Is Iran really to blame for Middle East woes?

Recent reports about Shiite militia from Iraq receiving military training in Iran is more fuel for the fire of those people warning us about the increasingly dangerous influence of Tehran in the Middle East.

Recent reports about Shiite militia from Iraq receiving military training in Iran is more fuel for the fire of those people warning us about the increasingly dangerous influence of Tehran in the Middle East. The case for retributive military action against the Islamic Republic for the sake of disarmament or for the purposes of regime change is slowly being built. The argument rests on the perception that Iran is fuelling the insurgency in Iraq, arming and funding Hezbollah to fight Israel and continues a nuclear programme in defiance of the Security Council.

The perception that we face a massive existential threat if we do not take action is of course fundamental to creating public acceptance for the huge risks and potentially catastrophic consequences of taking military action against Iran. An obvious question therefore emerges; is the perceived threat real or do the proponents of war have an ulterior motive for magnifying the threat?

Is the threat real? The obvious point about the Iraq insurgency is that it was always primarily a Sunni driven conflict, where as it is Shiite militias that have been associating with Iran. No doubt the relationship involves funding, training and weapons supply - however the association predates the invasion of Iraq and it would be a bit rich, to say the least, to charge Iran with the crime of interfering in Iraqi politics; something the US and British have been doing somewhat more comprehensively over the last few years, equally without legal endorsement.

Aside from the insurgency in Iraq, Hezbollah remains another perceived obstacle to US policy goals in the Middle East. The US backed Siniora government in Lebanon wants a peace process with Israel, as indeed does the whole of Lebanon. The dividing line between the government and the hugely popular Hezbollah is drawn over the terms of that peace process though. Hezbollah represents Arab opinion more generally in demanding that Israel release thousands of political prisoners, withdraw from the occupied territories and provide an honourable settlement for the two million odd Palestinian refugees still in Lebanon. The Siniora government would settle for much less and is thus popular in Washington, but less so amongst Lebanese.

Hezbollah was a product of the Iranian Revolutionary guard in the eighties, but as an organisation they have come a long way since; former CIA Lebanese specialist, Robert Baer, recently told the New Yorker that “The most important story in the Middle East is the growth of Nasrallah (Hezbollah leader) from a street guy to a leader - from a terrorist to a statesman”. This is not to underplay the fact that Hezbollah represents a minor military threat to Israel, but to point out that it is also an established political organisation with legitimate goals. To frame Hezbollah as apocalyptic suicidal bombers bent on the annihilation of Israel and controlled by Iran is hyperbole. Sure, tensions in the region run high, and the politics of the Middle East are complex but these issues have their own dynamic and are local in origin; to blame the Iranians for Arab-Israeli problems would be hugely dishonest.

As far as the nuclear issue is concerned, leaving aside the fact that the Iranians do actually have a right to enrich uranium, lets assume that in two years time they produce a nuclear weapon; what then? Well the US administration talks as if this would mean instant nuclear war with Israel, a war that would almost certainly entail the more certain annihilation of Iran. Now the Iranian leaders may not be the most rational people in the world, but it seems unlikely that they have got where they are by being completely suicidal. Alternatively, Iran might use the protection afforded by a nuclear weapon to further destabilise the Middle East through mobilising militant groups throughout the Shiite crescent that the world has only just suddenly noticed. Are the Arab states and Israel really so vulnerable to influence from impoverished minority Shiite groups? If that is the case, once again, the blame can hardly be laid at the feet of Iran.

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Is Iran really poised to overrun the Middle East and seize control of the world's major oil producing region, levelling Israel in the process? It is interesting that the people most intent on convincing us of these facts are the ones who have done most to open the door to Iran by levelling Iraq. If the Iranian threat really is as great as they claim, why couldn't they see it before Operation Iraqi Freedom? Maybe it is just simply easier to find a scapegoat for a Middle East policy that lurches from bad to worse, than to simply admit their own failings.