By USA Gen. Hugh Shelton (ret.)
There is little doubt that the Middle East is passing through a transformative moment. As the movement of geopolitical fault lines shakes the region, hot spots are shaping new realities and players. It is clear that the Iranian regime is playing a pronounced role through its agents in almost all the major conflicts stretching from Iraq and Syria all the way to Yemen. Echoing deep regional resentment, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently characterized this as an Iranian attempt to “dominate” the region.
Against this backdrop, the Saudi-led operation “Decisive Storm” in Yemen represents a turning point, as regional actors take a firm stance against Iran’s regional ambitions.
Importantly, Tehran’s policy of aggressive expansion has taken wider dimensions against the backdrop of the West’s diplomatic gestures to resolve the nuclear row. Equally as important, it has intensified during the presidency of the so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani.
Iran’s critical military and logistical support for the dictatorship in Syria, its backing of Shiite militias in Iraq, and support for armed militias in Yemen have inflamed sectarian conflicts while deeply destabilizing the region. Tehran wants to expand its sphere of influence and establish a fundamentalist block to stand against progressive forces.
In Iraq, Tehran has taken advantage of the calamity created by ISIS in order to reassert its hegemony in the country. Despite the removal of its chief ally, Nouri al-Maliki, and the rampant sectarian repression inflicted on the country by that government, Iran has poured considerable military and logistical strength into its western neighbor. It has established a sizable presence on the ground through its IRGC commanders, who lead murderous Shiite militias widely accused of carrying out war crimes.
The regime’s regional machinations have led to a bloodbath in Syria, genocide in Iraq, and a serious crisis in Yemen.
Now, there are indications that Tehran may have overplayed its hand.
The formation of a regional coalition to address the crisis in Yemen, along with the Turkish stance, illustrates just how intolerable Iran’s destructive role has become. Erdogan has noted that his country could provide “logistical support” to the coalition, and was quoted as saying of Iran’s regional activities, “Can this be permitted? This has become an annoyance for us, as well as for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This really cannot be tolerated.”
Iran’s policy of “exporting the revolution” is a means to reenergize a socially marginalized and demoralized base and squeeze whatever is left out of its legitimacy abroad to cover up its deadlock at home. The regime has sought to create icons out of its war heroes by popularizing their exploits abroad, as evidenced by the fervor surrounding its General Qassem Soleimani.
The reality is that the Iranian regime is using an aggressive foreign policy in order to preserve its tenuous hold on power. Beset by international isolation and the threat of failed negotiations, the regime has sought to use a policy of ”us against them” in order to distract domestic attention from the horrendous socioeconomic failures of the ruling theocracy. The regime used this tactic when it prolonged the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s while simultaneously cracking down on dissent and opposition.
Yet for all its planning, Iran appeared totally unprepared for the reaction by the Saudi-led coalition to its policies in Yemen. It appears Iran had grown used to the regional powers acquiescing to its meddling over the last decade, but the crisis has now reached a tipping point.
The Iranian regime has been allowed to operate with a free hand throughout the region for far too long. It is time to end the policy of engaging the mullahs in Tehran who destabilize the region and jeopardize American prestige among its friends and allies. The policy of appeasement and accommodation has emboldened the regime to covet for more territory and regional influence.
It is time for the international community to stand behind the regional coalition against the regime’s agents in Yemen. But, it should not stop there. Tehran’s influence should be severely restrained in other regional hotspots like Iraq and Syria. This demand has also been echoed by the Iranian opposition and Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, who praised the formation of the coalition as an “extremely essential and inevitable united action.“
Confronting Iran and its expansionist policies is the first step to avoiding further sectarian bloodshed and future regional wars. If such a policy had been pursued in Syria, it would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented millions more from being displaced. The world cannot afford to collaborate with Tehran’s tyrants solely for the sake of securing a nuclear deal. Western powers must act before it is too late.
Shelton was the 14th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1997 to 2001.