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Opinion: Persian Imperialism Flexes Its Muscle

An Iranian woman and her son walk past an Iranian missile on display in front of a large portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a square in south Tehran. (AFP-Getty Images/Atta Kenare)
An Iranian woman and her son walk past an Iranian missile on display in front of a large portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a square in south Tehran. (AFP-Getty Images/Atta Kenare)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

Two events in the last month have underscored the growing reach of Iranian influence in the Middle East. The first was the abrupt and unexpected resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister, later rescinded, Saad Rafik al-Hariri.

The second was the announcement that Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority and the territory on the West Bank, would share administrative jurisdiction with the Hamas controlled government in Gaza. Both events, seemingly unrelated, underscore a new phase in Tehran's growing Middle Eastern clout.

Hariri's Resignation Destabilizes Lebanon

On November 4, 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri announced, via Saudi TV, that he intended to step down. At the time, he was on an official state visit to Riyadh. Hariri cited the growing power of Iran in the Middle East, in general, and the increasing influence of Hezbollah, an Iranian funded proxy, in Lebanese affairs as reasons for his resignation.

He also cited fears for his personal safety. Hariri's father, Rafic Hariri, was assassinated in 2005, in what is widely believed to have been a Hezbollah orchestrated attack.

His resignation announcement precipitated a political crisis in Lebanon, which many saw as a deliberate Saudi attempt to isolate Tehran and underscore Hezbollah's, and by extension Iran's, growing influence in the country. Hezbollah, a militant Shia Islamist political organization based in Lebanon that was organized by Iran in 1985, has been funded by Tehran since its inception.

The group's political arm, Loyalty to the Resistance, is the third largest political party in the Lebanese parliament. The group, along with Amal (Hope Movement), another Lebanese political party associated with the Shiite community, dominates the March 8 Alliance, which currently holds power in Lebanon.

The alliance has 24 of the alliance's 63 parliamentary seats. The balance of 65 seats is held by a smattering of other parties, including 59 seats by the March 14 alliance -- the official opposition. Hezbollah holds two of the thirty cabinet seats in the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah's paramilitary wing is the Jihad Council. Originally set up by a contingent of 1,500 troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the group has long clashed with Israeli forces along the Lebanon border. In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a full-scale war that saw Hezbollah fire thousands of short-range missiles into Israeli territory and led to the capture of several Israeli soldiers.

Additionally, Hezbollah fighters continue to be deployed in Syria in support of the Assad government in Damascus. The group has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States and its allies.

It's unclear what specific events triggered Hariri's resignation, although it was widely believed to have been in response to Hezbollah's possible attempts to increase the number of cabinet seats it controls in the Lebanese government.

Currently, Hezbollah represents around 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in the government coalition, but has only about six percent of the cabinet positions. It may also have simply been a useful pretext by Riyadh to highlight Hezbollah's growing influence in the country.

After announcing a series of trips to the Gulf Emirates and Bahrain, later cancelled, Hariri traveled to France, accompanied by his wife and children, for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. Hariri is also a French citizen and holds both Lebanese and French nationality.

It is believed that his wife and children remained in France for their protection. On November 21, Hariri announced that at the request of Lebanese president Michel Aoun, he had agreed to put his resignation "on hold ahead of further consultations."

Hamas and Fatah Move to Reconcile

In the meantime, on October 13, 2017, Hamas and Fatah announced that they had agreed to an Egyptian government brokered agreement to reconcile, after more than a decade of bitter infighting, and establish a national unity government. The agreement, which is still far from complete, calls for the two sides to integrate the Hamas administration of Gaza into the broader Palestinian Authority (PA) government of Fatah.

Several hundred Fatah administrators will be transferred to Gaza to work with the Hamas government there and pave the way for the eventual integration of the two government's administrations.

In addition, Hamas agreed that the Gaza police force would be rebuilt and that it would include 3,000 officers drawn from the Palestinian Authority police force. Hamas also agreed to turn over control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to the Palestinian Authority.

That border crossing had been closed by the Egyptian government, preventing the transit of goods and people between Gaza and Sinai, and further isolating the Hamas government in Gaza.

As part of the reconciliation announcement, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would make a visit to Gaza for the first time since Hamas had ousted the Palestinian Authority from there in 2007.

Significantly, the most contentious issues were set aside for the moment. These included the ultimate disposition of the 25,000-strong armed wing of Hamas, control of the tunnel networks that Hamas has built under the Israeli-Gaza border and the reform of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

The latter is widely seen by Palestinians as corrupt and riddled with cronyism, especially as it relates to the allocation and spending of financial aid given to the Palestinian Authority by various governments.

The most significant issue is the question of national elections. It was Hamas's upset victory in 2007 that led to the split with the PA. Most intelligence agencies believe that if national elections were held today PA President Mahmoud Abbas, or any of his likely successors, would lose to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya.

It's not clear that Hamas wants to take responsibility for the governance of the Palestinian territory. On the other hand, Hamas has received significant aid from Iran and a Hamas takeover of the PA would be widely seen as a victory for Iran and further proof of Tehran's growing clout in the region.

Persian Imperialism and the Contemporary Middle East

The reconciliation agreement underscores some important changes taking place in the Middle East and marks the confluence of several different issues, some purely local, while others are more regional in scope. The core issue is the growing reach of Iranian influence, a topic that the Arab press sometimes refers to as a reassertion of historic Persian imperialism in the region.

Persian imperialism, is in fact, nothing new to the Middle East. It has waxed and waned over the millennia, from the empire of Cyrus the Great to the present "Shite arc of influence," which stretches from Iran across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

When strong regional powers or superstates existed, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the various Sunni Muslim and later Ottoman empires, to most recently Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the reach of Persia or its Iranian namesake has been constrained and contained. In the absence of such countervailing powers, historic Persian imperialism cut a wide swath across the Middle East, including Arabia. Many Sunni Arab governments, especially those in the Gulf, fear that Tehran is in the process of another such flexing of historic Persian power.

Egypt and Islamic State in the Sinai

From Egypt's standpoint, it has a growing Islamic State (IS) based insurgency in the Sinai. The group, the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM) or Supporters of the Holy House, began operations in 2011.

In 2014, elements of the group pledged themselves to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and renamed themselves Isil-Sinai Province. Since then, ABM has been responsible for hundreds of attacks across the Sinai and the deaths of hundreds of Egyptian officials, government officials and policemen.

The presence of that insurgency was driven home on November 24, 2017, when the Sufi al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed in the North Sinai was attacked by a group of 40 Islamic State militants.

The gunmen set up a classic kill box outside the main entrance to the mosque with overlapping fields of fire. They then detonated several makeshift bombs, which not only heavily damaged the mosque, but caused worshippers to flee the mosque and run into the kill zone. More than 300 Egyptians were killed and hundreds more wounded.

The group has called for additional attacks on the Sinai's large Sufi Muslim community, as well as attacks on Christians, especially Egypt's Coptic Christian community and Jews. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, IS militants in the Sinai have been collaborating with Islamic State militants in Libya and have received arms, supplies and financial support from them.

Egypt has a vested interest in seeing the reintegration of the Gaza strip with the West Bank under the PA's authority. Cairo fears that the pervasive lawlessness that characterizes Gaza will provide a haven to Islamic State affiliated militants in the Sinai.

The outbreak of violence between Hamas and Israeli authorities is also problematic for Egypt. Any kind of Israeli military response will likely drive Palestinians in Gaza to attempt to stream across the border into the Sinai, creating more headaches for Egyptian authorities.

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Does It Still Matter?

There is also a large issue in play here. The messy Israeli-Palestinian issue is no longer one of the defining pillars of Arab foreign policy in the region. It has been subsumed by the larger issues of Iran's growing regional clout.

From the standpoint of the Saudis and their Gulf allies, long-time primary financiers of the "frontline states" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, not to mention the actual front-line states like Egypt and Jordan, the Palestinian issue is one they would like to see go away as it distracts from the problem of dealing with Iranian imperialism.

A continuation of the Palestinian issue serves to give Tehran additional opportunities to aggravate tensions in the region and to destabilize moderate Arab regimes there. Moreover, it makes security cooperation with Israel harder to implement.

That's one reason why the PA's Arab state supporters and bankers are pressuring them to cooperate with the Trump Administration's Mideast peace initiative; even threatening to withdraw or withhold financial aid if they prove recalcitrant.

That's a dangerous strategy, especially given Abbas's and the Palestinian Authority's lack of political support. That strategy may well push the PA toward a de facto alliance with Hamas and its Iranian backers; a strategy that would significantly diminish the chances of a comprehensive peace accord and embolden Tehran supported proxies on Israel's borders.

Abbas has not been afraid to push back against Arab and American pressure to get onboard the latest peace process, dropping subtle hints that a potential Iranian sugar daddy is waiting in the wings should his Arab benefactors withhold financial support or an unpopular peace accord be forced on the Palestinian Authority.

Tehran has long maneuvered to position itself as a frontline state in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Should Hamas end up by default supplanting the PA, Iranian proxies will find themselves on four of Israel's frontiers: Gaza, Lebanon, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. Moreover, with de facto Iranian military bases in Iraq and Syria, and the defeat of Islamic State, Tehran's ability to directly supply its proxies with arms has improved substantially.

It used to be that all issues in the Middle East, however benign, were invariably subsumed to the larger issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an issue that even defined the boundaries of U.S.-Soviet relations in the region during the Cold War. Today, it is the rise of Iran and the reach of Persian imperialism that have subsumed all other issues in the Middle East, including the one of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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