By: Daniel Ramallo
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been adamant about exporting its revolution into the rest of the Arab World. Last month, in what was possibly Israel and Iran’s most heated exchange since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Iran launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drone into Israeli airspace that was eventually intercepted by an Apache helicopter. In response, Israeli Air Force aircrafts targeted the control vehicle from which the UAV was operated in the Syrian T-4 Airbase near Tadmor, where an F-16I was struck down by an Iranian surface-to-air (SAMs) missile. The severity of these retaliations speaks not only to the irreparable relationship between Israel and Iran but to the increasing strength of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran’s tactical use of proxy militaries, operated by the IRGC, has Israel and its allies unnerved. Nevertheless, an effective Iran policy is feasible if the US understands Iran’s behavior from the perspective of its erroneous yet comparable past foreign interventions.
Like much of the world, Israel has recently been focusing on Iran’s increasing influence in the region, highlighting the strengthening and its build-up of proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Popular Mobilization Forces, and Houthis. Israeli officials declared the incursion a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty.” Iran’s encroachment was no surprise, however, considering the steps it has taken to acquire influence in the Middle East.
Long before these attacks, Iran has been quietly escalating its involvement in Syria, subsequently elevating its position of power. Fearing an enormous blow to its prestige, Iran deployed 22,000 total troops in order to prevent a loss when Assad was at his weakest. The aid of Russia was considerable too, helping Iran advance to within a few kilometers of the border areas in southwestern Syria, the closest the Iranians have ever gotten to the Golan Heights. With the help of Russian military assistance and the eradication of ISIS on the battlefield, the Iranian-backed Assad regime has regained control over most of Syria and the prospect of victory in the near future looks promising.
Iran’s success in Syria can be attributed to the IRGC. The IRGC is a government agency formed by the Supreme Leader in 1979 with the intentions of preserving the values of the Islamic Republic. Originally designed to protect the clergy and suppress domestic anti-government protests, it ascended into a political voice post-Iran-Iraq War. However, due to Ayatollah Khomeini’s concern for its evolving role, he commanded the agency to remain apolitical in his will. His successor, Ali Khamenei, rejected his wishes and created the Quds force, a division of the IRGC that conducts foreign operations to export its revolution. Currently, the IRGC plays a critical role in the survival of the Assad Regime and is now alarming the West due to its heavy and unchallenged presence on the Syrian and Lebanese borders of Israel.
A distinct parallel can be drawn from the IRGC to America’s Central Intelligence Agency, an agency that has meddled in foreign countries through its military training programs, international drug trafficking, and coups. Like the CIA, the IRGC meddles in foreign countries to influence elections, gather intelligence, supply and train militaries, and engage in covert operations. Unlike the CIA, IRGC openly supports the US-and-EU-declared terrorist groups Hezbollah, which was formed in 1982, and Hamas, in addition to being the wealthiest Iranian entity. Last Fall, President Trump made initiatives to declare the IRGC as a terrorist group due to its ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iranian officials strongly oppose, threatening to attack nearby US military bases.
Understanding this comparison is crucial in developing a strategy to confront Iran’s aggression and ease tensions with Israel. A major foreign policy failure that ensued from various CIA programs was blowback, also known as unforeseen and undesired consequences of foreign operations. Iran and its proxies have already experienced blowback with the Arab-state coalition in Yemen and ISIS in Syria, but relying on Iran to implode, while certainly possible, is not a timely strategy that will prevent a war.
Despite Iran’s success on the battlefield, it faces urgent sustainability challenges. Iran spends $15-20 billion annually on the war, increasing defense spending by 20%, and 2,000 lives lost so far. Considering its crippling economic situation, Iran cannot sustain the war unless it ends soon.
For the US, Iran’s shaky financial situation is a potential asset. Some suggest that if the US heavily commits to arming and training rebels, thus prolonging the war, it would be raising Iran’s cost of war in human casualties and money spent, with the hopes of inciting more protests that can weaken the regime. While having incredible potential, this strategy comes with severe risks. A large-scale military commitment will likely remind voters of Vietnam, and the potential long-term effect of remaining in Syria for years after to mediate conflict will keep America stuck exactly where it has been for 20 years in the Middle East. Regardless, any strategy to resolve conflict will be highly costly.