The Iranian plateau births empires with alarming regularity. First was the empire of the Achaemenids, which can be rightly considered the world’s first true empire. It was multi-ethnic, surprisingly decentralised and, at its peak, ruled over 44pc of the known world’s population. It is an indication of its strength that the Greek campaigns, so seminal to Western civilisation and the subject of several bad movies, are just an expensive footnote for the Persians.
Devastated by Alexander, this region then threw up a new empire in very little time, that of the Parthians, who saw themselves as successors to the Achaemenids. This was followed by the Sassanian empire, the last pre-Islamic Persian empire. Eventually, it fell to the lightning advances of the Arabs, who were fired by the zeal of a new faith and hungry for conquest.
Persia returned to the world stage as an independent power under the Safavids, who used state structures and resources to adopt and aggressively promote Shiism. This could be taken (though many historians disagree) as a precursor to the modern state of Iran. Moreover, it finally gave Persia a way to assert its own identity within the fold of Islam.
The reason you are being subjected to this history lesson is that we may be witnessing the birth of a new Persian empire.
Tehran can thank America for this; the removal of Saddam Hussein paved the way for Iranian influence while also unleashing sectarian forces in Iraq. George Bush’s ‘flypaper’ strategy made Iraq a magnet for militants, while new ones were created thanks to Abu Ghraib and Fallujah.
The disbanding of Iraq’s army provided a skilled recruiting pool for a number of militant organisations, while the sectarian policies of subsequent Iraqi governments led to alienation in the Sunni community. Here we see the rise of the murderous Zarqawi, Daesh’s spiritual father. How does that help Iran, though? Well, the rise of sectarian violence did take the heat off US forces, but it also led to the creation of Daesh, the advance into Iraq of which created a vacuum that Tehran has filled. Such is the law of unintended consequences
Unfettered Iranian expansion can push Saudi Arabia to the brink.
This brings us to Tikrit, where Shia militias, Iraqi army units and a token (largely symbolic) smatter of Sunni tribesmen are arrayed against Daesh. Significantly, these forces are being led by Gen Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds force. As far back as 2010, he was called the ‘most powerful man in Iraq’ by Iraq’s former national security minister, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. But in this conflict, he is visible (and deliberately so) on the front lines. Call it a coming-out party if you like.
When Tikrit falls (and it will fall), it will not only mean the loss of space for Daesh but far more crucially the loss of its aura of invincibility. Operationally, it will open the road to Mosul and the inevitable defeat of Daesh. And it is clear by the PR campaign that the credit for this will go to Soleimani and Iran. With that, Iranian influence over Iraq will be complete and the route to Syria will be thrown open. Add to that Tehran’s growing clout in Yemen, its involvement in Bahrain and the strength of its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and you’ll see what I mean about empire.
But in this very victory may lie the seeds of disaster. If revenge killings of local Sunnis are carried out by the attacking forces, this will in fact deepen divides and ensure that there is a response at some point in the future. Moreover, easy victories can also create an illusion of invincibility and give rise to arrogance, especially where the militias are concerned.
Remember also that for all of Daesh’s well-publicised brutality, the number of innocents they have slaughtered pales in comparison to the continuing atrocities of the Assad regime, Iran’s ally. A future dispensation that includes him will win Iran few friends in that country or the region for that matter.
More, unfettered Iranian expansion will likely push an already cornered Saudi Arabia into acts of desperation, while also prompting increased Israeli interference in the region as a whole and perhaps solemnising a very unholy alliance indeed.
Also, despite the apparent US-Iran thaw one must understand that US policy in the Middle East hinges upon preventing the rise of a regional hegemon, which Iran is seen by many as on its way to becoming.
As far as this region is concerned, chaos and sectarian violence suits US interests perfectly and we should take Gen Petraeus’ words of a few days ago seriously, in which he warns that Iran is in fact a greater long-term threat to the US in the region than Daesh will ever be. In extending its influence over the region, Iran should look more to the relatively inclusive approach of the Achaemenids than to the sectarian policies of the Safavids.
Published in Dawn March 23rd , 2015