How Iran is Using an Ancient Tool to Fight its Enemies in the Middle East
Iran has forced the USA to exit Iraq leaving it in a mess. It has also kept Israel and Saudi Arabia on toe in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and other countries. How has Iran done this?
What’s the difference between chess and poker? In chess all pieces can be seen by the opponent; in the latter, it’s the hidden cards — and the way one makes one’s bets on those — that matter the most.
The Persians are known to have invented the poker game in the sixteenth century and have since been honing their skills in this game of bluff. The Americans failed to understand this in Iraq and got stuck in a quagmire of never-ending bloody insurgency, a vivid description of which is portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 American war film The Hurt Locker with brutal honesty. American policymakers severely underestimated the strength of the complex network of Iranian-linked Shia groups — millions of pilgrims visiting religious shrines, old families with deep roots on both sides of the border, Iranian government aid, and political, military and terrorist ties — some of which go back centuries. By eliminating Saddam Hossain, the USA only did Iran a great favor.
The Hurt Locker
In Baghdad, members of a bomb-disposal team near the end of their rotation deadline are pulled into a deadly game of…
Iran carries the lineage of the Persian Empire, a series of imperial dynasties that were centered in Persia or present-day Iran from the Achaemenids in 6th century BC to the Qajars in 20th century AD. The Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC) was the first truly global superpower, founded by Cyrus the Great. It ruled from the Balkans to North Africa and also Central Asia, spanning three continents. At its peak, it ruled over 40% of the world population, accounting for approximately 49.4 million of the world’s 112.4 million people in around 480 BC. This empire predates Greek civilization and influenced it in many ways.
The Achaemenid Empire was succeeded by the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian Empires, who successively governed Persia for almost 1,000 years and made it a leading power in the world once again. These empires rivaled both the Roman and the Byzantine Empires, predecessors of the modern Western civilization. At its height, the Persian Empire encompassed all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, parts of Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, parts of Pakistan, Central Asia, Eastern Arabia, and parts of Egypt.
Over millennia, Persia faced repeated foreign invasions from the Greeks, Arabs, and Mongols but survived every time, reinvented itself and founded a new and more powerful empire. During and following each such invasion, Persians maintained a strong sense of identity and resistance, failing which, they assimilated with the culture of the invader, and resisted with renewed vigor, as demonstrated by their adoption of the Shia branch of Islam during the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736).
The religious and theological allegiance of the Persians changed over time. But they maintained a strong ancient statehood, continuity and territorial integrity which forms the basis of their Persian identity. This is precisely the reason why Shahnameh, composed by Ferdowsi (d.1020) over a period of 30 years, remains the greatest popular writing in Persian literature even after a millennium. Shahnameh (Book of Kings) brought back the myths, legends and historical reminiscences of the Persian empires to the people, and played a significant role in forming its national psyche.
Fast forward to 1979. The Islamic revolution forces the Shah of Iran to flee, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes over as the supreme leader and terms America as the ‘Great Satan’. Just then Saddam Hossain invades Iran. All Western and regional powers side with Iraq, leaving Iran to fight for itself. But the eight-year-long brutal war could not achieve any conclusive outcome.
In March 2003, the USA invaded Iraq and killed Saddam Hossain, destroyed the state machinery and security apparatus, and created an acute power vacuum. Chaos, confusion, and anarchy ensued and the situation quickly spiraled out of control. US military got stuck in a long and brutal battle with insurgents coming from diverse groups — criminals, former Iraqi soldiers, Sunni militias, Shia groups and eventually foreign groups such as Al-Qaeda. Starting in Fallujah, it quickly spread out all over the country including Mosul, Samarra, Najaf, Abu Ghraib and many more. Iran, ready for a truce with the Americans, offered assistance with intelligence and presence on the ground but it was snubbed. In May, President Bush Jr. was basking in the delusional glory of ‘Mission Accomplished’ as he landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln — anchored in the Persian Gulf — in a fighter jet wearing a flight suit, and announced that major combat operations in Iraq were over.
It couldn’t be any farther from reality on the ground.
Iran responded by making continued US presence in Iraq difficult, so much so that in 2011 they lost the appetite and abandoned the supposedly ‘accomplished’ mission, leaving a weak and ineffective Iraqi government to fend for itself.
True to its ancient traditions, Iran played a card that few guessed could be so effective. With a devastating skill, it made use of sectarian tensions and intricate networks of various Shia and Sunni groups, intelligence, training, arms and funds and practically brought the Iraqi government under its control. It didn’t stop there and went ahead with the same strategy in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria, bringing the front line to the borders of Israel and Saudi Arabia with ruthless efficiency. Iran has thus spread its influence from the Mediterranean to the Borders of Afghanistan. In the process, it has brought in Russian firepower to its own benefit and salvaged Assad’s government in Damascus, an important ally, the supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the only one to support it during the war with Iraq.
The recent assassination of General Qasem Soleimani has again galvanized Iran’s ancient national pride. If the results of the just-concluded parliamentary election are any indication, hardliners will only get stronger and a similar outcome is expected in the presidential election coming up next year. This means Iran’s current game plan will remain not just unchanged, it will be deployed with a renewed vigor.
This is a brutal Persian game being played out in an Iranian casino. There is no conclusive outcome, the protagonists just play on.
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