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In Middle East: Pull Down Facades

In Middle East: Pull Down Facades

Friday, 1 November, 2019 - 08:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

For the past two weeks or so, the state-controlled media in Tehran have been wondering how to cope with news of popular uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq.

In the first phase, the official line was that the protests reflected anger at poor economic performance and defective public services. The narrative echoed media coverage of last year’s popular protests in Iran itself. It was inconceivable that “the people”, always an abstraction, might not appreciate the blessings of the system let alone revolt against it. In the second phase, the protests were portrayed as indicative of the failure of the authorities to respond to popular grievances. In the third and current phase, the uprising was depicted as the result of sinister plots by “enemies of Islam”, including the usual “Zionist” suspects and “agents of the American Great Satan.”

Thus, Tehran media are advising the “authorities” in Beirut and Baghdad to crush the popular uprisings “by all means necessary”. One of Tehran’s Iraqi propagandists even advised Prime Minister Adel AbdulMahdi “to kill leaders of sedition (fitna)” who had gathered in a restaurant in Baghdad. The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei’s views, started calling for “strong action” against protesters in Lebanon days before units of streetfighters from Hezbollah and Amal attacked the protestors’ base in Beirut.

Anyone following the state-owned media’s coverage would detect as sense of panic in Tehran. What if we were witnessing a version of peripheral revolts that shook the Soviet Empire in its satellite territories in Eastern and Central Europe?

For years, Tehran has been trying to sell its expansionist strategist in the Middle East as a great success not only for the Islamic Revolution but also for Iranian nationalism. In an interview, published posthumously, Revolutionary Guard general Hussein Hamadani boasted about having “saved” Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from defeat and death at the moment he and his cronies had packed suitcases to run away. However, he also noted that this was the first time since the 7th century AD when Iranian armies had reached the Mediterranean under their pre-Islamic King of Kings Khosrow Parviz.

That narrative also found echoes in Tehran accounts of Yemen. Iranians were told that, under Khosrow Anushiravan, the Sassanid Emperor, a Persian army led by Wahraz had gone to Yemen to expel Abyssinian invaders and that, today, Iran was doing the same thing but sending “arms and advisers” to the Houthis to expel Arab “invaders.” As for Iraq, the Islamic Republic did not only have a right to intervene but a duty to protect the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds as members of “our great family.”

As for Lebanon, the Islamic Republic’s leading role there was the natural continuation of a relationship that started with the importing of large numbers of Lebanese Shiite clerics to Iran in the 16th century, helping convert Iran to Shiism under the Safavids.

There is no doubt that this Khomeinist grand strategy met with some initial successes as Tehran expanded its influence in the Middle East with a minimum of blood sacrifice. Even the treasure spent on acquiring a pseudo-empire was not very big. Best estimates put Iran’s expenditure for gaining a dominant position in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen at around $40 billion over the past four decades. The daily Kayhan compared that figure with “the eight trillion dollars that Trump says the US spent in the Middle East, ending up with nothing.”

In building their empire, the mullahs made a big mistake: they prevented the emergence of genuine local authorities, including national armies that could hold things together in a semi-autonomous way. The British did that with some success in India where they fostered a large number of maharajas, nabobs and sardars enjoying a measure of local legitimacy while the sub-continents security depended on a regular army consisting largely of native, often ethnic and/or confessional minority, elements. As a result the formal organs of state in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen were reduced to mere facades hiding the reality of power exercised by militia groups such as Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilization Forces, Zayanbiyoun and the Houthis.

In the recent attack on Saudi oil installations, the Houthis heard about their own imaginary role in the operation from foreign media quoting Iranian sources. Tehran did not even have the courtesy to tell the Houthis that they would be mentioned as authors of the attack before releasing the claim to world media.

In 2017 Gen. Ismail Qa’ani, number-two of the Quds Crops under Gen. Qassem Soleimani told a Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seminar that real power in all the countries involved rested in the hands of “resistance forces linked to our revolution.” Soleimani put that claim even more starkly in his first ever interview, making it clear that he did not acknowledge the existence of anything resembling a state in Lebanon.

That, of course, is a repeat of the experiment in Iran itself where formal state structures, including a President, a Cabinet, various ministries and even a regular army exist but only as facades for parallel, the notorious “deep state” structures, that wield real power.

The Soviet Empire established a similar scheme in satellite countries where even Communist parties were little more than a façade. That scheme began to unravel when the puppets, including leaders of some local Communist parties, started to resign or even join the opposition.

The current crisis in the countries concerned may well take the same turn. Like the scared Soviet Union, the Khomeinist regime may try to stop the march of history by force. If so, it will fail just as the USSR did in its satellites. However, positive change may well become more possible if those who form the facade of power in the countries concerned find the courage to step down and let Tehran’s surrogates to assume responsibility commensurate with the real power they have behind the scenes.

The Houthis, the Assad clan, Hezbollah, PMF and kindred groups are puppets in a surrealistic show scripted by faceless puppet-masters in Tehran. That they, in turn, hide behind secondary puppets, playing president and/or prime minister, makes for an even more absurd flight into fantasyland. Just over 1000 years ago, Nizam al-Mulk noted that what appears legal is not necessarily legitimate and that being in office but not in power produces the worst kind of tyranny.

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