Iran: Iran the Regional Troublemaker

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November 14, 2023: Iran has been having a bad year. The most recent disaster was the Hamas attack on Israel, which means the end of one of Iran’s major paramilitary assets. The Israeli military is one of the best in the world and did not expect Hamas to self-destruct like this, killing as many Israelis as it could before Hamas was gone and their base in Gaza severely damaged. Iran may have ordered this in an effort to disrupt the recent alliance between Israel and the Gulf oil states against Iran. The Hamas attack was a major intelligence failure for Israel and the Arab neighbors realize that this was an Iranian intelligence victory. If Iran could do this again, it would most likely be used against one the Arab states that oppose the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. Expending Hamas to accomplish this attack on Israel reminds Arab states that it could happen to them. Iran is a common enemy or threat to Israel, Arabs and Turks. Surviving Hamas members were surprised to discover that Iran had not ordered Hamas to attack. It was Hamas leaders that approved the attack and many of them died during the subsequent fighting.

The end of Hamas will be another side-effect of the long, since 1979, Iranian efforts to destroy Israel and America which Iran called the two Great Satan’s and has been largely one-sided but increasingly expensive as the Iranian defeats piled up. It didn’t take long for many Iranians to figure out that this war against former allies was not really a war but rather an excuse for the clerics to spend a lot of money on an army of Islamic terrorists whose main job was to protect the ruling clerics from the Iranian people. The clerics thought they could control popular dissent by maintaining a militia of religiously minded volunteers who could earn some extra cash and other favors by bullying or beating anyone who openly opposed the religious dictatorship. These government approved thugs were a common feature of dictatorships, Nazis and communists both used them. By the 1990s the government had organized street gangs, composed of young men who are Islamic conservatives, paid to break up pro-reform demonstrations by force and attack any groups that openly oppose the government for whatever reason. There has always been the risk that a series of street brawls could escalate and lead to another mass revolution like the one in 1979. So far that has been avoided but more and more of the young men who were prime candidates to join these gangs have changed sides.

Once more there are protests and even attacks on local religious leaders in towns and cities that do not have a lot of religious conservatives, or a local Islamic conservative militia unit. The militia had a name; the Basj, which provided the manpower for pro-government street gangs since the 1990s, when popular protests the dictatorship became more common and threatening. The Basj is actually part of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) whose main job is to protect the religious rulers from any internal threat (including from the national police or regular armed forces). Although the Basj officially has 11 million members, the number that the government could depend on has been declining. A few years ago, it was several hundred thousand but now it is less than 100,000 and falling. Basj members have families and feel the economic decline like everyone else.

The IRGC also decided to aid Hamas, a militant Palestinian group that appeared in the 1980s and took control of Gaza after the Israelis left in 2007. Hamas always had one primary goal: the destruction of Israel. Since the United States was a steadfast supporter of Israel, the Americans would have to be eliminated as well. Few believed Hamas would choose self-destruction and try to act on their goals of destroying Israel. At the same time, Hamas eventually became dependent on Iranian financial support, which enabled Hamas to buy a lot of support and some loyalty in Gaza.

The Sunni Palestinians in Gaza were not happy about being dependent on Iranian cash. The rest of the Arab population was not happy with Hamas becoming subservient to Iran, which was at war with all Arab governments, plus Israel and the United States. Arabs see Iran as a potential threat and a perpetual nuisance. Subsidizing and then expending Hamas was seen as typical Iranian behavior with allies and against enemies. The large number of Israelis Hamas killed pleased Iran, even as it horrified most of the world.

With Hamas now weakened from combat losses, attention is turning to Hezbollah, an earlier and larger Iranian creation in Lebanon which is composed of Shia Muslims. Hezbollah is also, like Hamas, seen as a ruthless Iranian tool that is capable of anything. As Hamas attacked Israel it called on Hezbollah to join in. Hezbollah declined. Hezbollah has always been more cautious and rational than Hamas. Hezbollah continues to concentrate on its own survival. This definitely does not include another war with Israel. Hezbollah always saw Hamas as an erratic and undependable ally and the feeling was mutual. With Hamas gone, Hezbollah continues to concentrate on preserving its power in Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a five-week war in 2006 that could have meant the end of Hezbollah were it not for an UN effort to arrange a truce and then a peace deal. Hezbollah is very aware that Israel can destroy its armed forces whereupon its Sunni Arab and Christian neighbors will drive all the Lebanese Shia into Syria. This is why Hezbollah is basically ignoring the demands of Iran and Hamas to join in attacking Israel. Hamas has a death wish, Hezbollah does not. While both Hamas and Hezbollah receive financial support from Iran, Hezbollah is pretty much ignoring Iranian calls to attack Israel, particularly in not launching the 100,000 missiles and rockets Hezbollah has stored in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah knows that it will be destroyed if it makes a significant attack on Israel, and that Iran doesn’t care about that as long as some Israelis get killed. Iran appears willing to continue subsidizing Hezbollah as a threat to Israel, but it is possible that it might not insist on another suicidal attack given that it would result in an enormous political disaster from the ethnic cleansing of Lebanese Shia, with Iran doing nothing about the cleansing for lack of means. All this fighting by forces belonging to various religious factions has destroyed the Lebanese government as well as the Lebanese military. Since World War 2, Lebanon has survived on cooperation and compromise. This system is unstable and often fails, as it recently did Iran tried to use pro-Iran militias to attack Israel. That did not work, and Lebanon has neither the resources nor any eagerness to improve the situation.

 

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