on the American forces scattered across the vastness of the Middle East in multiple bases, the most vulnerable of which would be those in Iraq and Syria. In case of a war, Bahrain, which houses the US Fifth Fleet whose area of responsibility is the Strait of Hormuz will definitely come under attack due to the Shi’ite insurgents present there even if the missiles are stopped. Speaking of missile strikes Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar and the American bases and installations in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian peninsula also would make lucrative targets for Iran and in case they fail to strike these targets by means of long distance engagements they will employ their numerous proxy groups scattered all across the Middle East in a manner which will be much more organized and coordinated in comparison to ISIL as it must not be forgotten that what made the rapid expansion of ISIL into a pseudo state comprising of vast landfill was possible due to their unique strategy known as Hybrid Warfare, which even though introduced by two Chinese colonels in their staff college dissertation was first successfully fielded by IRGC along with their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, against Israel in the Israel-Lebanon War of 2006. Now, after 5 years of fighting with multiple insurgent groups in Syria and defeating and eradicating the strongholds of ISIL in both Syria and Iraq, Iran have some of the most battle hardened personnel who are zealous to fight for the cause they believe in regardless of their lack of advanced weaponry and lack of technological advantage which makes them surely a dangerous opponent to engage, especially in their home ground.
In what President Obama called “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated” and his successor President Donald Trump derided as “one of the worst deals ever”, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the clumsy name given to the multinational nuclear deal signed between Iran and six world powers in 2015—is hanging by a very thin thread as war of words is on between the USA and Iran. President Trump dealt it a near-fatal blow to the deal last year by withdrawing America from the accord against the will of the other partners in the deal while making feel Iran affronted. Iran, with its usual quid pro quo attitude plan to inflict more wounds to the process and the agreement in July by breaching some of the agreed limits, on the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and on the concentration of fissile material, which if done will throw the chances of negotiations out of the window putting both America and Iran on a collision course.
In 2002 the world learned of a large, secret Iranian uranium-enrichment site buried deep underground. Iran claimed it was intended to make low-enriched uranium for nuclear-power stations. The rest of the world suspected it was part of a clandestine nuclear-weapons program, intended to give Iran the ability to produce the highly enriched uranium that goes into bombs. In 2003, shortly after President George W. Bush declared his “global war on terror” and America invaded Iraq, Iran announced that it would suspend all enrichment-related activities, as part of diplomacy with Europe. But as regional tensions rose over the next decade, its nuclear program mushroomed. Western powers, fearing the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon and the Middle Eastern arms race that might follow, piled on increasingly draconian sanctions to force Iran to back down. Rumors swirled that Israel might launch air strikes, as it had on an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a Syrian site in 2007.
The insecurity fueled Iran to be more protective of its nuclear program. After much bickering, in July 2015 Iran reached a bargain with the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (America, Britain, France, Russia and China) as well as with Germany and the European Union. It mothballed thousands of centrifuges (machines that enrich uranium). It agreed to enrich uranium only to low levels not suitable for a bomb and to accumulate no more than 300kg. It poured concrete into the core of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, which might otherwise have yielded plutonium for a bomb and it agreed to the most stringent inspections regime anywhere in the world. In return, some of the sanctions were lifted, providing relief for Iran’s battered economy.
The deal’s proponents argued that the restrictions left Iran more than a year away from being able to produce a bomb’s worth of fuel, as opposed to a few months. “Military action would only set back Iran’s program by a few years at best, which is a fraction of the limitations imposed by this deal,” pointed out President Obama and even if Iran cheated, went the theory, it could only move slowly to avoid being found out. Less impressed, hawks in America, Israel and the Gulf states scoffed that Presdient Obama had given away too much. Iran, they complained, would be permitted to continue some enrichment and to expand its program as restrictions fall away (the first expire after a decade). In the meantime, it would receive billions of dollars that could be funneled to allied militant groups in an already volatile region, furthering the strategic reach of Iran.
In May 2018, President Trump pulled America out of the JCPOA and soon re-imposed sanctions on Iran. European countries promised to protect trade as best as they could, but most companies preferred to sacrifice deals with Iran rather than risk losing business in the American market. Iran kept its side of the nuclear bargain for a year. In April 2019, President Trump ended waivers that had allowed some countries to continue buying Iranian oil and that was the final straw. In May, Iran gave notice that it would begin walking away from the deal, provision by provision, unless the Europeans could shield Iran’s economy.
Since then, hostilities between America and Iran have increased. Ships have been attacked in or near the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of global oil exports pass. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, responded by threatening to block oil shipments crippling sanctions were re-imposed on Iran; if Iran could not export oil, nor could others. Tensions have escalated further in recent days. On June 13th two ships were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. On June 20th an American surveillance drone flying over the strait was shot down by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. After tweeting that “Iran made a very big mistake!”, President Trump reportedly ordered military strikes on Iran—only to change his mind hours later, when the American bombers were ten minutes away from their targets in Iran, when President Trump called the retaliatory strike off.
On May 12th four oil tankers were damaged in a “sabotage attack” off Fujairah, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Gulf officials claim the ships—two Saudi, one Emirati and the other Norwegian—had holes blown in their hulls, near the waterline. The incident remains murky but unnamed American officials were quick to point their fingers at Iran or its proxies as the likely culprit, without presenting evidence. Fujairah lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz; a chokepoint that Iranian officials have threatened to block. This only reminds of the so-called tanker war between Iran and Iraq which ravaged international shipping in the 1980s.
That was not the only flare-up. What was meant to be a moment of optimism in Yemen turned out to be otherwise. The UN said on May 14th that the Houthis, rebels who control much of the country, had left Hodeida, the largest port. The pullout was a condition of a ceasefire reached last December.
On the same day, though, the Houthis attacked two oil-pumping stations for the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia. The damage was limited, but the blasts were a worrying sign of vulnerability in the Kingdom’s vital oil industry. The facilities, more than 700km north of the Yemeni border, were probably hit with long-range drones the Houthis acquired last year. They are fighting a Saudi-led coalition, supported by America, that backs the Yemeni government. The coalition promised to retaliate. Meanwhile, fighting resumed in Hodeida.
While all these are transpiring the Russians declared they are going to barter oil with Iran for articles and so did China who preferred to switch to trading oil with RMB instead of USD. It must be pointed that both Iran and Russia are cooperating in Syria to a common goal of keeping the Assad regime as the masters of Damascus but Russia also has a vested interest in the state of affairs in Western Asia; it has tried its best to contain the impact that the U.S.-Iranian crisis could have on its own national security. As a result, the foreign policy Russia has applied toward the crisis can be divided into two main areas of focus.
The first area of focus is directly related to the size of Russia’s Muslim population and its ability to influence political processes in the country. These days there are about twenty million Muslims in Russia, a figure that has doubled within the span of three decades. Russia needs to prevent this population from being lumped into radical nationalist groups while at the same time representing their interests. Thus, Russia is concerned that the West—or even Iran—might have the power to provoke political and social unrest amid different groups of that Muslim population. In the past, Western countries have been suspected of supporting these and other radical groups on Russian territory. Moscow is also concerned about the possibility that a Shia and the Sunni confrontation could erupt on its soil and that one of those groups would receive support from Iran. It does not want to become a sectarian battlefield in the struggle between different religious identities.
The second area of focus is concentrated on the areas that Russia sees as a part of its sphere of influence, such as post-Soviet countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, and other countries of the region where Moscow is very popular especially among some political and economic elites. These elites believe that Russia can help them combat the influence of radical political Islam. At the same time, these countries have traditionally strong ties to Iran historically due to common culture and language. Due to this intersection of historical, diplomatic, and economic ties, the region is an area of mutual interest to both the Russians and Iranians. Cooperation between the two countries mostly centers around the Caucasus, Caspian and Central Asian regions. Russia has a long-term project, known as the greater Eurasia partnership, and Iran is a project participant. Russia tries to sell project participants on the idea that the project is a good alternative to further expansion of the West, which may cost them their national identities.
There is also the agenda of NSTC at play. The NSTC or the North-South Transportation Corridor was a result of the Inter-Governmental agreement between India, Iran and Russia that formulated in 2000. The agreement was later joined by Belarus, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Oman, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Armenia. The corridor is intended to link India (Nhava Sheva port), Iran (Bandar Abbas port) and Russia (Astrakhan Port). The route will reduce the cargo transit distance from the Indian Ocean to Europe by two thirds in comparison to the route of Suez Canal. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) will boost trade between Iran, India, Central Asia, Europe and Russia via sea, rail and road. This along with the Chinese Belt Road Initiate (BRI) puts Iran in a point where it is more aligned to Russian and Chinese interests and thus will have the umbrella from these two permanent members of the UN Security Council if the worst comes to pass.
Unless America takes heed of the complex geopolitical imperatives and the threats that surrounds any rash decision which might blind side American interests and policy in the region and Iran can find a way to stop trying to be the strongman, which it clearly is not due to a crumbling economy at home, and talk again with the partners in the previous deal and start to restart the process of renegotiation, US will have an Iran which will creep back towards the ability to make a nuclear bomb while Iran will have an economy which will call for a civil disorder which might turn out into a revolution ousting the Mollahs from the throne of Tehran. What could put a stop to either of these nightmarish scenarios for both the parties from becoming a reality? Probably a deal that looks much like the JCPOA.