The geopolitical implications of the sudden balance of power that would result from a nuclear-armed Iran are tremendous – a goal which is not unique to the Islamic leadership nor one that can necessarily be deterred by either sanctions or military action.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week returned the Iranian nuclear issue to the global public forum, albeit depicted in an absurdly Looney Tunes manner. The continuing devaluation of the Iranian Rial is indicating that the US-led sanctions policy is taking its toll on Iranian society, but it is not clear if, or how, this is affecting the country’s controversial nuclear programme. The undertone of Netanyahu’s speech was the threat of military action should the Iranian government cross his red line. The general consensus is that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon for inherently evil devices, especially when the Islamic Republic provides the pro-Israel camp with so much rhetorical ammunition. One explanation that is overlooked in a debate replete with academic theories of international relations is Iran’s championing of the ‘Resistance’.
Sitting upon a mountaintop in Southern Lebanon, Mlita appears rather incongruous with the rest of the mountain scenery and battle-scarred buildings of the nearby villages. It is a slick, modern and, in all honesty, professional museum sited on a former Hizbollah operating base dedicated to the organisation’s war against Israel and the Southern Lebanese Army and, like much of Shi‘i Lebanon, built with Iranian money. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Mlita is that, unlike many other museums, it is commemorating an ongoing event.
The entire location gives a similar impression of an impassioned speech filled with jingoism. It will appear very distasteful to your average tourist as enthusiastic tour guides point out helmets of Israeli helicopter pilots. It is very far from Remarque’s ‘War is Hell’ message as you detect the sense of pride pouring from the central sculpture of twisted metal, fittingly named ‘The Abyss’. It seems the entire museum was built to communicate a particular message to Israel: ‘You invaded us twice, we beat you twice. You are much weaker than the image you project, and we are the ones who exposed this weakness.’ The tone of the site was not of ‘wiping Israel off the map’, but deterrence – or ‘resistance’. When there is such a deviation from the usual rhetoric towards Israel, it is worth reading between then lines to understand what Hizbollah and their Iranian backers are trying to say.
A particular passage written on one of the many signs dotted throughout the site succinctly expresses one of the most important ideas in the Middle East:
‘From 1948 until the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Israeli enemy imposed on Lebanon and the region one choice: surrender, defeat and submission. On November 11, 1982, a resistance fighter named Ahmad Qassir blew himself up at the Israeli stronghold in Tyr, announcing the birth of a different choice: resistance.’
Despite the desperate attempts by the US (and Europe) to spin the image of the frustrated neutral negotiator and avoid calling a spade a spade, they are not fooling the populations of Middle East who have very different perceptions as to which side is the aggressor. There is a very overt tendency to reduce the very strong Arab emotions to anti-Semitism, which has consistently undermined solutions to this problem. This is not to say that one side is inherently angelic and the other inherently evil, but the recent protests across the Middle East are a very worrying indication of the US’ position in the region.
Consider this: in a era of renewed interest in counter-insurgency, we have heard the populations of areas afflicted with insurgencies referred to as the ‘Vital Ground’, a term taken from conventional warfare to refer to natural features and slapped onto local nationals to help to military commanders focus their operations. The ‘Hearts and Minds’ are the Vital Ground in the War on Terror.
The outrage that has swept across the Middle East over the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ is a very clear indication that the US is not in control of this vital ground. Iran, in this sense, is in a much stronger position. Whilst we were criticising the Islamic World’s poor conception of the freedom of speech, no one seemed to ask how so much hatred against the US could spread so fast from such an aberration of a video. We all know how insignificant and intentionally inflammatory the video appeared to us, but no one could quite grasp that there is something wrong when populations of several countries could easily believe a state was behind such a provocation.
Iran is exerting its influence across the region. Israel only does this by the sword. The US does it through a combination of military force and substantial (and mostly military) aid. Iran has won lots of support, at least in Lebanon, by pumping money through Hizbollah into reconstruction that has rebuilt and transformed areas and has shown tangible progress. In Lebanon, Iranian money has rebuilt souks and key infrastructure. Saudi money, on the other hand has built Versace and Armani shops nestled between Porsche dealerships that only the elite of Lebanese society and rich Gulfi tourists can afford. The West is already at a cultural disadvantage to Iran and the current collective disdain for the emotions of the region’s peoples is not a particularly productive strategy, especially if neutralising terrorism is at the top of our list of strategic aims.
Make no mistake, Iran is competing with its major Sunni rivals for influence in the region and there are worrying signs of a Sunni-Shi‘a war of religion, whether in Bahrain, Syria or Lebanon. But unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s resistance credentials are much stronger and it can claim it is the champion on the Palestinian resistance, whether the Palestinians want them to be or not. A nuclear weapon would be the first opportunity for the resistance to seriously level the playing field with Israel – it is a deterrent that inexpressibly outmatches Hamas’ home made Qassam rockets and Hizbollah’s inaccurate Katushyas. The geopolitical implications of the sudden balance of power that would result from a nuclear-armed Iran are tremendous – a goal which is not unique to the Islamic leadership nor one that can necessarily be deterred by either sanctions or military action. When we have witnessed the collective power of the individual to change the political status quo, ignoring the significance of ‘resistance’ is undermining US and European strategic aims in the Middle East.
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