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Originally published in The Independent
The international agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme announced in the summer is currently making its way through Iran’s various legislatures. Having passed a vote in the parliament the agreement is now being scrutinized by the Islamic Republic’s Council of Guardians; an unelected and powerful body, half of whose members are clerics appointed directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Iranians are cutting it pretty tight, with the 15th of October being designated as the deadline for the parties to officially adopt the nuclear accord. Some have suggested that Obama will be left signing a document with himself.
Even if we assume that the Iranians do eventually put pen to paper and sign the official documents, there have been alarming indications in recent days that would rather suggest that this won’t make the slightest difference to restraining Iran’s conduct on the world stage. If anything, the impression of Western weakness appears to have emboldened the Iranians.
Over the weekend Iran’s military carried out trials of long range ballistic missiles in direct contravention of a 2010 UN Security Council resolution prohibiting such activities. White House spokespeople have conceded that the test-firing of such missiles do breach international law, but desperate not to have Obama’s legacy deal with Iran jeopardized, they have attempted to argue that these ballistic missile activities have no bearing on the nuclear agreement.
This is quite a stretch. The nuclear agreement very clearly places restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities for the next eight years. Besides, regardless of what the agreement itself may or may not stipulate, it should be apparent to anyone that Iran holding trials for long range missiles capable of carrying the kind of nuclear warhead that the Iranians insist they are not seeking, is hardly in the spirit of reconciliation between Tehran and the West.
Indeed, all the mounting evidence of Iran’s increasingly heavy handed activities throughout the Middle East hardly speaks of an Iran that is aligning itself with Western interests. Nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to Iran’s ongoing support for Assad.
At the same time as Putin is stepping up Russian involvement in Syria, Iranian activity in that country is becoming ever more visibly aggressive. On Friday Islamic State militants succeeded in carrying out an attack north of Aleppo which killed Brigadier General Hassan Hamedani, the head of the Guards’ elite Quds Force in Syria. Since then two more commanders from the Revolutionary Guards have been killed in Syria.
These incidents are further indication of Iran intensifying its intervention in Syria, with thousands of Iranian troops now being moved in to support the Assad regime as part of what is understood to be preparation for a major new assault in the West of the country.
Events in Syria have, however, distracted attention away from Iran’s activities elsewhere in the region. Recently the Iranians were caught supplying weapons to Houthis rebels in Yemen, something Iran has long denied doing. Meanwhile, as a new report for The Henry Jackson Society: “Tehran’s Servants” by Jonathan Spyer demonstrates, Iran has taken control of a vast force of Shia militias in Iraq that are now dominating much of the country. Western leaders may welcome these activities for helping to drive back IS, but no one should be under any illusions about just how extreme these Iranian-backed militias really are.
A glance across what is already a very troubled region endlessly turns up signs of Iranian involvement. Tehran has exploited the turmoil to advance its own hegemonic ambitions. It is doing exactly the same with the void left by Obama’s retreat from the world stage. Even as the Iranians look set to adopt the nuclear agreement, the Islamic Republic’s actual conduct rather suggests that the regime in Iran remains far from being a friendly or benign force in the world.