When Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the top ranking general in the Revolutionary Guard and the head of Iran’s paramilitary Basij forces, stated a few months ago that “we must shift the battleground from our region into their territory … one that takes our interests into account as well”, the world considered it a piece of empty rhetoric. Now, as the United States accuses Iran of the attempted assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, the world may need to consider Naghdi’s words as the opening speech for a new doctrine, suggesting a radical shift in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran’s apparent plot to bomb Washington sits at odds with its official condemnation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, putting many experts in a state of confusion. Huge differences among their analyses during recent days demonstrate this perplexity. The spectrum of analysis ranges from questioning the allegation in its entirity, to considering it as the manifestation of internal conflicts among Iranian decision makers.
Although US officials always accuse Iran of acting against American interests in the region, Iran has never before tried to act directly against the US outside of the middle east. Bombing Washington is the most serious allegation levelled by the US against the Islamic regime in the three decades since the Iranian Revolution. The Islamic state, however, as always, denies this allegation. What I will offer here is a decoding of Iran’s “new message” to the West and the US in particular through the lens of the larger strategic picture: the effects of the “Arab Spring” on Iran’s position in the region.
Some experts suggest that the Revolutionary Guard is moving towards a second phase in its coup d’état – the first being the fraudulent election of 2009 – by manipulating all socio-political sectors in the country by pushing Iran into a more militarised state. While there is no benefit for the theocratic state in embarking on serious military action against the US, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will be well placed to achieve huge short-term dividends by raising tensions. Top generals in the Guard can easily force the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, into a situation of absolute reliance on them, and thus expand their capacities to defend the system against both interior and exterior opponents.
Although this reading might offer a plausible theory of how Iran’s theocratic system is gradually moving towards a military state, this was long underway, having been accelerated by the 2009 elections. Even the Supreme Leader now mandates the Revolutionary Guard with the highest authority and absolute power to save the Islamic state.
More likely is that, in light of recent events in the middle east – most acutely in Syria, Iran’s strategic ally – the Islamic Republic feels it is faced by a new and perhaps critical threat to its regional standing. It has been argued that, through Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, Iran imposes its will upon other countries in the region. This is one of the main reasons that Saudi Arabia continues to encourage more international pressure on al-Assad, even urging the US to take military action there as it has in Libya. Although Iran has many different conflicts with Saudi Arabia, it seems that Syria’s condition, as Iran’s Supreme Leader clearly states, is the issue on which no compromise will be tolerated. Iran and Syria have a security agreement that if one of them is attacked, the other will intervene.
During the last two months some Iranian officials have admitted that if al-Assad’s regime collapses Iran will face a great number of crises in both interior and exterior spheres. There are many reports, both by Western governments and human rights NGOs, that Iran sends not only military equipment but riot trained personnel to Syria. On the other side, although Saudi Arabia encourages Syrian opposition, it simultaneously reinforces the dictatorships in Bahrain and Yemen. These maneuvers make it clear that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are highly anxious about the potential long-term consequences of the “Arab Spring” – which they fear may include the toppling of their own authoritarian regimes. Each country in the region is not only grappling with it own domestic problems but trying to forestall developments in neighbouring countries that will magnify them. This is especially so in the case of Syria as seen by Iran, where the possibility of US intervention threatens the Islamic Republic of Iran’s very existence.
To understand the reasons for the alleged assassination attempt, we must first reconsider Iran’s various attempts to convey a “message” to the US during the last three months. Firstly, last August, through Afghanistan’s leadership, Iran sent a message that it was ready to cooperate with Nato and the US in Afghanistan. The second “message” came a few weeks later, when Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most influential Iraqi opponents to both Western troops and the Iraqi government, announced that in order to aid stability he has decided to assist the latter. It is crucial to remember that this figure is considered one of Iran’s closest allies. The release of the American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal just before the last UN general summit in September, was the Islamic state’s latest attempt to demonstrate that the regime was prepared to come to some kind of understanding with the US in order to guarantee its security. However, the US did not offer any such guarantees and seemed to ignore Iran’s overtures.
Last month some of Turkey’s newspapers reported that when the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, met al-Assad to deliver a “strong message” against Syria's crackdown on protests, al-Assad replied that if one missile struck Syrian territory the results would be disastrous for the whole region. The Iranian website Tabnak, which operates under the direction of the former leader of the Revolutionary Guard, claimed that al-Assad was referring to Iranian missiles, the targets of which are US interests and military resources based in the middle east. Iran and Syria have articulated how any direct intervention would be responded to; they both claim the whole region will “go up in flames.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing the most critical situation in its history. The overwhelming sense of public dissatisfaction with the regime and the combined pressures of the “Arab Spring” place the Iranian regime in an isolated and fragile position. Although the biggest threat to these regimes comes from the Syrian and Iranian people themselves, the Libyan case demonstrates that such regimes can resist change as long as they maintain military superiority and freedom of action.
This is the first time that Iran has employed an official member of the Revolutionary Guard in an attack against the US and Saudi Arabia. The significance of this should not be underestimated. Following this event, the words of Naghdi, the head of the Basij, should be taken more seriously. His words, and the Washington assassination attempt, show that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has already come to the conclusion that the US means to interfere militarily in Syria and then Iran. They are sending a new, far more serious message to their opponents this time. Although there has always been tension between the US and Islamic Republic of Iran, it seems that the regime’s “new message” is this: they are prepared to move the battleground from the realm of rhetoric to that of direct conflict.
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