Iran’s regional chess game reveals US confusion

Iran’s regional chess game reveals US confusion

Negotiators from Iran and the six world powers clash around a table in the historic basement of the Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna, April 24, 2015. (Reuters)

On the day Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in Baghdad last January, he was the field commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), crossing the borders between Lebanon, Syria and Iraq , which were for him the same theater. Operating. In fact, what appear to be failed states in the region can be considered successful IRGC operations. In Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, what appear to be independent organizations operate under the same banner. They take control using similar methods, including assassination, paralysis, economic collapse, a constant state of crisis, and ideologically fueled violence. By ignoring the actions of the IRGC in negotiations with Iran, Tehran can stick to agreements like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which it negotiated with the West while having a free hand to pursue a destabilizing agenda through its proxies, making the Middle East look like a failed region.
Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and the Houthis all follow the same pattern of state collapse and replacement by parallel institutions. Hezbollah is active in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and coordinates closely with Hamas in Palestine. The instruments used include suppressing dissent through targeted assassinations and holding the state hostage through paralysis.
In Lebanon, the assassinations began by tackling internal dissent within the Shia community, targeting people like Daoud Daoud, Mahmoud Faqih and Hassan Sbayti, who were leaders of the rival Amal movement. Three years of infighting between the two groups ended with Hezbollah hegemony in 1990. Then came the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, journalists like Gebran Tueni, politicians like Pierre Gemayel and Walid Eido, soldiers and security agents like Wissam Eid and François Hajj, and civil society activists like Samir Kassir. The same is still happening in Iraq, where 2020 was the year of assassinations, with victims such as Hisham Al-Hashimi, Reham Yaqoub, Tahseen Ali and Ludia Remon. In Yemen, the assassination of government minister Hassan Zaid last year – along with those of prominent dissidents Ahmed Sharaf Al-Din, Abdul Karim Jadban, Mohammed Abdul-Malik Al-Mutawakel and Abdul Karim Al-Khaiwani – followed the same pattern.
Control is gained in one country after another by contributing to the collapse of state institutions and replacing them with others bound by their ties to Iran. Iran’s toolkit also includes gaining time through negotiations, creating paralysis and demands such as integration into state institutions and formalizing the inclusion of militias in the army through titles as a “common or integrated defense strategy” on the pretext that official armies are ineffective. In Gaza, Hamas holds the population hostage, under siege, and maintains a state of war and poverty, while any reprieve can only be achieved through Hamas’ own negotiations with Israel. Through corruption and clientelism, militias penetrate state institutions and bankrupt them, often reinforcing their own alternatives and thus constituting a parallel state feeding on the carcass of its victim.
These proxies can also play a dual role: one as an integral part of the societies they penetrate and the other as contingents of the IRGC. In Yemen, for example, the Houthis negotiate like a political actor but at the same time behave like an irresponsible militia, escalating violence and working outside the boundaries of the Stockholm Accord. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is part of the government and parliament and, together with its allies, has a right of veto that can create paralysis for months. In Iraq, while there are four main players who are part of the Tansiqiya (coordination) committee, there is also a proliferation of unknown organizations springing up with different names. Fragmentation also makes the parallel order of militias “antifragile” and difficult to pin down. This gives Iran and the IRGC plausible deniability of their role in the various conflicts in the region.
While Iran views the entire region as a theater of operations, Washington’s picture is different, with each context seen as separate and the conflicts unrelated. The region also seems chaotic, hopeless and full of intractable problems and dysfunctional societies. An example is the summer of 2006, when Iranian proxies created chaos and war in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq all at once. The reaction in Washington to such an impression is a bipartisan consensus on the need to get out of the region because it is unmanageable.
While Iran sees the region as a chessboard, the United States sees it more as a poker table. In a game of chess, each move is linked to future moves and the game has a specific end goal. Chess pieces can also be sacrificed towards this goal – short term loss for the purpose of long term gain. Here, the enemy is clearly the United States and the goal is to drive it out of the region.
In the game of American poker, each hand is considered independent. There is no overall objective and no constant and identifiable enemy. The United States believes that it can win and lose and withdraw from the game at any time. Washington’s poker game is also weak and fragmented, and because of domestic politics, it seems to be playing with its cards.

Because of domestic politics, America seems to be playing poker with its cards up.

Nadim Shehadi

An agreement like the JCPOA, for example, was seen as a success by both parties, but for different reasons. For Iran, it was a temporary sacrifice that gave it a free hand to pursue broader regional goals (against US interests). The United States saw it as a successful negotiation, regardless of its effect on empowering the IRGC in the larger game. It was a success in a region where all other initiatives were failing.
Measures to address the bigger picture, such as adding the IRGC or one of its proxies to the list of terrorist organizations or imposing additional sanctions, become entangled in internal partisan politics, where parties in the United States aim to score points against each other and are divorced from the original context.
The combination of all these factors gives Iran a huge victory. The IRGC, through its proxies, can inflame the entire region while making the various crises appear as separate and unrelated incidents. This confuses the United States into believing that the region is endemically dysfunctional and impossible to repair. At the same time, Iran can give the impression that it respects agreements like the JCPOA and gives the appearance of being a stable and reliable actor.

Nadim Shehadi is Executive Director of LAU Headquarters and University Center in New York and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House in London.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News

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